The Trans-Siberian Express

The rain lashed down in Moscow, and snow turned to slush beneath our feet as we hobbled, saddled with not only our rucksacks but also a week’s supply of super noodles, beer and vodka (oh, and some Smash), to Yaroslavsky station where we were to board the Trans-Siberian train.
We practically fell into our cabin, our 8×6′ home for the next 7 days. Naturally we’d been a little concerned about who we’d be sharing a berth with and were pleased to see that, whoever they were, we’d beaten them there – to the best bunks and storage areas. We then had a nervous wait to find out who’d be our room-mates for the next week. The rest of the carriage was filling up, but with 10 minutes to go we were still alone. Could this mean…? Five minutes to go: we sat patiently, checking our watches. Still no sign of anyone. The train pulled away…we had the whole cabin to ourselves. Oh thank you benevolent train gods! We danced around the cabin and cracked open the vodka.

Shopping. Check.

Daylight woke us with a snowy scene rushing past our window – we were so excited! Through the ever-so-slight hangover we began to hear a Babel’s tower of voices float in from the corridor. Sharing our carriage were a group of boisterous Swedes, a lone British girl leaving no country unturned (even North Korea) in her quest to see Asia , a thoughtful Japanese guy, a burly Russian with a dazzling set of gold teeth, a quiet Italian, a Mongolian trader and his wife…and Bruce.

The ‘Guards’.

Bruce was a chirpy Chinaman on his way back from studying in the Ukraine. In one of his guises he had worked translating English business documents into Chinese and every now and again his language slipped into flowery legalese. Our first encounter with Bruce ended with his explaining why the London Olympics were such a failure, he backed off when he saw we were getting annoyed, “I apologise unreservedly if I have offended you, I meant it as a detraction only on your government.” There was no way we could stay annoyed, the guy was priceless – in more ways than one. He could speak Russian, Chinese and English, and loved nothing more than talking. He’d think nothing of pulling open a shut cabin door and shouting “Hello, how are you!?” to the occupants, anything to instigate a conversation. And to be fair, usually an interesting one.

Cold enough.

An environment developed which is not unlike that of a prison; there was nowhere to go, supplies, electricity and favours from the guards could only be obtained by those in the know, perhaps with a little bribe. A carriage hierarchy began to assert itself. The guards were at the top (not, incidentally, the miserly provodnitsas we had feared but a gang of smiley Chinese instead), who would often importune us with requests to change up a dubious $100 note, and who had access to cooking facilities, power for charging electronic devices, and control over the heating. Next came the Mongolian trader, who had clearly done this journey many times (as evinced by the taping up of the windows in his cabin to prevent drafts and his ability to conjure up milk and bread), and next Bruce who was the only person able to communicate with everyone aboard. The Russian mafiosi seemed content to attempt to out-smoke the train on his way to Beijing, and the rest of us were all travellers.

So how do you spend your time on the Trans-Sib? Plenty of sleeping (Amy’s chosen Olympic sport), reading, talking (mainly with Bruce), thinking of ways to make super-noodles interesting, oh – and plenty of vodka drinking. Friday night was vodka night (even more so than the others), so Saturday morning was hangover day. Another night the Mongolian trader invited us to dinner in his cabin where the enterprising soul had managed to cook a chicken – we didn’t ask any questions, just wolfed it down!

Vodka Night! The chilli-powder vodka soon warmed us up.

Prison comparisons notwithstanding, it was an amazing experience. The backdrop to it all was, of course, Siberia. An endless snowy panorama comprising scraggly birch and pine tree copses, barren tundra and taiga, rivers frozen in their tracks and grim cities, one so abject it prompted Amy to ask “has Ross Kemp been here?”

Gradually, as we neared Mongolia, the snow lessened and the landscape began to change. Hills grew in the distance and we passed a lake so frozen that cars were whizzing around on its surface. Soon we were in the Gobi desert, a vast openness peppered with gangs of wild horses, cattle, even camels. This was our last night and we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in the newly attached Mongolian dining car, where we sat and watched the sun set over the plains.

Dinner with a view.

We awoke in China to find ourselves passing through an industrial wasteland, filthy with rubbish and hazy with smog; chimneys belching in the background, scorched earth in the fore. It was somehow still quite captivating but happily gave way to some pretty serious mountains which the train bored through.

A great trip but nobody was upset to get off at Beijing. Well, except Bruce.

Just arrived at Beijing. Can you guess which one is Bruce?


After landing at Moscow Domodevedo we took (another) train to Petrovsky station where we shuffled about for a bit, realised we had no hope of figuring out the Metro, especially laden as we were, and opted for a cab to our hostel instead.

The cabbie had real trouble finding the hostel, eventually leaving us in the car park of a block of flats, gesturing at a nondescript door and answering “Da, da” to our questioning stares before snatching the money and driving off.

We stood bewildered in the nighttime snow for some moments and then tentatively approached the door and, all the while exchanging this-can’t-be-it looks, pressed the buzzer. We were greeted by a gap-toothed babushka and herded into a council-estate lift which rumbled up to the 6th floor. Still no sign or any indication that this was a hostel, we rang door 204 and stepped back. A woman answered, brusquely waved us in and told us to take off our shoes. Amy turned to me and mouthed “I’m scared”…

But everything worked out in the end. I mean, we are pretty much staying in someone’s flat; but its a well kept flat and is so central that we have a view of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and we can easily walk to the city centre.

Christ the Saviour – we could see this from our bedroom window.

Moscow is fantastic. It’s enormity is bewildering. The city is centred around the Kremlin, a collection of state buildings and golden-domed churches encased by a huge red wall that connects twenty fairy-tale turrets. It sits, broad and imposing, along the bank of the Moscow river and is flanked on one side by Red Square. Red Square is something special. At the one end the Moscow Town Hall and the Resurrection Gate conjure up those grainy black-and-white images of soldiers marching and tanks rolling by beneath; and then at the other St Basil’s Cathedral. We both agreed that there is no other building quite like St Basil’s, with its multicoloured onion domes and tent spires seemingly made from painted porcelain, and were honestly awe-struck.

Red Square at night…shepherd’s delight?

St Basil’s.

Moscow is also strange – familiar yet strange. On the one hand it has all the hallmarks of a big European city but then the Asian-esque churches, the golden cupolas, the wide boulevards and of course the funny writing, combine to give it a drop of Eastern promise. The language barrier is insurmountable (nobody speaks English, and why should they?), and the Cyrillic alphabet takes some deciphering. It is also ridiculously expensive – using the (inter-?)nationally recognised yardstick of how expensive a city is: a pint of lager is about £8!

Peter the Great (probably)

It’s the scale of the place that makes it so fascinating. Apart from the Kremlin and Red Square, the Bolshoi and the Lubyansky are monstrous, the Soviet buildings even more so, and most buildings are as wide as they are tall. At night the whole lot is bottom-lit which gives it a spooky, Gothic air, and makes the Kremlin seem like the lair of some evil fairy-tale King.

The Kremlin

In case you hadn’t guessed, we were quite taken with Moscow. Mostly we just walked around gawping, through the city, through Gorky park where we couldn’t quite work up the motivation to join the hundreds of ice-skaters, through the Kremlin – which actually is far more interesting from the outside, through Red Square and through the plush shopping districts. We took a tour of the Metro (spelt MetPo), the underground stations being marvels of architecture in themselves; some hanging with chandeliers, others with columnar arches and some yet with gilded frescoes on the platform walls.

This, believe it or not, is a ‘MetPo’ platform.

Tomorrow we board the Trans-Siberian express. Next stop China.

Another mild winter’s day in Moscow.