Asia / Europe / Russia

Mugshots from Russia.The Trans-Siberian Railway.

One might venture an opinion that the hearts of Russian people are as big as their country! You can give me the benefit of the doubt, nod your head and stay in your comfort zone or experience the best of Russia firsthand. In both cases you should read this post. 🙂 I want to invite you to embark on an unforgettable, epic journey through the vastness of the Siberian taiga. Into the wild! The journey that will radically change your thinking about Russia (really? aren’t you yet madly in love with it after reading my posts from St Petersburg and Moscow?) and for me – a true Russophile, the greatest adventure of my life so far. Before you get lost in time and space (Siberia means 7 time zones and more than 10mln km2!!) turn off your phone (no network most of the time anyway) and open up your mind – everything is possible now.

The Trans-Siberian Railway – the name that fascinates many of you. I have goosebumps thinking about it. From Moscow to Vladivostok, thousands of kilometers on one train. Daily routine determined by monotonous sound of moving wheels and rare stopovers for “a smoke” (the longest one was for 40min). Our route takes us to Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk – grey cities of austere post-soviet architecture, growing like little islands on the green Siberian sea. Lack of time prevents us from visiting them and it makes me sad – I’m sure they are full of interesting stories! I cheer myself up that our trip is all about the experience on the train. It’s all about the journey. The journey, as always in my case, full of the wildest of the wildest tales!

Platzkart stories.

Can you squeeze a whole country into one carriage? Yes! The Trans Siberian train is the essence of Russia! If you want to know who are the real Russians, how they do it and why they do it and get the most of it, make sure to buy the cheapest seats in a common carriage called – platzkart. You can buy tickets online and print them at home (hello technology!) from the Russian Railways website (the official one is also in English). Then you just go to the train station and hop on your carriage. Easy peasy. Travelling in platzkart will give you a glimpse of modern Russia. A unique collection of different characters from seedy mugshots of suspicious looking guys to beautiful innocent faces of little Mishas and Grishas shyly smiling at you. If I was a sociologist I would be in the seventh heaven by now! Platzkart has no compartments. You eat, sleep and live with locals and at the end of the journey, if you are lucky, you become one big family. Awesome isn’t it? What’s more, if you are a girl travelling alone, that is the safest way to do the Trans Siberian adventure. I imagine you wouldn’t like to be closed in a compartment with 3 strangers, would you?

We aren’t lucky – we have the worst berths facing the door (it means I can smell other people’s feet) on the sunny side (and it’s really hot!). We would suffer with grace but the worst is that we have the most unkind neighbour in the whole carriage – one extremely unhappy female with a constant grimace on her face giving us the evil eye. Her charismatic majesty (yes, I have to admit – she was one of the kind, amazing!) was immediately given a nickname – SHE Napoleon – as she had that special something about her, just like the French general had. And I don’t mean the fact she was rather short. 🙂

Bad things comes two’s and so does the She Napoleon. Her husband is rather indifferent so I can’t say much about him apart from the fact he had the most smelly feet on the whole train! But honestly, do you know what was the worst? Just imagine it. They keep on pulling out tasty things from their bags. One by one. They are eating all the time. Smacking their lips. Licking their fingers… But do they offer something to two poor Polish tourist? Hell no! And we thought we could buy something to eat on the train so we ended up totally unprepared, counting on other people’s generosity (the legendary Trans-siberian hospitality!). With a small exception of our neighbours, we were not disappointed! A good tip for you – make sure to stock up with a lot of food before you get on the train.

Last moments in Moscow before heading to Siberia.
The cheapest carriage has no compartments – if you are lucky you will become family with the locals – how amazing is that?
She Napoleon at her best! 🙂

Either we were so lucky to be the only tourists on board or the other foreigners weren’t creating as much havoc. All of other fellow-travellers, especially males, were very interested in who we are and why the hell we decided to go on vacation to Siberia. Every now and then one of the suspiciously looking guys comes around offering something to eat or simply trying to start a convo. One of them, a bald, old block travelling to Krasnoyask for work reasons, turns out to be unusually pro-active. To me he looks like an “ex-zek” type of those who has just come out of the jail. So he happens to come over every 5 minutes (our beds on the way to the loo so the traffic is pretty big) to stare at my best friend saying “aaach… krasavica” (in Russian “beauty”). He is getting more and more persistent, but we barely understand what is he talking about – most of his teeth is missing!! 🙂 Every opportunity is good to practise beautiful Russian language so I try to talk to him and we laugh together as he wants to convince us to change our plans and go with him to Krasnoyarsk where his son lives so we can marry him to Krasavica (we still talking about my best friend). It’s getting insane but according to him – we don’t have to be afraid because, as he claims, “I won’t bite you, I have no teeth”.  🙂

The old chap gets carried away and he isn’t taking any hints from our side that he should “pashol von” (“go away” in Russian) as he clearly started to irritate our neighbours. To make things worse suddenly other dudes swarmed around us like a hive of honey bees. Enough! The SHE Napoleon got so pissed off with the whole situation and in the heat of the moment she kicked one of the guys in the ass. Just like this. She cut it out. Isn’t she amazing? Since then could continue our journey trouble-fee. I’m telling you if the Napoleon was a woman… Russia would be a French colony today!

I won’t bite you, I have no teeth 🙂

Only one man survived the end of the world caused by the fast and furious (that kick was legendary!) SHE Napoleon. Alexandr, Sasha or Sanya (you can use any – the beauty of Russian language!) is a young guy, originally from Siberia, who is living and working hard in Moscow as a DJ of a rather rampant nickname… LEPPARDO. Sanya is travelling home with his younger brother Alyosha. They were such a nice, sweet and selfless creatures, inviting us for dinner each single evening. A royal dinner – I don’t mean any kind of instant noodles, so popular nowadays that often the whole carriage smells like a cheap Chinese restaurant. Sanya and Alyosha were the real masters of the ceremony preparing sumptuous feasts with succulent meat, fresh veggies and fruit – whatever you fancy, and on the last day they gave us (I am so moved when I write it I have a little tear in my eye now!) some souvenirs they have bought for themselves during their vacation in Sochi. SO NICE OF THEM!

Our train and little kiosks on the platforms.
DJ Leppardo on the platform duing one of the stopovers.
One of our feasts and the prove that the boys were saving our lives each day!
In the carriage you can get unlimited hot water straight from a traditional Russian samovar. You can also “rent” glasses (with a very fancy steel tubes to hold them) along with some cutlery from provodnitsa.

DJ Leppardo has a serious competition when our next friends Dyadya from Azerbaijan comes into the picture. Self-proclaimed uncle (“dyadya” means uncle in Russian) offers his help in case someone bothers us during the journey. Saying that… he didn’t last too long…

Few hours later he falls asleep with his head on Taras’ lap and his legs clogging the tiny corridor. For such a serious violation of the rules on the train he is brutally waken up by provodnitsa – the queen of the carriage, she who must be obeyed! Her job is to keep her carriage spick and span (most of them are very diligent about it). They used to come across as quite fearsome because of their appearance (quite aggressive make up and backcombed hair) but nowadays all of them are rather friendly. You have to know that there will be vodka on the train, but don’t panic – no one will force you to drink unless you really want it. And if they do, well you know now who to speak to. Officially drinking on board is forbidden so when Taras – our Buryat fellow traveller of the most amazing teeth (golden and silver – charming!) gives me a fridge magnet in return for 200 RUB he needs to buy spirits I have to decline his offer, risking our friendship.

In those rare moments when Dyadya is actually sober (yes, he was the one to drink quite a lot) he is acting as our guardian angel. He treats us like his own daughters, asking all the time if we are ok and giving us the last pack of sweets from his bag. He was also claiming his son won a gold medal in taekwondo during the Olympics in Rio. We would never know if it was true, but Azeri guy – Radik Isayev, indeed won Gold that summer in Brasil. Dyadya himself must have been into some kind of weird Russian sport, judging from a huge copper disc he was travelling with – needless to say he ended up being told off by provodnitsa for taking too much space. 🙂

Our Dyadya from Azerbaijan.
Taras – Buryat with the most beautiful smile on the train.
In charge of safekeeping on board – provodnitsa – nothing will stay unseen when she is on duty, especially…  
…a huge copper disc travelling with our Dyadya – he got seriously told of for that – here you can see the disc “safe” above our heads 🙂 
If someone bothered you, give me a shout – said Dyadya and then he fell asleep on the platform… 

How is it on Trans-Siberian train? It’s awesome. Your life concentrates around 5 basic actions – eat, sleep, read, talk and observe. Simple as it is. I loved observing people on the train. I loved exchanging smiles and small talks when they approached me. I didn’t have to worry about anything so the whole journey was stress free. I could definitely do the whole route to Vladivostok – 9 days. First moments after leaving Moscow were hot and sweaty and there was no place to take shower, apart from a small sink in the toilet to keep you “strategic” places fresh. I didn’t mind it – wet tissues do the job and it’s all part of the adventure.

The carriage was “air-coned” which in Russia means that there was an open window and we should be thankful for that because not all the windows could be opened. First couple of days it was nice but nights were quite cold – luckily you get a blanket to cover yourself. During the day lots of men were walking around half naked showing off their private art galleries heavily tattooed legs and arms. This is when we met Dimitri – a self proclaimed lawyer from St Petersburg, travelling to Baikal lake, just like us. On the very first day of the trip he gave us his birthday cake – just like this. I was freaking out that we gonna catch salmonella so we ended up not eating it, but this is how our friendship started.

Anna with Dima’s b-day cake – food is the best way to break the ice! At least in our case. 🙂

Dima has more luggage than my friend and I altogether (big backpack and a tent) but he seemed to forgot the most important stuff – the clothing, we came to the conclusion observing him slouching around, during cool Siberian nights, wearing only some sort of thin jerkin, flip-flops and sun glasses (at night!). I was being constantly forced to take pictures of him on every single stop to document his extensive travel to the heart of Russia – you have to believe me, that guy was hilarious!

One of the most important thing you have to know about travelling by Trans Siberian train is that the arrival time is always Moscow time. On the train we realize we won’t reach Irkutsk at 9pm as we thought – we will be there at 2am at night! We don’t know the city, we don’t have anything booked so we plan to stay at the station until morning, but this is when Dima lend us a hand. He offers us to stay with him at his uncle’s place. It turns out that it’s a friend of his mother and actually he has never seen that guy before, but he already called him and we have green light to crash on his sofa.  We grab a cab and within 15 minutes we get into his place. It’s kind of shabby with fags all over the places and no hot water but there is a couch (Dima sleeps on a chair) enough for a short power – nap!

Before we fall asleep we try to figure out what we gonna do the next day. Online research tells us all the mini buses to Olkhon islands are sold out. How? – I’m asking myself. This is Russia! Impossible is nothing. We decide to go out on a limb – leave early and go to the bus stop to check if we can get lucky. We are quite desperate at the moment so I don’t mind getting on a bus with a 1000 RUB note and shout I will pay for someone to sell us their seats. Bold. The Russian way 🙂 We don’t want to stay in Irkutsk when Lake Baikal is calling us!

Did we manage to get the tickets and travel to Olkhon? You will read about it in my next post. Now some snapshot from our journey:

Landscape through the window – wild Siberian nature.
When the train stops all the travellers get out to buy some food from local “babushkas”. 
One of the wooden houses in a small village where the train stops – people live off selling food to travellers. 
During very short stop overs you could actually see how many people is travelling on the train -if there were tourists among them they camouflaged themselves pretty well. 
Day by day on the go. 5 days of observing people but also moments of boredom. 🙂 
Local trade – on the platforms you can buy anything you want – from food to furs – this is exactly how I was imagining the Trans Siberian adventure. 
Siberian goods – smoked fish, dumplings, fresh fruits.
Yekaterinburg – the boarder city between Asia and Europe.
Siberian cities are true “gems” of the soviet architecture. I wish I could visit all of them but we didn’t have time to do so. A good reason to repeat the Trans Siberian journey!
Playing around with Dima and his camera – after I took a tons of pics of him and the train. This guy saved us from sleeping on a train station and this is not the end of the story – you will meet Dima once again very soon!