…Wherein we venture into the world of third-class Russian trains. Will we be drugged, stabbed in our sleep, or asked to traffic Russian nesting dolls? Hopefully this does not turn out like the Woody Harrelson movie…
From Beijing to Tomsk, we traveled second class, but from Tomsk afterward we had only purchased third-class tickets. Known as platskartny in Russian, these carriages were very similar to the overnight trains we took in China. One wagon can hold 54 people, partitioned into nine groups of six.
Along one wall are bays containing four beds and a table. It looks a lot like second class, but without the door. Along the other wall are the lateral berths, meaning they are parallel to the aisle. The lower bed can fold into a table during the day. These are the least popular berths because they afford zero privacy. Passengers who sleep here often complain about being woken up whenever anyone walks by (because their heads are about six inches away from the aisle.) On Russian Railways’ website, it’s possible to choose your own berth, but since we booked our tickets only about one or two weeks in advance, pretty much only the lateral berths were available. (We were traveling in summer- what are you gonna do?) Personally, though, I liked these berths. They are perfect for couples.
The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian guidebook makes it sound like the train ride is just one nonstop vodka-fueled party. Maybe if you end up in a compartment with a bunch of soldiers, that’s possible, but most passengers were calm and quiet. The majority seemed to be women traveling alone, young couples, and the occasional family. There are so many people in platskartny that no one makes small talk. People tend to keep to themselves. Upon realizing that we were foreigners, one or two women tried to chat with us, but Bob’s Russian skills are very limited (and mine non-existent.) We told them our names and where we were going, and they the same, and that was that.
The ride from Tomsk to Yekaterinburg is about thirty-six hours, the same as our past three rides. We did try the dining car on our first ride, but found that there’s not much available and it’s pretty overpriced, anyway. So we self-cater for all of our train journeys, which is what the Russian passengers do too. The supermarket situation in Tomsk was much better than in Irkutsk, and we were able to stock up on various interesting instant meals. I tried a cup of instant borscht.
The Russians tend to eat more picnic-style food, which always includes bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, sausage, and sometimes cheese and boiled eggs. I’m getting pretty sick of Cup Noodle, so I think from the next train ride, we’re going to shift to healthier fare. If you don’t have eating utensils, your provodnitsa can lend cutlery and mugs, featuring interesting Soviet designs:
And if you need to buy more food, that can be taken care of at any large station. As we move west, the platform-food situation has improved immensely. In addition to sodas and potato chips, vendors also sell the local specialties, which in this town was dried fish (see the woman in the back, holding some in her left arm.)
You might think that the scenery would be getting boring by now. Really, it’s not. Besides the forests and meadows, there are small villages, big cities, and many branch lines, many of which go to still-closed cities. During WWII, when the fate of Moscow and St. Petersburg hung in the balance, all Russian factories and important research facilities were moved east of the Ural mountains. The area remains very industrial. Mining is also very big out here. While most of the scenery is still unspoiled, there are many more indicators of human presence as we move west. Most interesting to me are the Russian graveyards, which are always tucked into the trees.
About twelve hours after departure from Tomsk, we were passing through the ubiquitous birch forests when I noticed some snow on the ground. Okay, it wasn’t snow; we’re not that far north. But it looked like snow. It was actually a cloud layer, very close to the ground. I have no idea what caused this effect, but it was beautiful.
We are far enough north that the sun sets incredibly late. It’s been two weeks since summer solstice, so the days are actually getting shorter already, but I took this picture around midnight.
It’s a trying journey. At times, I’m frustrated with Russian Railways, get tired of eating instant noodles, or feel desperately in need of a shower. But even after nearly 150 hours on the train, I’m definitely not bored.