You may think that you can imagine what’s going on in the wagons of the Transsiberian Express. You may say you have read books, heard stories, seen the movie, travelled a bit yourself, and can guess more or less the atmosphere and possible events. But, seriously, whatever you come up with, you will be wrong. The experience on the train will be different from whatever you have dreamed about, and not necessarily in a bad way.
First of all, it is a train of rules. These rules are known to everyone, except the first-time-traveller of course. And the rules, all 102 of them, are enforced by the King/Queen of the train – pravodnik/pravodnitsa (on the photo). These are hardworking very very very serious- (if not mean-) looking people who have to take care of up to 54 people (the number of people in one 3rd class, platskaart, wagon) for x days in a row. I still haven’t figured out how they to it, but they keep everything under control, the wagon and the toilets clean, hot water running, give out sheets and sell dry noodles, turn the lights off at 23 and like magic… there is no-one in the wagon who is shouting or disturbing anyone. The oh-so-macho Russian men suddenly become obedient elementary school pupils and either start whispering or leave the wagon.
Secondly, one completely loses track of time. After travelling through 5 time zones, and spending more that 100 hours on the train, guessing the right time and even the day becomes a kind of a sport. It seems that the whole train operates on a secret code that one has to crack: my watch was on Estonian time, the clock on the wall always shows Moscow time, the lights are shut according to the local time, and the restoranwagon doesn’t care about time. This complete disorientated floating of hours-minutes-seconds gives way to constant sleeping, dreaming, longing, and eventually, a kind of zen meditation. There is only the train, the drumming sound of the wheels, the flying-by steppe and taiga… And no clue whatsoever where or when we are.
Then, there is the people. All the colorfully random people stuck together in one wagon who seamlessly become like old friends before the journey finishes. Everything happens: we shared our food, they offered theirs, this weird man with 2 children just didn’t stop giving us candies, we saw family pictures, heard intimate stories, witnessed severe Russian parenting, were offered advice on trekking around Baikal, some people invited us to their homes, wrote down phone numbers to call in case of help needed, etc. The weirdest things, of course, happen when bottles are opened, and so we met a guy who, as a token of his friendship and a symbol of good luck, first gave us a number of his wagon and kupe, and after our firm refusal, a big golden key of his apartment. Unfortunately he never told us the address.
Mmm, and the food and drink. We, as budget travellers, were eating mostly quick noodles and Estonian sandwiches, but all the different things we tasted on the train, and the marvellous Russian traditional samplings (piroshki, plemeny, vareniki, ogurtsy etc) offered during the train stops by numerous babushkas seemed like an endless trip to an affordable Russian restaurant. Juliette, our dear French gourmande, adored Russian cuisine, approved the Russian sparkling wine but completely disregarded the fake-French (actually Moldavian, the restoranwagon waitress said) horribly sweet wine.
All in all (of course I can not tell you all the details because Juliette’s parents are reading the blog) it is the best trainride I have ever taken and I’m curiously looking forward to the Irkutsk-Ulaanbator bit.