Day 1: Into the Wild
With my heart in my throat, N and I boarded the Rossiya train for the first leg of our journey to Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic smack in the middle of Siberia. The kupé (second class) cabin was surprisingly modern and unlike anything we had seen in photos in guidebooks and on blogs. The toilets I had been nervously anticipating ended up being like an airplane toilet; not the best situation, but at least they weren’t the old lever-style toilets which flushed the contents of the bowl directly onto the tracks below.
The first few hours passed quietly, with only the two of us in the cabin for four. My fever was back and I crawled up to my top bunk hopped up on aspirin and passed out. I had expected to be constantly jostled around in a loud, screeching train so I was surprised by how quiet it actually was. In the afternoon, we were greeted by “Ni hao!”s as a new cabinmate and her husband boarded the train at one of the small towns that we stopped at. After kisses goodbye, our cabinmate’s husband left and we were off again.
Over the course of the second day while I was sleeping off my cold, N somehow managed to befriend our cabinmate, a surly, middle-aged Russian woman who speaks little English but is fluent in Chinese (hence the greeting in Chinese). And over the following day, as I did my usual anti-social thing of looking out of the window in the hallway (instead of from our cabin), escaping to my top bunk whenever possible (like a ninja) and staying there to quietly read, play games and nap, N and the Russian lady became BFF.
N later brought me up to speed on this woman’s background, what she does for a living, where she’s going and her deepest, darkest secrets. I swear, my girl manages to get the unlikeliest of people to open up. Give her some time and Kim Jong Un will gladly dump Dennis Rodman for her.
Day 2: You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors
We woke up late last night to a fourth cabinmate, a young Russian guy who promptly got off the train this morning. We have been whiling away the hours looking out of the window (there is always something interesting to see), reading and napping. It’s pretty amazing to think that we are slowly chugging through Siberia. It feels like time is at a standstill because the days are so long (it doesn’t get dark until around 10:30pm).
There are small cultural differences that we’ve noticed right off the bat with the Russians we’re surrounded by, but the first thing we noticed is that they love to get comfortable. As soon as they get on some mode of transportation they’re going to be on for a while, they change into activewear or something equally comfortable for lounging. The men just take off their shirts and walk around in shorts. They also take off their shoes and wear slippers on the train. Most Russians we’ve met take off their shoes when they enter a home. Love it!
Anyway, I’m over this 2nd class cabinmate business. I will gladly shell out another $1000 to be in a first class cabin by ourselves for the next long leg of the trip. Call me totally spoiled, but hear me out first. Even though we were totally lucky with our cabinmate, we’ve been looking around at our neighbors for what could have been. Some of them, particularly the large (and I mean big!) men, have gotten riper and riper as the days go by. Walking by their open cabins during the day requires holding one’s breath. We are going first class from Irkutsk to Moscow.
Day 3: Never Judge a Book by its Cover
The stops at some of the bigger stations along the way are longer (about 15 minutes, instead of 2), so N and I got off at this morning’s long stop at Chernyshevsk-Zabaykalsk. The train passengers are fine, but the locals look rough and many of them have prison tattoos. It’s a hard knock life out here in the middle of Siberia. The summer might look inviting with the lush greenery, wildflowers and the pretty winding rivers, but winters here are harsh. These people look like they know what survival really means, living in their small wooden homes in the middle of nowhere.
After getting back on the train, we were pleasantly surprised to find we now had a fourth cabinmate. This guy was tall with prison tattoos on his hands (complete with a star on his wrist), and he smelled like he hadn’t showered for days. Great. N and I nervously looked him over like he was going to steal all of our things the first chance he got. He paid us no mind, promptly took off his shirt (all Russian men seem to like to travel shirtless on trains) and chatted with N’s BFF. At one point he came back with a nasty burn on his arm (maybe the samovar got him) and our grumpy provodnitsa tried to offer him some ice. He refused it, and when N offered him an antibiotic ointment from our med kit, he applied it and thanked us.
The next long stop was Chita, where we got off to buy some bread with mystery filling (turned out to be jam) and to stare at the items for sale at the station kiosk. When we got back on the train, our new cabinmate had gotten us vanilla ice cream bars (and they were good!) to thank us for the antibiotic. This gesture made me feel like an asshole for judging him in the first place. I must remind myself to leave my New York neuroses at home.
Day 4: Ulan-Ude At Last
As fun as it is to be on the train, N and I are ready to get off so we can first and foremost shower, and then explore Siberia instead of just staring at it through the window. We’ve been using the Biore body wipes that my mother gave me (thanks, mom!) to keep ourselves somewhat presentable, but I’m itching for a bath. They have a shower available for a small fee (about $6), but we figured we could stick it out. And stick it out I did, like a champ. Our fellow Russian passengers in the other cabins have been trying to communicate with us in English, and we realized that Russians are very curious about what foreigners are doing in their part of the woods.
We spent our last day soaking up as much Siberia as we could: The green plains and hills that go on for endless miles, the colorful wildflowers that occasionally pop up in between the clusters of tiny wooden villages, a lone person walking on one of many dirt roads that wind randomly through otherwise untouched nature, crumbling concrete skeletons of buildings in the middle of nowhere, horses, chickens, goats and cows roaming fields, guards and their dogs standing outside of big tunnels and bridges, the bright white trunks of birch trees creating a sharp contrast to the dark green landscape… Everything was so different from the first-world, materialistic world we know, and it was an eye-opening and humbling experience to see people who can make do with so little.
We pulled into Ulan-Ude well after dark, and we wearily stepped off the train with our big travel packs to be greeted warmly by our airbnb host, Annica. We looked around us at all the Asian faces that looked back curiously at us. It was easy to see the Mongolian blood running strong in these Buryatis. Annica and her husband drove us to the Khrushchev-era apartment we had rented and after an amazing shower, we passed out in our beds, feeling the slight rocking of our bodies still deceived by the three days of being on the train. I suppose sailors feel this way when they step on shore after a long time out at sea.
For more photos of this leg of our journey, check out our Flickr album.