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My Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow would take me to Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal. One of my biggest worries was missing a train.
One missed train would trigger a domino effect – and I could not afford to lose time or money for fresh tickets. Concerned about finding the right platform, I got someone from the hostel to write the question in Russian in my notebook. With that, I boarded the cab driven by a charming man called Fariq, from Azerbaijan.
I showed my notebook to the stationmaster and my heart sank. He told me I was at the wrong station. Oh, my God, my nightmare of Trans-Siberian proportions was going to come true!
He kindly rang Fariq who doubled back to pick me up and got me to Yaroslavsky station with 10 minutes to spare.
With Russian trains, the lower the number, the newer the train. Train No.2, the Rossiya, is said to be the best of the Trans-Siberian trains, hence it was not easy to get a seat, especially in the busy month of August.
The Trans-Siberian line from Moscow to Vladivostok, completed in 1916, is the longest railway in the world, covering 9,289km. My journey to Irkutsk, 5,185 km away, took four days.
There are 56 bunks (28 pairs of upper and lower bunks) in my third-class (plaskartny) carriage. Two pairs of bunks divided by a small table sit perpendicular to the window and, together with a pair of single bunks flushed along the opposite window – along the aisle – make a cluster of six. I had booked the single, lower bunk to avoid crowding. This meant I had to put my luggage under one of the other bunks.
Marina Busygina, a Russian accountant with a penchant for tango dancing, showed me where to get my rolled-up mattress and the provodnitsa (conductor) came round to deliver the bedding.
Tired of the long Siberian winters, Marina was planning to set up a business in Thailand with her mother and stepfather.
Behind me was Stephanie Khoueri from Paris. She was travelling for three weeks before starting a new job. Stephanie had a three-way adaptor which enabled us to charge our phones in the only socket in the carriage. So far, people had been very co-operative, taking turns to use the socket.
Stephanie was stopping at Yeketerinburg and Novosibirsk before heading to Irkutsk. She gave me tips about Olkhon Island and the best accommodation there. I was planning to spend three nights on the island but had no idea how to get there or where to stay, so Stephanie was a godsend.
At Vladimir, Alexander, an oil construction worker, Svetlana Minina, a cloth doll maker and Lyubov Lezhanina (Lyuba), a retired paediatrician who now makes three-dimensional quilted art, joined us. They were both returning from the Suzdal International Quilt Festival.
After all that scare-mongering by Michal from Warsaw, the closest I would get to a vodka-sodden Russian was Alexander, who was lovable and chatty and when he got sloshed from a bottle of vodka, in the afternoon, he clambered up to his bunk like a happily-fed baby and slept till we reached his station in the wee hours of the morning.
I bonded well with the four women in my wing. Lyuba told me she had just been to Britain to attend the Birmingham quilt fair. Apart from attending international fairs, she travels around Russia conducting quilting courses and also mentors quilters online.
Our provodnitsa, Oleg and Svetlana, were very warm and friendly. Svetlana prepared meals for the two of them on an electric hob in their office. They are such a harmonious pair. Working in 12-hour shifts, their job varies from checking tickets and passports to giving out and collecting bedding, reminding passengers of their stops, to the more unsavoury cleaning duties. First thing in the morning, they would clean the toilets. They also mopped our carriage every day. My lasting memory of this pair is of them tackling every task with a smile; a far cry from that dour Olga character from the Warsaw Polonez.
It takes seven days to get to Vladivostok, yet there are no showers in the Plaskartny, so I came prepared with a sponge. On the third day, I persuaded another new friend, Svetlana Kholodar (Sveta) to accompany me on a clandestine trip to the second-class carriage, hoping to sneak into their shower. But there wasn’t any. The only showers were in the individual first-class cabins.
Unlike Thai trains, they also have no curtains so I brought a shower curtain, which I pinned on the mattress of the top bunk before I went to sleep. Insurance or no, my greatest fear was of being robbed while asleep. So I slept hugging my daypack with electronic equipment, and my bum bag (containing my documents and money) clipped around my leg.
As the lush Siberian landscape of birch and taiga forests slowly gave way to barren land, I starting losing my friends. Marina got off at Nizhny Novgorod on the first day. She told me her mother was coming to meet her so Stephanie and I went down to meet her and were surprised to receive gifts of a beautiful little papier mache bowl and spoon. I cannot recall how Marina had managed to arrange this without our knowledge but we appreciated this sweet gesture.
Lyuba left the second day, at Perm, replaced by a woman with a lot of luggage so I had to move my suitcase to another bunk. Then at Yeketerinburg, Stephanie and Svetlana the doll-maker got off. I was sad to lose all my friends but I did not realise how bad things would turn out afterwards.
I had got down to say goodbye to Stephanie and, when I got back on the train, my suitcase was removed from underneath the bunk, even though nobody needed to use it. I found it flying all over the aisle as the train pulled out. I tried to put it back but a woman in her 40s prevented me, indicating that the next passenger might need it. In all the commotion, Sveta, who had just boarded the train, offered to interpret for me. The woman told her I was a foreigner so I should not be in the plaskartny. I suddenly realised I was the only non-Russian in the carriage. I was surprised that the friendly, young soldier Vadim, in the bunk above Minina, did not intervene. I put the bag under a bunk further away.
I was so grateful to have a new friend in this hostile atmosphere. Sveta was a post-doctoral researcher from Novosibirsk and was working in the United States. She helped me pin my shower curtain to the top bunk that night but in the morning I woke up feeling naked, as the curtain had been ripped away. I found it folded nicely, in the bunk above me.
Things slowly got worse after Sveta left. On the third night, I could not find my suitcase. Someone pointed to it up in the rafters, above the top bunk. We did not have a three-way socket so when I thought someone’s phone had been charged long enough, I indicated to him and he came to remove it. Before I could grab my phone, the woman sitting below the socket quickly shoved her phone in and, like an impudent child, refused to budge.
Again, nobody came to my defence, not even the men. Svetlana the provodnitsa took me to her office and let me use her socket. I was glad it was only a few hours before I would leave the carriage that had turned into an inhospitable Siberian gulag. Despite this experience, I would recommend the plaskartny as the only way to experience the essence of the Trans-Siberian railway. You meet more people here than when you are stuck in a cabin for four.
In the next instalment, it's off to Lake Baikal.
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