Russian trains! One of the main points of this trip, and all in all, pretty nice. Clean, safe, on time, largely comfortable, affordable. What more could you really ask? Most of my trips were just overnight with a few hours on either end, but I had one 48 hour stretch booked as well as one 8-hour daytime trip. For the former, which was my trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, I booked one of the nicest fast trains, the #2 Rossiya that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. And for the latter, Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude – during the day in order to see Lake Baikal in all its glory – I booked my only 3rd class leg since I wouldn’t be doing any overnight sleeping. It turns out 3rd class on that train was even more comfortable than 2nd on the Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar train, so the whole dormitory on wheels thing wasn’t really a problem.
I was actually looking forward to all the various trip lengths and classes for different reasons. But much as I was longing for the experience of 3 days, 2 nights on a single train (mostly in order to read and think forever without option), I have to say now I’ve done it, I can check that off the life list and not do it again.
Sleeping on a train, in itself, is actually pretty nice. You get rocked to sleep and the noises aren’t all that bothersome. It’s the temperature they keep the cars that kept me up. It’s ridiculous but I kept thinking of how impossible I found it to sleep in Africa because of the temperature. In Russia it’s somewhere around -20 to -30 outside but on most of the trains I was on, especially overnight, it can get up to 29C! Way. Too. Hot. The train I took for the Russia/Mongolia border crossing was actually freezing, but it was a super old school train and it seems I’d been spoiled up to that point. No matter though. That was also the first one I met any other English speaking foreign tourists on – LOADS of them – so it was good fun.
So. The heat was the main discomfort issue. But it doesn’t actually matter if you don’t sleep much because you’re also not moving around or using much energy. I didn’t even go to the restaurant car on the 48 hour trip, so I walked only back and forth between the toilets and the samovar at opposite ends of the carriage.
And tea. My god. You think the British like tea. I drank enough tea in 48 hours to keep the British Empire running from roughly 1908 to 1911. I guess this is because Russians love tea and there’s no fresh cold drinking water on the train, so, ENDLESS TEA. I actually had to stay off the tea (and any liquid at all) on the border crossing train because they lock the toilets until all the checks are done and that may well be the most terrifying part of this entire trip for me. No joke. (I survived.)
While drinking all that tea, staring out the window at the opposing temperatures of the beautiful Siberian winter confirmed to me that coming at this time of year was the best decision. I know even the Russians think I’m batty for wanting to be here now instead of summer. I’m sure it’s beautiful in summer, but I also think it probably looks a lot like the Scottish highlands. This kind of winter, however, we definitely don’t get. So why not see something different?
Quiet train corridor at night
The view from bed
One of many stations
Novosibirsk looking a bit bleak
Restaurant car, all dolled up for the holidays
Anyway, as mentioned, One of the main things I was looking forward to was allllll the reading time. And that has been great. I devoured Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (of Born to Run fame), which was pretty much the PERFECT book for this trip. It had adventure and travel and science and all sorts! I loved it, and it has also given me plenty of ideas on how to take better care of myself. And trust my feet more. (Or rather, my balance.)
I also read Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (recommended by Drama Professor Extraordinaire, Jason) which was a great thing for when I couldn’t actually speak to people, because David Greene had the advantage of an interpreter where I did not. So at least I could read people’s stories if I couldn’t get some firsthand. That book also firmed up a lot of the separation I feel from America now though. Particularly when Greene is talking about the connection he feels with a particular Russian couple that has a similar lifestyle to his and his wife’s, the only difference being he and his wife don’t live in a society they see as ‘ill’.
And this is where my ‘REALLY, WHAT?’ flags went up. All through this book, he’s highlighting the problems in Russian society and government, and none of them are minor things. However, there’s an air here and in many other things I’ve read and heard that America (and other Western countries for that matter) is so healthy that they simply don’t have an equivalent problem set. And on that I call complete and utter bullshit. America may not have the SAME problems as Russia, but it has some pretty freakin’ big ones it can’t seem to solve for the life of itself (*ahem* gun control, healthcare, women’s health, ETC), and this is again what makes me feel we’re all more alike than we want to admit.
The other thing that struck me was the bit on Putin’s New York Times op-ed response to Obama’s comments that the US helping by taking military action in Syria is one of the things that makes the US different and exceptional. Putin said, well actually, it’s kind of dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional. And Putin is not a man I’d agree with on most things, but when it comes to countries’ own views of themselves, I think he’s right. Seeing yourself as a great country is all right. Seeing yourself as The Greatest country is not. (And on this, David Greene seems to be thinking in my direction.)
I don’t have a whole lot of personal commentary on Putin. Some of the Russians I met dislike him. Some of them felt he pulled the country out of a few dark holes despite not necessarily agreeing with everything he does. He’s a politician, and politicians aren’t perfect. But even the ones you disagree with are capable of sense. In any case, things could always be better no matter where you live. Just because American problems don’t match Russian ones doesn’t mean the US is somehow better or more extraordinary. And Russia is not the horrendous, scary place that some people would like to think. People are lovely here! Things work! Bears are not roaming the streets! It’s just not the same as the Established Western Democracy you’re used to.
ANYWAY. I unfortunately did not get to discuss most of this with any Russians on any trains, because of what I think the hardest part of being on the trains for so long was – the language barrier. I didn’t run into other English-speaking traveling adventurer types on the trains until my train that took me out of Russia. Most people I encountered didn’t speak much or any English. This is obviously totally fine and I don’t expect anyone to be speaking my language, but it does cut any conversational potential quite short.
It’s very nice to try to find out who people are and where they’re traveling to, but it’s pretty hard to go much further than that. And that’s what got to me in the end. I’m cool with being quiet when I’m by myself for long periods of time, but to be among people who are having great conversations and unable to join in just feels extra isolating. I was so happy to meet people in the hostels in Irkutsk and in Listvyanka that spoke English I probably talked way more than I normally do. Hopefully I didn’t drive them totally nuts. On balance though, I’m glad I didn’t have a trip full of only English-speaking travelers, because that would be fairly bland in terms of a foreign experience.
Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).