All Aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Photo of a Russian train in SiberiaBloggers Note:  Today’s blizzard got me thinking of Siberia, so I exiled myself to my computer and resized a few photos, which don’t quite do the terrain justice.  I wrote this piece in 1997 not too long after I got home and hoped to sell it to the Newark Star-Ledger or the NY Times.  No such luck, but here it is.  – Ted

Let’s play word association. I say Siberia. You say the first five words that pop into your head.

"Snow, Dr. Zhivago, Snow, Bears, Snow, and Exiles."

No points for repeats–I’ll give you one for bears, and allow Dr.
Zhivago, but you won’t find any snow in Siberia in the summertime, and
the exiles living in Siberia now are there of their own free will, so
are no longer exiles at all. So what does happen in Siberia these days?

"Why would you want to go there?" Vaidas, my Lithuanian friend asked. Siberia is a place that people don’t visit voluntarily. Only fifteen years ago "Siberia" meant isolation from the rest of the world with no chance of coming back. Fifteen years later it still means isolation, but you’re free to come and go as you please. Why go? The iron curtain shielded Siberia from western tourists unless they were tailed by an Intourist guide who showed them what officials wanted you to see. Today you’re free to peek behind the veil and unlock Siberia’s mysteries.

Siberia is home to the taiga, the world’s largest evergreen forest and Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. The great Trans-Siberian Railway cuts a six thousand mile path from Moscow, to Vladivostok Russia’s Pacific seaport. The trip lasts seven days, and crosses seven time zones. It is the ultimate rail adventure.

"Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian?" I am traveling with my friend Matt Volz. We’ve just completed a two year tour with the Peace Corps in Lithuania, and want to take the long way home and circle the globe. Matt stopped shaving just for this trip in case we hit any trouble along the way. He can grow a full beard in three days–in three weeks he could be an honorary member of ZZ Top. We are standing at ticket window number two at Moscow’s Yaroslavl Railway Station, and the line of people behind us wasn’t growing any friendlier.

"Well–why don’t we do both?" I always want to have my cake and eat it too. "Can’t we buy the tickets here for both legs of the trip?" I ask. Matt studied Russian in college. He asks the tired Russian Railways clerk behind bulletproof glass if it’s possible to break your journey.

She types in a few keystrokes, bangs the dusty computer display and says "nyet" and throws her hands up in the air with an expression that says "buy something. Now."

We bought tickets to Irkutsk and would have to take our chances with the clerk there. I have faith in Matt. And if not, we could try to bribe someone to sneak us onboard.

A bag is never heavy when it is lying on the bed in your room while packing it. Try putting it on your back for a while and walking around. If you really want a challenge try running through the streets of Moscow an hour before your train leaves and going up and down escalators on their super-efficient subway system. You’ll be packing light for the rest of your life. By the time we reach the train we’re drenched. We handed our ticket booklet to the "provodnika"–the flight attendant of the rails. She waved us on and escorted us down the narrow hall to our cabin, where we’d be living for the next four days until we reached Irkutsk.

The cabin is about the size of an average American closet. OK. I’m exaggerating, I mean a walk in closet in an upper-middle class American home. There is a bed on each side that doubles as a couch during the day, a small table, complete with a tea pot, cups, saucers and a vase with plastic flowers beside the window and a shelf with a five inch black and white color television. The train whistled and pulled out of the station. We poured a ceremonial shot of vodka to mark the successful beginning of our trip.

"Do you know Chicago Bulls?" a pudgy Russian boy with close cropped hair and a set of keys to the train’s doors and windows asks me.

"Yes." I answer tentatively.

"They are excellent team. What team do you like?"

I learn that Sasha Ankin is the head conductor’s son, and that this is his first trip across Siberia with his father. He is disappointed that I have never met Michael Jordan, but pleased to talk to someone from the land of the Chicago Bulls. His father is busy running the train, and he seems happy to have found us.

Tsarevich Nicholas began construction of the railway in May 1891 to link Russia’s far east to the West. To this day it is the only overland route through from Moscow to the pacific coast. (Imagine America without Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.) The train was not designed for tourists. It only stops for a few minutes at a time. The first time the train grinds to a halt is in Yaroslavl, some six hours outside of Moscow. The lanscape has changed to the Russian steppe–green plains that fade into the horizon.

In the old days when the train came from Moscow it meant that the townies at the station stops would board because the provisions on the train were for sale. Now, the dining car is empty, but babushkas, grandmothers with gold capped teeth and scarves covering their white hair crowd the train selling potato pancakes, salads, and sausages. Matt and I stopped at a supermarket before we left Moscow and loaded up on instant soups but are eager to sample the local fare.

"What did you buy?"

"Don’t know. Want some?" I push the greasy brown pastry towards Matt. He recoils.

"Let me know how it is."

After two years in the Peace Corps, you’ll eat anything. It was filled with soft white cheese, certainly home made, and had little pieces of scallions inside. It would have tasted better hot, but it wasn’t bad warm. Since "one please" was the extent of my Russian vocabulary I was happy with my purchase.

"Sasha, when are we going to see the taiga?"

"You’ll know. That’s what my dad says. I ask him."

"How is it any different than this?" I gesture outside the window–a blur or birch trees and green meadow."

"You will now–I don’t know how to say, but you’ll know."

Sasha wasn’t the only Russian to have trouble describing the taiga, a forest that size defies description. Here’s what Anton Chekov had to say: "You don’t pay attention to it on the first day of travel; in the second and third day, you are surprised; the forth and fifth day give you a feeling that you’ll never get out of that monster of the earth."

Anyone who looks at a map will tell you that Russia is big. If you ride across it you’re likely to say it’s vast. Like Chekov, we wondered if we would ever get out, but four days and four time zones later we arrived in Irkutsk–the halfway point for the train, which would continue on to Vladivostok, but time for us to hop off and see Lake Baikal, the pearl of Siberia.

Russians often refer to Baikal as the Holy Sea, and speak of it in reverent tones. They also inevitably rattle off a stream of statistics that boggle the mind. The official tourist map is no exception. "Baikal forms a gigantic 636 kilometer long fresh water reservoir shaped as a half moon in a mountain hollow. Its greatest width is 86.6 km and its area exceeds 31,500 square kilometers. It has a depth of over 1,000 meters and plunges to 1637 meters at its deepest point." 335 rivers feed Baikal, but only one empties out–the Angara.

And as if the physical dimensions weren’t enough, the area teems with wildlife. Lake Baikal, like the Galapagos islands, is an ecosystem that grew up in isolation. Birds, plants and animals that exist there, exist no where else in the world and have even spawned their own field of study "Baikology."

Buses run every few hours from Irkutsk and drop you off one hour later in Listvyanka, beside the lake. Our bus slowed down to let a heard of cattle cross the road to graze beside the lake–an ocean in the middle of a sea of evergreen trees, extending into the horizon.

One story goes that Stalin liked a building so much he had it built fifty-five times. Every new part of a Soviet city looks just like all of the other new parts, so that if you blindfolded someone and dropped them down in the middle of one they wouldn’t be able to tell you if you were in Irkutsk, Moscow or Vilnius. The area around lake Baikal is a notable exception. When you step off the bus you feel as though you stepped 100 years into the past. Colorful log cabins dot the roadside. The space age "Baikal" intourist hotel even seems to blend into the mountainside. This is the Russia I waited two years to see.

In the winter it even has snow, and the ice on the lake is so thick that you could drive a truck across it. For now, we soak our tired feet in the icy waters, and look out over a place that looked the same as it did thousands of years ago–no longer a mystery. Baikal awaits anyone willing to brave the taiga and make the journey. You could fly, but the train gives you a sense of vastness, and will definitely help improve your score the next time that someone wants to play word association with you and mentions, "Siberia."

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