Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 3: Irkutsk to Tomsk

We made many mistakes today, and learned an important lesson. When traveling by train in Russia, the timetable always tells you what time the train will arrive at the station and what time it will depart. Make sure you plan to get to the station in time for the train’s arrival, not departure. That is what the locals do. It can take a lot of time to find the correct wagon, line up to get your ticket checked, and struggle onboard. Just ignore the posted departure time. The arrival time is more important.

Of course, we planned to get to the station in time for a 10:30 am departure. That was mistake #1—we should’ve planned to get there earlier. We left around 9:30, thinking we’d take the tram. That was mistake #2. We hadn’t yet taken a tram in Irkutsk, and while we knew which number to take, we couldn’t actually figure out how to board. We couldn’t find any stops. Trams run on electric lines down the middle of the street, but it appeared that there was no place for passengers to wait. Maybe we were just supposed to flag them down? We walked along the tram line to the train station, thinking that at some point, we’d see a tram stop and we could hop on. It never happened. It turned out that the stops are posted by white signs dangling overhead. Passengers are supposed to wait on the sidewalk near the white signs, and walk across traffic when the tram arrives.

Our time was running out, and although we’d walked most of the way to the station, we decided to take a taxi the rest of the way. Mistake #3. There is no such thing as Red Top Cab in Russia; all taxi drivers are independent. You just stand on the side of the road and flag down a car, negotiate a fare, and go. There’s no way to tell which cars might pick you up so you just have to wave at all of them as if they were taxis. When we finally got someone to stop, the driver told us 200 rubles to the station. Knowing that we were fairly close by, we said 100. He left. Oops. The second guy accepted a fare of 150. We got in. It turned out that we were only about a kilometer from the station—which we could’ve walked in the time it took us to hail a cab.

But we had time. We had twelve minutes, and now we were in the station—I was feeling optimistic. The only hurdle left was to obtain the actual ticket. Mistake #4: we should’ve picked it up earlier. We had a printout of our e-confirmation, which we had to exchange. Supposedly this can be done at automated kiosks or at the ticket windows. The woman behind the glass, however, was not inclined to give us the ticket. Without a word, she pointed straight ahead. We wouldn’t be deterred—we needed that ticket! “We are tourists,” Bob pleaded in Russian. She pointed again and started helping the customer behind us.

Okay. She must be pointing us in the direction of the ticket machine. We headed the way she’d indicated, and found a room with several different machines. We checked them all, but there was nothing mentioning tickets. They were all ATMs or bill-pay kiosks. Asking the woman working in the souvenir stall; she didn’t know where to go either. Now we were down to five minutes. We decided to just go to the train and try to board. The platforms were empty; as I mentioned, all the Russians show up early so they have time to settle in, put their luggage away, etc. The first carriage attendant (provodnitsa) we saw was surprised to see the stragglers, and even more surprised that we didn’t speak Russian. She seemed sympathetic, and pointed us in the direction of our wagon. We ran as fast as we could, but the provodnitsa in our carriage flat-out refused us. Yes, technically the printout did say we couldn’t use that document as a ticket, but couldn’t we just get on, and sort the whole thing out later? It did have our names and passport numbers printed on it, so we could prove it belonged to us. Maybe we could get off the next time we had a extended stop and pick up the ticket.

Nyet. I guess that was wishful thinking on my part.

As the train pulled away, the sympathetic provodnitsa waved goodbye to us. We waved back half-heartedly.

We walked out of the station dejectedly, and took the tram back to our hostel. Checking online, we found that there was another train leaving for Tomsk that very night. The only tickets available were second-class, which cost almost double the third-class tickets, but we couldn’t bear the idea of staying in Irkutsk until third-class tickets would be available. We bought the second-class tickets and printed out the confirmation. Finally, we did something right: Bob took the printout down to the station to obtain our tickets. He returned an hour and a half later. Apparently, the mythical ticket machines were in a small room on the second floor of Irkutsk station, on the complete opposite end from the ticket windows. That station is particularly long, so it’s quite a hike from one end to the other. Every other Russian station we passed through had the ticket kiosks next to the ticket windows. Only Irkutsk station is so poorly planned.

We spent the afternoon sulking in the hostel common area. At some point, an Australian girl came by (she’d just come back from Olkhon Island) and we got to chatting. She was also headed to Tomsk and when she heard that train availability was limited, she decided to try to get on the same train as us. We bumped into her later in the station. As it turned out, she was in the same carriage as we were, although not in the same compartment. Her name was Bec, she was in the Australian Navy, and she was friendly and easy to talk to. Our moods started to improve as we headed out to the platform. A tiny woman in uniform waited at our wagon. She couldn’t have been any taller than 4’ 6”. She checked our tickets and then told us something in Russian, gesturing towards the interior of the train.

We boarded the train. A slightly overweight man was standing at the top of the steps, smiling. “Do you speak English?”

Wow. That was unexpected. “Yes.”

“That’s my FAVORITE language!” the man exclaimed.

We smiled back and went to find our compartment. The one our provodnitsa had gestured to had its door open, but when we looked in, we noticed something was wrong. There were only two berths. Second-class compartments always have four berths. This was the provodnitsa’s compartment—we couldn’t stay here. I looked at our tickets again. Sure enough, we had berths number 37 and 38. Nine four-berth compartments per carriage… that’s only thirty-six. We weren’t sure where we were supposed to go, but we knew if we made ourselves comfortable in here, the provodnitsa would come and scold us.

She never did. We asked the friendly, English-speaking guy what had happened, and he just said that sometimes, especially if the train is nearly full, Russian Railways will make the provodnitsa’s carriage available. He told us we were lucky. We wondered where she would sleep.  Bob in provodnitsa's compartment

We settled in, happy to have a private compartment. It wasn’t long before the friendly guy stuck his head in the doorway and invited us to come over. There were two other people in his compartment: Bec and an older Russian man.

“My name is Archie,” he announced. “My mother named me Arthur. But everyone calls me Archie.” He introduced us to the older man sitting next to him, who didn’t speak any English but seemed amused by the three foreigners now sitting in his compartment. They were both from Vladivostok, and were traveling to Tomsk to undergo heart surgery. They’d been on the train for three days already. As soon as we sat down, they started showing us that famous Russian hospitality: offering us food and drink. Pomegranates, bread, cheese, cucumbers, bottled water from Lake Baikal: “The best water in Russia,” opined Archie. He told us about his hometown of Vladivostok, showing us photos on his cameraphone, and insisted that next time we come to Russia, we should visit him there. I asked about his family; he told us proudly about his two daughters and their accomplishments in school. He taught us some Russian phrases. He sang us a song about a horse. He gave us more food, until we couldn’t eat any more. The tiny provodnitsa stopped by and asked us to sign her guestbook. The day ended much more happily than it had begun.

The next morning, I got up to use the bathroom, and as I stumbled back to the compartment, Archie stopped me. He grabbed something from his bag and thrust it into my hand. “Yogurt,” he stated. I looked down at it. It was mixed berry flavor. I thanked him profusely. Returning to Bob, I handed him the bottle. “It’s begun,” I said.

Most passengers on the Trans-Sib spend their days eating, doing Sudoku, and looking out of the train window, either in the compartments or out in the hallway.IMG_2647

I never tired of watching the scenery go by. It was so different from eastern Siberia and Olkhon Island. The sandy expanses gave way to pastoral meadows and rolling green hills. I was surprised to see so many flowers:

Pink flowers in Siberia

And vast birch forests:Birch trees, Siberia

If the rest of the world ever runs out of trees, I’m sure we could just ask Russia for some. Based on my experience looking out the train window, I think they have approximately a jillion gazillion trees.

At the major stations, the train usually stops for 30-40 minutes, and all the passengers file off in search of fresh air, food or cigarettes. At Krasnoyarsk station, Archie insisted on paying for our bread, chocolate, and yogurt. We tried to give him some money, but he insisted that we were his guests. “If I come to your country, you can pay for me,” he said.

The larger stations, mostly completed during the Soviet times, are usually extremely ornate. They boast murals and carvings, marble floors and columns, and vaulted ceilings. Krasnoyarsk had a fabulous mosaic of Lenin and comrades just outside. Lenin mosaic, Krasnoyarsk

Back on the train, we resumed staring out the window. The further west we traveled, the more houses we saw. Again, a lot of these are dacha (summer houses.)Siberian village

The train reached Taiga station around midnight. Taiga is on the official Trans-Siberian line but Tomsk is not; it’s on a branch line. According to the timetable, we had a seven-hour stop here. I had thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t; the train just sat on the tracks all night. Since we’d spent so much on the tickets (about $100 each,) I was happy to have an extra nights’ accommodation included. In the early morning, the train puffed up the tracks 80km to Tomsk.

We said goodbye to Archie in Tomsk station, wishing him the best of luck with his surgery. Sometimes I believe things really do happen for a reason. While I was mad about wasting the money, if we hadn’t missed our first train, we never would have met him.  Katie and Archie

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