Train 81 bound for Moscow was much more closely aligned with our original expectations of a Trans-Siberian train – a comfortable but slightly grimy carriage with two shared bathrooms at either end. This was our first time in a four-berth compartment and as we boarded at 11pm on Friday night, we found our new companion, a girl in her twenties sitting on lower berth Number 5. We never found out her name or what she did as she did her best to avoid making eye contact with us.
After setting off, the provoditsa patrolled the carriage checking tickets and distributing plastic-wrapped sets of sheets and towels. We observed as the girl assembled and made her bed, confused about what we were supposed to do with the contents of the bag in addition what appeared to be a quilt, pillow and blankets already allocated to each berth. What we thought was a quilt was in fact a lumpy rolled up mattress, to go on top of the vinyl seats used during the day. We proceeded to make our beds with the tea towel-textured sheets in the upper berths numbered 6 and 8 and shortly afterwards went to sleep.
We were amazed when we woke the next morning and realised we had slept in until 10am, but drew a direct correlation between this and the excessive temperature of the carriage (30 degrees), which knocked us both out and left us feeling drowsy in the morning. This train did have a dining car but we had stocked up on food for three days in case the restaurant was dodgy, so we opted for vegemite on bread and instant coffee for our first breakfast.
The rest of the morning rolled on by as we passed through snowy plains, occasional towns and the most isolated of villages. We passed the time reading and playing games until mid-afternoon when the train ground to a sudden halt. We didn’t appear to be at a train station and others in the carriage had already begun to press their noses against the glass windows trying to work out what was going on. Shortly after, the provodnitsa came marching down the carriage and gestured to Richard that she needed his help with something outside. It turned out what she needed him to do was manually apply the brakes by rotating an iron bar for about ten minutes – something she certainly wouldn’t have been able to do herself. Another ten minutes later we heard the sirens of fire engines approaching on a main road within view of our compartment. We can only assume they were called in to water down something that had frozen over. Once the issue was resolved, Richard was called out again to release the brakes and not long after we were on our way again.
At around 9pm on Night 2, our companion was ecstatic about the arrival of another girl in our compartment who was equally disinterested in us. They spent the rest of the night chatting and catching up on gossip over chocolate and tea. They both left us at a town called Krasnoyarsk sometime in the middle of the night.
The next morning we woke again after a sleep-in, but the time difference (five hours between Irkustk and Kazan) had begun to confuse our body clocks. On Berth 5 below we found a new companion, a 60-year-old woman, who was as keen to get to know us as we were to chat with her. We communicated in basic English and tried our hand at Russian once more with the help of our phrase book. At the next stop she stepped off the train and returned with some plastic bags. With a huge smile on her face she produced three huge, whole dried fish. She was a little shocked by our initially stunned faces. My mind had already began wandering between thoughts of her insisting that we share her treats, and the prospect of sharing the next two days with the unwrapped fish sitting on the table. She explained they were for her children and then proceeded to wrap them up and tuck them safely under her bed.
By early afternoon we had another resident on Berth 7, a young university student who chatted away happily with the 60-year-old and politely acknowledged us but unfortunately for us, spoke no English. We left the two of them to check out the dining car for lunch. Most of what we wanted to order was unavailable so we settled on bangers and mash. The basic pork sausage and (probably powdered) mashed potatoes teamed with a warm beer were a pretty meagre offering but we were just happy to be sitting at a table eating a hot meal. The uni student only stuck around for nine hours or so, but when it came time for her to leave the 60-year-old seemed genuinely sad about her departure and assisted her off the train, waving her goodbye.
At 8pm on Night 3, another woman in her fifties joined us and requested we leave the compartment while she got changed. Although this didn’t bother us, there was really nowhere else to go so we waited outside in the narrow corridor as others were forced to squeeze past us. When we were finally allowed back in, she had dressed in her finest leopard-print night dress and matching slippers and had donned an eye mask. We got the message that it was time for bed and weren’t too fussed about this either, considering we were still functioning on three or four hours past the local time.
Sometime during the middle of the night, she departed and was replaced by a burly man with a noisy cough and a determination to remain seated despite continually falling asleep and swaying back and forth as his head hit the side wall. The woman in Berth 5, clearly as bothered as me by his sleeping pattern, convinced him to lie down. It was only then that we discovered he had a roaring snore that was audible throughout the carriage.
At 4am, after no more than a couple of hours sleep, it was time for the lady to depart and so I popped my head out of the compartment to wish her well as she went on her way, hoping to wake the snoring man at the same time. My efforts were futile so I got up and sat on one of the seats in the hallway to read my book. The rest of the carriage woke early as well and it seemed that one compartment was still awake from the night before, polishing off the last of their vodka.
On our last day we were both beginning to feel tired and in need of a shower, but the snoring man was still taking over the bottom berth so we hung about until he finally woke up and we finished off the last of our bread and vegemite. Once he left us, we were incredibly grateful to have the compartment to ourselves so we could relax on the bottom two berths which were about five degrees cooler than those at the top. Just as we were on the home straight, two hours from our destination, the providnitsa appeared in our doorway with a tall, bulky man dressed in army gear. We weren’t too sure what to think until he sat down opposite us on Berth 5 and we realised he was just another passenger. A little hesitant to start conversation with him, we smiled and waited for him to acknowledge us. He asked where we were from and said he could instantly tell we were foreigners because of our smiling faces and our backpacks. Along with the 60-year-old woman he turned out to be one of the friendliest people we’ve come across. He talked about how he was a captain in the army and we told him about our travels and where we were heading.
Along with the interesting conversation the last two hours passed by very quickly. At 4pm, after a mammoth train trip across two continents, several time zones and 70 hours on the train, we had finally reached Kazan.
© Richard Munckton