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To the end of the line – On the train

Sun 7 Jul – day 57  The late check-out meant that I could have a shower before leaving to catch the train, so I felt clean and fresh after being outside on such a hot day.

Having finished packing I went down to reception and paid from the Harbin beer that I had from the mini-bar last night.

The taxi arrived slightly early so after saying my goodbyes I was off to the station – the taxi had air-con which was great.

I had arrived in plenty of time, so having tipped the taxi driver and put my ruck sack on my back and then wheeled the suitcase into the station.  This was yet another impressive building as were the majority of stations that I had been too.  There were metal detectors at all the entrances which pinged away as people walked through them, but the police were paying no attention whatsoever and anyway it was possible to walk straight on to the platform from the street.

The last leg of my trip across Russia was the journey from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok onboard train 006Э – The Ocean.  This was the overnight high-quality Firmenny train that ran daily and it was everything that you would expect from a train of this standard; even the upper berths were made before people boarded.  The carriages were on track 1, so right outside the station building which meant that I would not have to lug my bags up the stairs as I had to do last night.  Having located my carriage which was towards the rear of the train and still shut as it was too early for boarding, I went back inside as it was still very hot even though it was past 20:00hrs and decided to have a beer while I was waiting.

Eventually the platform number came up on the indicator board so everyone made their way outside; I headed for my carriage and just as I got there the door opened and the Provodnista wiped the hand rail before lifting the flap which allowed the lower step to drop.

She descended with her list in hand and was attired in a well styled grey shift dress which was topped off with a pill box hat; this was the same sort of outfit that the ladies on the Sapsan had been wearing.  This was an attractive uniform compared with some of the outfits that I had seen the Provodnista’s wearing, but she was still “She who must be obeyed”.  The lad in front of me in the queue found out to his cost when he handed over his ticket but not his ID card and even I could understand the curt comments as she told him to get to the back of the queue and have the necessary documents ready when he got to the front again.

To someone from the UK the need to carry an internal passport or other identifying documents seemed a strange concept, but it was said that during WW2 the British were the most documented nation on the planet.

I always had the ticket in my passport at the same page as the picture and most of the Provodnista / Provodnik did a double take when I handed over what I consider is still the best identity document in the world, the British passport, but their brain soon clicked in and after checking the photo and ticket I was always soon up the steps.

My compartment was in the middle of the carriage and this was where I had travelled on the vast majority of the trains so far.  Having stowed my luggage I closed the door and started to change, but it opened again and an Asian looking gent entered and put his bags on the other lower bunk.  He was not Chinese, but possibly had Mongol or Siberian ancestry.  He then left the compartment closing the door behind him so that I could finish changing.  When I had done so I opened the door and he came back in and sat opposite me and just stared in my direction.  I ignored him.

A young lad (20 ish) arrived and occupied the bunk above me, but was on the phone and continued to jabber away to someone.

Then a lady and gent arrived outside the compartment and started to say their fond farewells; at first it was not apparent which of them was travelling, but that dilemma was soon solved when the large white handbag was placed on the other top bunk.  Shortly before departure the gent left, no wedding ring, so I presumed that he was her boyfriend.  The gents all then left the compartment so that she could get changed; she locked the door as the sound of the latch engaging was unmistakeable.  We all stood in the corridor staring at the freight train three tracks away as there was nothing else to look at, but the young lad was still on the phone.

The latch went up and the door opened and we all entered and sat down; I had already made my bed after I had been given the bedding package by the relief Provodnista; she was a willowy lass on high heels and was wearing a crochet top and a very visible black bra.

The Asian gent and lady were sitting across from me and they stared at me as if I was the man from Mars.  The lady said something in Russian, so I pointed to myself and said English, American she asked, no English I replied.  I think that she found it hard to understand that an English speaking person could be anything other than an American, but this was easy to understand when you consider that Seattle and Vancouver were closer to Vladivostok than Moscow.

They continue to stare at me as the train departed and we awaited the arrival of the Provodnista; when she arrived she sat on my berth and jabbered away in Russian while she sorted out our tickets.  In the case of the other three she sorted out which of the counterfoils she want to take from their tickets, but as mine was a single printed ticket she tore it across the chip and pin logo.

Then off she went and I was stared at again.  I stared back for some time, but as none of the others spoke even a modicum of English I decided that I’d had enough of this, so having gathered my bits and pieces headed for the restaurant car.

Most of the tables were taken and those that weren’t either had reserved signs on or were piled up with ‘stuff’ that obviously belonged to the staff.

This was by far and away the busiest restaurant car that I had been in, but as it was a Sunday evening the train was full as people were travelling after a weekend break.  On most Russian trains I had been the only patron, but here I doubled up with a gent who was having soup.  He stared at me until he left when I moved to the other side of the table so that I was facing the direction of travel.  Was it my attire, smell or general demeanour that made everyone stare at me?  I had no idea and as I do not speak enough Russian to be able to communicate and find out, I just ignored it.

All the beer on the menu was foreign, not even a Baikali on offer, so rather than a German, Czech or heaven forbid American, I chose a Harbin, Chinese and cold.  I ordered pork and veg with potatoes, mushrooms and onions.  Even the staff in the restaurant car were in uniform and service was quick and efficient and the food was very good; lots of it so very filling.

I had another beer as I watched the sun set and the train was travelling virtually due south with the Chinese border away to our right.  For many years this had been a very sensitive area as it was so close to the border and that was why passenger trains only ran at night.  As the best Trans-Sib train, the Rossiya, now does this trip in daylight it would be interesting to travel on it just to see the scenery and find out what all the fuss was about.

After a good meal and certainly the best that I had eaten on a Russian train I returned to my compartment; most of the doors were closed as people were settling down for night because for the vast majority of them tomorrow would be a working day.

When I opened the door the other three are in bed, but the main light was still on as it was controlled by the Provodnista.  The Asian looking man stared at me again, so I climbed into bed, turned my back on him and tried to sleep.  Just before midnight the main light went out, but the compartment light was still on and no one got up to switch it off.


Mon 8 Jul – day 58  I needed to go to the loo as the beer had worked its way through my system, so flip flops on and I padded off down the corridor.  This was certainly a high-class train as the compartments were carpeted and the corridor carpet had a protective covering over it – similar to the one that I had help lay in Yekaterinburg weeks ago.  The toilets in the carriage were the best of any train that I had been on since I left Warsaw.

My only complaint would be that all the windows were kept locked, even the one in the toilet.  I know that the carriage was air-conditioned, but a good blast of fresh air does the world of good.

Back in the compartment I switched off the light before getting back on to my berth; the train may be modern, but the berth was hard and as the air was hot I took off my shirt.  It was difficult to get comfortable, so I just dozed – I awoke to see an arming dangling down from the berth above and as the curtains were not drawn, glimpses of the stars.  The hard berth made my shoulder ache and it had not been this bad for a long time; I need a soft bed, but I was not going to get one at my hotel in Vladivostok if the guidebook was correct.

Eventually as dawn breaks I got up and carrying my wash bag and clothes go off to the toilet; it was occupied as there were a number of people up and about ready to get off at the first stop at 06:05hrs.  It was a strip wash in cold water and hopefully for the very last time on this trip.  Having dressed and put my ‘stuff’ back in the compartment I stood in the corridor as the train headed for the end of the line.

It was not light enough for a photo when we passed the tracks running off to the south that led to North Korea, but I could easily see the line curving away into the distance.  I doubt whether I will ever make a journey in that direction.  Then there was a junction where tracks headed north to the port that served as the ferry terminal when Vladivostok was a closed city.

The first glimpse of the sea was not particularly inspiring as it was a misty morning so the visibility was not good; the guidebook said that this was the Pacific Ocean, but it was in fact the Sea of Japan.

The tracks ran alongside the water until we started to enter the city, then they headed inland with blocks of old Soviet era apartments on both sides; they look very drab and depressing.

The train started to slow down and then came to a stop in the station and we had arrived at the end of the Trans-Sib right on time and we were now 9288km from Moscow by rail.  The tracks actually headed further on to the docks and some suburban trains went to the very end of the line, but I was not going to bother just for the sake of it.

I had travelled 18363km on trains since I left home.

The lady and gent on the upper berth did not stir until we were virtually in the station and so I had to wait while she got changed before I could collect my bags.