Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Trans-Siberian Choo Choo

Since the early planning stages of our Round the World trip, the epic Trans-Siberian Railroad had been a high priority. After the fast pace of Russia's major cities, the prospect of spending four days in a train carriage traveling across Russia seemed deliciously appealing, especially since we had managed to procure two first class tickets - a hot commodity during high season. The first and longest (75 hours) leg of our journey was from Moscow to Irkutsk, the gateway city to Russia's gorgeous Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island.

Train #6: Express service to Ulaanbaatar via Irkutsk

Yaroslav station proved to be a grimy, unpleasant and somewhat dangerous place from which to bid farewell to Moscow. The place was crawling with drunks and panhandlers. While Jason was shopping for supplies, I guarded our packs. Although we made it to the train with all our stuff, I unfortunately witnessed a group of young Russians having a piece of their luggage snatched by an efficient and unstoppable thief. Needless to say, we were glad to board our train, which pulled out of Yaroslav at exactly 21.35 - the time printed on our ticket.

The Russian trains may not be slick, but they're solid, reliable and speedier than they look.

We quickly made ourselves at home in our cabin, and our enamel mugs, iPod, reading material and dice were never far from reach. Ignoring the Russian penchant for vodka, we opted to bring a supply of red wine instead.

The main difference between first class and second class (or kupe), is that kupe cabins have four berths instead of two. We took full advantage of our private space, and appreciated the fact that there were only half as many passengers using the toilets in our carriage, compared to the rest of the train. Actually, some of the kupe passengers got wise to this as our journey progressed, and we would see several repeat 'visitors' in our carriage who clearly couldn't deal with the nastiness of their own loos. I can't say I blame them.

Breakfast with a view

Every Trans-Siberian carriage is staffed by stewards, or provodnitsas. They have a bit of a reputation for being unfriendly and generally making it known who is in charge. In spite of our valiant efforts, we completely failed to charm our provodnitsas. We blitzed them with smiles, offered them blinis (pancakes), and took every precaution to avoid antagonising them, but to no avail. We managed to borrow a couple of cups and plates from them, but they flatly refused a photo, and that was after three days of being nice to them.

The passengers in our carriage were a mixture of Russians and foreigners. We were a couple of berths along from a particularly interesting pair. Magnus, a Swede in his late twenties, was traveling with his grandfather, for whom riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad had been his life long dream. As the blind old gentleman soaked in the experience he'd waited ninety something years for, Magnus documented the journey on video.

Getting ready to board, after stretching my legs and stocking up on fresh veggies

Dining was one of the most interesting aspects of our Trans-Siberian experience. We gave the dodgy looking restaurant car a wide berth, and instead bought food from the platform vendors at each stop. The most ubiquitous items on sale were hard boiled eggs, tomatoes & cucumbers, smoked sausages and doughnuts stuffed with mashed potatoes. We tried them all, but discovered the best treats were blinis stuffed with cheese & sultanas. We bought them from an old lady with a headscarf and no teeth, who has clearly perfected the art of blini making in her long life in the countryside. If all else failed, we'd go for pot noodles. As each train carriage is equipped with a samovar of boiling water, instant noodles are a no-brainer.

These vendors are pretty young by Trans-Siberian standards. It takes years to perfect the art of sausage smoking and blini making, we reckon.

This dramatic sign warns against the dangers of crossing the tracks. Nobody paid much attention though, judging by the crowds hurrying across tracks to buy Baltika beer and snacks.

In between chapters of our hefty novels, games of dice, and journal entries, we'd take in long stretches of Siberia's scenery. The rolling landscape of the Ural mountains was beautiful, with plenty of pine and birch forest interspersed with rural villages. Each village had pretty log cottages with ornate window frames and neat plots of land alongside. Many had old Ladas parked next to piles of firewood. We saw plenty of people of all ages working the fields, and even spotted a few farmers in bikinis. Other memorable sights included sunsets over the Urals and later the flat steppe, as well as a group of hot air balloons hovering above the pretty town of Kungur. These are Siberian scenes that will be permanently etched on our minds.

For a moment, crossing Siberia by hot air balloon seemed even more magical than the train.

Our mammoth train journey seemed to come to an end all too soon. In fact, Jason really didn't want the journey to end, and decided he wants to go all the way to Vladivostok next time. Our prodvonistas hauled us out of bed unapologetically, demanding our sheets an hour before arrival to Irkutsk. We found ourselves quite disoriented, as the train runs on Moscow time, and we'd crossed five time zones by this point. Although the official arrival time was 00:13, it was actually 05:13 in Irkutsk. Experiencing 'train lag' was a first for us. Thankfully, a smiling hostel manager was waiting for us at the end of the platform, and we were tucked up in bunk beds within half an hour, dreaming about our next few days by Lake Baikal. The pot noodles, Siberian landscape and mean provodnistas were suddenly a thing of the past.

Station platforms invariably buzzed with activity. The Trans-Siberian is a great adventure for train spotters and people watchers alike.

The final leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Read all about our experience travelling 'kupe' into Mongolia in a future installment of Donkey Crossing. Next up, however, is our wonderful time on Olkhon Island, located off the west coast of Lake Baikal.


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