Trans-Siberian Express through Russia

We only need to board our pre-booked compartment on the Trans-Siberian Express, but our driver insisted on coming into Moscow train station with us and waiting until our platform had been announced. This took a while, so we hung around outside the station bar and sank a few Lowenbrau beers and tried to make conversation with him in pidgin Russian and French. By the time the Trans-Siberian rolled in, we were rolling a bit ourselves.

As we walked the length of the train, looking for our assigned carriage, we noticed that standing in each doorway was a pair of Mongolian conductresses, each smartly dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt, sometimes a very short blue skirt.

All aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, Moscow to Beijing
All aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, Moscow to Beijing

We found our compartment, which was officially a four-berth but, because we’d paid for first class, there will only be two of us in it. It’s a tiny little space but our home for the next week or so. The train shook itself and then moved slowly out of Moscow station, destination Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and then Beijing in China, six thousand kilometres on the longest railway line in the world. I stuck my head out of the window and howled; I am on the Trans-Siberian Express!

Our compartment in a Mongolian carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express
Our compartment in a Mongolian carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express

Our carriage is full of travellers, we have Chileans and French on either side. As night fell, all six of us got amazingly sloshed on canned Tuborg from the restaurant car which is an arduous nine carriages away.

The next morning, we started to learn a few of the features of this train. Each carriage has a ladies’ and a gents’ toilet, but the gents’ on our carriage isn’t working. I tried to use the gents’ in the next carriage, but was firmly turned away by the conductress there, so our carriage’s toilet is now effectively unisex. Either way, it has no toilet paper, but luckily we brought some with us.

At the end of each carriage is a wood-fired samovar, tended by the conductress, which provides hot water for drinks. Although we did bring coffee and a press, there is no crockery or cutlery, and we didn’t think to bring any with us. However, with the aid of a pair of nail-scissors, we managed to fashion a flimsy coffee cup out of the base of a water bottle.

Along each corridor is a red woollen carpet, nailed to the wooden floor with long brass tacks that keep popping out. The conductress endlessly patrols this carpet, either sweeping it or hammering the tacks back in. I’ve already trodden on one of those tacks, which leaked blood everywhere, but worse than that the carpet sheds little pieces of red wool which get into every crevice of your luggage and which pile up in little drifts on the floor of each compartment.

On our first morning, we made the long trip to the restaurant car for breakfast. We gathered that although this particular train consists of Mongolian rolling stock (and therefore Mongolian staff), the restaurant car gets changed when we cross borders. Since we are still in Siberia, the restaurant car is Russian, but will be exchanged for a Mongolian one at the border town of Naushki. We sat down to a pleasant dish of potatoes fried with dill and garlic, with a side of pickled cucumbers, plus our own pressed coffee in a borrowed water glass.

At about lunchtime, the train pulled in to a station. It looked pretty quiet and desolate, but we got out anyway to stretch our legs. Suddenly there was an explosion of elderly ladies, sprinting across the tracks and ducking under trains, carrying trays of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, smoked fish, bread, and even cling-filmed plates of fresh hot food. I bought some freshly roasted chicken with boiled potatoes, and Bronwyn scored a couple of salted gherkins from a plastic bucket. We also managed to buy some sturdier soft drink bottles so that we could make better coffee cups. Just about everything cost 100 roubles (about two English pounds) per item. The chicken tasted superb, far less bland than the stuff sold in Western supermarkets, and the potatoes were wonderful.

All this time, we had been chugging across a rather monotonous flat Siberian landscape of birch, pine, and the occasional open field. At the base of the Urals, our old engine was exchanged for a new one. We started to climb, but slowly. Were the birches looking a little thinner?

The trees thinned out into grasslands. Occasionally we passed a rock-crushing plant or train repair yard, and now and again a village of wooden houses. There were no signs of crops apart from some extensive market gardens behind some of the houses, and – very occasionally – some hay ricks, although it wasn’t clear what the hay was for, as we didn’t see any farm animals.

Fairly typical view of Siberia from the Trans-Siberian Express
Fairly typical view of Siberia from the train window
The occasional cluster of buildings, with market gardens, from the Trans-Siberian Express
The occasional cluster of buildings, with market gardens

The Trans-Siberian isn’t really about the outside world, it’s all about the microcosm that is the train, and it didn’t take long for us to fall into its rhythm. In the morning, after sweeping out the night’s accumulation of red dust-balls, we’d hang out in our compartment and catch up on our reading. During the day, we’d hang out of the window and watch the world go by. Occasionally a freight train would trundle past on the other track. We’d snack on yesterday’s left-overs and wait patiently for the next stop, where we would leap out and grab meat, beer, ice cream, whatever was being sold by the ladies on the platform. In the afternoon, we would entertain visitors (our largely empty carriage was always popular with people travelling second class). In the evenings, we would party.

The world trundles by in a relaxing blur, on the Trans-Siberian Express
The world trundles by in a relaxing blur
Passing strangers, on the Trans-Siberian Express
Passing strangers
The Readings 'at home' on the Trans-Siberian Express
The Readings ‘at home’

And then, one night, near the tail end of an exceptionally good party, our compartment suddenly filled with armed police who confiscated our passports and made Bronwyn pour all our glasses down a sink. Then they took away our few remaining bottles of booze, including a rather expensive bottle of French wine that I had in my luggage for a special occasion. It was all a bit of a surprise, and since we didn’t have any languages in common, somewhat mysterious.

A few days later, they returned with an interpreter, who attempted to explain. It seems that each train has a contingent of police who live in one of the rear carriages. They told some story about us keeping other guests awake, but since the party had extended the full length of our carriage and included not only everyone in every compartment but also some people from other carriages, we could only infer that we were keeping our conductress awake and that she had made a complaint. At any rate, they gave us our passports back, suggested that we should party in the restaurant car instead of our carriage, and said that my special wine bottle would be returned to me when we arrived in Ulan Bator.

That night, we all went to the restaurant car and drank them out of beer. The two elderly Russian ladies who ran the restaurant shuffled calmly to their supply fridge and re-stocked. These ladies were great, they were everybody’s great-grandmother, fussing around the tables in their flowered dresses and permed hair. In the day, they liked to sit in the corner and snooze, and by night they slept on the floor of the restaurant. Before long we were clearing up the glasses for them, and when we’d finished the second cabinet-full of beer, we waved them to stay seated and just helped ourselves directly from the supply fridge while they smiled and waved their gratitude. We’d been drinking some fairly boring lager up until now, but I found a whole cache of more interesting beers in a back corner of the supply fridge, which was nice.


One peculiar thing about the train is that it always keeps Moscow time regardless of the fact that it traverses seven time zones. This means that the concepts of ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ drift considerably from the day outside; midday outside now corresponds to about six in the morning train time, which introduces a certain amount of jet-lag (train-lag?) in the staff. After a while, we realised that the two ladies were nodding off, so we bought some more beers and left them to make up their beds on the floor. We didn’t want to have a repeat of the police fiasco, so rather than returning to our carriages, we decided to party in the tiny space between the restaurant carriage and the rest of the train. That worked too.

One of the few real towns was Omsk, which seemed large and prosperous, and had actual kiosks on the platform instead of mobile vendors. We bought hot chicken and bananas and thought we’d have a quick look around the town, but there were armed police everywhere who were preventing passengers from leaving the platform. In fact it was here and at another station close to Irkutsk that we realised that many of the platform vendors weren’t locals at all, they were actually travelling on our train with us, and hopping off at the stations to sell goods to the locals. In the stations with a heavy police presence, they simply sold clothing and plastic goods out of the train windows.

Suddenly a lot of things fell into place. I had wondered at the purpose of all these tiny little communities in the wilds of Siberia. What were these people doing out here? But now I realised that it is the train that is their raison d’ĂȘtre, without the train there would be no people. It is a nine thousand kilometre linear village, which has sprung up alongside the necessity to ship ore from one side of this enormous country to the other.

Many of our fellow travellers disembarked at Lake Baikal, but we had some deadlines to stick to so we stayed on board. We’ll see the world’s deepest freshwater lake on another occasion.

Houses on the shore of Lake Baikal, from the Trans-Siberian Express
Houses on the shore of Lake Baikal

We likewise passed through Ulan Ude, which seemed to be a pleasant and prosperous city. Scattered amongst the Soviet-era apartment blocks were smart new houses, and closer to the tracks were the same kind of wooden home that we have seen all the way across Siberia, each with its own market garden packed with vegetables and fruit.

The railway here is also lined with lock-up garages. Some of them appear to be derelict, but others have been fitted with chimneys and new roofs. Do people live in them, or do the owners keep a fire burning to keep the cars from freezing in winter? We could not tell.

Garages with chimneys near Ulan Ude, from the Trans-Siberian Express
Garages with chimneys near Ulan Ude

Brightly coloured paintwork was common on private houses. I was amused to see that the most common colours were pale blue and pale green, both of a shade usually to be found only on railway stations, signal boxes and signal poles.

Nice paint. Looks familiar. Any idea where can I get some?
Nice paint. Looks familiar. Any idea where can I get some?

We got a new engine for the final run down into Ulan Bator, this time a smoky diesel. Close now to the Mongolian border, the terrain changed completely. The railway lifted up onto an embankment as it followed a small river that wound its way through an old flood-plain, with a small range of hills rising up on either side. The flat plain was purple with heads of wild garlic, but it was the scent of a badly tuned diesel that drifted in through the window. It wasn’t long before my hands and face were black with grease. Never mind, Mongolia is just around the corner.

Heading for Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express
Heading for Mongolia

Red Square and the Kremlin

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square is enormous. Everybody tells you that, and they are all correct. Everybody also says that it’s too big to photograph, and they are right too. It is bounded on one long side by the red outer wall of the Kremlin, and on the other by the enormous and expensive GUM shopping mall.

Not even one whole side! This picture of GUM on Red Square was taken by Cheryl Westwood
Not even one whole side of Red Square! I’ve used Cheryl Woodhouse’s picture of GUM, because I couldn’t take one.

In the Soviet era, GUM carried the same products at the same prices as any other store in the USSR, but because of its proximity to the Kremlin, it tended to actually have items in stock, so enormous queues used to build up outside. During Perestroika, the GUM morphed into a collection of expensive boutiques and jewellery shops, and now no Muscovite shops there, because it is cheaper for them to fly to Italy to buy those same products. Indeed, every shop that we passed, with its expensive wares and guarded by impeccably dressed and very bored staff, was completely empty of customers.

Colourful signage inside GUM, Red Square
Colourful Olympic signage inside GUM

At one of the short ends of the square is the Resurrection Gate, rebuilt like much else in this area after it was torn down by the Soviet regime so that tanks could roll unobstructed into Red Square for parades. At the other end is of course St Basil’s, which is exactly as beautiful as you hoped it will be, and which somehow managed to survive the communist era because it was used as an armoury.

The cathedrals of Red Square are really incredible confections
The cathedrals of Red Square are really incredible confections. On the left is the Nikolas Tower.

On our visit, the central part of the square was fenced off while workers removed a temporary ice rink and put in stands for an upcoming display of military marching. We made our way down the fourth long side, past the long queue of people waiting to file past Lenin’s tomb, to see the changing of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

This quite lovely sculpture outside the Kremlin is usually hidden by fountains, but luckily for us they were cleaning it.
This quite lovely sculpture outside the Kremlin is usually hidden by fountains, but luckily they were cleaning it.

The Kremlin

We’d been told that obtaining tickets to The Kremlin was a complicated process, and indeed it was. Initially we queued at the entrance, and when we reached the front, we were told that we should have pre-bought tickets in the Alexander Gardens below. We left and found a little row of ticket cabins. Each one displays a poster showing different “technical break” times of half an hour, twice a day, at which time that cabin will suddenly close and leave the queue hanging until they open again. The game is to judge which of the cabin queues will allow you to get to the front before that queue has a technical break.

An additional complication is that tickets for the Armoury only come on sale at certain times, and go off sale when that ‘sceance’ is full. If you happen to reach the cashier after the end of one ‘sceance’ and before the start of another, then you are out of luck, which presumably explains why we were told that tickets for both the Nikolas tower and the Armoury were ‘impossible’. The nice lady did, however, allow us to buy a general admission ticket.

We queued up at the Kremlin entrance again, and on reaching the front, I was turned away because I was wearing a small backpack, much smaller than the hand bags being carried by the women who were being admitted in front of me. Perhaps I should have asked Bronwyn to carry it, but now I had to go back down to the gardens and check it in to a cloakroom. On my return, I was finally allowed in.

Finally inside the Kremlin, with the Tsar Cannon, the biggest in the world (but never fired)
Finally inside, with the Tsar Cannon, the biggest in the world (although it was never fired)

The Kremlin (fortress) contains five cathedrals and a palace, along with numerous political buildings which appeared to be undergoing major reconstruction. Our ticket entitled us to visit each cathedral and palace, and also the surrounding gardens. At each doorway, and elderly lady solemnly signed our tickets so that we could not pass that way again.

More cathedrals than you can shake a stick at, inside the Kremlin
More cathedrals than you can shake a stick at
More onions than you can shake a stick at, inside the Kremlin
More onions than you can shake a stick at

Inside, each cathedral was painted from floor to ceiling with saints in the usual Orthodox style. Each painting forms an icon, which church-goers pray to as an intermediary because they aren’t worthy to pray directly to their god. Instead of an altar, there are more icons, but these are individually painted on wood panels which are stacked in five or six rows up the wall. As individual icons get refurbished or gain popularity they are moved around between churches, and the upshot is that all the best and most powerful icons end up in the best and most powerful churches. Those churches are in the Kremlin, and many of their icons date back to the 14th century. This is all very interesting, but after five cathedrals full of them, we were quite tired of looking at icons.

We did try to get into the Armoury even without a ticket, but were politely turned away, so after a snack and a drink in the rather lovely gardens, we headed back out into the big city. We needed to buy some supplies before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The Moscow State Historical Museum, just outside the Kremlin walls
The Moscow State Historical Museum, just outside the Kremlin walls


Waiting at the Aeroflot terminal in Riga, Latvia, we were becoming increasingly amused by the antics of a backpacker at the next gate. Two pretty girls were waiting to board the plane to Tashkent in Kazakhstan. It seemed that the young man had befriended them, and had suddenly bought a ticket to join them on their plane. It is technically possible to travel without a visa in the Baltic states if you have a letter of invitation from a local hotel or tour operator, but clearly he didn’t have one. I imagine that it would be possible to sort this out, perhaps by quietly greasing the wheels of commerce, but he wasn’t getting very far by declaiming wildly, “I don’t need a visa, because I am French!”

We had both visas and letters, so we left him to it and boarded our plane to Moscow. On our arrival, we emerged into the scrum of sign-wielding drivers and suddenly realised that we couldn’t be sure to recognise our name in Cyrillic. Eventually we established that none of them were waiting for us, but then a late arrival came hurrying up with a board carrying our names in Latin script.

Our transport wasn’t exactly a limo, in fact we climbed up into the front of a delivery van full of crates of vegetables. Several things immediately became clear. Firstly, there was something seriously wrong with the transmission, resulting in a serious rumbling vibration at speed. Secondly, we heard the rumble all the time because our driver went completely flat-out, treating all other traffic like obstacles in a video game, passing on one side or the other and using all of the available road, including both hard shoulders, exit ramps and lane dividers. We looked in vain for seat belts as the driver squeezed the big truck into spaces that wouldn’t accommodate a motorcycle.

The other drivers apparently regarded this behaviour with complete equanimity, without a hint of squealing tyres or honking horns. However, I only saw one other vehicle driving in a similar manner, and that was a taxi that incredibly managed to weave in front of us on one of the hard shoulders.

Eventually we arrived at a securely guarded gate and were decanted, shaken but not stirred, into the guarded lobby of our hotel, complete with security turn-styles. Our room was pleasant enough, though, with views out over Moscow’s iconic red and white chimneys.

The chimneys of Moscow
The chimneys of Moscow

It was clearly time for a beer. The hotel’s barman seemed a bit surly at first, but thawed a little when we all had a laugh at a 10-year old Chinese boy who came in to try to buy beer ‘for his brother’. Later in the evening, we discovered that the barman works 12 hour shifts every night from 9pm, so he was just a bit tired.

We were feeling a little jet-lagged ourselves next morning, but soon perked up after a pleasant breakfast before meeting our guide, Diane. She showed us how to use the metro (28 roubles to anywhere), and the three of us descended to the Green line, which was built during Moscow’s second wave of metro building, when Stalin declared that money was no object and that it had to be the best subway in the world. He got what he wanted; stations from this era are an amazing confection of echoing marble halls with high vaulted ceilings.

Eat your heart out, London Transport! Stalin's Metro in Moscow.
Eat your heart out, London Transport! Stalin’s Metro.

Three stops later, we were in the heart of the theatre district, with its impressive collection of building in styles ranging from Classical to Romantic, and Soviet in the form of the former KGB headquarters.

The heart of the theatre district in Moscow
The heart of the theatre district

As we walked, Diane talked about growing up in Soviet communal housing, with three to five families sharing a kitchen and bathroom. She was ambivalent about perestroika, when each family was assigned a new flat just for themselves, which was theirs to own and do what they want with. Although she could see that this put Russians on the same footing as other Europeans, she mourned the loss of the social aspect of shared housing, where everybody looked after one another. This concept of universal flat ownership kick-started the fledgling capitalist economy, and the city has a feeling of general wealth and integration. The city is clean and well-kept, and the populace seemed dynamic and well-off, particularly the women wearing expensive and sexy European fashions. We looked for echoes of the Soviet era but only noticed the security guards in booths on every escalator, and the very large number of workers that seemed to be necessary to perform the more menial jobs.

Looking toward the cavalry training hall outside the walls of the Kremlin, Moscow
This enormous building is for training cavalry indoors
The Pashkov House in Moscow
The Pashkov House, originally built for a wealthy landowner

Some of the buildings that we’ve see, such as the lovely little pink and white cathedral on Red Square, are recent copies of historic buildings that were blown up in the Soviet era to make way for more suitable projects. There is a heart-breaking photograph of the fabulous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour being demolished to make way for a half-kilometre high brutalist memorial topped by an eighty-metre statue of Stalin. While the deep foundations were being dug, war broke out and work was halted. The hole was used as a swimming pool until finally a copy of the original cathedral was built by public subscription.

The monument’s foundations were so deep that the architects added a second underground cathedral beneath the first, and then Moscow’s first underground car park beneath that.

Both cathedrals are liberally gilded inside and intricately decorated. Being Orthodox, there are no pews or seats inside, and the walls are ringed with icons. These are paintings of saints that are venerated, prostrated before, and kissed in the hope that the saint will mediate between you and god. Quite a few shawled elderly women were energetically throwing themselves at the feet of, and kissing, every saint in the enormous space. Cleaning these paintings must be a long job.

Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building (another of Stalin's Seven Moscow Skyscrapers)
Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, another of Stalin’s Seven Skyscrapers

We said goodbye to Diane, ate a great lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, and then went in search of the cheap river ferry that plies up and down the Moskva as part of the cheap Metro network. We couldn’t find the ferry, but instead a man in a naval uniform sold us a ticket on a tourist boat that cost ten times as much. We had no idea where the boat went, but it turned out to be a great way to see Moscow, and as a bonus it also had a small bar.

On a tourist boat on the Moscow River
On a tourist boat on the Moscow River

Once past the astonishing memorial to Peter the Great’s inauguration of the Russian navy, we passed blocks and blocks of Soviet-era communal housing, including one ‘luxury’ building (only one family per apartment) that had been built specifically to house artists and writers, who could then easily be spirited away in the night by the KGB. Diane had told us that if you saw your neighbours’ lights on after midnight, then you knew that you would never see them again.

Monument to the launch of Peter the Great's navy, on the Moscow River
Monument to the launch of Peter the Great’s navy
Slightly unexpected, a Buran space shuttle in Gorky Park, Moscow
Slightly unexpected, a Buran space shuttle in Gorky Park

We still didn’t know where we were going, but all the other passengers disembarked at Kiev Metro station so we did the same and had an easy ride back to the hotel.

Apartment block near Kiev Metro, Moscow
Apartment block near Kiev Metro

After a short nap, we headed out to a nearby Lebanese restaurant and dined on charcoal-grilled meat with pickled vegetables, washed down with Armenian wine, finishing up with a nice fruity shisha.

As everywhere in Moscow, the service was friendly and attentive and we had a great time, eventually stumbling back to the hotel in the small wee hours, ready for the next day’s sight-seeing. Tomorrow we were heading for the Kremlin.