Well for one thing sharing a compartment with another person makes a huge difference. I’m travelling first class which means you may have to share with one other person. Second class means you may share with 3 other people. So from Beijing to Irkutsh, 3 days, I shared with a judo teacher from Exeter, she’d already travelled from Moscow through Mongolia to China and was on her return trip stopping off at various places including St Petersburg before catching the train back to Britain, just the kind of person Steve would have enjoyed meeting. We had some fun times together, especially when we invited fellow traveller Judy, an Australian Abba fan and our young love bird neighbours from China for a singathon in our compartment. While I was in Tokyo, inspired by the Mumford and Sons I dreamed of singing This Train Is Bound for Glory on the Trans-Siberian. Apart from the missing guitarist my dream came true.
It’s pretty intense sharing a small space with some-one, a bit like camping but with a total stranger. Ruth described how in the early hours of the morning several hours outside Moscow, a huge Russian guy with a big beard entered her compartment and was to be her travelling bed mate for the next 2 days. He turned out to be a lawyer and his wife and sister were in the compartment next door.
Last night was my first night alone and I have to admit I was grateful that I didn’t get a surprise visit in the early hours of the morning.
When you share you need to co-ordinate getting up and going to bed. Of course there are bed lights but you do need to learn how to live in harmony and we did. Ruth and I shared some pretty intimate conversations about relationships and love. I was surprised about how quickly time flies on this train. If you want to use the shower you have to book a time slot and I found you have to be careful not to spill water on the floor, my first shower was a disaster, the shower curtain was hanging off and by the time I stepped out of the shower, there was 2 inches of water on the floor. The male Provodnik, stern at the best of times, was even sterner looking because of the mess I’d made.
My favourite thing is the coal fired stove called a samova or hot water tank which you can use to make tea or coffee. My routine is to put a Green Tea bag in my flask in the morning and throughout the day keep topping up with boiling hot water. I’ve also had 3 packets of Chinese pot noodles, although last nights meal turned out to be bow shaped pieces of pasta with 3 sachets of dehydrated powders, all that’s all I can tell you.
The provodnistas are the women who look after the carriage. Our Russian provodnista, with short blond hair, who speaks absolutely no English and who most of the time walks around in her pink pjamas cleaning the train is sweet but as soon as we pull into a station, the full uniform goes on and she looks quite intimidating. It must be the hat. She tells us how long we have at each stop, 5 minutes or sometimes as long as 30 minutes. You can’t go too far but at each stop I take a picture of one of the cranes I’ve made and leave it on the platform. At the stations there are small shops selling snacks, drinks and dubious greasy pasties. At one station I had a greasy donut stuffed with cabbage, the good news, it didn’t contain meat, the bad news, it was tasteless.
Something else to be aware of at each station, the toilets are locked. One night when I couldn’t sleep the train pulled into Chitta and I got up, it was midnight and in my pjamas I walked up and down the platform listening to the engineer bang the train wheels with his hammers testing for cracks in the metal. The sound was beautiful like a percussion orchestra tuning up. I got a bit cold and boarded the train but I had to wait for another 20 minutes for the toilets to reopen. So planning your toilet breaks are essential.
The restaurant car changes depending on what country you’re passing through. Ruth and I went to the Chinese dining car, it was packed with people, all Chinese. First we were told it was closed, they showed us to a seat, then the chef said only one thing but then let us chose what we wanted from the menu, confusing. That night we feasted on rice and chicken with green peppers in a black bean sauce, it was tasty. I’m planning to visit the Russian car tonight and will ask for vodka! No need to ask for vodka, I bought some at one of the station stops , it was cheap about £4. I invited my neighbours, the Australian couple and Lil and Yeung from next door to join me for a vodka party. I showed them the video I’d made on the Great Wall and as the bottle was almost finished the conversation turned to marriage. I shared the story of my 39 happy years of marriage and presented them with my One Love photo.
A near disaster averted at Omsk. Ten minutes we were told so off we trooped to stretch our legs, photograph cranes etc. I called Judy over to have a quick look at the Russian Dolls, as she wants to buy a set for her daughter. The next thing Mark notices they’re pulling up the steps, the train is about to leav. We had to run and jump onto the train on the end carriage. The provodnik was not happy, we said Sorry. He replied “NOT SORRY!!” We walked through the train like naughty children, through the restaurant car and tried the door hand, stuck. We were trapped in the restaurant car, I can think of worse places, there’s a bar after all. The provodnik was trapped with us too, he radioed for help and 15 minutes later we were released. We could see the funny side, he couldn’t, his impression of foreign travellers was confirmed.
The last 3 days I’ve had the compartment to myself and I’m enjoying the space and independence. I had a lovely sleep last night and woke up refreshed. The train rocks you to sleep. I wonder how I’ll feel when I arrived in Moscow after 6 days of this rocking motion.