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Trans-Siberian Express - Part II

Trans-Siberian Railroad Voyage Journal - July 1996
by Jim Prosser

Monday, July 15

During the dead of night, the train made an extended stop at the city of Tyumen. It is the oldest city in Siberia, having been founded in 1586 on the river Nitsa. The population is 487,000. Industries include oil refining, machine tools, and chemicals.

I went outside to watch what they described as an enormous freight and passenger train switching operation. I climbed up a nearby aerial crosswalk and estimated there had to be at least 30 tracks side-by-side. From there I also spotted the nearby yard where there were dozens of locomotives parked.

At 0600 I awoke just as the train was pulling in to Ishim for a 15 minute stop.

It was another glorious day. Before washing up, I dashed out on to the platform to get some provisions for breakfast. With Valentina holding fast to opening the dining car at 0900 Moscow time, that was just about noon here. So I obtained some bananas, biscuits, oranges, New Zealand gala apples(!) and was all set for breakfast in my compartment. I was really disappointed there weren't any fresh strawberries available. Life can really be tough sometimes! Larissa would provide all the chai we wanted.

When I was bringing the empty chai pot and glasses back to Larissa, she was behind the samovar at the end of the car frying on a burner potatoes sauteed in garlic butter with rosemary spices! She gave me a taste and I told her in my most expressive Russian sign language how good they were! Where upon, she took some for herself, and put the remainder on a plate for me to take back to the compartment!

About noon sun time, the train arrived at Omsk. Here I hit the platform for 15 minutes of frenetic shopping amongst the fruit, bakery and morozhnoye vendors. I had sufficient food for breakfast tomorrow in case there wasn't a convenient early morning stop. Here I decided not to eat lunch in the dining car, but to obtain a bunch of piroshkis which are similar to samosas found in southern Asia and east Africa. They are pastries which have been stuffed with either cabbage and onions, meat and onions, cheese and onions, or vegetables and yes, onions. They are delicious.

Omsk is the capital of the Omsk Oblast in the southwest part of Russian Siberia. With a population of 1,169,000, it is Siberia's second-largest city. Omsk is situated at the junction of the Irtysh River and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It is named for the Om River, which enters the Irtysh there. The city has a number of research institutes. It was long limited to the processing of local farm products, but in the 1950s and 1960s it acquired a large petroleum-refining and petrochemical industry, whose significance was enhanced by the development of the West Siberian petroleum fields. The city arose as a fort in 1716. Its modern industrial development and rapid population growth date from World War II.

The train departed Omsk more than one hour late. Sasha, the mechanic now sweaty and very dirty, reported "catastrophe!" - the dining car air conditioning and refrigeration had given out! That was the cause of the delay while repairs were being made. I noticed a lot of tinkering under that car while stopped in Omsk, but didn't think anything serious was wrong. Anyway, all was righted again. Sasha was very dirty, but happy.

I headed for the dining car in hopes of getting some beer. Valentina sternly reminded me the car would open at 0900 Moscow time, or, in another 45 minutes. Protestations that I did not want breakfast, only some beer, did not receive much sympathy. I noticed Valentina and the cook very concerned about the covered merchandise still stacked everywhere. Some sort of inventory operation periodically took place. There was a lot of counting and verifying. All was covered up again. I still had no idea of what this was all about. The dining car remains a mystery.

Again I was looking at vast fields of grain and other farm products almost as far as the eye could see. They looked in very good condition as rainfall has been normal. The private potato patches along the tracks continued almost unabated.

I could now see several herds of dairy cows and sheep, some of them quite large. It was interesting that the birch forest here was thin enough so grass grows abundantly beneath the trees and you see the animals browsing through the forest.

In the afternoon, I was sitting in the compartment writing notes for this journal. The number of oncoming trains passing us caused me to start keeping a count for one hour. I recalled once reading in an encyclopedia that the Russian railroad had the greatest number of locomotives, passenger, and freight cars. The combined assets of all north American railroads came in a distant second. I won't dispute that claim. By the end of our journey we would have seen most of them! In 60 minutes this afternoon I recorded 23 trains, four of which were passenger.

Russian freight trains undoubtedly operate under self-imposed limits of weight, and especially length. When I counted the cars on freight trains, they usually were at least 55 and never over 80 in number. Mixed freight trains were the most common, but unit trains of oil, coal, and other types of ore were common. Occasionally a train of all sea containers passed.

At Barabinsk we were supposed to have a 15 minute stop, but the train left after only about 10 minutes. When you have an addiction to morozhnoye, it can get you into trouble. Even Larissa was caught off guard. I had to hop on to the moving train, again!

As the train rolled along, the forests were now about 100 percent white birch. Beautiful. And cows everywhere in and out of the forest. The terrain was flat, and I noticed a lot of water everywhere, for this was now becoming marsh. Lots of ducks and other waterfowl. I was reminded of reading of the terrible problems encountered when building the Trans-Siberian, not only in summer, but also winter. One can now appreciate them firsthand.

Around 2100 the train arrived in Novosibirsk. This is the city where the famous "Kitchen Debate" took place in 1957 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Novosibirsk is the largest city in Russian Siberia. It is situated at the junction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Ob River in southwestern Siberia. The population is 1,446,300.

Novosibirsk is a major manufacturing center, with a wide range of machinery plants (machine tools, farm equipment, instruments), electronics factories, a tin smelter, and perfumeries. It is also an important educational and scientific research center, with a university and the headquarters of the Siberian division of the Academy of Sciences. Russia's largest opera house is located there. Nearby, on the Ob, is the Novosibirsk hydroelectric station. The town was founded in 1896 in connection with construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and was originally called Novonikolayevsk (for Emperor Nicholas II). The present name dates from 1925 and means "new Siberia" in Russian. Novosibirsk grew rapidly during the Soviet period because of its favorable location near the Kuznetsk Basin, the largest coal source in Russia, and on major transportation lines.

The Novosibirsk railway station is one of classical architecture presently undergoing major renovations of the facade and interior. When it is finished in about a year, it will be restored to its former glory.

I had another very good, albeit late, meal in the dining car, the "chef's choice" I might as well call it. I just motioned to Valentina and she automatically brought out whatever was prepared.

Sitting around after eating, I was soon joined by the trainee provodnitsas Olga and Elena. Then Sasha the mechanic showed up all smiles that everything was working well. It turned out today was Elena's birthday but she wouldn't be home to celebrate with her husband and daughter. So a party was beginning to shape up. Now Victor and Larissa joined the scene which was becoming a mob. A bottle of Russian champagne appeared from the kitchen along with a box of Belgian chocolates! Happy birthday Elena! Someone started video recording the festivities and this only egged on Sasha who tried to do a little dance with Larissa, of all people!

Now entering the diner was Sergei, the football referee who joined our car at Yekaterinburg. Sergei had some vodka and wine. Valentina brought out a lot of small glasses. I was now having flash-backs to similar parties in Russian homes and restaurants 24 years ago and never liked the way they usually ended up. So I advised them all I was very tired (it was true) and would go to bed.

A few hours after leaving Novosibirsk the Trans-Siberian railroad passed the large city of Tomsk, perhaps only about 50 kms to the south. In one of the anomalies concerning the building of the railroad, when the engineers were laying out the plans for the route, they demanded a bribe from the mayor to have the tracks routed through the city. The mayor snubbed the bribery request and that is why citizens today must ride a bus 50 kms to Taiga to catch the Trans-Siberian in either direction. We stopped there for ten minutes.

Tuesday, July 16

I slept like a brick again. The weather outside was beautiful and cool again. I was not sure just where we were yet, but the scenery was still lush green, marshy at times, with birch and pine forest, and potato patches still alongside the tracks where there wasn't water.

The train stopped at Bogotol for ten minutes to replenish water. This enabled me to purchase some more fresh strawberries, blueberries and bananas for breakfast which I shared with the others. The thought occurred to me more than once: what do the vendors have to offer during the winter?

An hour later the train stopped again at Achinsk. Here the Russian lady and her two young children I enjoyed so much the past three days disembarked. I was sorry to see them leave, but they leaped into the arms of their father who was on the platform awaiting them.

At about 1020 we approached Krasnoyarsk and crossed the very wide Yenisei River. It has a visibly strong current and is navigable from the Arctic Ocean to this point.

Krasnoyarsk is a city in the central part of Russian Siberia, east of Novosibirsk. The city's population is 924,400. It is situated at the junction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Yenisei River. One of Siberia's largest cities, Krasnoyarsk produces heavy mining equipment and truck trailers, synthetic rubber, chemicals, and tires, as well as aluminum. The Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric station, on the Yenisei, is one of the largest in the world. The city is the seat of Krasnoyarsk State University (1970).

Founded in 1628 as a fortified outpost during the Russian advance through Siberia, Krasnoyarsk became an administrative center in 1822. Its growth accelerated when gold was discovered nearby in the 19th century, when the railroad arrived in 1895, and again after World War II.

Our scheduled 20 minute stop developed into about 30 minutes. I had plenty of time to purchase piroshkis, fruit and morozhnoye. Here the local time was four hours ahead of Moscow. The dining car now opened at 1300 local time for breakfast - which was no longer served!

An awful lot of railroad activity was observed at this major junction and classification yard. There were several petroleum unit trains standing in the yard with locomotives attached awaiting their green signal. Many of the oil tank cars were rated at 120 tons and had double trucks (bogeys) at each end of the car. Other oil tank cars were rated for 65 tons. I also saw ore unit trains. One could only guess what they contained. There is a lot of coal, iron ore, copper and gold in this area. Several hours passed and the train arrived at the very important junction of Tayshet. There is a huge locomotive yard and repair facility along with a massive railroad construction yard.

At Tayshet the Trans-Siberian turns to a southeasterly direction. It is the western terminus of the relatively new Baikal-Amur -Mainline (BAM). It goes straight east to Bratsk on the Angara River (major hydroelectric dam), then passes the north end of Lake Baikal and heads directly to the Pacific Ocean port of Vanino. The BAM was constructed to reduce the vast amount of freight traffic on the Trans-Siberian line and open up more northern areas of Siberia to development by providing access to rail.

The farms adjacent to the train are gigantic. They are mostly wheat and appear to be in beautiful condition. The farms are interspersed with birch and pine forests. It is quite desolate for we rarely saw anyone.

Out in Siberia, the Russians have monkeyed with the shape of the time zones. The result here was that at 2230 the sun was just beginning to set.

Wednesday, July 17

After another night of good sleep, Larissa woke everyone at 0500 local time for our disembarkation at Irkutsk. The train arrived at 0615, right on time! Considering I had been under way four days, experienced some delays and traveled 5,191 kms, that was impressive. I suspect there may be some fat built into the schedule.

The mystery of the dining car remained unsolved. The gigantic piles of boxes covered with sheets and tarpaulins remained undisturbed as we first saw them after departure from Moscow four days ago.

I bid Larissa and the other crew members farewell for they continued on to Vladivostok, from which they were to return to Moscow the same night of their arrival there. They get no time off in Vladivostok, so in effect are working 15 days straight. But they do get a week off in Moscow before going out again.

It was a bright, cool day in Irkutsk with a fresh morning breeze blowing through the station.

The station was almost deserted. There were no porters. I carried my baggage down stairs, crossed under several tracks and then up stairs through the station waiting room and outside where I found private taxis awaiting. The Irkutsk station had recently been completely refurbished on the outside to its original beauty. It is adjacent to the swift flowing Angara River. I could see my Hotel Intourist directly across, but it was about a two kilometer taxi ride.

Irkutsk is the capital of Irkutsk Ooblast in Russia. It is situated in southern Siberia, 60 kms from Lake Baikal. The city has a population of 640,500. It is named for the small Irkut River, which enters the Angara here. Irkutsk is one of Siberia's largest cities, situated on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and serves as a supply base for the development of Siberian resource areas to the north.

The city's industries produce transportation equipment and machinery for gold mining and other extractive industries and process mica mined in Siberia. Power needs are met, in part, from a hydroelectric station built here on the Angara River in 1956. One of the largest consumers of power is an aluminum plant at Shelekhov, just southwest of Irkutsk. The city's university (founded in 1918) and many research institutes train specialists for the development of Siberian resources.

Irkutsk was founded in 1652 by the Russian Cossacks, who conquered the local Buryat people and used the town as a base for their expansion into eastern Siberia. Many members of the Decembrist Movement of St. Petersburg were exiled here in the 19th century for their attempt to overthrow the Czar and Romanov dynasty. With their commercial acumen and skills, Irkutsk prospered because of its position on the trade route between Russia and China, and its importance increased when the Trans- Siberian railway was built at the end of the 19th century.

Check-in procedures at the Hotel Intourist are the same as in 1974 for Russian hotels. You give your passport to the main desk. Your floor matron controls everything else. I found mine to be very cooperative and congenial. I was surprised to see that there is either a restaurant or bar on each floor at the North end of each corridor. The hotel even has a business center with the latest telephone/FAX /computer/printer/reproduction and secretarial facilities plus a resident dentist to serve hotel guests exclusively! My, things have changed in Russia!

At breakfast I came across some American tourists who had already been in Irkutsk a few days. They had come by train from Beijing. After hearing I had arrived on the Trans-Siberian they reported seeing the "Orient Express" train in a station "somewhat east of Irkutsk" and thought it was Ulan-Ude. The Orient Express was heading in a southeasterly direction pulled by a Russian electric locomotive.

One of the party, Jack, was able to visit it and provided a bit more information. The Orient Express is a privately owned (Swiss) and operated luxury train which makes one or two round trips a summer between St. Petersburg and Beijing. It is made up of elegantly refurbished rolling stock from the Compagnie des Wagons Lits, all of which pre-date World War II. It is staffed solely by western Europeans. On board there was an Intourist guide with a Russian railway conductor. It is the same train which otherwise operates between England and Venice at other times.

Interestingly, the Orient Express is stored in Moscow during the winter months, when not in use, as an economy measure and to have any major maintenance work performed.

After breakfast, Intourist arranged a three hour tour of the city for me with their guide, a young man named Alexei. His English was excellent as he is a student at the local language technical institute. I wanted him to accompany me on my tour to Lake Baikal.

The initial stop was on the right bank of the Angara River on the city's northwest side. Before Alexei could begin speaking, a huge Russian cargo plane, the Antonov (equivalent to the U.S. C-5), came in low directly above us for a landing at the nearby airport.

We went to a cluster of four churches. The first was the Savior church with a grand fresco of St. John the Baptist on the exterior of the tower. This is most unusual for a Russian church. It had been used as a school and later a meeting place. Now it is being restored and renovated in preparation for returning it to the Orthodox church. Across the street is the Church of the Epiphany. On the opposite corner is the Gothic Roman Catholic (Polish) church of St. Francis. Just a few blocks from these is the Church of the Holy Sign. The last three are operational churches.

Alexei then took me on a short drive through older parts of the city which were never destroyed in the various fires that are bound to occur when all structures are built of wood, and close together. The wooden filigree on many of these very old wooden structures show the former glory and beauty taken in their construction. To many of them however, time has not been kind and their owners or occupants have seriously neglected their upkeep. We did find a few that are now undergoing reparations. It is to be hoped there will be many more in the immediate future, according to Alexei.

We drove through the central shopping district, market area and past several Decembrist homes which are now museums open to the public. Then we drove across the hydroelectric dam in the Angara River. When it was completed in 1956, it caused the level of Lake Baikal 60 kms away to eventually rise 35 meters! In another major railway construction project, the original tracks of the Trans-Siberian railroad had to be raised more than that amount along the steep hillsides of the lake's southern and eastern shores while the others were pulled up or abandoned below to the rapidly rising waters.

Back at the hotel, I was fairly hungry by now. So I went to one of the restaurants inside for lunch and got some rest as well. It was rather poor fare and in retrospect, the least desirable of the meals I had in Russia, including those frequently partaken at stand up kiosks.

I now made my first attempt to arrange tomorrow's Lake Baikal activities with the Intourist travel service bureau in the hotel, but the young lady in charge was rather difficult, to say the least.

I explained to her the Intourist bus tour to Lake Baikal was much too brief. Plus, I wanted to at least take the hydrofoil boat to or from Listvyanka in one direction and bus in the other, leaving Irkutsk first thing in the morning and returning via the last mode of transportation in the late afternoon. I also wanted to have Alexei along again as my guide/interpreter. No. She was inflexible. It was do it her way, or it wouldn't get done.

She also explained she would not be on duty tomorrow and perhaps her replacement could help in the morning. This was unacceptable to me. I explained I paid a lot of money to come this far to visit Lake Baikal and a five hour Intourist escorted tour would not allow me to accomplish everything I wished to do. I needed to arrange everything today. Seeing she was not getting anywhere with me, she said "come back before 2000 and would see if there was something they could do."

I spotted guide/interpreter Alexei in the lobby and explained my predicament, and said I wanted him to accompany me tomorrow regardless of what developed with Intourist. I told him I planned to leave the hotel at 0830 to catch the 0900 bus to Listvyanka. He agreed to come along, but first had to check with Intourist, even though he was not their employee. It seems the former hierarchy still exists.

By now it was mid-afternoon on a most pleasant day. I walked across the street to the river and 400 meters away spotted a tourist boat tied up. I went to it and arranged to have a tour on the Angara River. A lot of young children shortly joined me with their parents for the excursion. Snacks and beverages were sold and l had a delightful afternoon cruising.

Because the Angara River is always cold 10C (50F) maximum, the breeze likewise is very cool, but appreciated on a sunny day like today.

Returning, I walked straight towards the center of the city along the Karl Marx shopping street. Some communist associated names still remain. Lenin street has reverted back to its former appellation, Amurskaya, but only half of the street signs have been changed. That can be a bit confusing to strangers walking about. According to Alexei on this morning's tour, the city council ran out of money for more signs. Besides, it has more urgent need for the funds, like repair buildings, trams, tracks and streets.

Finding an ice cream parlor, I stopped inside for my daily "fix" of morozhnoye. I had to use the toilet, so I saw a sign in the corner and door nearby. There is no toilet. It's just a room with a hole in the floor and another large one in the wall, but it certainly smells like an outhouse we used on the farm back home 60 years ago!

Now came round II with the Intourist travel service bureau. It was about 1900.

It was obvious the clerk had not had a good day. She politely explained that while Intourist would like to accede to my special request, they could not because there would be no bus available the first thing tomorrow morning to take me to Listvyanka and drop us off. I asked what about Alexei accompanying me privately? She said he had departed for today and unfortunately did not have a home telephone.

I thanked her for her efforts, but had one other requirement to be taken care of. That was to have onward reservations on the Trans-Siberian for Sunday reconfirmed. After reviewing the tickets and vouchers, she said it wasn't necessary as Intourist had taken care of that in Moscow.

To verify the new departure time I noted she pulled from her desk a copy of the June 1, 1996 complete Russian Railroad timetable! I asked if I could borrow it to copy the few pages involving the Trans-Siberian. Saying that this was the only copy in all of Irkutsk, she was very apprehensive about loaning it for even five minutes. "Not even the Trans-Siberian headquarters here or the Irkutsk station master has a copy!" she said. Whereupon I offered her my passport and camera as collateral until I returned the book. She reluctantly agreed.

What a coup! Until now, I had been unable to obtain a complete and correct schedule of the Trans-Siberian trains No. 1 and 2 either in Moscow or on the train!

But it was now 1930 and I still hadn't gotten to first base on any arrangements for tomorrow's trip to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal. But my guardian angel was looking out for me! Since arrival this morning, I had become quite friendly with the lady in the hotel information booth in the lobby, finding her to be extremely helpful. I explained to her my predicament.

Amazingly, in less than five minutes she: a. advised me to take the 0900 country bus to Listvyanka; b. how to get to the country bus station by tram; c. the time of the last hydrofoil departure from Listvyanka to Irkutsk, and d. the hours of the Liminological Institute! Amazing! Why hadn't I asked the questions of her sooner? A lot of hassle and wasted time with Intourist could have been avoided.

At 2000, by now starving, I walked about three blocks away and ate at a Chinese restaurant recommended to me by some Australian girls with whom I had a chance meeting. It was excellent. The service by Russian waitresses was impressive. They spoke Chinese, no English, but responded quite well to my sign language.

After dinner, at 2215 I adjourned to the park benches on the river in front of the hotel to watch the sun set and bring my journal up-to-date. Too much was happening to let notes slide.

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