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Purgatory on the top bunk – On the train

Thu 4 Jul – day 54   The Transfer arrived right on time but his car (taxi) was a tip, however he got me to the station in plenty of time before my departure on train 134Й to Khabarovsk.  I am not looking forward to this trip as I had been allocated a top berth.

There were crowds of people on the platform and I hoped that most of them were ‘meeters & greeters’; this was highly likely because when anyone arrived or departed the whole family would be at the station to carry their bags.  Arrivals were given flowers and there would always be an odd number of them, as even numbers were for funerals; just one of the local customs.

The train was due to arrive at 08:30hrs (Moscow Time), 13:30hrs (local) and have a 26 minute stop.  Ten minutes before arrival the platform was announced, number 2, so everyone grabbed their bags, stepped down from the platform and walked across the tracks to get where they needed to be.  Imagine doing that at Crewe!!

The train arrived right on schedule and I had positioned myself towards the front of where it would stop on the assumption that carriage No 1 would be behind the engine and they would count back from there.  Correct, but it is not always the case.

As soon as the train came to a halt all the carriage doors opened except No 6, was there a problem, no, it was just that the Provodnista was a bit slow.  Eventually the door opened, the flap went up which automatically brought the steps down and she cleaned the hand rail before descending to the platform.

It was definitely ‘meet & greet’ time and for every arrival there was at least four or five people to give hugs and kisses.  Instead of moving away, they blocked the doorway, so I had to ease my way through and present my passport and ticket.  The passport was always closed so that the Provodnista could see the front cover and with the ticket inside at the photo page.  She jabbered away and pointed to the Number 12 on the ticket, but by now I know where I am going.  I heaved my bags onboard and climbed the steps, turned right passed the Provodnista station and the samovar and reached my compartment.  The door was locked, I knocked but nothing happened; so I took my rucksack off and went back to the entrance and gestured to the Provodnista that I wanted her to open the compartment door.  Up she came, but just as she reached for her key the door opened and a rather dishevelled man appeared.  She pointed to the top bunk, I nodded and then dumped my bags on the lower berth.

The compartment was slightly different to any of the others that I had been in before.  There was a proper ladder which was pulled out and then rotated so that it became rigid; when this had been done it blocked the entrance to the compartment.  I climbed up and started to stow my luggage in the area above the door and this took some time as the dishevelled man had a lot of bags and so everything had to be rearranged so to we could get it all in.

I was greeted by an Australian voice from the berth below mine and the gent said his name was Peter and that he was travelling home from the UK where he had been working on an IT project.  He had travelled from London to Moscow via the Ukraine due to problems trying to obtain a Belarus transit visa.

The corridor window directly outside our compartment was filthy and so it was almost impossible to see through, so I had to stand by the one forward so that I could see out.

We departed on time, over the bridge across the Uda River, a tributary of the Selenga River, and then the tracks made a 180° turn so that we were looking back to where we had just come from.  Shortly after we left the outskirts of the city the Trans-Mongolian line went off to the left and then up and over the tracks as it headed south and it was amazing to think that more than 3 weeks had past since I was going that way.

As I had been unable to print out the timetable for this train before I left home, I updated the one I had which was for another train supposedly running today.

The carriage was full and there were lots of families with young children, but few adults of working age.

Having consulted the guide books, The Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas was more detailed than the Lonely Planet Guide, and noted that there was nothing of interest for some time, I had a snooze.  The train made a couple of short stops, but I just closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep.  Eventually children’s voices woke me and there were 3 girls in the corridor playing games on an IPad, or the Russian equivalent.

I got up and went towards the entrance as the train slowed down for another stop; I showed the Provodnista the guidebook and pointed to where I thought we were, correct so now MT + 6.

Having decided to get some peace and quiet I gathered my belongings and asked the Provodnista where the restaurant car was – easy as pectopah is pronounced ris – ta – rah; she pointed towards the front of the train and lifted one finger, so just through one carriage.

The restaurant car was nice and cool and there were a few other passengers seating there, but they were just drinking beer.  I sat down on the left hand side and was facing the direction of travel; the coverings over the windows were made from string and beads, so I moved them to one side in order see out.

The menu was in Russian with an English translation, so I ordered chicken with fried potatoes, mushrooms and onions plus a beer.  As the meal would take a little while to arrive because it was freshly cooked, I updated the blog,

People were coming and going all time, mainly to have a beer or two and a group of soldiers who were drinking like there was no tomorrow suddenly departed when a group of their mates arrived.  Roll-call?

The food was tasty, well cooked and not that expensive.  The Balkita beer will probably cost more than the meal, but as it was so good I ordered another one.

We were travelling back the way I had come on Tuesday and so I was able to recognise many of the sights.  We were scheduled to reach Chita in the early hours of tomorrow morning, so it was unlikely that I would be taking a stroll along the platform.

When we stopped at small stations it was just like the Hurtigruten (Norwegian Coastal Voyage) as people came just to see the arrival and departure of the train.  These communities were so isolated that the arrival of the train was probably the highlight of the day.   One problem that I encountered was that almost every time the train arrived somewhere interesting there were sidings on either side filled with (mainly) empty coal wagons so it was difficult to see the view.

The colour of the tin roofs was interesting, in Mongolia they were mainly bright blue whereas here the predominant colour for houses was green, with industrial buildings were white.

At the 5884km marker we passed Bada Aeroport which had an old MIG fighter on a plinth

The train was running slightly late but no one seems to be very worried and there had been gangs out working on the tracks for the last 50 kms or so.  We pulled into Khilok about 24 minutes behind schedule and as this was the first long stop (19 mins) since the departure from Ulan-Ude, so all the smokers got off on to the narrow gravel strip between the tracks which acts as the platform.

When I ordered another beer, the waitresses wanted to know what I was doing, so by pointing to the map and using the guidebooks I was able to show where I had come from and where I was going to.  By now I could understand enough Russian to know that one of them wanted to come with me – but who will pay?

The Russians I have met are very verbal and once they have started talking it was almost impossible to understand what they were saying.  It was a very expressive language and had numerous words for the same thing where as English would have only one.

While we were stopped more empty coal wagons passed heading west; what will the world do once coal and other fossil fuels start to run down?  But this will not happen in my lifetime.

As we departed from Khilok there are still more than 48 hours to go before we are due to arrive in Khabarovsk.

With all the freight that is moving along this line, both east and westbound, you can understand why the Chinese are desperate to have a standard gauge line all the way to Europe as it will allow them to move containers quicker and at a lower cost than by sea.

As dusk fell and the lights were switched on I was still in the dining car and a few more people entered to have a meal, snack or just a beer before bedtime.  I was asked to move as there was a storage area under the seat containing lots of instant meals; this was by far and away the best of the three Russian restaurant cars that I have been in so far.

A number of people whom I have met asked how I could travel on my own; simple I like my own space and time so that I can do what I want and when I want to do it.  This was life as the Russians live it and it was all the more real for it.

It was now 21:30hrs and I had ordered another beer – some customers were made to pay for their beer as it was served, but not the Englishman as I was obviously considered a safe bet.

I was not sure whether it was because I was writing or that I had a camera in front of me, but I was obviously the object of some curiosity although no one said anything, it was just the looks I got.

The light was now fading fast, but the sunset was not as dramatic as when I was heading west on Monday.

When I return to the UK my e-mails to the Man in Seat 61 will be long and detailed as his website is the bible for rail travellers and the links made planning this trip much easier that it would have been if I had to do all the research myself.

Having paid the bill and left a good tip I headed back to my compartment, but as soon as I had left the restaurant car I was hit by a wall of stinking smoke, what do they put in Russian cigarettes?

The children are still up and running up and down the corridor, but I ignored them and having reached my compartment climbed up on to my bunk and stowed all my gear, then it was shirt off and lay down.

Because of the old-fashioned design of the compartment my upper bunk was a few inches shorter than the lower one and you had to try and get your feet around the securing chain so it made it difficult to stretch out.  Finding a comfortable position was almost impossible, but I obviously managed it as I eventually dropped off to sleep


Fri 5 Jul – day 55  We went over the highest point, 1040m or 3412ft amsl, on the whole of the Trans-Siberian route at Yablonovaya which was 74km before Chita where we arrived just after 02:00hrs.  This was a long stop and despite the time of day some people were still getting off to stretch their legs or have a smoke.

The man occupying the other top berth was departing, but I just went back to sleep.  I was not sure if someone else occupied that berth during the night, or whether it was just my eyes playing tricks, but when I awoke at 06:00hrs it was empty.

I finally arose at 07:00hrs and had a strip wash in cold water (again); freezing cold water was dripping down from the air-con unit in the ceiling.  Having put my wash bag and towel back on my bunk I was able to sit in the corridor as there were very few people about this early in the day.  Peter and the other gent in the compartment rise and I said “Good Morning” to the Provodnista when she appeared; she smiled even though she probably didn’t understand what I had said.

This will be a long day and I was waiting for the first long stop so that I could get off to stretch my legs and get some proper fresh air.  I climbed back up to my berth and had ½ hours snooze, then awoke as the train made yet another short stop.  I decided to go and have some breakfast so off to the restaurant car.  I ordered coffee and a cheese sandwich and while I waited for it to arrive, the drunken looking bloke from last night was back and drinking beer at 09:30hrs in the morning.

We were climbing steadily upwards as the train made its way over the end of a low range of mountains and the tracks followed the banks of a river that was flowing westwards.

There were a number of short stops of 2 to 3 minutes each when the occasional person got on or off, but the train was soon moving again.

At 10:34hrs we made our first long stop of the day at Chernyshevsk-Zabaykalsk and we were 6587km from Moscow; just outside the station Babushkas had set up stalls and were making filled rolls to order, I got two by just pointing at what I wanted – sign language made things so easy.  I also bought a large bottle of coke as I needed a change from bottled water.

Peter was flat on his berth with tummy trouble and the Russian gent had been smoking again, so his clothes reeked of stale tobacco.

After we departed I had yet another snooze as this was a great way for time to pass while there was nothing to do.

By the time we reach Zilovo we were more than an hour late and all the freight trains were being diverted in sidings to allow us to pass.  No one knew what the problem was, but what looked like an inspection train was being made ready for departure.

I had another snooze and was woken up by a strange noise; looking over the side of the bunk I saw a balding head slurping noodles, not a pretty sight or sound.

Having watched the world go by for some time I decided to go have something to eat in the restaurant car, so I took my bits and pieces and made my way forward and sat on the right hand side of the train so that I could see the distance markers.  While I waited for the waitresses to arrive I started to update the blog, my order was pork escalope, potatoes, mushrooms, onions and veg with a beer

The sun was very bright and together with the very dirty windows it made taking photographs rather difficult.

The carriage containing my berth was certainly in the worst condition of all those that I had travelled in and desperately needed an upgrade because even the new external paint work could not disguise its poor condition.  The windows were held in the wooden frames by insulating foam and even this was coming away, there were bare lino floors, most of the doors jammed and there was not clock in the corridor displaying Moscow Time.

When the meal arrived I had already drunk ½ of the beer, a rather excellent brew from the Lake Baikal establishment.  The food was hot and tasty and certainly the best that I have had on a Russian train, so I treated myself to another beer.

Having finished my meal I just sat back and watched the world go by while I finished the beer.

Back in the compartment the Russian gent was dressed with his bag packed and ready to depart.  He will have to wait a little longer than expected as the train was falling further and further behind schedule.

When he finally disembarked any thoughts I had of moving to the lower berth were immediately dashed as it was occupied immediately by a lady; so out in to the corridor while she got changed.

I was just killing time now as I sat on one of the drop seats in the corridor, but this meant that I had to stand up every time someone wanted to get passed.

The landscape varied from forested hills and valleys, to open heath land, then fields filled with crops and back to forests again.  Human settlements came and went and we made the occasional stop.  When it was of any length the Babushkas were always on the platform with their goodies.

Dusk fell quickly so I prepared for bed, while the lady in the garish coloured lycra and the lady in the designer torn jeans were still standing in the corridor.  The children were still full of life, charging up and down so burning of their excess energy.  The two babies were carried or walked every so often and they cried infrequently – thank heavens.

So it is back in to the compartment and another (the last) night in a top bunk.  Having stowed all my gear away I tried to make myself comfortable and had to lie on my right hand side in order to get my feet around the supports, but this obviously made my shoulder ache, so I was half on my back and half on my side.  The main light went out and I dozed off.


Sat 6 Jul – day 56  I awoke when the Provodnista came into give the lady a shake, but had no idea what time it was and must have gone straight back to sleep when she left.  Then woken again by movement – 2 men have arrived and were making up their berths, so I switched on the light and looked at my watch, 02:20hrs.  Put watch down, switch off the light and back to sleep.

The next thing I knew was that it was 05:00hrs, so dropped off again before getting up just after 06:00hrs.  I went to do my ablutions just as we arrived at a station so had to wait until we had departed and the loos were unlocked.  The Provodnista on night duty didn’t smile much, but when you are on constant nights and it was pitch black outside what was there to smile about?

Strip wash in cold water for the penultimate time and having put my wash bag and towel back on my bunk, I sat in the corridor so it didn’t disturb anybody.

The day Provodnista came out of her compartment and set off to the loo wearing a blue housecoat.   A few other people (mainly men) came out of their compartments, went to the toilet and then retired back to their berths.  One of the Mums had her baby in her arms as she walked down the corridor to fill the bottle from the samovar and then went back to her compartment ready for the first feed of the day.

As very little was happening I checked the distance markers and found that during the night we has passed 7075km point which was the administrative boundary between Siberia and the Far Eastern Territories and just 2214km from the end of the line in Vladivostok.  So still virtually the whole width of Europe still to travel.

Back to my berth for a snooze just as the young lad in the opposite lower berth was getting ready to leave.

At the next stop I got up to establish exactly how late we were, 1 hour 26 minutes, so we had made up nearly ½ hour overnight.  As this was the first of just two long stops today I got off to stretch my legs and get some fresh air; due to the early hour few people joined me on the platform.  Outside the station building was an abstract sculpture which I though must be fairly recent (post Soviet era) as it did not depict the heroic worker that you see at most locations.

Back onboard and off to the restaurant car for breakfast, coffee and a cheese sandwich again.  As soon as we departed it was we crossed yet another river, the umpteenth on this journey and before the arrival of the railway these were the arteries of commerce.

We were now 7805km from Moscow and having checked the timetable were still way behind schedule.

After the short stop at Svobodny we crossed the Zeya River we were now on the Zeysko-Bureinskaya Plain which was the granary for the Russian Far East, so the whole area was under cultivation.

I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon either peering through the grim streaked windows or on my bunk asleep.

Belogorsk was the second and last long stop of the day and here a statue of Lenin stood in front of the booking hall.  A group of soldiers emerged from a Platskart carriage then formed up before being marched away.  The long stops were being cut short as we tried to make up time, now just 1 hour 7 minutes behind schedule and the Provodnista’s shout to ensure that everyone gets back onboard.

At the last stop before we moved to MT + 7 railway police came down the corridor with two men in handcuffs so everyone got out of the way PDQ.

At times the landscape could be rural England, gently rolling hills covered with trees and cattle in the pasture.

The train slowed down to a crawl as we passed some major engineering works , on one side they were piling to stop the hillside coming down on to the tracks and on the other side piling to stop the tracks sliding down the hill in to the river below.

Peter had recovered from his tummy bug and was reading a book about the Balkans from the early 1900’s until the present day, so we had a chat about how politics in the area had impacted on rail and other methods of travel.  The narrow gauge line that used to run to Dubrovnik was no more, a shame as that would have been a great way to arrive.

In the last 20km the train had been through more tunnels than on the whole of the journey so far and there were more sweeping turns as the train made its way downhill.

At a short stop a lady entered the compartment so we all left so that she could get changed.

I was getting bored so had another snooze, then one hour before the scheduled arrival I started to pack and then had a strip wash as this old carriage had few windows that would open so it was hot and I had got a bit sweaty.  Changed into a polo shirt and trousers in the loo and then finished packing when I got back to the compartment.  All three gents will be getting off in Khabarovsk and Peter and I have the most to sort out; the other gent (a Ukrainian) had just a day sac, while the lady had a small suitcase but a very large handbag.

Having stripped my berth and handed the bedding back to the Provodnista, I stood in the corridor as it started to get dark.  A large number of people are getting ready to leave and this included the lady with the bright ginger hair who had been wearing a number of brightly coloured paisley patterned kaftans.  The children were playing ‘stuff paper through the air vets’; whatever keeps them amused!!

It was too dark to take photos as we crossed the Amur River on what is the longest bridge on the Trans-Sib; 2.6km and doubled decked with cars on the lower level.

It was pitch dark as we crept off the bridge and towards the station; 1½ hours behind schedule and the first and hopefully only late arrival of my whole trip.

I was first off and the Transfer was there with my name on a piece of paper; Peter’s transfer was also waiting.  There was no offer to help with my bags so I handed him my day sac and off we headed down the platform; it was crowded with passengers who had got off for a break plus those waiting to board.  The biggest jams were at the entrances to the Platskart carriages.  A freight train coming along the tracks on the other side of the platform was hooting like mad to get people out of the way.

Up a long flight of steps (how do disabled people cope?) and then down again to the car park.  Having loaded the taxi we had to take the long way around to get to my hotel as it was right turn only outside the station.  Not much traffic about, but we also hit three drunks as they staggered across the road.

It’s 23:00hrs by the time I reach my hotel and as I walked through the door the receptionist said “Mr David Smith?”  She had all the paperwork ready so it was just 2 signatures and then I handed over my passport for registration.  The lady spoke good English and when I explained why I was late was amazed that I had arrived by train.  No problem about a late check out tomorrow and the security man gave me a hand with my bags up to my room, but left before I could give him a tip.

I stripped off and had a nice hot shower and having cleaned my teeth felt great.

This was the end of week eight and seven days ago I was on the train having just left Beijing!!