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The long train journey – Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk
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Wed 5 Jun ’13 – day 25   Following a night of strange dreams, none of which I could remember once I had awoken, it was time to pack and move on.  However as the hotel was very hot and stuffy I felt faint, but having drunk a litre of water and had a short lie down was much better.

I received a pleasant surprise during check out as I did not have to pay for the two lots of laundry that had been done.

The Transfer helped me back to the station and we went straight to the train that was commencing its journey from Yekaterinburg.  I was the only person in the compartment (I wonder how long that will last), so it was a quick change into my travelling rig, shorts, polo shirt and flip flops, before stowing my luggage under yet another aft facing lower berth.

The restaurant car was two carriages forward and there was a family with small children one compartment forward, with a barking dog in one of the compartments to the rear of my carriage.

The train departed on time and a short while later the Provodnista appeared and removed the tear-off part of the ticket and put a small tear in the main portion to signify that it had been checked; she then handed me the linen bundle and departed.  You receive two sheets, a pillowcase and a small towel all wrapped up in cellophane and the items are always clean with no stains.  So it’s time to make your bed – the duvet and pillow are inside the mattress which is rolled up and stored on the upper berths.  The mattresses are never very thick, but at least I have a decent pillow as some of those I have had on the trip so far have been virtually flat.

I am in an older style carriage which has an un-refurbished interior, but the exterior has been painted in the Russian railways new grey and red colour scheme.

The journey to Irkutsk is going to be the longest train ride of my whole trip when measured in distance, 3375km, and is scheduled to take 55 hours 11 minutes.  The journey from Beijing to Ulan-Ude is shorter in distance (by 23km), but will take longer as there will two sets of border checks to do.

Every so often the train passed sidings with long freight trains in them, or it was a track repair yard containing all the necessary equipment, including stacks of rails ready to be bolted onto sleepers.  The amount of goods that move by rail across this vast country (eight time zones) is immense and you see double stacked containers on low loaders, hoppers containing massive quantities of coal, wagons with piles of logs or in some cases whole trees on them and then there are trains pulling nothing but oil tankers and these can be up to a mile long.

The window in the toilet had been opened and good job too as a blast of air fresher would not have gone a miss.  The Provodnista had also opened a window in the corridor so there is a nice cool fresh breeze.

Churches with their distinctive onion shaped domes can be seen in every town we pass and in the countryside small houses dot the landscape.  Anywhere there was a small town a cemetery could be seen on the outskirts.

     

At 16:48 hours (1148 hours GMT) the train passed the 2102km marker and so we were now in Siberia.

I knew that my solitude was too good to last long and so it proved; at Tyumen the compartment filled up.  One lad in late teens or the early twenties was no problem, but his colleague who was in his late twenties or early thirties had already consumed nearly ¾ bottle of vodka.  It was established that they both worked for Gazprom, the Russian energy company, and were going to Novosibirsk where they would change trains to reach their final destination.  The elder gent kept talking to me even after I had shown him the line in the phrasebook that says “I do not understand Russian” in Russian and he could (or would) not understand why I did not drink vodka or smoke; he was starting to get a little belligerent about my continual refusal to drink his vodka (every offer politely refused), but found a drinking partner in the Asian looking man who occupied the other lower berth and was travelling with his wife.  How this couple will sleep in any ones guess.

After about 1½ hours the Gazprom man was now really drunk so decided that he was going to climb up to his bunk and sleep; the younger lad just smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say ‘Sorry’.

The window in the compartment had been opened and this should help to disperse the smell of the food that was being eaten.

There was a Spanish gent in the next but one compartment who spoke some English and having chatted to him found out that he was on his way to China.

Most of the stops were just a minute or two long so no chance of getting out to stretch your legs.

We are now crossing the Great Siberian Plain which stretches for a 1000 miles in all directions and the landscape is currently a mixture of heathland, open farming country and woods (not enough trees to be called a forest).

The Asian man and his wife slept head to toe on the other lower bunk and she was always having to give him a shove in order to have enough room on the berth.

The last long stop of the day was at Ishim and then for only ten minutes, but it was enough time to allow people to have a stretch and / or smoke and then at 22:20 hours we were off heading east again.  As it was now getting late people were settling down to sleep, but because dusk had fallen the Provodnista decided to switch on all the carriages lights, so I had to get up and turn off the overhead light in the compartment before trying to get some sleep.

 

Thu 6 Jun ’13 – day 26   It was clunk, clunk, clonk as we travelled along as this stretch of track did not have continuous welded rail, or even scarf joints, but rails that butted end on and so there was a jolt every time that the bogies went over a joint in the track.  Sleeping is not easy.

There are three short stops so I am awaken every time as the train jolts to a halt and then juddered as it pulled away again.  We passed over the Irtysh River Bridge just before we reached Omsk, but as it was pitch black outside I couldn’t see a thing.  Now at Moscow Time plus three hours and the Asian looking gent and his wife were getting off, so there was a lot of banging as they got ready to leave.  The drunk has started to sober up and is now starting to say sorry, but what for I have no idea.

The empty berth was filled by a man with a small bag who just handed over his ticket once the train started again then covered himself with his jacket and fell asleep.  The drunk had climbed back up in to the top berth (the young lad not having stirred) and we all dropped off.

Between Omsk and Novosibirsk the track has the greatest density of freight traffic of any railway line in the world.
As the track conditions are now much improved I was able to get some sleep and when I awoke as we pulled into Barabinsk at 04:19 hours Moscow Time (the whole network works on Moscow Time), the gent in the other lower berth had gone but whether it was here or at an earlier stop I had no idea.

A large lady with a young daughter were now the third set of people to occupy the other lower berth; she was wearing designer ripped jeans with toeless boots and the lass has a hair clasp with a rabbit on it – she then started playing games on an IPad (or the Russian equivalent) almost immediately.

The young lad in the berth above mine emerged to make himself a cup of tea and the drunk opened an eye before closing it again as he went back to sleep.

At the next long stop I went for a walk along the platform in order to get some fresh air and saw my first sight of a Babushka selling smoked fish.

The sky was cloudy and it was cool.

The family in the compartment forward of mine must have departed at some time but I didn’t see them go.  It was like this all the time as people board or leave the train even at the very short stops.  The Russian railway computer system must cope very well as I never saw an instance of a berth being double booked.

The train stopped at Kargat at 06:06 hours (Moscow time) for a couple of minutes and the electronic board on the wall of the station building indicated that the temperature was 10° C; it had also started to rain.

I did my ablutions – no hot water, but stripped off and used the flannel to wash all over; then cleaned my teeth; that felt good.

As time progressed people emerge from their compartments and headed off to the toilet; I spent most of the morning in the corridor just watching the world go by.  A young girl wearing a Winnie the Poo top must think that I am very strange because every time she talked to me I just smiled in return as I had no idea what she was saying.

As we chugged along I tided up the compartment and then had a short snooze.

The train crossed the Ob River Bridge as we approached Novosibirsk and just before the station was an old steam engine on display.  The city is considered to be the capital of Siberia and the station is a major rail junction; there was frantic activity as everyone was getting ready to depart.  It was difficult to know where to stand as people were moving up and down the corridor or getting their bags out from under the bunks; as he leaves the compartment the drunk has sobered up and now realises that I do not speak Russian, but wanted to shake my hand as he left, I obliged and said Dasvidanya – goodbye.

Once everyone had left I got rid of all the rubbish and had a general tidy up, then sat on my bunk to see what would happen next.

A porter carried in the luggage for three ladies and one suitcase was so big that it would only fit between the two lower berths.  I left the compartment to give the ladies time to sort themselves out and went down on to the platform where I brought some water, coke and what I believe to be a ham and cheese roll – I’ll have to see exactly what once I have taken off the wrapping.

I had a wander around and took some photographs including one of the biggest piles of luggage I have ever seen; I couldn’t see the kitchen sink!!  An extended family probably heading back to one of the Central Asian republics were sat on a blanket and had a gas fire going so that they could make tea.

A carriage was attached to the back of the train having been shunted over from a train that terminated here having arrived from Kazakhstan.  All the countries that were part of the former CIS have an inter-locking rail network and timetable as a result of the Soviet era – but it all works.

The sun has come out and the temperature has risen with the indicator board now showing 15 degrees C.

By the time that I had returned to the compartment all the ladies were fast asleep, so once the train had departed I also settled down and had a snooze.

When I awoke the ladies were still asleep so I wandered down to the restaurant car as it’s now around lunch time.  There were no other passengers there so I took a photo and then sat down.  Having perused the menu the waiter appeared and I pointed to what I wanted.  What is available depends on the time of the day and what stores they have in the kitchen.  I ordered what I thought was a salad, but got a cheeseburger and chips!!  Although it was not what I had wanted it was good as I told the waiter who promptly went and told the chef.  I would have liked a local beer but had to settle for a Budweiser.  Lunch was an interesting experience, but as it took up an hour of my time, that is one less to do on the train.

Just as I was leaving the restaurant car the train pulled into Yurga 1 and the clocks advance another hour, so now on MT +4 or GMT + 8 and that is the same time zone as China and Mongolia, so will have to advance another hour before we arrive in Irkutsk and then come back one when I cross the border into Mongolia.

Having returned to the compartment I was sat reading when one of the ladies stirred, so I left in order that she could get dressed.  She made a short trip to the toilet and while she was away I had a conversation with a French gent from the next compartment who speaks good “Hallo, Hallo” English so we had quite a chat.

Looking into the compartment I see that the ladies are still asleep, so that is nearly six hours straight and I wonder how they do it as I have been unable to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch.  Do they not sleep before or after being on a train?

The countryside is not how I imagined Siberia would be, in fact it looks very tame but maybe the wilderness is yet to come.

At Achinsk the lady with the very large suitcase departs and was met by her husband, so a little more room in the compartment.

At 22:50 hours local time we passed the halfway point on the Trans-Mongolian journey, but it was too dark to take a picture.

The other two ladies are now up and about but as the next stop was Krasnoyarsk at 01:21 hours local time I might not be getting much sleep.

I now had less than twenty four hours left on-board and the Provodnista was doing one of her regular cleaning sessions, so we’ve just had the compartment floor mopped and there is the lingering smell of bleach.

Having remade my bed I tried to get some sleep but was not very hopeful.

Fri 7 Jun ’13 – day 27   And so it proved; the ladies got off at Krasnoyarsk and I quickly tidied up the compartment.

A very large lady (Tamara Press size) came in and occupied the berth above mine and she was followed by a lady with a lad whom I presumed was her grandson and they had the other upper berth.  He started to cry and my first thoughts were “surely not this all night”, but he stopped as quickly as he had started.  We will have to see what happens.

I found it amazing that people think that it was absolutely normal to be getting on and off trains at this time of the day.

I ate the roll that I had brought more than twelve hours ago and it contained some sort of meat, not sure what, with a bit of tomato and something else which I am not sure what it was.  The whole think didn’t taste too bad actually.

The large lady started to snore, but thankfully not too loudly; then other lady got the lad settled down and then sorted herself out.  I switched off the lights but made a trip to the toilet once it had reopened before going back to bed.

I must have had more than three hours solid sleep as I did hear or feel any of the stops.

At Kansk the door opened and a man entered and occupied the other lower berth, he just took his shoes off, laid down and was soon fast asleep.

Later the large lady got up and went off to do her ablutions, bit I waited until after the next long stop.  I had a good all-over strip wash and a shave, but still only cold water.  Cleaning ones teeth and so having a fresh tasting mouth must rank alongside one of life’s more pleasurable experiences.

The large lady in her red Adidas Sochi tracksuit got off the train at Reshoty.

At 08:15 hours local time we passed the 4474km marker so are now on MT + 5.

We passed over a small river at 0943 hours local time and this marks the half-way point on the Trans-Manchurian line.

The train made a short three minute stop at Tayshet and there was a large repair yard and lots of sidings as this is the start of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) line which runs to north of the Trans-Siberian route.  The Babushka and her grandson were up and he was a cute lad with a round smiley face and big brown eyes.

At 1158 hours local time we passed the 4644km marker, so were now more than halfway along the Trans-Siberian route to Vladivostok.

It was cooler today and so I had got my jumper on; last night I had the quilt over the sheet just to keep warm.

The thick forest had started.

I had dozed off so almost missed the stop at Nizhneudinsk, but got off just long enough to buy a large bar of chocolate.  The Post Train was on the adjacent line and this is not the way to travel if you are in a hurry as it takes 3 more days to travel the whole of the Trans-Siberian line than the Rossiya.

The sky was now filled with dark clouds and I hope that this was not ominous for the weekend.

I had been asleep for nearly two hours when the train reached Zima the last long stop before I get off at Irkutsk and I was desperate to go to the toilet, but would have to wait until we were well clear of the town and the Provodnista came around and unlocked them.

The weather had brightened up and the temperature had risen significantly; I walked to the front of the train but the engine had already been disconnected and driven off.  The train consisted of three baggage cars, four Platskart carriages (54 berth dorms) a Kupe carriage, the restaurant car and then finally three more Kupe carriages.

Once we were on our way again and I had been to the toilet, great relief, I started to pack and when I handed in the linen and towel the Provodnista smiled and thanked me.

During my time on the train I shared the compartment with twelve different adults and two different children.

When we reached Irkutsk right on schedule, crowds of people left the train but there were crowds more waiting to board.  The Transfer, Ivan, but pronounced Evan, was waiting right by the carriage door; the French gent had arranged a transfer, but the Spanish gent was doing his own thing.

Ivan took me out of the station and to his imported right hand drive Japanese mini-van; I was to see many more R/H drive vehicles between here and Vladivostok.  He drove across the bridge over the River Agra and straight to the Hotel Irkutsk; this had been the old Hotel No 1 in Soviet days but has been completely refurbished.

He helped with the check in, which was more than he did with my bags, and sorted out that I could leave my suitcase with the hotel security while I was at Lake Baikal.  The receptionist made a note of my request to stay an extra night but it couldn’t be actioned until I returned on Monday.

My room was up on the 7th floor at the front so I had an excellent view over the river to the station.  I went straight back down to the souvenir shop to buy postcards and they had a pretty good selection.

There was a large German Party staying the night and they were travelling on the Tsar’s Gold, an up-market tourist cruise train run by the Russian railways.  A trip on that costs almost as much as my entire journey.

Back in my room I unpacked all my bags and everything was placed in one of three piles; required during the day tomorrow, stuff for the weekend and finally things that are not required until I returned to Irkutsk.

There was a beautiful sunset but I continued packing the bags.  Once this was done I set my alarm and then went to sleep, it was 23:00 hours.