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A Tale of Two Trains – Part 2

The concluding part of Paul Craven’s blog post, documenting his Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express tour from May 2014.

Listvyanka stretches along the shores of the lake and into a couple of valleys. It is popular with Russians and a good base from which to explore the area. The alternative taxi service here is by hovercraft. I arrived on a dreary cold grey afternoon and the next day I awoke to a blanket of white snow. The colder weather was unexpected, but it gave my surroundings a sense of atmosphere. My wooden hut accommodation in Listvianka was quaint and very simple, yet the floor of my room was heated and the electric heater worked a treat. It does not matter where you are in Russia, they know how to keep warm, excessively so sometimes. In most towns the authorities determine when the heating will come on and go off. Once off it does not come on again until the following Autumn. A hangover from Soviet organisation. Several days before it had been +20’c and now we were into minus temperatures.

My first journey on Russian Railways was a short 8 hour overnight journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. This is a convenient train as most clients eat before boarding and then arrive in time for breakfast at a hotel. The only thing to think about are the toilet arrangements. Two Western style toilets are located in each carriage. Most clients travel in either Coupe (shared 4 berth) or Deluxe (2 berth) and not in the open Plaskart (6 berth with no compartment walls). These days the carriage attendants sell light bites, chocolate bars, crisps, noodles, provide tea or rent you the glass to make your own. A “samovar” of boiling water is always on hand. The train is also equipped with electrical sockets so no problem in charging mobile telephones, iPads or camera batteries, just bring a universal adaptor.

Leaving Ulan Ude for Vladivostok meant some planning, I thought anyway. This was a non-stop journey of 3 days and 3 nights. I packed what I did not need and stored it under my bunk (I had a lower berth in a shared 4 berth compartment) in one bag and had a small bag for changes of clothes and another for food I purchased in the market the day before my departure. Part of the reason for taking the Russian Railways was to experience what had changed in the 25 years since I had first done a small section of the journey.

The train left at 04.17 in the morning. The thing about travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway is that you pass through 7 time zones between Moscow and Vladivostok so you are continually moving your clock forward by an hour almost every day. To keep things in check all trains run on Moscow time. A timetable on the carriage wall lists all station stops, the duration of the stop (anywhere between 1 minute and 22 minutes) and the Time + the number of hours from Moscow or minus if travelling East to West. At the end of the carriage a display gives you Moscow time, your carriage number and the temperature, usually a pleasant 21-24 C.

There is an etiquette about travelling by train. Travellers will board in their suits, uniforms or their finest clothes. Once on board and settled in they change into their train wear. Perhaps shorts and T-shirt or a tracksuit. Adidas preferred for men and a velour two piece travel suit for women. Before disembarking they get dress into their finest once more and off they go.

I met with the train engineer after failing to make the carriage attendant understand that I was interested in taking a shower. He spoke very good English and had been travelling, I think, back and forth on the Trans-Siberian for the last 8 years living on the train when away from home and with only perhaps a 5 day break between journeys during the busy Summer period. I had heard that there were showers on board and I wanted to see for myself what was offered and how it worked. I was on Train 2 (West to East), the best train in the country (Train 1 goes East to West). I was shown the shower. It was a good size with a curtain and housed in a good size room with an ironing board and a bench but interestingly no sink. I was warned that you only got a limited number of litres of water before it stopped worked so I rushed not wanting to be stranded covered in soap and having to hail the non-English speaking attendant. Pressure was good, I did not run out of water and for about £2.45 I was again clean. Adjacent to the shower was a compartment for disabled use with an extra wide door and a lift to assist with wheelchairs on and off the train. My final task, at the request of a client who I have booked on the train, was to investigate cold storage for medicines. The engineer helped me again. He told me that the restaurant could probably store them but in any event each attendant had in their compartment a small refrigerator and this was probably good to use. Diabetics are catered for too.

Arriving in Vladivostok felt like an achievement. Following the Pacific coast on the last section into the city said “this is the end, there is nowhere else to go”. I had expected the train to consist of many carriages and be full of people. Most, I guess, opt for the Trans-Siberian through Mongolia. The train was not long, was not crowded and so felt special in a way because so few people were doing this section. Vladivostok, for a long time a forbidden city, was the end. Built on a peninsula it has a small historic centre making it easy to explore whilst on the hills that stretch away in all directions, West anyway, huge (I mean huge) residential blocks of flats cover every square foot. I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge in bright sunshine providing excellent views of the town. The next day a swirling mist hung over the bay and the bridge was not visible at all.

A fitting end to a wonderful journey along the World’s longest railway.

This blog post was written by Paul Craven from Steppes Travel (Visit Website), who travelled on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express in May, 2014.

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