Travelling and holidays are not the same. I am writing this on my top bunk, of a sleeper carriage on the Trans-Siberian Railway, somewhere in the Ural Mountains, east of Moscow. The train is on route to Irkutsk, a journey of 5000 km over four days and four nights. The ‘TransSib’ is the longest railroad in the world, across the largest country in the world leading to the largest freshwater lake in the world: the Baikal Sea.
This is not a luxurious train but it is comfortable and well organised. At the end of each carriage is an office and sleeping quarters for ‘she who must be obeyed’: the provodnitsa or female train attendant who proudly and firmly controls the carriage as her own domain. Our’s was called Antonina. The photo to the left is of Auntie Nina checking tickets on entry to the train. Once I was able to get beneath her stern exterior I found her very helpful and supportive. She provided me with a TransSib drinking mug, glass inside a metal holder, so that I could make tea from the water boiler or Samovar, which she controls, at the end of the carriage. Each day she came through the compartments in the carriage, hoovering and mopping them clean.
There is also a restaurant carriage providing basic meals. My favourite was Solyanka: a thick spicy/sour soup made with salty meats, olives, pickles and who knows what, topped with a slice of lemon. The restaurant also sells beers and, more importantly, vodka. A vendor also passes though the train selling snacks, drinks and ice creams.
The best thing about this trip is the wide ranging conversations with the people of different nationalities along the way. My old friend Hermann, of course, and new friends, Margit, Hellmut and Pia.
Then there is the realisation that Russia is a very big country: physically, economically, socially and culturally diverse; and largely unknown and misunderstood in the UK. I had no preconceived ideas about the Russian landscape but it was a surprise to find that, for most of the journey, even in the Ural Mountains, it is so flat. The view from the window is of sliver birch and pine forests, rough, wet, uncultivated grassland and big skies. As a bit of fun I pressed my camera lens to the dirty window, set a slow shutter speed and created some impressionist images of the scenes rolling by.
Here is a gallery of pictures through a window darkly.
Occasionally the train stops at a station and it is possible to buy fish, vegetables, fruit and interesting breads from local ladies on the platforms.
The journey is also punctuated by passing through small but attractive stations along the route. Sometimes I can guess that they are about to appear but, even with the camera to hand, I managed to miss some. Here is a small selection of those I captured.
When the train stopped for long enough to stretch my legs I was able to capture something of the character of the railway.