Irkutsk to Moscow (4 days of near purgatory)


My steed was due to depart at 1:02am Irkutsk time but there had been confusion as my ticket displayed 8:02pm. I was assured that this was one and the same departure time the latter referring to Moscow time some 5 hours behind. My confidence had been boosted by the hostel host Ilya who had relocated from the Ukraine some 6000km away to settle in Irkutsk where he was now applying for Russian citizenship. He had tremendous English and had left the fearing for the safety of his young wife and two kids.

The station was a cattle market. I descended the gangway to the marbled under pass that gave access to platform 5. The carriages had not yet joined the train but some 9 minutes later they slipped slowly towards engagement. At this point mayhem let loose there was a sprint towards the carriages, I had to elbow my way down the Isle to reach my bunk. I was already exhausted 😃. And so it began my 4 day odyssey across Russia, no border crossings or changing of gauge and wheels; just scenery, reading, writing, playlist and the now familiar sound of whirring wheels. 

I was travelling “hard class” which is actually second class with a comfortable bunk, clean sheets and over zealous heating. My cabin companion was a powerfully built but smart Russian lady around 45 who had a warm smile but no English, we both hastily made up our beds and settled for the night. Soon we had the moonlit silhouette of a young couple, their brief encounter ended as she was ushered by the female purser into our carriage. And then there were three.

I awoke to beautiful golden sunlight kissing the silver birch which has become my favourite arboreal specimen. The ground blanketed with snow and the copper and blue sky almost Narniaesque in its beauty. I made up some coffee and settled down to read few more of my atmospheric rail prose before starting up my own trip notes. My powerful companion was only here for the first night and prepared for her departure with a series of warm smiles. I continued to absorb my tales of great railway journeys and as I read about the high Andes reflected on my friend JHs tribulations as he’s there at present.

We trundled on past swathes of forest, I caught site of two indistinguishable birds of prey but little else, human habitation seemed non existent in this unspoilt wilderness. Perhaps I should be reading White Fang? An hour later a ramshackle wooden village and a solo satellite dish punctuated the myth. A lunar faced kid with flabby thighs wrestled with his puppy (which looked like a Siberian Husky) as his grandmother laughed gustily while whole heartedly downing a steaming brew. Shortly after our first station appeared and the powerful lady vanished.

The station had a graveyard of military vehicles and a lost air, decaying buildings and graffiti proclaiming “punks not dead”. My remaining companion continued her slumber, it was now 10am, perhaps she’ll sleep the whole way? The smokers piled off to replenish their fix but no embarking passengers. One brave kid shuffled to the platform store in his flip-flops stabbing his toe on the tracks as he went. Three incredibly lithe almost emaciated shop assistants sucked on their fags as we drew away; next train whenever.

My new purser is a star and very helpful despite no Englishy. Even though I know I’m due three meals nothing on the paperwork indicates this and so I try with a mixture of signs and grunts to ask about this, she manages to understand and indicates that lunch will be served at 12 and in compartment….result! This leg I’m going to enjoy? As I listen to Janis Ian’s “In the Winter,” I ponder the harshness of the terrain and how hard life must be here, it really is wild and desolate and becoming monotonous.

My 2nd companion awoke, she is an Internet marketeer and on her way to a conference, she helps me order dinner and returns to sleep remarking she hadn’t had any for 48 hours, she’d been at a “flash-mob” Vodka party on Lake Baikal. I work out that a “flash-mob” event is one organised through social media. 60 people had attended the Baikal Vodka bash but the previous nights pub party had attracted zero bodies. She informed me that 6 people had died on Baikal yesterday when their VW had plunged through the ice; apparently the Winter has been relatively mild and the ice is not too thick this year. Apparently this accident us not too uncommon and of course perfectly avoidable.

We pass a St Bernard tethered to his kennel, he looks content but I want to sever the rope, obviously I can’t. Lunch is a vegetable soup but real not instant followed by chicken and rice, it was edible and welcome, our only meal deal of the day! We were then joined by a new companion whose stature can only be described as monumental. Anyone who remembers the 60s cartoon “Gigantor” will of course understand. At the next station we become 4 with an Agnetha look alike; it is an ergonomic miracle that 4 humanoids are able to inhabit this space. 

We’re joined by some fresh faced army recruits who peruse the contents of each cabin at least 4 times before settling in their own restrictive dorm. As the behemoth locomotive dragged us out of yet another station whose name and location I cannot confirm, the light started to fade. I know it’s Monday and 19:30pm Irkutsk time, I am certain I’ve been travelling for 13 days and I admit I miss the ability to engage in social media a little. So inside my cocoon of a compartment I curl up into a ball, serenaded by Bowie’s “Station to Station” and wave goodbye to the next 9 plus hours.

8 am Julia and Gigantor depart. J has left me a sweet message asking for her bottle of Baikal water to be photographed in all my destinations and then to be posted on Social Media. I will do my best if it survives. How many more characters will embark and disembark before Moscow? I prepared my last decent “real” coffee bag. 8:10 am and still no sunrise the only golden glowing from the army of smokers on the platform sacking on their breakfasts. As I’m not burning any energy I’ve decided to stick to the one allocated meal per day, I haven’t touched alcohol since Beijing some 10 days ago. The next army of citizens begin to get on board, I pray my cabin remains a two but have little confidence as the theme from “Black Beauty” warms my ears followed by Gershwin and Mahler’s “Death in Venice”. 8:21 am and we appear to have survived the latest influx of bodies so perhaps Agnetha Faltzog and I will remain together for the next two days? No Anna, Bjork and Benny just me and AW all Abbaesque. Aghhhhhhhh “on hearing the first cuckoo in spring”.

Someone’s cleaned the lavatory, these are the things that lift your Trans-siberian spirits. What sort of idiot pays to be coupled up in a coal house with mucky loos and average nosh without contact to the civilised world? This idiot 😀. My fellow travellers appear unloved and sinister all could slip into the next Bond movie without any stylists intervention. Gabriel’ Oboe from “The Mission” punctuates the gloom and warms the cockles, it is my favourite piece of music ever. Everyone on board could be Davros from Dr. Who, they personify miserable and make Chungju people seem bountiful and fun. I’ve decided that I’m certifiably to have forsaken Hong Kong, Vietnam and Sri Lanka for this route home but us an experience that’s currently raw and that I will reflect differently in time.

We rumble on through a variety of intermittent industrial and rural but alway grey landscapes as AF stats snoring in her pit. I’m warmed by the stories of rail travel that I’m reading and the travel playlists I’ve put together but inspirational is not a reflection on my current journey. I’m surprised how slowly we’re moving and by the absence of conversation something that I’d looked forward to the most. It is the Winter season but I’d expected few fellow tree wavelets to go French, Italian, Canadian or American of which there are precisely zero. It is a time to reflect on three years in SK, the next few months and future jobs which will not be in Russia or Mongolia. I still have no idea of my location but I am heading West which is correct.

In the bleak mid-winter frosty wind made moan! The light is so poor here even the ever present silver birch look dull and lifeless. AF has arisen from slumber but she’s unable or unwilling to make eye-contact, the cold war is over? I’m ravenous for Skype. She decides to tidy up but can’t ascertain what’s her shit and what’s mine! It’s easy I don’t have any shit, I tidy as I go along. I smile without response, the human condition eh. I decide to refresh with wet-wipes and some Aqua Colonia Pink Pepper and Grapefruit, she seems shocked. I’m English! She makes fake coffee and adds that awful long-life cream, while I sip on my jasmine green tea. I realise how fortunate and choosy travel has made me. Once I had love and it was a gas……..”Glory”, John Legend. One day when the Glory comes it will be ours, one day when the war is won we will be sure, we will be sure. Glory!

The train takes as long as it takes when you’re flying you don’t see anything…..glory me! The pretty coloured boxes that the rural Russians inhabit punctuate the goose grey landscape as I warm to the improving light, the surreal gloom was finally lifting. AF packed up her Christmas napkins and attends to her coiffured blonde bonce, the cabin temperature becomes less oppressive as the night time heating is turned down. I ask myself what do folk do to entertain themselves here? Not much the little voice answers. My mind wanders to bohemian Prague and Berlin but that’s a week or so away. “Time after time I’m telling myself that I’m so lucky”, Chet swoons through my cans, “No one’s ever gonna love you more than I do” say the Band of Horses.

I’d already jettisoned images of Dr Zhivago, Julie Christie and sleigh bells as they’d been replaced with factories, power plants and slag heaps. Ideas of photography had been well and truly bamboozled by the sealed windows, the scenery has been mostly flat and uninspiring and the rivers frozen caviar black. That said there is so etching seductive about doing nowt and reflecting on others doing very little. I’ve yet to explore the restaurant car if there is one, apparently the Russians don’t but tonight I will. Something to savour.

I’ve defaulted to Moscow time splits now 06:12 I’ve gained 5 hours onto my life. I’ve also defaulted to Inheritance Tracks and Desert Island Discs. John Waters chooses two typically eccentric tracks, the first about car crashes and the second a Johnny Cash interpreter singing about truckers on amphetamine. Haley from Corrie chooses a Ewen McColl track her dad’s (now deceased) favourite. It’s beautiful.

“Days in the sun and the tempered wind, and the air like wine, and you drink and you drink until your drunk on the joy of living.”

Sympathy for the Devil rocks the airwaves then Radioheads Crushed like Sardines. Beautifully layered and full of contrasts, like architecture or fashion, the best music is like this. Mark Rylance treats us to Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul”, appropriate as the coach now starts to smell of army, the overnight fire-pot temperature fuelling the aroma. I wished I’d downloaded more podcasts for this trip, I quickly realised the silence of non-communication has a perfect antidote in the conversations of others.

As we speed forth lunch arrives which is Sauerkraut plus a burger tough as horses hooves. The aroma of military bodies is supplemented by the sound of PS3s, they’ve commandeered every socket in the corridors with extension wires trailed under carpets to their pop up games rooms. Freddie King comes on “Help me make it through the day”, chosen by the famed producer Robin Miller of Sade fame. Mick comes striding in with Gimme Shelter the greatest intro of any rock song. These are the morsels that keep me sane.

It has just registered we are half way to Moscow, forty hours down and forty to go. This eternal journey would test the most ardent railway enthusiast. I set out thinking I may become one at this juncture I can confirm that I will not. It’s a marathon never to be repeated. T.S. Eliot no less said, “You are not the same people who left that station or who will arrive at any terminus.” Well T.S. Who am I to argue with a literary great, I’m different indeed, different in that I was prepared to be overjoyed by the experience of intercontinental rail travel but ultimately I’m not!

I investigate the restaurant car and I’m informed just noodles (dry ramen) and chocolate bars. I work out that this is the winter menu there’s obviously not enough foreigners to fill the coffers. I disagreeably understand as the Russians bring aboard their own food. The earlier meat lunch rumbles in my gut so I take meds to dispel any chance of fully fledged Delhi Belly. Hence dinner is Jasmine Green Tea….again!

AF departed at 1am to where I have no idea, I returned to my by now ubiquitous sleep. On the journey I slept around 70% if the whole time, yes it’s that uninspiring. By morning no one replaced AF so I hoped between here and Moscow (another 24 hours) I’d have the cabin to myself. The scenery was the same yellow grey industrial landscapes covered in snow all belching forth pollution similar to that north of Beijing. Outside one station an old dog covered in the snow chained to a kennel that could have provided zero warmth. For me there is no humanity where there is no kindness to animals.

“Out on the wild and windy moors,” we are caught in a blizzard as the landscape improves, there are many rolling hills, viaducts and valleys it reminds me of the Peak District. I’m astounded to see a Mousse but worried to see hunters in the distance carrying armoury. The silver birch are grey there’s no sunlight to show of their shimmering hue, many have been savaged some 2 metres up and there’s little sign of replanting. I play “Wild is the Wind”; both versions Bowie and Nine Simon and realise what this trips given me is a genuine re-acquaintance with music lyrics, it’s time-out, real time-out, beyond any I’ve taken in 20 years or more. For that it’s been a blessing.

“Music is my first love and it will be my last, music of the future and music of the past. To live without my music is impossible to do, in this world of troubles my music pulls me through.” – John Miles

First Aid Kit and Blue Roses have hit my consciousness on this journey, simply beautiful. Kanye West can p*** off because I’m blessed with Beck. If you see me walkin’ down the street then…….walk on by. When you feel so tired that you cannot sleep, stuck in reverse. And the tears come streamin’ down your face when you lose someone you can’t replace. When you love someone and it goes to waste, could it be worse?

A smiling young lady appears with lot bread filled with pickled vegetables, she says 100, I explain i have 80 or a 1000 and so she gives me foreigner discount. They’ve recycled yesterday’s side salad methinks but the bread is delicious. The second one has mashed potato, sounds bland but it isn’t. Now it’s less claustrophobic I’m enjoying this final day more. Elastica say they’re “Ready to Go”, so am I but not just yet. 

We pass a petrified forest and in its geographical centre a factory spews out God only knows what but I’m glad I’m secure behind quadruple glazing, perhaps that’s why all the windows are sealed? Tom Helen and Geike Arnaert sing about “Home” as we pass acres of felled timber, there’s a huge barren area right and left which I presume was formerly forested. Some token replanting has taken place. “Roam if you want to, roam around the world.” so much of the industrialised landscape is not actually producing, there’s no activity whatsoever. This reminds me of the track between Dudley and Birmingham New Street, the decaying former industrial heart of the UK. Advertising is non-existent and nowhere else on my travels have I ever seen that. Livestock is also conspicuous by its absence, maybe it all ignites and comes to ife in Spring? When does Spring kick-off, it is nearly April? 

Eighteen hours to Moscow, 62 behind me. On board we lose some military and gain some families and the air is remarkably fresher, the lavatories significantly cleaner. With the amount of Jasmine Green Tea I consume I could fill the Chungju Dam. We pass countless graveyards and the beautifully tended resting places add colour to an otherwise grey vista. The Russian people obviously have great pride in family and memories. There’s an awesome little church with recently clad lead domes, it stands out magnificently amongst the other mostly derelict wooden buildings. A break in the cloud cover and the birch shimmer again, a woodman appears with his dog and a couple of rabbits. But, there’s no kids, no snowmen, no schools, in fact I haven’t noticed any since we left Irkutsk. I haven’t seen or heard laughter or for that matter an argument or disagreement everything is so placid. The only three products I’ve observed are timber, coal and military vehicles. I can smell lunch.

We continue trundling towards Moscow some 12 hours now. There are more roads and signs of development. Huge factories still corrode and show no signs of life other than the ever present graffiti. We know the Russian economy is far from healthy but this is long term industrial decline and a reflection of China’s emergence as an economic power. As yet I can see no evidence of foreign investment as is the norm with healthy nations. The final batch of military boys depart, if they were born here I know why they’re in the army. I pray I’ll keep my own cabin as more passengers prepare to climb aboard. I appear to be lucky.

And so this is the Trans-siberian experience, not at all what I expected and something I never necessarily wish to do again. Whilst I normally prefer travelling alone (I normally meet new folk to chat to) this is the exception. Bringing a mate is the only antidote. For those of you who have committed an act in life for which you wish to punish yourself then take this trip by all means but there are more enjoyable ways of executing self-flagellation out there. I enjoyed my stopovers in Ulan Bator and Irkutsk though they were a little tarnished by the flu and now after this 4 day slog I’m looking forward to the Godzillas Hostel plus Moscow and after that the joy of Europe but for now arriverderci it’s 4:42am Moscow Kazanskiy Station and I have a hostel to find my great Trans-Siberian adventure is over.