A Typical Day on the Transiberian Railway (by Gill)


wake to soothing train trundle sound after removing ear plugs & after a hot, stuffy night in railway sheets on narrow bunk bed, wearing clothes of yesterday & the day before. Look out at deciduous forest rolling by – it’s been light for hours. Gather loo requirements, including paper & thongs. Step carefully past 2 levels of 45 sleeping bodies of all ages & genders spreading from similar bunks. Beware of bumping face against sleeping feet & shins against sleeping arms. Everyone looks peaceful.

Don’t get distracted looking at the view out the window or someone will get the loo ahead of you. It‘s a basic small train loo but cleaner than an Australian one. Pump single tap with one hand while washing the other. It has an open window which is a blessing. Enjoy some cool fresh air amongst loo smells.

Get a drink of boiling hot water from the old painted metal urn on the way back. There is no other drinking water available. Wait there for it to to cool while taking in the view through the open window or carry it back past the sleeping bodies in the stuffy carriage.

3 days of forest and still going by – young Birch & Pine joined by young Spruce, Fir Cedar, Cypress, Elm, Elder etc as we travel west. Meadows of pink Toadflax or pale yellow bulbs intersperse. Occasionally villages appear of simple, leaning, single level, timber cottages with vegie gardens & firewood pile. Rarely a horse or cow. No other signs of people. They say it gets to minus 20C here.

6am (ish)

The train stops at a station & we are allowed off! Try & work out how long until the train goes again when all lettering & announcments are Russian & the station clocks only show Moscow time, many hours away from local time.

Judy & Renate & I rush out to the big wide world of courtyard beyond the station to find takeaway food. It is Russian food labelled in Russian so it’s a matter of point & hope. They barely do caffeine here – tea without milk or dispenser machine coffee with ’whitener’. DON’T ask for ’latte’. Rush back wondering if this will be the time the train goes without us.

Yesterday we noticed at the last minute that Judy was not back in time. We told the guard, we pleaded, an English translator joined in, I stood half on half off the train so it wouldn’t go, the guard continued to tell us to get on. The other’s lied; pointing & saying “she‘s coming!” The guard began to put away the step-ladder access to the carriage, I stood back on the platform thinking that Judy must have injured herself & we shouldn’t leave her alone in a Siberian town. Luckily, in the nick of time,Judy cooeed from inside the train & I was allowed back on.

We already lost 3 of us at the beginning of the trip, in Irkutsk, when 1 lost his ticket & was forced to buy another one, then the train left after he bought it & before he got on; leaving him & his 2 Wayfarer helpers stranded until they bought tickets on a later train. So we know the Russian railway authorities are unforgiving.

Today, back on the train, finish breakfast with some roasted unhulled sunflower seeds (good roughage) & hope for more luck later.

7am (ish)

Now back inside travelling, time disappears and it seems best to snooze….
We had 2 nights of not sleeping at the airport or train station for 2am boardings before this, At this time of year there is ~ 2hrs of complete darkness each ‘night’. Everyday we move the clocks back 1 hr, so each day actually has 25 hrs. Time becomes elastic and so disappears.

Sometime or other…get up again longing for the view of endless trees.
Judy is finding where on the map we are with the help of the Russian passengers, later she learns the Russian alphabet with them. Renate is communicating using her Polish language skills, Terry is chatting away in Russian. 12yr old Manuka is composing, Kaoru is looking over her music, Kia, Roh & Raph are rethinking Judy’s ’Ringbearer’ play, Evan is in the air conditioned dining car making lists of Wayfarer’s petty cash, Matt is doing something learned on his laptop, Heather is organising our next hostel, several are still asleep.

I find the only carriage power point – near the loo, by an open window, near the guard’s room; and charge the laptop while standing nearby with the serious music book, humming Mozart’s Kyrie canon to sol fah, amongst the din of the open window & occasional train going by and amidst the constant traffic of people back & forth to the loo & while dodging the guard. I get better at Mozart’s Kyrie canon. Yes, it is a thrill to bring Western sacred music to non-western cultures!

The loo is locked & the train is slowing – a station stop?… Rumours are that we stop for 40mins & yes there are food sellers on the platform! Grab bag complete with passport, water, money, toothbrush etc in case train deserts…. Cup fulls of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, buckets of pickled cucumbers, baskets of fresh cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onions; trays of cool bottled yoghurt, coke, Kvass, beer, icecreams, chips; dried & smoked fish , sacks of peanuts, unhulled sunflower seeds, buckwheat; gadgets,soft toys & plastic toys, mysterious jars of pickles & mysterious baked things harbouring unknown fillings… I buy pickled cucumbers, yoghurt, peanuts & dried fish from lined, gold toothed women & return to the train as late as possible.

The next hour I spend trying to extricate the dried fish from its bones & into my mouth along with yesterdays rye bread and pickled cucumber – eventually a fantastic, tasty meal.

It might be late afternoon-ish.

Back to take in the forest near the source of fresh air. I feel like eating it.

The guard has turned her pop music up, including ‘I Will Survive’, so we dance a bit & earn a smile from our stern guard. However, not enough to save me the next day,at the end of the journey,when the sheets are handed back & ticked off. Our fierce guard thought she had put 2 sets of sheets on my bunk & expected them back (I think). I had used 1 set & tried to explain this to little avail even when an almost bi-lingual young Russian stepped into help. The penalty s 350Roubles (Aus$12) & no getting off the train until you’ve paid it. I was prepared to pay rather than argue, but our dear Music Director would have no wrongfull accusations & managed to let them know that our Russian speaking friend would meet us at the station. We think this was the turning point as the guard then decided to waive all charges.

To continue with the innocent day:

At Wayfarers end of the carriage some of our music has started – various short songs in umpteen part harmony including Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditsye in our best Russian. The sleepy Russian travellers seem to be underwhelmed, so Renate & I resort to softly going through Judy’s atonal ‘Jumblies‘. (They went to sea in a sieve..)

I want to sleep, but drinks in the dining car is proclaimed to celebrate Evan’s birthday. We drink European beer, eat very small salads & sing Happy Birthday harmonies before we get to unfold our littlle bunks & lie down, pretending it’s a dark, cool evening when actually its light & hot.

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