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On a slow train through Siberia

The inscrutable Russian may be intimidating, but beneath the mask is a nation familiar with 'Shah Khan', Osho and Swami Vivekananda. To discern that Russia, you have to first board the Trans-Siberian Railway

Published: Mar 3, 2016 05:56:17 AM IST
Updated: Mar 2, 2016 08:42:45 AM IST
On a slow train through Siberia
Image: Prathap Nair
The Trans-Siberian Railway has lured travellers like writers Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron apart from backpackers on a shoestring budget

In the cramped train compartment, our knees brush against each other. I exchange a smile—my first in the two weeks since I’ve been in Russia—with a stranger across my seat. Russians are wary of outsiders and I was often rendered speechless (quite literally) during my brief interactions with, for instance, an impassive ticket vendor at a metro station or an inscrutable shopkeeper. Till that point, the only success I had had at penetrating the steely Russian countenance is a friendship with my couchsurfing hosts Nikolai and Alex in St Petersburg.
The man across my seat, Mathias Schneider, is a middle-aged German audio engineer wearing lederhosen, or leather breeches, that are native to his home in Munich, Bavaria. In his hand is a crumpled edition of a day-old The Moscow Times. Next to Mathias, two young, thin-lipped Russian women in pink sweaters are cradling their mobile phones. They appear indifferent to their surroundings; this impression is magnified by their tiny white earphones—hidden behind their blow-dried, curly, blonde hair—that seem to block out the sounds of the train.

As we pull out of the nation’s capital, I leave behind the famous Moscow Kremlin, (Russian for ‘fortress inside a city’), the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (more famously Lenin) in the Red Square and the vividly coloured domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Within hours, I get a glimpse of rural Russia with its birch forests slowly turning into baby orange as if someone dusted a bottle of Fall-coloured powder on the tree tops.

This is the Russian leg of my 7,356 km, train-hopping journey through seven time zones, from Moscow to Siberia and then onwards to Mongolia and China, to arrive at my final destination Beijing in three weeks. The trip, if taken at a stretch, can be completed in a week, but I’ve factored in multiple stops along the way. I’ve also chosen not to follow the main 9,289-km Trans-Siberian Railway line from Moscow to the southern Siberian town of Vladivostok, which is near the borders of China and North Korea. Instead, I will be bidding farewell to this line at the Siberian border town of Ulan-Ude, from where I will be boarding the Trans-Mongolian line to Mongolia and then China. But this is the story of my Trans-Siberian experience through the towns and cities of Vladimir, Perm, Omsk, Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude starting from European Russia and receding into the wilderness of Siberia.

On a slow train through Siberia
The Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, one of Russia’s oldest theatres

India has inured me to the travails of train travel. After sharing compartments with pesky mice scavenging for food and ill-behaved children who only have their parents as role models, I am not daunted by this journey along one of the world’s longest railway lines.

The Russian government embarked on a mission to construct the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok in the late 1800s with the aim of expanding trade connections to its far-east and combating the limitations of water transport. (Siberian rivers remain frozen for the better part of the year, rendering them unfit for navigation.) It was operational by 1916, and ushered in progress and development to remote Siberian towns. By then, another line connecting Moscow to St Petersburg was already in place. Russia was thus bestowed with railways cutting across its desolate Siberian vastness connecting the far-east of the country to the nerve centres of economic progress—Moscow and St Petersburg.

On a slow train through Siberia
Moscow’s famous Red Square that neighbours the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The city square also houses Lenin’s tomb where the embalmed body of the Soviet leader is preserved
Over nearly a century, the Trans-Siberian Railway has lured travellers—rich and poor, famous and unknown—from writers Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron to backpackers on a $20-a-day budget. There is plenty to tempt the curious wanderer: The towns sitting snug by the banks of Russia’s rivers Volga, Angara, Amur and Ural, ornate churches and squat buildings built in the tradition of Soviet Communist era, the remoteness of the raw Siberian inland, and the world’s largest fresh water lake, Baikal.

The train’s first halt is a town called Vladimir, a short 200 km from Moscow, where Mathias gets off. I take a short detour to visit the idyllic town of Suzdal, home to the beautiful Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, its blue domes spangled with golden stars glinting in the mid-afternoon sun. My real experience on the train began that night when I returned to the station and boarded my second-class coupe to Perm, an industrial city by the Kama River whose historical connections include the Soviet era prison camp, Perm-36.

I share the coupe with a Russian woman travelling with her son. She kindly translates in halting English the train provodnitsa’s (conductor) instructions. “Do not throw anything other than toilet paper in the toilet, it is a bio-toilet. You are eligible for one meal. When would you like to have it?” I try to strike up a conversation to extract more details of Perm. But apart from the language barrier, she is a reluctant conversationalist and declines my invitation for a meal while at Perm.

On a slow train through Siberia
A view of the blue dome of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin in Suzdal

The coupe is two-tiered with blue upholstery, space to store luggage and hangers for coats. The sliding door also serves as a mirror.  A tiny side table is shared by the four occupants for meals. I’m given a welcome kit: A paper bag of plastic cutlery, muffins with jam filling and a bottle of water. If not for the large window, I would have felt claustrophobic. Though not as spacious as Indian coupes, it is clean and cozy.

I step out momentarily into the narrow corridor lit by a harsh white light. A digital device at the end of the coach shows the temperature (20ºC) and the toilet sign. In her book, A Ribbon of Iron, British author Annette MB Meakin, who travelled the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1900s when it first became operational, writes about the need to carry ammunition for safety while on the train. “The Mayor of Vladivostok took out his little pocket pistol and handled it fondly. ‘It saved my life once,’ he said. You had better get one in Omsk if you haven’t brought one with you,” she writes. Thankfully, times have changed.

On a slow train through Siberia
Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia

Perm is unveiled the following morning; it wears a drab mask partly perhaps because of the dreary weather. Ian Frazier, in his tome, Travels in Siberia, describes the city as “big, grey and industrial”. An artistic installation made entirely of wooden logs like a skeletal entryway greets me in the city park and does nothing to lighten the mood. Perm straddles the taigas (Russian for forest) of Eastern Europe and Western Siberia, but considers itself Europe.

When the sun finally makes an appearance later in the morning, I go for a walk. It feels liberating to stroll down the roads of an alien Russian city with nothing more than an unhelpful map that has information in Cyrillic. Getting lost is only a concern if you are bound by time and a destination is on the agenda. Free of such shackles, I wander about aimlessly. I’m in awe of the ornate enormity of Perm’s 90-year-old Drama Theatre. Later, I enter an Orthodox church where a hospitable babushka (grandmother in Russian) tries to teach me in sign language how to cross myself during prayers. I get a chance to see the Ural Mountains and explore Basegi National Park during my two-day stopover at Perm before boarding a train—this time it is a 19-hour overnight journey—to another grey and industrial city, Omsk. It is my first glimpse of Siberia.

I remember writing “unexciting” against my entry for Omsk in my journal. But Sergey and his friend Alex—two friendly Russian bankers I met on the train—taught me to look beneath the drab surface. They made me welcome in Omsk by calling for a taxi to take me to my hotel. Along with my hosts in St Petersburg, they were the friendliest Russians I had met so far.
From Omsk, I head deeper into Siberia. About 4,000 km ahead, as the train enters central and eastern Russia, I start noticing subtle changes in the landscape, as well as the people. Birch and fir trees give way to endless flatlands interspersed with water bodies that are connected by iron bridges. Rather than cold stares, I now get friendly nods when I approach people for directions.

On a slow train through Siberia
A Russian woman sells smoked omul fish—a smelly Siberian delicacy

It’s Day 14 of my journey, and I have arrived at one of the last Siberian cities on my trip, Irkutsk. Ancient Siberian timber houses and the river Angara render a quaint character to the traffic-clogged streets of this city. And unlike other Siberian cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk has a welcome feel to it.

From there, I take a short detour by bus to Listvyanka or the Baikal Rivera. The Unesco World Heritage Centre lists Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia as one of the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1,700 metres) lakes in the world. I spend long idyllic days exploring the walking trails around Lake Baikal and the busy produce markets with Russian women selling smoked omul fish—a smelly Siberian delicacy—that hang from their ramshackle store ceilings. I take a dip in the Baikal and its icy waters and eat Uzbek pilaf hawked by elderly Central Asian women on its shores. One young man with high cheek bones and arresting Central Asian features, asks me if I know “Shah Khan”. I tell him I know of the actor whose full name is ‘Shah Rukh Khan’.

On a slow train through Siberia
A trek along the Ural Mountains

Towards the end of my three-day stay in the town, babushkas pose for pictures with me as elderly men with big bellies smile indolently and beer sellers ask how cold it gets in India. Yes, I have finally broken through the impassive Russian surface to find its warm, friendly beating heart.

The last Siberian town I visit is Ulan-Ude. Its claim to fame is that it houses the largest head of Vladimir Lenin ever built, though the author of my guide book asks in a snarky note if there is any other city competing for this honour. The head is 7.7 metres tall and weighs as much as 42 tonnes.

And on that note, my Russian leg comes to an end. As my train chugs towards Mongolia, the setting sun pierces golden light through the glass window and I am reminded of Colin Thubron’s question to himself in Among the Russians: “Was it possible… to spend months in a country and yet not touch it at all?” I think of the people I met in this fascinating country: My hosts, the bankers, the woman and her son, the old woman who tried to teach me how to make the sign of the Cross and the man who wanted to know about ‘Shah Khan’. One recurring memory that I have come to associate with Siberia is that of an ageing guitarist by the name of Sergey whom I met by the banks of Lake Baikal.

Every evening under the setting sun, Sergey, who loves India, would talk about Rajneesh (or Osho) and Swami Vivekananda. “If you pay 200 rubles, I play for you, Prathap,” he would say. I never accepted his offer.

It was strange to find influences of India in Siberia. But then, travel is nothing if not finding yourself at home, even if you are 8,000 km away from your comfort zone.

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Ramesh G

    Well written piece. Any chance you will have a video of your lovely trip ? Sometimes \'unexciting\' drab towns have their own charm. The world is filled with so many touristy places and monuments, sometimes the mind just needs to travel to place that\'s got nothing to offer.

    on Mar 6, 2016