Flying back over in six and a half hours what it took you almost a month to cover by train is a surreal experience: the Trans-Siberian trains travel an average of 60kph over the full 9000km distance. Flying by day gives you a totally different perspective on the scenery that you drifted past on the train.
I took off from Ulan Ude airport one chilly morning, soared into the sky over the plains and was afforded a front-row view over the sprawling city. If tightly-packed cities such as Hong Kong are like foetal position sleepers, Ulan Ude is a starfish duvet hogger, languishing amongst the hills keeping casually to the Uda riverside.
The hills then continue for several hundred miles over the Siberian hills, coated sometimes in trees or topped with the last of the winter snow. I’ll borrow a description from Mark Twain. Sure, he used it to describe the great plains outside Kansas, but it still fits.
“Just here the land was rolling – a grand sweep of regular elevations and depressions as far as the eye could reach–like the stately heave and swell of the ocean’s bosom after a storm.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. Course, there are mountain ranges in the form of Altai, Urals etc. but our path either didn’t cross over them or I was ignoring the view as we did.
Continental, Russian rivers are broad and powerful. Often they are studded with islands and look like a Curly Wurly chocolate bar but from 30,000 feet you can also see their power and organic evolution. Where a river snakes through a region the land some kilometres to either side of it is scarred with uniform marblings, streaks and tell-tale oxbow lakes that show where the force of the water has cut easier paths and moulded the land. It’s a geographer’s wet dream.
Then in the Siberian taiga you can see the neat bald patches where it looks like a heavenly hand has scored squares of forest from the map and removed them for an art project. Good at least to know that for the most part logging is managed. (Don’t shoot me down; I know black market logging exists still.)
The further West you go, the more emerald the greens and the more intensively farmed the land becomes. Larger cities are evident, increasingly cramped field boundaries are visible. People actually live here. Patterns of urban habitation begin to emerge and population densities clearly increase.
And then you land in dusty, pressed Moscow and are delivered into the bowels of the chuntering Metro system, ready to be processed and spat out at your destination.
I had one day left on my visa and didn’t want to take my chances with the burly border guards. There is a small booth at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport selling train tickets. Don’t use it. I was dazzled by the proper ticket printing machine into thinking it was a standard railways outfit. It’s not. It’s an agency charging over 40% commission on the tickets it sells. Ah, what the hell, thought I. Let’s just get the ticket sorted and spend a few hours mooching around the city.
So after much miming and writing down of times and dates and reinforcing what I wanted, I had a ticket in my grubby paw for Riga. I had wanted to go to Tallinn but tickets for that night were silly money and Latvia is a close neighbour anyway. Got my ticket, got the marshutka into town and went to see Bulgakov’s old apartment where he wrote some of his famous works. It has become a shrine to the celebrated author’s work and people have graffitied the stairwell up to the communal apartment that he and his wife used to have a room in. There were ten rooms and a communal kitchen and bathroom for the lot of them.
Settling down for a coffee after my beard-stroking museum time I decided to check the details on my ticket once more, just to see which train station I needed to make my way towards. Russia has such a huge network of trains that there are several terminals for the international and national departures, scattered around the city. Russia train tickets are jammed full of information so I’d already checked my train, time, carriage, bed once but…what’s this? She’s booked it for tomorrow?
<Sigh> The one and only time I use an agent, they balls it up. Booking online or at the station is flawless. <Whinging> I didn’t even want to go to Riga.
By this time it was imperative that I left that evening since the visa would run out the next day and I didn’t fancy running the immigration bribe gauntlet. It was already too late to get a ticket for the Tallinn train, so off to the train station it was to plead with them to change the ticket. This too involved an amount of miming and throwing money at the situation but I managed to secure passage for that night.
There was an hour to go so I waited on the platform for a bit, eating biscuits and taking pictures of trains.
Not these people though. Despite the 17 hour journey ahead of us, they were desperate to get on board.
In this man’s case, I think it’s so he could get into his pyjamas asap.
Latvian trains are slightly different to Russian trains. They’re still old and characterful, but tea and mineral water are provided free of charge and delivered to your compartment by the matronly attendant-in-charge. There’s even wifi in the expensive carriages.
I was sharing with a military couple on their way for a month’s holiday in the West from the barracks in the East and a Russian bloke on his way home to Latvia after working in Moscow for the week. He does this every week as it’s better money in Moscow and cheaper to live in Latvia. He was an ex-con but now had gone straight and was earning his crust for his 11-year old son back at home. He was nice enough, friendly and trying to talk to me in English but not the brightest button in the box. Plus he had a habit of leaning in way too close to my face as he tried to talk and I’m already sick of that cloyed, sweet smell of stale booze that lingers around alcoholics. It’s one thing to catch the scent on your average Wednesday morning in the ITP office, but it’s another on every fifth person in a country. It was pay day and he had chosen to celebrate by drinking 5 bottles of whiskey (or so he boasted) and had another 5 bottles of vodka and beer stashed in his bag.
After chatting for some time, he disappeared off to some mystery location. I’d crossed 6 time zones on my flight back from the East and so was pretty tired in the course of my 30-hour day. We were going to be awoken at 4am for border formalities so at 10pm-ish, I settled down on my bottom bunk for a kip. About half an hour later, the drunk came back and sat on my feet before collapsing on top of me like a felled tree. I wasn’t enormously keen on sharing a bed with him so shoved him vaguely upright while a fellow passenger kicked him in the leg and told him to sort himself out. Enter train security who came and confiscated the rest of his booze for the night. I thought it prudent at this stage to switch beds for the relative safety of the upper bunk, especially since drunk man found it funny to poke my feet and wink at me. There was no way he was getting up there anyway.
Mind you, this wasn’t nearly as bad as the story that my friend Emma told me about being the only girl in a compartment surround by 8 drunk men, one of whom thought it was funny to drop condoms in her lap and pull at her toes in the night. She didn’t sleep. She kicked him in the face. But none of the blokes stood up for her either and at 3am one of the guys who spoke English told her that ‘he had shame’ for not saying something. Quite right.
About an hour later I looked down to see him sprawled on the floor by the table where he had fallen out of bed. I don’t want to cast stones, but I suspect he’d done a bit of wee too. Lovely.
4am came and it was time to complete passport formalities. The sun rose during the time it took to get everyone’s passport checked and stamped. By this time our friend was snoring so loudly it sounded like rocks falling down a well so I abandoned all further notions of sleep, stoically ordered 4 cups of tea from the attendant and lapped up the sympathetic smiles and knowing nods from my fellow passengers as they passed me in the corridor.