by Jim Prosser
As a young boy, there was a small library of very old books in my bedroom, left there by my grandparents. All were from the 1920's and before. I found one of particular interest, for it was about the great railways of the world. The story about the history and building of the Trans-Siberian railroad across Russia captivated my attention. The seed to ride this incredible railroad was then permanently implanted in my mind.
By the age of ten, I was already keenly interested in railroads and a rail fan of sorts. A short distance from the rear of our property the Kewaunee, Green Bay & Western steam locomotive trains thundered by several times daily to and from the car ferries at Lake Michigan. Plus we had the thrill of watching the Chicago & Northwestern and Milwaukee Road switch locomotives shunt the box cars and refrigerator cars in and out of the cheese factories and ice plant adjacent to our property.
While living in Russia as a diplomat in 1972-74, I had the opportunity to actually view the arrival and departure of the Trans-Siberian train, called the "Rossiya," but was prohibited by the Russian authorities from photographing or riding on it. Twice I attempted to obtain permission to ride it, but was refused both times. Whenever this happened, in the standard practice of mutual retaliation, the U.S. government refused permission to Russians, in the U.S., for travel outside the 25-mile perimeter of Washington, D.C. and/or New York.
I then promised myself that sometime after retirement, I would again attempt to ride the Trans-Siberian railroad all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, 6,000 miles in just over seven days. AMTRAK's "Sunset Limited" between Miami and Los Angeles is its closest rival (3,066 miles in three days). In 1996 a dream of a lifetime was finally realized. I chose to do it in summer because of the longer days for viewing along the route.
Recognition is due to those who helped make planning this trip a lot easier than I had anticipated. First was Robert Strauss' book "The Trans-Siberian Rail Guide." It had just about all the answers to any possible question. RAHIM TOURS of Lake Worth, Florida, did an outstanding job of taking care of all the administrative details. Special thanks to Richard Measham of the BBC London, a rail fan I met via CompuServe's TRAINNET who provided invaluable advice and information on Trans-Siberian schedules, distances, route maps and station locations. Lastly, to my wife Mary, whose critical comments in the preparation of this journal were vital.
The frequency of Trans-Siberian trains Nos. 1 and 2, the "Rossiya," had always been daily departures in each direction. However, on June 1, 1996 the Russian railroad reduced the schedule to every other day each way. "Milk" trains Nos. 903/904 which stop at all stations between Moscow and Vladivostok and take ten days each way, still run daily.
No reason was given for the "Rossiya" reduction. This caused me to lose one day of sightseeing in Moscow and, happily, have one added to my stop in Irkutsk, Siberia. It certainly couldn't have been due to lack of riders, for I am told the train is always full.
After reading the Russian newspapers, I surmised the cuts in "Rossiya" service were made as a cost saving measure. The Russian railroad has been seriously in arrears in payment of their electrical bills. Twice while in Siberia I learned of preemptive power cuts of several hours duration by the electric company on the Trans-Siberian line between Ulan-Ude and Khabarovsk for nonpayment of overdue bills. According to the radio news, in each instance the power was not restored until the electric company had received a U.S. $20,000,000 down payment. Our travel was never affected by the power cuts.
After several months of planning and making arrangements, I was ready for the trip.
Sunday, July 7
After 0800 Mass and breakfast, taking less than 30 minutes to pack for this 3-week trip, Mary took me to the airport.
Flying Northwest Airlines, I was on a small turboprop plane to Minneapolis. There I connected to a Northwest flight to Amsterdam. In actuality, because Northwest and KLM are partners, my flight turned out to be a KLM plane (Boeing 747-400).
The first couple of hours of the flight were quite bumpy even though the surrounding weather was fine. After reaching Hudson's Bay the remainder of the flight over northern Quebec, Labrador, southern Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and into Amsterdam was smooth as silk. It never got dark outside because of our great circle path toward the North Pole. The sun was below the horizon for only two hours before it rose again. KLM made it a very enjoyable passage.
Monday, July 8
I purposely planned to stay in western Europe a few days before flying onto Moscow. It was my intention to get over jet-lag by resting up before Moscow. I arrived in Amsterdam 20 minutes early because of the strong tail winds immediately out of Minneapolis. After getting money changed I went to the airport train platform and took the 0746 train to Brussels.
I purchased a 1st class ticket because after the sleepless trans-Atlantic flight, I thought I would be able to sleep a bit on the train without much disturbance. But I was amazed to find 1st Class almost full. Of course, it was a working day and commuters were heading to Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam and other points. It also was in the heavy summer tourist travel season.
En route to Leiden, the train passed many fields of flowers for commercial sale. Each was beautifully manicured and cultivated. I wonder how the Dutch farms and fields will compare with the Russian ones next week?
The train arrived in Brussels at 1030, on time of course. Friends who were my neighbors when we lived in Belgium for seven years met me at the station and immediately drove to their home in Waterloo. By the time I got there, I was dead tired and dehydrated, so I drank a lot of water and went to bed until 1530.
Tuesday, July 9
A day of rest and recuperation.
Wednesday, July 10
I am still recovering from jet-lag, but starting to get over it. After lunch, my friends drove me to the Midi station in Brussels where I caught the 1530 train back to Amsterdam airport. I slept most of the way. Arriving at the airport train station, I went upstairs and caught the free shuttle bus to the nearby Hotel Ibis where I stayed this night. After dinner, I went for a long walk to assure a good sleep.
Thursday, July 11
It was a rather poor night's sleep. Jet-lag was still with me. After an 0700 breakfast, I took the hotel shuttle bus back to the airport to check-in for the flight on KLM to Moscow.
The airport was jammed with holiday travelers. The Amsterdam airport is a marvel of convenience. But it has one major fault. Checking in for flights is done at a central location regardless of whatever airline flight you are reserved. Dozens of agents were available, but there were thousands of passengers checking in. In going to Moscow I was in direct competition for the many people heading for southern European tourist meccas. I was concerned I might not get through in time to make my flight, but was assured by airport personnel I would. I did.
The flight to Moscow was smooth and uneventful, lasting about three hours. A fellow passenger behind me was able to give me a lot of good, up-to-date information on present conditions in Russia. He was born there, but his parents had emigrated (or escaped) to Holland in the 1950's. He now travels frequently back to Russia on business and holidays with his family.
The KLM flight landed at Moscow's Sheremetevo II airport! In 1972 it was a small building directly across the field from Sheremetevo I and used exclusively for flights to and from eastern European cities. Now, all international flights are at II, and I is used solely for internal flights. II has been completely rebuilt and modernized, but through continual battering of heavy usage without any upkeep it still looks like a 24-year-old airport. It reminds me a lot of Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport. The facilities are all present, but don't function well, if at all; i.e., lights, escalators and electronic sign boards.
The physical, cultural, political and social differences between 1972 and 1996 are enormous. They are evident as soon as you walk out of the plane. First of all, there were no longer the then ever-present young soldiers with AK-47 machine guns pointed at you. I actually did see one out of the plane window, but at some distance away on the tarmac.
Moscow had been having a siege of several days of hot weather. The airport, not surprisingly for Russia, is not air-conditioned. It is not needed 330 days of the year! But, being in a hermetically sealed glass structure is no place to be with thousands of other people on a bright, hot, day.
I had time to roam about the terminal inside and outside to take note of life in the new Russia. Things have indeed changed in 24 years!
There are plenty of refreshment and tourist kiosks. Even a video game parlor, appropriately placed in the area immediately outside of the main rest rooms, which are acceptable by western standards. There were plenty of legitimate taxis waiting to take fares, but they were in competition with very aggressive unofficial drivers of personal automobiles wanting to make money to supplement their incomes. The price of a ride to the city center started in the $80.00 range, but it came down quite a bit when you started bargaining and seeking drivers offering lower prices. The Intourist bus cost $50.00 for as many as you could get in it, so I took it and shared.
It was quickly evident the country is awash in foreign currency, especially U.S. dollars. At just about every business outlet in the airport, they readily accepted dollars along with Russian rubles. Vendors are quite particular though. Dollar bills must not be soiled too much, be of recent vintage, never written or stamped on, ripped, punctured or with small pieces missing. They would not be accepted. Bills denominated $20 and less were preferred because $100 bills were feared to be counterfeit. They also favored the new $100 bill. There were automated teller machines (ATM) for VISA, MasterCard, and American Express credit cards scattered about as well as banks to change money.
Shortly before beginning this journey I heard a news report from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board that more than 40% of U.S. currency is physically present today in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States made up from the former Soviet Union. I believe it.
One has to be very careful with the Russian currency. With the hyper-inflation they had in the early 1990's, the dollar rate of exchange has now stabilized in the past year around $1.00 = 5,185 rubles (24 years ago one ruble = $1.35!). The result is that the ruble notes of 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 were confusing by having all the extra zeros to deal with. One had to be careful not to give 100,000 when only 10,000 was required. Identical note size and similarity of printing styles adds to potential errors.
Checking in at the hotel was simple and similar to hotels in the rest of the world. The room was sweltering, for the hotel is not air conditioned.
Eating a meal in Moscow is no longer the exasperating ordeal it used to be 24 years ago. There are now plenty of restaurants available. The prices range from the very expensive too quite reasonable by American standards.
For my first meal, I went to the Patio Pizza. I was amazed at how well the staff was trained. They were service minded! They smiled and welcomed you to your seat! They provided a dual language menu and had everything listed!
The place had cold Danish Tuborg beer on draft! I thoroughly enjoyed my first meal in Moscow. Particularly so recalling what used to be standard previously.
After dinner, even though extremely tired and suffering jet-lag, I took a camera and walked over to splendidly colorful Red Square. While it was 2045, the sun was high enough in the sky to allow me to shoot pictures. The sun set just after 2200. I was amazed at the number of hawkers in the square selling everything imaginable: military service and commemorative medals, wooden matrushka dolls, post cards, fur hats, commemorative postage stamps, ice cream, soda pop, etc. There were even people just wanting to practice their English and speak with foreigners. This in front of the previously hallowed mausoleum of Vladimir Ilich Lenin (who is spending his last year in this location)!
In 1979 to prepare for the 1980 Olympics, the Russians had to do something about the extremely poor condition of the cobblestones laid decades ago in Red Square because the surface had been destroyed by years of heavy equipment parades. They did not have the wherewithal, so they had a Finnish company take up all the stones, lay a new foundation and replace them. They did an outstanding job, for 16 years later the surface is very even and smooth.
At this point it was time to reintroduce myself to morozhnoye (Russian ice cream), something which I had been looking forward to since arrival. It is some of the best one can ever find, and I will have it often during the remainder of my voyage across Russia. Almost as good as Hansen's back in Green Bay. It is as good as I remember it from 24 years previous.
Leaving Red Square after sundown, I walked back to the Hotel Intourist.
Just in front of it are a couple of sidewalk refreshment stands which on a hot day like today are a welcome oasis. I found them to be completely occupied by a large number of prostitutes. Their dress and makeup left no doubts in my mind as to their profession. What I didn't realize was their modus operandi.
Just as I was between the tables and the street, a couple of automobiles pulled up and in complete unison they left their seats and stormed past us to the cars to presumably make contact and eventual liaisons. This would have been unthinkable 24 years ago!
My room was on the rear side of the hotel, so I wasn't affected by street noises as I slept with the windows open.
Before going to bed, I arranged with Intourist to obtain tickets to attend the Old Circus tomorrow evening.
Friday, July 12
Sleep last night was not very good because the room was so uncomfortably warm and humid. A shower before bed and again in the morning did nothing to help. The continental breakfast was good and enough to get me off to a good day of walking about the numerous nearby sightseeing spots. Of course, I opted for the Kremlin.
It was another sunny and very warm day (35C or 95F), but this time a fairly strong breeze was blowing which ameliorated the humidity discomfort and evaporated my copious perspiration.
Just as 24 years ago, the lawns of the Kremlin were perfectly manicured. Under a shade tree I saw three lawn mowers parked and knew that I was looking at 75 percent of the lawn mowers in Russia.
While standing next to the great bell (broken centuries ago) and tower of the Cathedral of The Assumption, who came driving by but none other than Boris Yeltsin. He was easily visible in his white Cadillac stretch limousine.
After much walking about the Kremlin, taking pictures, and visiting two of the four churches, the noon hour was approaching and the heat debilitating. I was becoming dehydrated. I had not gotten into the Armory or St. George's Hall. No matter, it was time for refreshment and lunch.
I walked about a mile along the Kremlin wall by the Moscow River to the boat dock just beyond the Rossiya Hotel. There I found a tourist boat tied up which was serving beverages and sandwiches. It was now my intention, in order, to drink, eat and then take the tour of the city by boat on the river. This was most enjoyable. The bar on the boat had Alsatian Kronenburg beer in .5 liter cans. It wasn't chilled, but that didn't make any difference to a VERY thirsty guy.
I was on the boat more than an hour drinking and eating when I finally asked the leader when it was going to depart on a river tour. She said I was on the wrong boat! I had to take the next boat which would arrive in about a half hour. I waited, I was too warm and exhausted to do anything else. Besides, I was thoroughly enjoying the beverages and nice breeze off the river.
The tour boat eventually arrived and I boarded it. Now I thought I had purchased round-trip tickets so I would end up back at the same point of departure, and within walking distance of my hotel. So I enjoyed the next two hours on the boat passing by many of the tourist sights of Moscow: St. Basil's, the Kremlin, Pushkin Museum, the new Orthodox church under construction to replace the one Stalin had destroyed, Gorky Park, Moscow University, Lushniki (formerly Lenin) Park and Stadium, eventually arriving at the Kiev railroad and metro station dock.
By now it was 1600. Here the boat mate advised "end of the line!" and asked me to leave. I said I had round-trip tickets, but upon examination, he firmly replied "nyet!". This event indeed was a blessing in disguise.
I thought there was no finer place to start my architectural tour of the Moscow metro system than right here at the Kiev railroad station. It is a huge transportation hub for there are the boat dock on the river, a large passenger train station, and three different metro stations below, each on a different level, the bottom of which is about 200 feet below the surface.
The Moscow metro system now has 140 stations operational. There were about 96 when we lived here 1972-74. Each station is an architectural wonder and totally different in design and decoration than any other. Strolling through each is like being in a palace or art gallery. When Stalin opened the metro in the late 1930's, the ride anywhere was fixed at five kopeks (0.05 rubles). It remained at that price until 1990 when it was increased to 1,500 rubles. That's hyper inflation!
I visited the three different metro stations at the Kiev station and then boarded a metro to go back to the hotel. It was late afternoon and the rush hour was in full swing. I was really impressed at the rapidity of service and the fact trains ran a minute and 15 seconds apart continually! With ridership of about 8,000,000 a day, the trains had better run without a hitch. And they are maintained in good condition. I can not recall ever being stuck or delayed on the metro in Moscow.
En route back to the hotel, I got off the metro train to examine each intervening station and then got back on the next one.
Arriving back at the hotel, I adjourned to the atrium bar (yes, in the Intourist Hotel!) to consume a liter of cold mineral water to overcome my dehydration. I quickly had something to eat at the Patio Pizza (salad bar and it was excellent) before dashing back down into the metro to go off to the Old Circus performance. I remember, l was very tired at this point.
Getting there was a circus itself. I had to make two changes of metro to arrive at the particular station which was just a few meters from the Old Circus. I had written (in Cyrillic) the name of the station on a piece of paper. On the first train, I showed the paper to a man and asked if I was heading in the right direction. In halting English, he said no and that the circus was not at the station written on my piece of paper but way across town.
I disagreed for I knew where I was going and had spotted the Old Circus on the Moscow map by the metro station written on my piece of paper.
So I hopped off the train and caught the oncoming train in the opposite direction. At the first change station I had to make, I asked a Russian lady to be sure I were heading in the right direction for the Old Circus destination. She was very friendly and a delight to meet, but said she wasn't exactly sure of the location but would lead me there. Trying to be helpful to a lost foreigner, she was flying all over the place asking people for correct directions, then grabbed me by the hand and lead me on to my second train. I went a couple of stations further and had to change again.
From my metro map I now knew I was heading in the right direction, but she insisted I was not going to the Old Circus and tried to stop me from boarding the third and final train to destination. Nevertheless I persisted, so she decided to accompany me. Sure enough, we arrived at the correct metro station for the Old Circus. I took her outside and pointed to the "Old Circus" sign just down the street and she was flabbergasted. We enjoyed a good laugh, I thanked her and departed. It seems sometimes tourists know more about Moscow than the Muscovites.
The circus performance was outstanding, as the Moscow Circus always is. When the performance was over, I walked back into the metro to return to the hotel for an uneventful ride, making all the correct changes - fortunately, because l was completely exhausted.
Arriving back at the hotel and successfully running the prostitute gauntlet I went to the atrium bar once more to consume another liter of mineral water.
I collapsed into bed at 2330.
Saturday, July 13
There had been a light rain during the night and morning. The weather had cooled off considerably.
Regardless of the hot, steamy room, I slept very soundly. My jet-lag was finished. Having drunk liters of fluids the previous day and evening, I thought I would be up several times during the night, but that was not the case. I was really dried out!
This was the big day! The one for which I had been waiting for for many years.
The Trans-Siberian "Rossiya" departed at 1415 this afternoon from the Yaroslavl' station.
After breakfast I purchased about a four day supply of mineral water to take on the train in case the type they sold is carbonated or strong tasting. The kiosks outside the hotel sold Evian and Spa for 6,000 rubles each. I bought four bottles.
I had a 1200 lunch at the Patio Pizza and at 1300 was off to the Yaroslavl' station. Intourist provided a large bus to the Yaroslavl' station. At the front of the station, a very congenial Russian man met me with his porter's wagon to carry the bags out on to the platform to the car which in fact was a considerable distance from the street. Good thing I found him (or he me). I arrived on the platform about 15 minutes before the train was pushed in. My soft class car was No. 8 and near the center of this 21-car train. The dining car was two cars forward. The porter assisted in loading the baggage, let me take his picture and I got settled.
I had 30 minutes before departure. I took the time to walk the length of it taking pictures and making last minute purchases of fresh fruit, cheese and morozhnoye from the numerous platform vendors and kiosks.
A single electric locomotive headed the train. It was strong enough to pull us along at continual speeds of about 100 kph over basically flat terrain. The lone driver (engineer) advised me that he would take the train as far as Yaroslavl', a distance of 282 kms where he would turn controls over to another who would take it on to Perm.
The train was quite warm inside, so I found a way to open the corridor window to let some of the cool fresh air in. At this point I met Victor, the assistant car provodnik (male attendant) who came and ordered it closed because the car was AIR CONDITIONED! This was a major and unexpected pleasant surprise! It turned out that while the train is stationary, the system doesn't run, but will as soon as the train moves. I was delighted to see inside the compartment door there was a simple, but effective locking mechanism which prevented the door from being opened from the outside by anyone, including train staff.
There was an incomplete Trans-Siberian "Rossiya" schedule posted on the wall in the sleeping car. It listed only the stops and times of arrival/departure in Moscow time. I suggested to Victor it would be a wonderful souvenir to have. He strongly advised against taking it but would see what he could do to get me one. This subsequently turned out to be unsuccessful.
Later I met the car's head attendant, Larissa. She is a provodnitsa (female attendant) and has the initial appearance of being one tough person with which I must deal. From her demeanor, there was no doubt she was in charge of this car. She was assisted by Victor. At precisely 1415 on this sunny afternoon, I began my adventure to cross all of Russia and Siberia as the train slowly rolled out of the station. Moscow being a very large city of more than 8,800,000 (or 13,500,000 in the metropolitan area) it took the train about 45 minutes at moderate speed to reach the distant suburbs before we hit the open countryside.
The air conditioning functioned perfectly and I was truly amazed. I was comfortably settled in my compartment but there was a lot of activity in the corridors with people getting acquainted with each other. There were a few young, very well mannered Russian children with which I made friends rather quickly. I was further surprised by finding a small television set erected in each compartment. It played video programs controlled by the provodnitsa or received TV stations when the train was near major cities. The TV set could be unplugged and the outlet used for recharging batteries of the video camera I brought.
About 1600, Larissa arrived with a pot of chai (tea) and some very tasty biscuits for which I thanked her.
I was also surprised to see there were female vendors of poor quality merchandise on the train who were selling things like sport shirts, commemorative and jewelry pins, scarfs, T-shirts, ladies dresses, tourist trinkets and other things. The vendors reminded me of the gypsies we used to encounter in Italy. They were very pushy and relentless in attempting sales. When Larissa detected their presence was no longer desired, she ousted them from the car and said they would be off the train at the next stop, Yaroslavl'. I expressed my pleasure at her action and got a big smile.
Since leaving Moscow, the tracks which were four abreast had now become dual, but I had seen only passenger trains heading in the opposite direction so far.
The rails were not continuously welded, but were in 25-meter long sections laid on a firm bed with concrete ties (sleepers) which provided a rather smooth ride. The traffic density was amazing, for we passed an oncoming train about every eight minutes.
We were passing through one town after another at a speed of about 100 kph. The countryside looked as I remember it from 24 years ago. Everyone was outside working in their own garden plots, fishing in streams, or just out for a long walk on this lovely Saturday afternoon.
At kilometer post 70, the train slowly passed through Zagorsk, providing me with a splendid photographic opportunity to take pictures of all the lovely and colorful churches and monasteries on this sunny afternoon. Zagorsk in importance to the Russian Orthodox faith would be similar to the Vatican City for Roman Catholics.
After Zagorsk, we encountered many freight trains oncoming, about one every five minutes. There is one tremendous amount of traffic on this line!
Since leaving Moscow, along the railway right-of-way we saw long stretches of yellow and purple flowered weeds. They were very pretty against the green foliage everywhere. Where weeds weren't growing track side, local people had planted irregular sized private patches of potatoes. Typically, they were usually 3-10 meters wide, but 100-200 meters long. They looked quite healthy and were in bloom ready for hilling when I saw them.
The scenery from the train windows looked as if we were passing through central Wisconsin. There were plenty of farms and forests of birch. Everything was lush green, for there had been plenty of rain throughout Russia during the month of June.
After I had been on the train for over three hours, I sauntered forward to the dining car to check out the pivo (beer). They had a choice of Russian, German, Dutch and Danish beers. Some were even is chilled! My word! Things have improved!
About 1830 the train approached Yaroslavl'. Before we reached the city we crossed the Volga River at an elevation of about 35 meters above the water. This is one of the world's most remarkable railway bridges. Here the river is about a kilometer wide and loaded with large and small boat traffic. An immense luxury passenger vessel was about to pass under the bridge as we crossed. It had about five decks and was of the type the Russians use for tourist traffic between St. Petersburg and the Black Sea via the Volga-Baltic Sea waterway.
The historic Russian city of Yaroslavl', pop. 638,100, is situated on the upper Volga River, at its junction with the Kotorosl River, about 280 km northeast of Moscow. It is the capital of the Yaroslavl' Oblast. In the 19th century the city was one of Russia's principal cotton textile centers. Yaroslavl gained new industries during the Soviet period, including petroleum refining and petrochemicals, synthetic rubber and auto tires, furniture, and machinery. A number of 16th and 17th century churches are preserved.
Yaroslavl' is one of Russia's oldest cities, said to have been founded in 1010 by the early Russian prince Yaroslav the Wise; historical chronicles first mention it as of 1071. The separate Russian principality of Yaroslavl was absorbed by the expanding Muscovite state in 1463. Until the 1937 completion of the Moscow-Volga Canal, Yaroslavl' served as the capital city's Volga River port.
The train stopped in Yaroslavl' for five minutes. I did not disembark for I was now seated in the diner about to obtain my first meal. I was joined later by a couple from Finland (Eino and Marya) on holiday. Where were the other passengers wishing to eat? Was I too early for eating? Or too late? No, Valentina, the sole waitress, seated me, brought some beer and was ready to take my order. However, before getting to the meal, a description of the dining car is warranted.
The picture in the tourist brochures of the dining car interior no longer is representative of what this one is like. The picture shows 12 tables with four per table seating. In fact there are 12 tables, but only six were available for customers. The balance were stuffed with cartons beneath the seats, tables and stacked on top of them as well. Sheets or tarpaulins were pulled over so one could not easily discern what was below. Hmm. I'll have to investigate this later. The dining car had more of an appearance of a freight car (goods wagon) than an eating establishment.
Nevertheless, this was the place to eat, drink and publicly socialize for the balance of this trip segment to Irkutsk, four days away. Valentina did not look terribly happy and had a face which seemingly had not smiled in decades. I took it my personal challenge not only to get Valentina to smile, but laugh. This was not going to be easy, but in four days, who knows?
The cook was a young man who we really never saw very much of during the trip. There was another jolly looking man always hanging around the dining car whose name I quickly learned was Sasha. Through sign language, I became quite friendly with him. He said he was the on board train mechanic to fix any problem.
Valentina took great pains to show us the clock on the wall which was on Moscow time. She was emphatic the dining car was open 12 hours each day from 0900 until 2100 - always on Moscow time! I could see this was going to be a potential problem for breakfast as we started crossing time zones heading east.
We would have seven time zones to cross by the time we reached Vladivostok.
I asked for a menu and was really surprised when Valentina produced one that was in Russian, German and English! Not only that, there was a limited, but interesting and varied selection of items to choose from.
After pointing to several dishes and getting either a shrug of the shoulders or negative response, I asked that she just bring us some soup and food. She put the menu away and never had to use it again for me. I just ordered whatever the cook had decided to make for that meal and was never disappointed, dissatisfied, or left hungry. This and subsequent meals were always tasty, never fancy, and always inexpensive. Usually 15,000 to 25,000 rubles.
After taking my order, Valentina disappeared for a considerable period. I wondered if she had to go back and cook the food as well? If so, perhaps that might explain her unsmiling attitude.
Just as 24 years ago, Russia still has an over abundance of cucumbers. They are served sliced raw as garnishment to every plate brought to the table, regardless of the meal.
About an hour and a half after leaving Yaroslavl', the train stopped at Danilov for 20 minutes, a major railroad junction. Here the Trans-Siberian line turned east after the straight northeast run out of Moscow. The other line heads north to Arkhangel'sk on the White Sea or Khal'mer Yu further away on the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean.
Shortly after leaving Danilov and heading east, the train passed through the town of Sot. At this point I was astonished to see the train was on a single track for an extended period of time, maybe two hours! What brought this to my attention was that we were no longer meeting oncoming trains every 5-7 minutes.
It had always been my impression the Trans-Siberian railroad was dual track and electrified the entire route to Vladivostok! Such is not the case.
When I boarded the train back in Moscow, I turned my tickets over to Larissa. I had not paid attention to the little white pieces of paper stapled to them which were vouchers showing I paid for the rental of my bedding. Larissa brought sheets, pillow cases, and blankets and bid me "good night". The thought suddenly returned to me, in Russia on the train you make your own bed. That was just fine with me for I could then use the compartment as long as I wanted to before converting the couch into a bed.
By 2230, I brushed my teeth with Evian mineral water (never drink the tap water on the train) and went to bed. The sun had just set. I slept very soundly with the gentle rolling of the train.
Sunday, July 14
It was another bright, sunny day and much cooler than previous days. At 0630 (the sun had been up for over two hours) the train pulled into Kirov for a 20 minute stop. I awoke, but did not go out on the platform. I did notice it was loaded with vendors and the kiosks were open. I should have.
Kirov is a city on the west bank of the Vyatka River in northern European Russia. It has a population of 491,200. It is an important manufacturing center served by several railroads and by shipping on the Vyatka. Its principal industries are machine-building and metal-fabricating plants producing construction equipment, agricultural equipment, and heavy machinery. The city's location in the forested zone has given rise to a wood-products industry, including a large match factory. Kirov also has a tire plant. Artificial leather is also produced. A number of buildings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries have been preserved, including the Uspensky Cathedral.
Originally known as Khlynov, the city was probably founded in the 14th century, and for a long time it existed as a virtually independent Russian colony, the nucleus of the "Vyatka Lands". Moscow annexed it in 1489, and it was renamed Vyatka in 1780. In 1934 its name was changed to Kirov in honor of Sergei M. Kirov, a high Soviet official, whose assassination that year formed the pretext for the Great Purge.
The bathrooms at either end of the car were clean and well kept by the staff. Toilet paper was available so I didn't have to use what I brought. Washing up was fairly easy, but shaving was a bit dicey. There was no stopper for the bowl, but using a bit of ingenuity with toilet paper wadded up, it worked nicely. Turning the water on required one hand making continuous upward pressure on the spring-loaded valve (which conserves water).
Time for a late breakfast, for it was now 1000 local time, but 0900 for Valentina. She opened up and served coffee, chai and a continental breakfast of sorts: bread, butter, jam, cheese and ham. It was quite adequate.
Rolling through the countryside, it still looked like the lush, green farmlands of Wisconsin. The major difference was there are no farmhouses or buildings. The farms are enormous in size, but having been collectivized decades before, those who work on them live in distant villages and towns.
To get to the fields where work is required, I saw trucks carrying people. Sometimes there are small buses. The most popular mode of transport to and from the fields appeared to be bicycles or motorcycles with sidecars.
A lot of hay had been cut by hand scythe, dried and was now being stacked by hand. The hay appeared to be for private use as a family was working together.
One farm girl was stacking hay wearing a bikini! Things have changed in Russia! One haystack had a cat standing on top surveying the world about.
The roads I observed from the train were really dirt tracks at worst or gravel based at best. The dirt roads were deeply rutted and had a lot of mud holes. They definitely were not for sedans. Tarmac or concrete roads link major cities and towns.
At Balezino, the train stopped for 17 minutes to take on water. The platform adjacent to the train was filled with vendors. And they were swarmed over by the passengers from the train. Now I knew why no one ate in the dining car. Everyone brought along their own food and supplemented it with purchases on the platform. I found one lady selling fresh picked strawberries and bought two paper cones full of them. They were superb! I passed them out to Larissa and the Russian children.
At 1500 local the train stopped at Perm for 30 minutes, double the scheduled amount. This gave me a chance to go on the platform and check vendors from one end to the other. There was plenty of morozhnoye, sausages, cheese, milk, fresh fruit, vegetables and bread. The raspberries were especially delicious. Bananas were rarely available in the former Soviet Union. Now I found them everywhere. I shared a lot of my purchases with Larissa.
With the extended stop in Perm, I wandered about taking pictures and enjoying the nice day. I was amused by two Russian railway workers who had just finished replenishing the train's water supply engaging in a water fight on the platform. Everyone laughed. Then Russian kids from the train lined up to get squirted. With no air conditioning in their cars, they must have enjoyed the bath!
When the train was ready to depart, I learned there were no easily discernable audible signals from the locomotive or visible track control signals as to exactly when it was going to move out. Of course, when the provodnitsa pulled up the steps, one had better be on board. But here it didn't happen that way. The train began moving slowly with me still on the platform. I easily made it by jumping on, but Larissa gave me a stern lecture and said to never leave her sight so I could always see her signal. The message was well received and heeded subsequently.
Perm, pop., 1,100,400, is situated on the left bank of the Kama River, on the western slopes of the Ural Mountains. It is the capital of Perm Oblast, pop., 3,106,000. The city is a major machine- manufacturing and petrochemical center, producing gantry cranes, large trucks and excavators for mines, and mining dredges. Perm arose in the 18th century on the site of an old copper works. The city was called Molotov from 1940 until 1957.
We now had two locomotives pulling us. There were some slight upward grades, but nothing very difficult. The Ural Mountains where we traverse them are mostly a beautiful group of forested hills. Definitely not mountains in the usual sense. But they are geologically known as a "worn out range". A few oil wells were spotted. We now began passing numerous mines of iron ore, gold, chromium, nickel and copper. Looking at the equipment used in them, I got the impression it was time for major repairs or replacement. A lot of derelict equipment is left lying about in huge scrap yards.
I invited Larissa to join me for afternoon chai and biscuits I bought on the platform. While my understanding of the language is very limited, this did not stop Larissa from asking about my family, see pictures, etc. Just before she left (another stop was upcoming) she took off her employee "Rossiya" railroad pin and gave it to me as a present! Wow!
While riding through farm and forest for over a day, I saw few, if any, dairy cows or beef cattle. Another observation was that after all the forest we have passed through, no one had seen any wild animals: i.e. deer, raccoon, pig, bear, etc. Otherwise, the scenery was continuously beautiful just as I would find it in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. The forest is invariably a mix of white birch and pine. I didn't see many lakes, but there was plenty of water everywhere in the hundreds of streams and rivers we were always crossing.
Winding through the Ural Hills (oops, Mountains) we came upon kilometer post 1,777 east of Moscow. Just a few hundred meters beyond it next to the track was a tall obelisk. The western face was inscribed "Europe", the eastern "Asia". It is the demarcation point between the two continents and the approximate beginning of Siberia.
Siberia at last! This is the Asian part of Russia, extending from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean and on the south by Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. Although its area is about 13 million sq km, or about 76 percent of the total area of the Russia, its population is sparse and concentrated in a narrow belt along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. West Siberia is a vast, swampy, forested plain drained by the Ob River and its tributary, the Irtysh River. East Siberia, east of the Yenisei River, is an upland; the eastern most part, including the Amur and Lena river basins, is often called the Russian Far East.
The climate is continental, with severe winters and warm summers except in the Far East, where the Pacific is a moderating influence. The mean annual temperature ranges from -18 deg to 4 deg C, and precipitation varies from less than 250 to 500 mm.
In the 1990s, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the opening of Russia to free-market influences, foreign investors became interested in exploiting Siberia's natural resources, which include petroleum, natural gas, and forest products.
The name Siberia (Russian: Sibir) was first applied in the 13th century to a Tatar khanate on the Irtysh River and was gradually extended eastward to the Pacific.
Russian conquest of Siberia began with the expedition of the Cossack Yermak Timofeyevich in 1581-82 and continued through the 17th century. Siberian furs and, after 1700, minerals became a major source of wealth for the Russian Empire. From the early 17th century Siberia was also used as a penal colony for criminals and political prisoners.
Just ahead was the city of Yekaterinburg. Isn't it a bit ironic? In 1891 while the Tsarevitch Nicholas II was in Vladivostok, his father, Czar Alexander III, sent him a message ordering the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Twenty-seven years later Nicholas II and his family were brought here, over the very rails he caused to be laid, and subsequently executed.
Larissa warned me we would have a 30 minute stop, but not to wander far!
Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) is the capital of Yekaterinburg Oblast in Russia. It is the largest city of the Urals industrial region, with a population of 1,375,400. An important industrial and transportation center at the junction of seven rail lines, Yekaterinburg specializes in the manufacture of heavy machinery and industrial equipment. Its principal plants produce equipment for the iron and steel industries, turbine generators for power stations, and equipment for the chemical industry. The city is an important training center for engineers for the Urals industrial region, with Ural State University, a polytechnical institute, and specialized engineering schools. Founded in 1721 around an ironworks and fort, Yekaterinburg was named for the empress Catherine I (Russian: Yekaterina). Because of its favorable location at the junction of roads, the settlement grew into the administrative center of the Urals mining district along the main route to Siberia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were killed (1918) there. From 1924 to 1991, Yekaterinburg was called Sverdlovsk, after Y. M. Sverdlov, an early Bolshevik leader.
Leaving Yekaterinburg I headed for the dining car. Valentina had now taken a liking to me and had worked up a smile, perhaps because she liked the tips. Anyway, she offered the menu but I declined and told her to bring me whatever the "special" might be for tonight. It was borscht (excellent) followed by beef sauteed in onions over a bed of white rice (delicious). I had a bottle of Georgian red wine, a bit too sweet for my tastes, but it was served a bit chilled! Good thing, because at room temperature it was too warm for red wine.
I was just about to leave the dining car when in burst Eino and Marya, the Finnish couple I met here last night. Eino said "You won't believe what has happened to us!" They were clearly excited, exhausted and quite hungry. How did they get that way on the train? They didn't. Over a few beers while waiting for their food, Eino regaled me on how they spent their afternoon. They both spoke English quite well, and Eino had a great sense of humor. Good thing!
While the train was stopped in Perm earlier today (over 400 kms away), they got off like all of us but were at a distant kiosk when the train pulled away without them! Luckily, Eino quickly found a private taxi driver in front of the station who agreed to drive them to Yekaterinburg for 1,500,000 rubles or U.S. $300 plus petrol costs! Considering Moscow taxi prices, that was a steal! But first the taxi driver insisted on seeing his money, which Eino fortunately did have in his pocket. So the driver called his wife to say in so many words "honey, I'll not be home for dinner tonight, nor breakfast in the morning as I have this crazy Finn who missed his train and wants to go to Yekaterinburg at top speed!"
It was a six hour train ride between Perm and Yekaterinburg. By the time the taxi driver called home and tanked up his car, they now had only five and a quarter hours to get them back on the train in Yekaterinburg.
The car was an ancient Volga and they knew they had to travel about 90 kph to get them to Yekaterinburg in sufficient time. Trouble was, the roads between Perm and Yekaterinburg, while surfaced, had potholes everywhere and did not safely allow a speed of 90 kph. Nevertheless, they literally flew down the road bouncing off the sides, each other, the roof and ending up at the Yekaterinburg station with five minutes to spare. Whew!
Back in my compartment I was writing in my journal when Larissa came by. I explained to Larissa (mostly through sign language) what happened to Eino and Marya at Perm.
At 2315 I retired and slept the sleep of the dead! For not having much to do physically, I sure slept well every night. Oh well, I did run after the train in Perm.