Ponderings of the Russian railways and Arrival in Asia
As soon as people realize that I don’t fly and have done all of my traveling by train, bus, ferry and hitching, they think I’m mad. Many people cannot comprehend how I would much rather spend, for example, close to 4 days and 7 trains getting from Sweden to Marrakesh, when I can fly it in under 4 hours. This is in no way a new phenomenon (many of you reading this will have said the same thing tome in the past) and doesn’t make any difference to me at all. In Russia, and indeed much of the former Soviet Block, this is normal however. Prices are with a few core exceptions significantly cheaper by train, in addition to being much more frequent, amazingly reliable and in general, much safer. Distances are vast, and a large majority of trains run over huge distances and several days, from/to points all across the Soviet Union, and whilst Moscow is obviously hugely important, it’s not even a network based almost solely on the capital, unlike many (admittedly much, much smaller) European countries.
As it was, my 28 hours to (Y)Ekaterinburg were nothing. I’ve personally done journeys over 3 times as long before, whilst the train I was on was heading to Tynda, East of the Northern end of Lake Baikal and 5 days out of Moscow. As such there had been only a very limited number of people getting on or off before I did, or even in Yekat, and many people were going either all the way through or making at least 3.5-4 day journeys. The journey was uneventful, although oddly, I singlely failed to find anybody in my carriage who spoke English or was even willing to attempt to talk to a foreigner, as normally happens on long Russian journeys. As well as having a walk through the entire length of the train, and 18 carriages of a moving train full of people moving all over the place and making themselves at home takes a not inconsiderable chunk of time, I spent the evening in the buffet car talking to 3 people I had met at the hostel (and probably half of the non Soviet contingent aboard) and took a wander at 3 or 4 stations with longer stops to stretch my legs and see what was for sale by the numerous platform hawkers. In true Russian style, Food and drink of all description, both fresh (fruit, bread, cheese, cakes, smoked fish and some veg etc) and pre packaged as well as some bits of stationery, cosmetics and toiletries, and games and books were being sold. At any larger station in Russia and any where trains tend to have longer stops (i.e. 15mins or more, either to change loco or as a built in delay time to catch up) this is big business, and the only way that such long distance trains can realistically be sustained. Even the train staff and restauranteurs take advantage to stock upon fresh/extra produce.
We crossed the Urals West of Ekaterinburg and into Asia (although as the train had gone via Kazan, not on the main Trans-Sib route so we didn’t pass the border obelisk), and arrived there about 45mnins late after a delay barely 20km out of the city. The delay mean’t I missed the last bus (I got to the bus station just in time to see it depart and the driver even waved back at my attempts to flag him down), but got a – hugely expensive at 525rbl, as no platskartny available, or about 10gbp as opposed to 18 I had paid from Moscow – ticket on a train leaving in a bit over an hour for the 5 hour journey, arriving at 00.30 train time, but 2.30 local time ((in order for the system to be able to function over 9 time zones, one time is used over the whole system, and this is Moscow time)). I ended up in a Kupe with just one other person, an extremely friendly Russian man of about 55, on the long trek from his home in Novyy Urengoy (in the middle of nowhere in the Centre of North Russia, barely 100km south of the Arctic Circle and chilly in winter) to a place in SE Kazakhstan. Possibly to visit his son, I’m really not sure. He essentially spoke no English (except to accuse me of being French as soon as I entered the cabin) and I no Russian, but as is the way on trains, we still managed to have a very cheery and surprisingly varied 4hour conversation whilst sharing our food.
Although Chelyabinsk has the proud claim (allegedly) of being the most polluted city in the world – although there is stiff competition from any number of Russian cities alone, for this exalted position – it was somewhere I had to go. I‘d passed through several times previously without ever stopping, but it wasn’t high on my list of places to explore until I joined FT and came across Michiel (aka The Mad Professor, aka Mjeh). Michiel is a Dutch-Canadian who had been teaching English in the city for 4 years, after moving from the Netherlands to live with his Russian gf, Evgenia. More of whom next time.