Eating Eastern Europe

Maybe it’s because we are genetically predisposed to it, but eastern European food really agreed with us. Perhaps it’s because our favorite vegetables feature prominently (mine is mushrooms; Bob’s is potatoes.) Or maybe it’s just that good. I mean really. Look at this: Polish buffet dinner

This is mall food in Poland. I am so jealous.

European food is always served in courses, so I should go through one by one. Eastern European salads are not beds of lettuce with some cucumber and tomato on top—there are endless varieties of pickled salads, coleslaw-type salads with mayonnaise, shredded carrot salad, potato salad, and my personal favorite, beetroot salad. Yes, seriously. You can see it in the photo, wedged between the fries and the cucumber-dill salad.

Ukrainian buffet dinner

Clockwise from top left: sour cherry dumplings, potato dumplings, roasted eggplant and tomato salad, and borscht

The next course is soup, so let’s talk borscht. I got to try two types of borscht: green and red. The green one is made with sorrel and the red one is made with beets. Borscht is not Russian in origin, but Ukrainian, and each country in the region seems to have their own variation.

Of course there are more soups: one Belarusian woman I met told me that her mother cooks soup every day. We tried solyanka, rasonyik, tomato cabbage soup, chicken soup…. All were good, but my favorite was rasonyik, made with pork, barley, potatoes, carrot, onion, and cucumber pickles.

Main dishes tend to be meat- or fish-based. When we stayed at Lake Baikal, we ate grilled fish every day, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Russia doesn’t do seafood, and I didn’t find the meat dishes very exciting (hamburg steak, grilled chicken, etc.) so when possible, I opted for dumplings or just stuck to soup, salad, and bread. Bob is still disappointed he never found a restaurant serving beef stroganoff. In northwestern Ukraine and southern Poland, though, things were better; we really enjoyed Galician chicken pot pie and bigos. When cooking at home, we usually went to the supermarket and picked out a few random kielbasa. We were never disappointed.

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

The dumplings were probably my favorite part. Russian dumplings are filled with meat and are called pelmeni. Ukrainian dumplings are filled with vegetables or fruit and are called vareniki. The designation doesn’t mean much; both types are available in both countries. In Poland, all dumplings are called pierogi and come with many different fillings. “Russian” pierogis are filled with cheese, potato, and onion. The funny thing is that in Russia, that combination would definitely not be regarded as Russian. When serving dumplings, don’t forget plenty of butter and sour cream.  The savory ones are more well-known in the US, so the fruit-filled ones were a delicious surprise. Sweet dumplings are usually filled with sour cherries, but we were lucky enough to visit during blueberry season. The berries were tiny and the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.   Blueberry dumplings in Poland In a slightly upscale restaurant, I had them with a white chocolate sauce and powdered sugar, but at home, we ate them with sour cream and coarse granulated sugar. Heaven.Blueberry dumplings in Ukraine

When it comes to sweets, you only need one word in Russia: bliny. In two weeks, we visited a bliny chain called Teremok a total of five times. They do savory blinys too—mushrooms and sour cream is my favorite—but the sweet ones are really, really good. The best ones: apricot and tovorog (a kind of Russian sweet cottage cheese) or mixed berry. Teremok bliny

In one restaurant in Ukraine, we had something that was called baked bliny:

Baked bliny, Ukraine

Yes, that's more sour cream

Being of central and eastern European descent myself, a lot of these dishes were familiar to me. My ancestors all immigrated to the States over 100 years ago, so I’m not particularly close to any European traditions, but when it comes to food, I guess old habits die hard. The flavors and ingredients were very similar to the cuisine my mom cooked when I was growing up. It’s the kind of food that isn’t often served in restaurants—it’s not haute cuisine—but in the home, it really shines. Thanks to couchsurfing, we enjoyed several home-cooked meals while in the region. Our Ukrainian hosts took us to meet their grandparents, who welcomed us like their own grandchildren and stuffed us silly with great food. Since it was just an informal meal at home, they didn’t serve courses, but rather just laid everything out on the table and told us to eat up. In this photo, Bob is reaching for a crepe-like roll that’s filled with chopped mushrooms. It’s eaten with a mushroom cream sauce. For eastern Europeans, there is no such thing as too many mushrooms.Lunch is Ukraine

The potato-looking things on the center top are actually potato dumplings—kind of like gnocchi but much bigger. They’re filled with cottage cheese and can also be eaten with a cream sauce. Our couchsurfing host told us that this was one of her most favorite foods, so her grandma always makes it when she comes to visit. This spread is nothing, by the way; this was just lunch. Apparently, on Christmas Eve, they do a twelve-course dinner.

Eastern Europe is not generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations, but if you come with a big appetite and a liking for dairy products, they will never let you leave hungry.

Trans-Mongolian Railway: How We Did It

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this particular part of our journey, so I thought I’d write a little about it. Although St. Petersburg is not officially part of the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian, most foreign travelers include it on a visit to Russia (as well they should, it’s a fabulous city) so I’ve mentioned it in this how-to.

How we did it: We traveled completely independently, with the exception of a four-day countryside tour in Mongolia. We booked train tickets online using Russian Railways’ rzd.ru, which is only in Russian, but this website translates everything and has a helpful step-by-step tutorial with screenshots. The other website we used a lot was Everbrite’s site, which gives lots of info on all things Russia and CIS. Unfortunately Mongolian and Chinese tickets cannot be booked online, only through travel agents (very expensively,) but even in summer we didn’t have any problem buying these tickets a week or two in advance. I would only recommend using a travel agent if your plans are completely inflexible. The Ulaan Baatar- Beijing route is the most underserved portion of the route, and travel agencies know this: they charge at least double what you’d pay in-country!

Accommodation: We stayed in hostels/ guesthouses in Ulaan Baatar, Irkutsk, Olkhon Island, and Suzdal, and couchsurfed in Tomsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. We almost always booked ahead on hostelbookers.com. Russian hostels are typically in converted apartments, and some don’t have signs (those are “secret hostels,” and they avoid paying taxes this way.) If in doubt, try to arrange a train station pickup. They can be quite hard to find otherwise. Couchsurfing in Russia was fantastic. Our hosts were really friendly and helped us a lot with language difficulties, finding supermarkets, and buying onward tickets.

Food: We self-catered on the train rides. Every major station has some stalls selling instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, and other things that can be made with hot water. Supermarkets in larger cities (try the Central Market in Irkutsk, Kupets in Yekaterinburg) sell a great variety of Russian salads, breads, cheeses, and other things for train picnics. In the cities, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, we ate at Soviet-style canteens, which are just like the K&W Cafeteria back home, except in Russia they like to put mayonnaise in your soup. No language skills are required- just point at what you want. A full meal at one of these places, with soup, salad, bread main course, dessert, and a drink costs $10-12. (And honestly, a full meal is really enough for two people.) Teremok, a bliny chain, was another favorite of ours. Sit-down restaurants with table service tend to be pricey in Russia, especially in Moscow and St. Pete, although many places offer good-value “business lunches,” which normally include two or three courses and bread.

Russian supermarket

Russian supermarkets even sell beer on tap

The infamous Russian visa: I’m quite sure the authorities want to do anything possible to frustrate would-be visitors and force them into going on guided package tours. Tourists are supposed to make all their hotel bookings in advance and obtain “visa support” in the form of an invitation letter from one of these hotels. We bought fake visa support online from www.waytorussia.net. Then we had to wait to apply. Visas normally aren’t issued more than three months in advance of travel (although consulates around the world vary; check Everbrite’s site for updates and don’t be afraid to call different consulates.) Finally, each embassy/ consulate only deals with citizens and legal residents of the country in which it’s situated. According to the Russian rules, the minimum amount of time required to be considered “resident” in a country is 90 days. Malaysia automatically grants US citizens 90-day visitor’s visas, so luckily we were able to obtain our Russian visa in Kuala Lumpur.

After jumping through all these hoops to get the visa, you’d think that the nonsense would be over—after all, we were basically begging the authorities to be allowed to go to their country and spend lots of money—but it’s not. Upon arrival in Russia, your visa must be registered. The rules changed in March 2011 and now tourist visas need to only registered ONCE while in Russia—not once in each city you spend more than three days in, which was the previous law. It needs to be done within seven days of arrival in the country. This is great for couchsurfers because all you need to do is stay at a hostel at least one night when you first get to Russia, pay the ~300 rubles for registration, then you are good to go. In the past, we would’ve had to register as staying in a private residence (if we stayed for more than 72 hours.) Not anymore. It seems this part of the process, at least, is becoming more streamlined. When it came time to leave Russia, nobody lifted an eyebrow at any of our paperwork or stamps.

In total, we spent close to $200 each on the visa support, actual visa, and registration. Ouch.

Learning Russian: Bob downloaded some podcasts and learned some travel Russian, which helped immensely. How much Russian should travelers learn? As much as possible, but at a bare minimum, learn the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian numbers. How to order food and ask where things are also came in handy. Bob spent a long time learning how to buy train tickets, but it was moot when we found out we could just order them online. As for me, my best phrase in Russian is still “Ya nye gavaryu pa Russky” (I don’t speak Russian.)

As a general rule, we found that citizens of large, powerful countries tend to have poorer foreign language skills. Russians, Chinese, and Americans have this in common: most of us don’t need to speak foreign languages on a daily basis. People from smaller countries tend to need foreign languages for educational or economic reasons. So on a trip like ours, traveling to twenty different countries, we had to prioritize which languages we’d focus on. It turned out that studying Russian or Chinese was a much better use of time than studying, say, Khmer, since most Cambodians in the tourist industry have pretty good English skills and we only stayed in touristy areas anyway. I’m not saying those languages aren’t worth studying. Your mileage may vary. It all depends on where you’re traveling to, how long you’re traveling in that country, and what you hope to do there.

Guidebooks: We carried the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook, but we also read most of Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook in a hostel in Ulaan Baatar. I’d have to say that I preferred the layout of the latter book, but both suffer from small maps, outdated restaurant and hostel listings, and too much extraneous information—you’re not really going to visit EVERY city along the train line, especially not on a 30-day visa. I wish I’d just Xeroxed the pages I needed. For pre-trip planning and armchair travelling, Asia Overland has lots of useful information and nice pictures. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg have up-to-date editions of in your pocket, which were great.

Money: Our bank did not allow us to use our debit card as a debit card in Russia. It was still ok to use it as an ATM card, and a credit card issued by the same bank was also ok. No big deal because Russians prefer cash over plastic. Call your bank before you go.

Safety: Maybe this was the number one question I heard: Is it safe to travel in Russia? In big cities, there are some areas that might be worse than others, and I made sure to watch my purse in the crowded subway trains, but at no time did I feel threatened. We took reasonable precautions, but didn’t overdo it. For example, we never bothered locking our backpacks while we slept on the trains; none of the locals do. I’m convinced that traveling in Russia is no more dangerous than in the US.

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 5: Yekaterinburg to Vladimir

This section of our journey was only about twenty-four hours, and the most uneventful yet. The most interesting thing that happened was that the train was late. So far, no train we’ve taken in Russia has been late, not even five minutes—Russian Railways runs a very tight ship.The train was supposed to arrive in Yekaterinburg around 4:30 a.m., so in preparation for the ride, we had stayed up all night in the train station. Trains come and go at all hours of the night, so there were plenty of other people in the station. At some point, the station TV played two back-to-back episodes of X-Files, dubbed into Russian but without the English soundtrack being removed, so I watched those and then eagerly awaited the train’s arrival. And waited… and waited. It ended up being an HOUR late, so as soon as we boarded the train, we gathered our sheets from the provodnitsa and made our beds—she had to help me, because I was so tired I was becoming clumsy—and fell asleep.

Shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg, we crossed into European Russia. It was strange to think that we’d entered another continent, because the scenery looked pretty similar to Siberia. We’d passed through the Ural Mountains, but we’d been sleeping, so we’re not sure if they were visible from the train. This was our first view of Europe:
Meadow

Village

River

Yep, pretty similar to Siberia. Our train was called the Yenisey, and had been traveling from Krasnoyarsk, meaning most of the passengers had been on it for a day or two already. The woman in the berth across from Bob literally slept all day. She didn’t even get up to eat. Maybe around 8 p.m., we saw her go to the bathroom, and then come back and immediately go back to sleep.

Yenisey train

Our rockin' train, the Yenisey

Seriously. Don’t believe the Lonely Planet when it says the Trans-Sib is a party on wheels.

We arrived in Vladimir very early in the morning, about 4 a.m. Major train stations in Russia have resting rooms, and we’d hoped to take advantage of the ones in Vladimir station for four hours or so. However, when we finally found them, the sign said they were full for the night. So we ended up sleeping in the train station for a few hours. There were about 50 other people doing the same thing. At 7 a.m., a train station employee came to wake us all. Two straight nights sleeping in a train station does not make for a happy Katie and Bob. Vladimir has some wonderful World Heritage-listed churches to visit, but the first thing we did was get coffee.

From here, we diverged a little bit from the Trans-Siberian: after spending half a day in Vladimir, we took a bus to Suzdal (off the train line) to visit this wonderful fairy-tale village, and then bussed to Moscow, thus ending the official Trans-Mongolian journey. Our train travels are not over, however; as we’ll be traveling by overnight train to St. Petersburg, then back to Moscow and on to Kiev, Ukraine.

Verdict: I’m glad we did it. This was something I’d been looking forward to for years. Would I do it again? Yes, but I’d do a different route. I’d also wait several years. Like, 20. After I learn Russian.

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 4: Tomsk to Yekaterinburg

…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.

Third class carriage on a Russian train 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.

Lunchtime on the Trans-MongolianThe 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:  Russian Railways mug

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.)

Siberian train platform

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.

Russian graveyard

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.

Siberian sunset

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.

Sunset at 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.

Tales from Tomsk

I wanted to go to Tomsk to see the architecture. German-Russian house, Tomsk Peacock House

Tomsk is famous for its “wooden lace” carvings that adorn many of the houses around town. They look like fairy-tale houses or gingerbread houses. Irkutsk has a lot of it too, but the examples in Tomsk are in much better shape. It was fabulous; I was not disappointed. But, as we found, there is so much more to Tomsk. Walking around on our first day, we discovered…. Baby in a cabbage, Tomsk

a baby in a cabbage.

On our second day, we found a public square with fountains. Someone had put foam in one of the fountains, and we watched the kids playing. Kids playing with foam, Tomsk

Kids playing IN the fountain

Every day we were there, we saw wedding parties, even though it was midweek. After leaving the ceremony site, groups of friends would go out to take photos together, riding in ridiculously over-the-top decorated cars, and the bride and groom would hang an engraved lock on a bridge. Russian wedding car Locks on a bridge, Tomsk

Luckily for us, we were couchsurfing in Tomsk, and our host was able to help us solve all these mysteries. The baby in the cabbage is the Russian version of the stork. When Russian kids ask their parents where they came from, their parents say that they were found in a cabbage. That particular statue is outside of a maternity hospital. Cute, no? Kids playing in fountains is normal in summertime, because it’s so hot out. Personally, I don’t think 70 degrees Fahrenheit is that hot, but then again I’m not used to Siberian winter. The weather explains all the weddings too. The main wedding season runs from June to August, when it’s possible to wear strapless dresses and not freeze your buns off. It’s so busy at this time that weddings are held every day, not just on weekends. As for the lock thing… he didn’t know. Further investigation has shown that while this is a popular trend in a lot of eastern European cities, no one knows where it started. Any thoughts?

This is just one of the many reasons I love couchsurfing: greater cultural understanding. Another reason: making lots of new friends from around the world.Asya, Bob, and Dan at the Buddhist center in Tomsk

Our host introduced us to one of his friends from the local Buddhist center, who also happened to be hosting a surfer. Over three nights, we had dinner and drinks, went to meditation and a cookout at the Buddhist center, visited a banya (Russian sauna) together, and stayed up till 3:30 am to watch the sunrise (and then some, because we were having such a good conversation.)

Anton Chekhov came here over one hundred years ago, and didn’t have very nice things to say about the city. The Tomskians (Tomskites?) were not pleased, so they erected a not-so-flattering statue of the playwright.Chekhov statue, Tomsk

“Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.”

Well, Mr. Chekhov, you should’ve been couchsurfing.

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