Life on board the Trans-Siberian continues at a steady pace
03.07.2011 - 03.07.2011 22 °C
Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
After three nights on the train, the change, in our typical day starts to become the norm. Life on the train is very much like camping but without the challenge of rain and wind destroying ones sleeping compartment. Basic hygiene is a struggle but maintainable, even with a lack of showers. Rudimentary but functional are the water closets, kept relatively clean by the ever vigilant Provodnik. Yet, beyond that life is very tolerable, even pleasant. The restaurant car serves cold beer. We have sufficient provisions to feed Napolean’s army, should he ever have made it this far to the east and if a break from reading, blogging or snoozing is required one need only look out of the window to see sweeping grasslands or majestic beech forests passing by.
Throughout the day the ever passing scenery changes little. When the railroad was built this stretch of rail was notorious for swamp, mountains and steep river valleys. Starring out of our compartment window water and marsh grass is still very much in evidence. The engineering challenges behind this railroad must have been enormous.
It was in 1886 that Tsar Alexander III first approved the idea of a Trans-Siberian railway. Topographical surveys were taken along the proposed route between Tomsk and Stretensk and around Vladivostok. In 1891, following a Grand Tour of Greece, Egypt, Indo-China and Japan Nicholas, Tsar Alexander III’s son and heir, arrived in Vladivostok to lay the first stone on the Ussuri line to Khabarovsk. By 1900 the first Trans-Siberian services were in operation, utilizing the train-ferry Baikal to transport passengers across Lake Baikal, with convicts and exiles being employed in their thousand to facilitate construction.
The frigid lakes steep rocky cliffs, which dominated the shoreline, proved to be the railroad engineers most formidable obstacle. Yet by 1901 it was determined that the ferry was not a successful solution and so the construction of the Circumbaikal Line along the southwestern shore of the Lake began. The 1904 Russo- Japanese war placed the railroad under an untenable strain, as reinforcements to the Far East were required. Temporary tracks laid across the ice of the Lake, to expedite military movements, plunged through the frozen water, with great loss of life. The Circumbaikal Line replaced the lake ferry but not until after the 1904 war was lost. This line was to be used until the 1950s, when, with the damming of the Angara River an alternate route around the Lake was provided for, leaving the 94kms of the Circumbaikal Line becoming a neglected Branch line.
By 1916 and with the completion of the Khabarovsk bridge (at 1.8 miles the longest on the Trans-Siberian route) over the Amur river, the establishment of the Trans-Siberian route as it exists today, was possible. The success of the railroad can be measured in the growth of new towns along the line. Many new stations were built before towns had developed around them. In 1911 Siberia recorded about nine million inhabitants. By 1959 the number had increased to nearly 23 million. With this growth electrification of the line commenced in 1929 but was not finished until 2002, allowing a doubling of train weights to 6,000 tonnes.
As our train progresses to the East the concept of time becomes more complex. With the train perpetually operating on Moscow time but with local time, currently, four hours ahead of Moscow, one is tempted to sleep until lunch local time. Indeed, being late to rise and late to bed is generating a sense of jet lag, which we had hoped to avoid with overland travel. The ever changing time zones also make for short days. Each day on the train we ponder where the time has been spent for we have no museums to peruse of sights to visit.
Riding the train all day we disembark briefly at Omsk, for a thirty minute stop. Outside the station a fine statue of Lenin gazes down on us. Yet this large station has few of the Babushka’s we have become familiar with. Further along the track at Barabinsk, some 2,200 miles east of Moscow a chilly stop at this once place of exile for Polish Jews provides a plethora of Babushkas loaded with beer, dried fish, fruit and vegetables for sale, to potentially weary but hardly starving travelers. With her brave culinary tendencies Trey negotiates the purchase of a plastic bag of small bread rolls. Unsure of their nature a ponderous bite confirms they are rather bland potato breads – essentially, boiled potato baked in bread. Worse, they are not even a very good example of this local delicacy. A similar delicacy – the cabbage roll – proves to be slightly better but not even the offer of lashings of sweet Chili sauce allow the potato bread to be fully consumed. Undeterred we stretch our legs enjoying the spectacle of otter pelt sellers with the various hats and scarves for sale.
With evening drawing near outside but still mid-afternoon train time we enjoy a picnic supper. In addition to our hearty meal (the Simnel cake gifted by my sister at the start of this trip is proving particularly tasty) Trey decides to tuck into her small but effective bottle of Yekaterinburg vodka. Mixed with a little grapefruit juice her excitement over the journey grows, with a genuine passion to leave the train, briefly, when we stop at the grand Siberian station of Novosibirsk, at midnight local time. Fortunately, sleep overcomes her and we slumber until the clatter of new arrivals, down the corridor, awakens us. A small child obviously does not like her sleeping arrangements but sleep eventually returns with the gentle rat-a-tat of the railway sleepers and at least four distinctive pitches of snoring encouraging rest.