On Saturday evening we boarded our train for the ‘epic’ 5178km journey from Moscow to Irkutsk. At our hostel we met three Swiss guys (Martin, Roman, and Andi) who were also taking the same train as us, so we made our way to the Yaroslavsky station with them. The metro was less busier than on Thursday morning when we arrived, and we had done a recce of the train station the previous day so knew where we were going, which made life easier 🙂
We arrived at the station about 45 mins before departure, the station had looked a bit dodgy the day before with some shady looking characters hanging around, but there were plenty of people waiting for the train including some backpackers and lots of Russian army guys so we felt safe. Unfortunately it was raining and there was little shelter, but thankfully we only had a 15 min wait until the train pulled onto the platform.
We were in carriage #3 which was near the front of the 16 carriage train, quite a walk! The train was painted in the colours of the Russian flag and with attendants in big hats waiting to greet passengers at every door it felt very Russian! It seemed all the backpackers were also in our carriage, and on finding our 4 berth cabin we found we were sharing with two of the Swiss guys (just can’t escape these German speakers) and next door were four Dutch travellers – all very friendly. We were all excited about boarding the Trans-Siberian, which seemed to bemuse our fellow Russian passengers.
The train departed exactly on time at 21:25 – next stop Siberia! Well actually the train stopped about an hour later and many more times, but for us we wouldn’t reach Irkutsk for 4 days. By now darkness had fallen so we couldn’t see much outside beside the odd light as we passed buildings. The Dutch guys bought some beer from one of the Carriage attendant (who looked a bit like Borat!) which they happily shared around, it was cosy with 8 of us sitting in the small cabin – we all got to know each other quickly! When the beer ran out the Swiss guys got out their Vodka and we all had a shot (nasty!) before retiring to bed.
The beds are comfy, we had one side of the cabin – Lisa on the top bunk and me on the bottom. The train was surprisingly quiet and the rocking motion soon sent me to sleep. I woke a few times but we all slept till about 09:30 and I felt quite fresh. First sight out of the window was endless forest with plenty of snow on the ground, something that would be a common sight for the journey.
After a ‘wet wipe’ shower breakfast was a cereal bar for me and instant porridge for Lisa – the carriage has a water boiler (Samovar) from which you can help yourself for boiling water for tea, cuppa-soup, etc… In the day the bottom bunks fold up and become the seats, with only 4 in the cabin there is enough space to get comfortable. Passing the time reading, talking, playing cards, writing this blog on my iPhone (hence the detail!), or just watching the scenery outside go by – which I liked to do.
Around midday we made a stop at Balyezino 1194km from Moscow, here the locomotive was changed (not sure why) and we got out to stretch our legs on the platform where several traders were waiting to sell food such as bread, smoked fish, crisps, and even cooked meals and of course vodka, beer, and water.
The train was hot, comfortable enough to wear shorts and t-shirt, outside it was near 0 degrees but even so it was nice to breathe in some fresh air. Through a combination of pointing, finger counting, and some bad Russian (Lisa is doing well, I just know spah-see-bah = thank you) we stocked up on some snacks, bread, water, and beer.
4 hours or so later we stopped at the city of Perm (no hair jokes!), which looked very Eastern block with drab looking tower blocks. We got off for a breather and grabbed the chance to take a photo with our attendant (Borat) who seemed to enjoy the attention.
There was only one trader here, but we were still stocked up, the Swiss guys bought pot mash complete with dodgy looking (dog food like) meat. Here the clock went forward two hours from Moscow time to GMT +5, and as the train rolled on an hour or so later darkness fell at 21:30ish.
It was time to check out the restaurant car, which had a big list of meals but it seemed only a few were available – we went for the safe option of pancakes. Plenty of beer was available though, so we enjoyed a few if those with the Swiss and Dutch guys, there were also some English passengers there who were living it up in first class (2-berth cabins). The restaurant car shut at 11pm and they had to kick us out, but shortly after we made a stop in Yekaterinburg where we got out for a photo.
Soon after leaving Yekaterinburg the border between Europe and Asia was due (a Russian passenger help us to know when) so although it was dark we lined the corridor with our faces pressed to the glass for a glimpse of the obelisk that is the marker. When it came we literally saw it as a grey shape flashing by but were happy and celebrated with a Vodka.
We were still on Moscow time so weren’t ready for bed until 2am (midnight in Moscow), but then we slept through until nearly midday as we had gone forward another hour to 3 hours ahead of Moscow (GMT +6). Soon after waking we stopped at Omsk where from some Kiosks on the platform we bought water, bread, and popcorn – surprisingly it was warm outside.
The train rolled on through the afternoon through vast plains of marshland with what looked like silver birch tree forests. We made a stop at Barabinsk (3040km from Moscow) where the sun was shining and the traders sold ice cream to the passengers, although the Russians were more interested in the smoked fish, and it was pleasant to stand in the sun for a while. As darkness fell some young Russians invited us into their cabin for some Vodka, and at one point there were 12 or so people in the cabin, including some Danish girls who had recently joined the train. The Russians are very hospitable abs insist on sharing their drinks and food. Vodka is drank straight with some cheese or sausage after every shot, and once a bottle is opened it is finished – thankfully there were enough of us to mean we only had one shot each! It was a bit of a party, which went on until the early hours – the Russians only spoke basic English so communication was via lots of pointing and repetition. It was funny being the only Englishman and hearing people from carious countries conversing in English. At a late night stop in Novosibirsk, a city of over 1 million people and the capital of Western Siberia, lots of people joined the train and our carriage was now pretty much full.
Next day I woke at 10ish due to the loud station announcer at the station (Krasnoyarsk i think) where we had stopped. I quickly got dressed and got some fresh air, as the air conditioner had made me very dry, it was warm enough to be on the platform in a t-shirt which was nice. After leaving the station for the train wound through some hills for a few hours with small wooden houses set amongst pine trees, it was the best scenery so far. There only were muddy tracks and I didn’t see much signs of life, it made me wonder what these people do as there seemed little industry, not even farming. There were several more short stops through the afternoon, and around 4375km from Moscow, we made a stop at Llanskaya where stocked up on the platform with Instant noodles, fried bread with filing of meat and veg (a bit like a fried pasty), small cake/biscuit things, and a few beers. Also around here we moved another hour ahead (GMT +7).
The atmosphere on the train was nice, even though we had now been on the train for 3 days everyone was happy and we enjoyed chatting with our fellow travellers. Everyone liked the stops as it was a chance to stretch legs and also buy supplies, which were shared around and quickly consumed once back on the train. The train rolled on with blue skies above, whilst the scenery was back to endless forest – I made this short video blog.
Late in the afternoon we made a stop at Tushky, 4516km from Moscow, it was only a 5 min stop though so we didn’t get off – with only 600km it felt like we were nearly in Irkutsk. The further east we went the less snow on the ground, and it was quite warm outside.
At a later evening stop Erik, one of the Dutch guys, nearly missed the train trying to buy Vodka having to sprint back to the train just before it departed – with only two trains a week you don’t want to get left behind! We finished the remaining beers with the Swiss guys and turned in for an early night as we were scheduled to arrive in Irkutsk at 06:16. The train arrived right on time, which seemed a good feat considering the distance we had covered, and we walked more than 10m from the train for the first time in 4 days – nice!
After saying goodbye to the Swiss guys we shared a minibus with the Dutch guys to the village of Listvyanka, which lies on the south shores of the giant Lake Baikal – about 60km south of Irkutsk. Having left the train at 06:16 we were in Listvyanka at 08:00, and it was quite cold – the lake was frozen – and everything seemed to be shut including the guesthouse we had booked ahead. After a bit of knocking the lady owner came to the door in her dressing gown, but was very welcoming and we soon climbed into a warm bed for a kip until lunchtime 🙂
In the afternoon we had a walk through the village, which is picturesque with lots of wooden houses, to the fish market and a few km along the shore of the lake. The lake is the worlds deepest lake at 1637m deep, and it is estimated to contain 20’000 cubic kilometers of freshwater – approx. 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies. In the midday sun the temperature rose to about 15 degrees , which surprised us and seemed wierd with the lake being frozen. The ice was apparently though still up to 1m thick, although at river inlet to Irkutsk it was already melted and we could here the sound of the ice melting across the lake. We gingerly walked a couple of meters out onto the lake for some photos.
Listvyanka is only a small place so we bumped into many of the backpackers who were on the train with us, and met up with Erik and Vivien (part of the Dutch guys) and the Swiss guys (on a day trip from Irkutsk) for the walk up to the hill above the village for a scenic view across the lake.
We spent two nights in Listvyanka, where we sampled the lake’s fish – the Omul, which was smoked and a bit like Mackarel, nice. It was very dark in the village at night, and with most houses having a dog barking outside it was a little eery. It was a lovely place to relax and breathe some fresh air for a few days after the confines of the train. There were some beautiful sunsets as you can see in this video – sorry didn’t realise I was chewing gum at the time!
Today we caught the bus back to Irkutsk, and after a bit of a stressful cross city trip in a minibus from the bus station (we had no idea where we were going and no one spoke English) we made it to our hostel near the train station where we need to be at 5am tomorrow for the train to Mongolia.
Irkutsk is very busy, smoggy and dusty so we are glad we are only here for one night, we will have a quick look around the city this afternoon, but are looking forward to riding the train through the deserts of Mongolia. We are due to arrive in the countries capital, Ulaanbatar, on Sunday morning, I will update more from there – until then you can see our Trans-Siberian photos here.