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“[Moscow.] Early on the Sunday morning I set several alarms and sweated my way around the cryptic, but fantastically decorated Metro system. Much of the efficient, extensive and splendid underground network was bloodily constructed with forced labour, as was much of the roads, railways and infrastructure in Siberia. By deciphering the weird Cyrillic signage and pestering the occasional babushka, I managed to emerge in the correct train station, ready to board a sleeper train for 4 whole days…
Loaded with my two huge cursed backpacks and a ton of vegetarian food, I entered my 4-bed cabin to find I was sharing with what turned out to be a group of consistently drunk, but cool, Latvians and a friendly Russian chap whose English consisted of ‘I love you’, ‘bagel store’ and ‘London’. He was either demonstrating the limits of his vocabularyor was particularly keen on expressing his affection for a British-based bread retailer.
Though it’s the longest train journey in the world, the scenery was mainly quite unremarkable, comparable to Kent much of the time – things, however, got more interesting as we passed over the Urals and from Europe into Asia. The rhythm, the smells, the sounds, the distorted sense of time, the cosy enclosed space – I loved it all. My journey to Irkutsk took me over 5 time zones to this town near Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border. Each cabin came complete with bedding, lots of storage and a reading light – at the end of each carriage was a toilet (where your business is deposited straight on to the track) and a constant supply of boiling water for coffee and the pot noodles which all passengers survive on. Each carriage also had an attendant or ‘provodnitsa’ — they clean, hoover, sweep up and provide cutlery, drinks, snacks and light banter – some were more friendly than others. Whilst the daytime shift provodnitsa (or ‘smiler’ as I called her) had it in for me, the night shift attendant thought I was a ruddy legend.
The train stopped several times a day and my guidebook informed me that a vast array of snacks and drinks were available from touts at the stations. This was not the case at the first stop which seemed to be populated with folks selling bizarre one-off random objects such as two-foot plastic cats, chandeliers huge tasteless vases, fur hats and other tacky plastic tat. As I watched the various comedy items pass my window it reminded me of the Generation Game conveyor belt – I couldn’t help but give a little cheer as the woman covered head-to-toe in teddy bears slowly drifted by. ‘Who the hell buys this crap?!’, I said in disbelief to a nearby tipsy Latvian – and then, as if on cue, half a dozen fellow passengers re-boarded the carriage, arms full of teddies, vases and other junk!… We could only presume that this was the stop for buying gifts for loved ones at the end of the journey.
Days on the train were passed reading, eating, exploring the carriages, admiring the rolling landscapes, hanging out of windows, being told-off by attendants for hanging out of windows, flirting with the said attendants, and doing English lessons on the laptop, in my chicken suit, for the excitable on-board kids. It was great to stretch ones legs during the intermittent stops, but less fun when everyone suddenly disappeared and you find yourself still on the platform, with the train puffing and hissing and making various other ‘ready to leave’ noises.
The journey was warm and comfortable and I could’ve happily have done the full stretch for a week – it’d be even more fun in the winter with a snowy landscape. I even discovered after 4 days of grubbiness that a warm shower was possible in the form of a length of hose available to rent from the attendant… In the dead of night we arrived in Irkutsk and waited for sunrise before trying to find our hostel…”