The Trans-Siberian train carries dog eaters and university professors, with Putin travelling in the last car. To see how real Russia is different from the Russia of the news, Denis Dziuba covered 18,500 km on the top train shelf.
I bought the last non-side seat in the 14th car of the Moscow-Vladivostok train for 10,279 RUR ($ 165). Bed linen was included in the ticket price. I was to spend the next 7 days on a 55-cm upper seat with Siberia landscape outside my window.
The website said that my place was near the toilet, but it was half true: between us was a conductors’ compartment and a water boiler. The upper side seats opposite the first compartment in the Trans-Siberian train are not for sale — they carry a week’s supply of linen.
My neighbors – clean and dirty linen
Boiler is used to make tea and Doshirak (instant noodles). The ‘Doshik’ became a household name among Russians, most likely because, in addition to spices and sunflower oil, it has a small bag of dried vegetables. Doshirak is simply more healthy.
The first question I was asked by everyone after my return was what I ate on the train. My regular diet consist of vegetables, cheese, bread and wine, and before the trip I was also wondering what I was going to eat on my two-week train trip. At home I grabbed a tin of green tea and strainer from Ikea, and my diet was formed several hours before the train in the Moscow grocery store: six liters of water, three nuts packs, two avocados, a jar of honey, seven bananas, seven tomatoes, seven bags of instant oatmeal with “raspberry cream” taste and seven Doshirak packs cost me 2,000 Russian rubles (about $ 35). I paid about the same amount for camping mug, bowl, and folding cuttlery.
Tea, Doshik, brush your teeth and wash your hair: mug is the most important thing on Transsib trip
Opposite the water-boiler is a rusty “Drinking Water” tap. Near the window is a sticker saying “ask conductor for clean drinking water”. I asked her for water out of pure curiosity, I got a glass from the five-liter tank, but the water ended right after that. From time to time, I heard a dialogue coming from behind the wall: “Can I get some water?” – “No more water left. There are many of you and only one tank”.
The second question I got asked was how I washed myself.
I took a shower several times in a row before the train just in case, and I took off the sweater on the way to the station not to break a sweat.
Besides crossword makers, Transsib feeds gatherers and fishermen.
In the car there were two Soviet-style water closets with an iron toilet (hole leading into rails) and a washstand found in the summer cottages in the past: to have the water running, you need to push the rod. In such conditions, the passengers managed to wash not only their hands, but also everything else — I guessed it after seeing them queue for the toilet with shampoos and other jars.
Head of the cadet group traveling in our car once asked me to keep an eye on his cosmetics for a moment while he was away. I noticed that he had a shower gel called ‘Nord-Ost’. The bottle said the product was Russian, made in the “Kalina” factory. ‘Procter & Gamble’ would have to produce a ‘9/11’ foam for proper response.
At the end of the trip it became clear that you can take a proper shower in the toilet. The conductor locked herself up there for half an hour, playing the Imany ‘You Will Never Know’ song on her phone. Passengers swore that there was a shower tube hidden behind the triangular lock under the ceiling.
There may be a bar of soap and sometimes a toilet paper roll hidden inside the Transsib toilet, but very little of it. Many travellers do not want to take chances and bring a roll with them. Women and foreigners traveling with us (of whom there were quite a few) take out the toilet paper from the bag and head for the toilet. Russian men pull out a roll, unwind a meter of it, neatly fold it, hide it in their breast pocket and continue to behave as if nothing has happened, as if the operation with the paper is for the future. Usually the future comes within five minutes.
Railway station in Khabarovsk.
Forty minutes before large towns and five to ten minutes before small ones, toilets were closed and I had to go to the next car which had a bio toilet. Except for the 146 sanitary areas on the way to Vladivostok, the Soviet contraption was more robust: passengers of the bio toilet car came to us more often than we did to them. Because of the toilet paper, their toilet broke several times a day. There was a plumber travelling on the Transsib train and regularly fixing the toilet, but people kept throwing paper into the toilet and at some point the man got fed up and simply closed the toilet.
Charging cell phones is big pain for passengers: some spend hours next to outlets.
The Trans-Siberian train would definitely benefit from having a doctor: in Kirov, for example, we saw several ambulances that picked fourteen children from one of the train cars. Before getting on the train, they ate at the KFC in the Yaroslavl station. When the train left, the whole class started vomiting, with one girl fainting. The fifteenth boy was OK, because he “only had fries”.
There is, however, a police station in one of the compartments. Cops occasionally patrol the entire train, and if they see an unattended phone being charged, they find the owner and kindly ask them to keep an eye on the gadget: ”
so that we don’t have to look for it later”.
They are the most important element of the trip. I was lucky: all the male neighbors, or, rather, female neighbors were great.
This is Nina. She is returning to Yekaterinburg from Vladimir where she attended her relative’s funeral. She said it felt like a celebration: “We in Sverdlovsk, at the funeral, we have three dishes — salad, soup and steak with smoked potatoes. And they have grapes, fruit, expensive chocolates — a wedding!”
Nina worked all her life at “UralShoes”. “Our shoes could last forever. We called them Ural straw shoes. And now what? China!”.
Here’s Tatiana. She’s the head teacher in the construction college, she is on her way to Khabarovsk to visit her sister, whom she had not seen for 15 years. Last time she took a long distance train was in 1990 — she was coming home with a group of students from Bulgaria, where they had been working at the cannery.
“The train was Greek, Athens-Moscow,” said Tatiana. – It had clean, light yellow compartments, bio toilets, we did not even know why there were fruit and sweets on the table. Children immediately attacked the sweets, we asked them to stop, but the conductors said: “Let them eat, we have more”. Then we arrived in Moscow and took an Astrakhan train — dirty, smelly, gray with wet sheets, not dried out after washing”.
Tanya has a 33-year-old son who lives with her, along with his wife and child. Nina says that it is better not to live with older children. “We live in an elite home, my grandson goes to the same school that my son did — how can I kick them out?” says Tatiana. – I’d better go myself — we have a dormitory at the college. I’ll ask them for a room and live happily ever after”.
Trans-Siberian Railway is the busiest freight railway in the world.
Natalia is a retired math teacher from Vladivostok. Her husband, a mathematics professor, was diagnosed with lung cancer, put on drugs and told to prepare for death: “No chance”. He saved himself with a joke when a university rector came to visit him and offered to go to Moscow for treatment. The patient said dismissively: “Better let’s go to Japan — it is close”.
The rector did not get the joke, found a Russian doctor in Japan, collected money for treatment. In Japan the doctors found that it is not cancer, but heart problems. Professor underwent surgery, received a 5-year guarantee for the job. Ironically, exactly five years later the professor was lecturing in the cold of the university auditorium, where students wore jackets. The professor did not want to wear a coat (using chalk was uncomfortable then), instead he caught cold and died.
Economy class martyrs: some trains in Russia have church cars.
This is Lyubov from Yekaterinburg, who is only half-pleased with Russia. Lyubov works at the Academy of Sciences resenting poor funding of Russian science. She does, however, like Putin’s foreign policy.
“Putin is the best,” she says.
Raisa, who dislikes the authorities both of today and yesterday the most, boarded the train in Magdagachi. “I would drop a bomb on the Kremlin,” she says. Her parents, a Jew and a Belarusian, were repressed by the communists immediately after the birth of their daughter; the girl was brought up by the adoptive family.
Last New Year’s Eve Raisa was watching Putin’s greetings on television when she suffered a stroke. Raisa called an ambulance, but then she realized that the doctors would not be able to open the gate to the yard. To open the gate, she crawled into the street, and the doctors found her in the snow. Thinking that she was drunk, they left, without even as much as examining the woman.
Raisa crawled back into the house and called her son. When the ambulance that he had called arrived, first thing doctors did was smell her mouth. The son lost his temper: “Go on and smell her ass”. The doctors took offense and left again. This is how Raisa got paralyzed.
Vladimir Lenin # 24003/9928.
In addition to doctors, communists and Putin, Raisa dislikes Armenians and the Chinese — the former for using bribes to buy out and fell the birch grove, where she “liked to play as a child”, the latter — for “contaminating the Earth with chemicals and poisoning Russians with their vegetables”.
What Raisa would dislike most is the establishment of the “Black man authority” on Earth (i.e. negros becoming the presidents of different countries) — Lyubov supports her on this. Raisa is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (“Zhirinovsky helped me personally — he sent me 10 thousand rubles”).
One and a half years passed after the stroke. Raisa spent several weeks in hospital, it is now difficult for her to stand straight and control the lower lip when drinking tea. Raisa is going to sue the doctors, and I do not envy the doctors — I am sure Raisa will win. She once cured her own pneumonia.
“Doctors were not coping, and I asked them to let me go home for a week. I went to the store and bought a bottle of ethyl alcohol — it was sold in bottles then — I drank a shot, wiped my eyes and stabbed my dog. I used the ethyl alcohol and the dog fat to recover. A week later, I was back on my feet, says Raisa. – When I came, healthy, to see a doctor and told her how I sucked on the bones, she ran out of the room”.
Going on a trip, I thought that the Transsib was the train where people had nothing to do but drink vodka every morning, toasting to the Crimea. In fact, like in any public place, drinking alcohol in train is prohibited, and this is observed by conductors and the police. “But you do allow it on New Year’s Eve, don’t you?” I asked the conductor Oksana. “Oh no, she says. – Everyone is asleep then”.
The only person secretly drinking vodka was a young geographer Anatoly from the car next to mine — it was his second trip to Vladivostok. The guy has a problem with his leg, he cannot lie down, and the first few days he sleeps sitting upright, drinking vodka to endure it.
The only chessboard on the train is managed by train master
I instantly became friends with the geographer on the basis of our passion for traveling. Tolik (short for Anatoly) has been to a great number of places: if the name of the village on the Polish-Belarusian border came up in the conversation, it turned out that Tolik had already been or will soon be there.
I forget about the ten books purchased specifically for the trip and leaf through 30 atlases Tolik the geographer brought along. At every stop Tolik looks for a bookstore to buy new atlases — “Landmarks of Birobidzhan”, “Highways of the Khabarovsk Krai”, “Military Atlas of Primorye”. Before we got to Vladivostok, he had fifty of them (his complete collection has two thousand atlases).
One day a special carriage was hitched to our train — a red car used for oiling the tracks. “What do they oil them with?” I ask the geographer. “Some oil fraction,” he says.
At the station in Krasnoyarsk a guy gets out of the red car and starts to poke around with a flashlight under the car. “What you grease it with? I ask. – Some oil fraction?” “No, regular rosin,” replied the man, treating me as an expert and allowing me to get inside his headquarters.
It turned out that for a few days we had been travelling with Putin.
Vladimir Putin and Alexei the rail greaser
President Putin is not discussed in the Transsib — well, sometimes he is spoken of as Superman. “This village was recently flooded, and Vladimir Vladimirovich came and helped,” I was told when we were passing five hundred new and completely identical houses.
“Tired of playing already,” said the guys about playing cards on fifth day.
The only people we discuss the sensitive political issues with are Raisa and Lyubov. At some point, it seems like I managed to change their mind about the gay pride parades and two presidential terms. One morning, when my companions already had breakfast and I was trying to catch some more sleep, I heard the following words: “The President used to be better”. I instantly woke up and looked down — Lyubov was smearing the ‘President’ processed cheese on a piece of bread. “It used to be more tasteful, it used to be softer”.
Free time and time in general
Any conversation on the Transsib train is saved not by the weather but by the time. The Russian Railways operates by the Moscow time: for example, it is already 11:00 in Vladivostok, but it is still 4:00 in the train station. Some thoughtful cashiers mark the local time of departure in pencil on the reverse side of the ticket. The most lively conversations happen in the compartment carrying passengers from different time zones who forget to reset their clocks to the Moscow time.
On the last day of the trip the conductor brings the book of complaints and suggestions and asks us to “write only good things”. I’m coming down and we begin to think what to write. I suggest writing about no soap in the bathroom. Natalia and Tatiana exchanged nervous glances. “We must first ask if they will have problems because of this,” says Tatiana. “Everyone needs to have their own soap — we live in a poor country,” says Natalia. Tatiana turns the page, crosses out the words “Complaint / suggestion #” and writes … ‘Thank-you-note”.
On the day of my arrival, Vladivostok was hit by a typhoon that raged for ten days.
During the last one and a half hours of the trip I was looking out the window. There I saw the sunrise and the ocean. After covering the distance of nine and a half thousand kilometers, I get off the train at the Vladivostok railway station, Expecting to sway like a sailor, I am somehow walking straight. In three hours, the city will be engulfed by the typhoon from Japan, which will turn my every walk into a cold bath. Three days later I will come back to this platform and get on the train to go back.
Text and photo: Denis Dziuba