I’ve drawn my old place in Australia as well as my London flat. There’s no big round sun at the top of that page.
It’s our first night onboard the Trans-Siberian and despite the impromptu art class, I think I might be bored already. I realise I’ve learned my first Trans-Siberian lesson.
Lesson 1: Don’t do too much too soon
Already I’ve read three chapters of my book, completed an easy Sudoku, made two cups of tea, eaten half a pack of biscuits, inspected the bathroom facilities and ruled out a career as an architect. With six nights and more than 7000km of track left in front of me I’m going to have to spread things out a little.
I spend the next 80 minutes reading my Trans-Siberian guidebook (don’t leave home without one, if only so you have something else to read), then I decide to look out the window. I’m amazed at how long I’m able to watch the world chug past. I consider the possibility that I’ve been hypnotised, but I’m soon distracted by my cabin mate, unpacking what looks like a week’s worth of groceries.
Lesson 2: Life’s a picnic onboard the Trans-Siberian
She’s taking up all the space on the small table between us and I am staring at her as she piles up the food. All this staring would seem rude in any other situation but there’s literally nowhere else to look now that I’ve exhausted the ‘out-the-window’ option. There’s chocolate, tea, biscuits, bread, cake, coffee, lollies, walnuts and an unnecessarily large tub of honey. She shares it around and we feast on honey-dipped walnuts till bedtime.
Lesson 3: Women snore
There isn’t much room in a Trans-Siberian cabin and the louder your cabin mates snore, the smaller it feels. The noise she is making rivals that from the train. My only option is to plug in the iPod, start at ‘A’ and work my way through 8 gigabytes of songs.
Lesson 4: Avoid cabin fever
Day two is all about taking it easy (see Lesson 1). I read, sleep, read more then file my nails. It is like being on a cruise or a beach holiday – without the sea and sunburn.
Day three, however, is all about getting as far away from the cabin as possible. My sanity is at stake, the room smells like stale air and walnuts and if I even see instant noodles I may lash out.
Lesson 5: There is real food onboard
Thankfully, the dining car is where it’s at. The decor is old-school, the attendant is pumping God-awful music through the crackling speakers and there’s more than one Russian drinking vodka for brunch. The menu is in Russian and the waitress knows just three phrases: “chicken, beef steak, beef stroganoff”. I’d eat my own arm as long as it wasn’t served with noodles, so when the meal is served I am surprised it is delicious. I graze before heading to my carriage, where I meet a group of English tourists.
Lesson 6: You can shower when there’s no shower
The conversation revolves around our attempts to keep clean when there are no showers on the train. Suggestions range from the sponge-bath to the all-out shower, using a plastic bottle with holes cut out. There is a drain on the floor of the bathroom so it is possible, but it does seem like an awful lot of trouble.
All this talk of hygiene reminds me I need to brush my teeth, but I’m out of bottled water so I have to visit the provodnitsa.
Lesson 7: The Russian word for ‘please’ is ‘puzhalsta’
I don’t think she likes me. The provodnitsa is the carriage attendant. She looks after your tickets and bedding, cleans the carriage and keeps the samovar boiling. I’ve forgotten how to say ‘please’ in Russian and I’m self-conscious about my teeth, so my smile doesn’t really do the job either. I ask, via mime, for some bottled water and she says only has sparkling. It feels like I’m brushing my teeth with sherbet.
Lesson 8: Timing is everything
If there’s one thing you have on the Trans-Siberian, it’s time. Not that you ever really know what time it is. The trains run on Moscow time but Siberia is actually five hours ahead.
It’s with this in mind that I finally drift off to sleep on our fourth night onboard. It is the last night of this leg of the journey and I plan to spend the final six hours or so asleep.
Half an hour later the provodnitsa is waking me up. I’ve read the ticket wrong and we’re almost in Irkutsk. After four days I can’t believe I’ve run out of time.
When to go
- You can leave the train in normal clothes
- Many more foreign tourists will be onboard
- The landscape will be green and beautiful
- You can go diving in Lake Baikal
- It’s hot outside and cool on the train
- If you want to hop off you’ll need to wear all your clothes at once
- You’ll meet lots of new Russian friends
- The landscape will be how you imagined Siberia – vast and snow-covered
- You can go driving on Lake Baikal
- It’s cold outside and warm on the train
- Thongs/flip-flops – to keep your feet off the toilet floor
- Pictures of your family and home – even if they’re on your mobile. Perfect for ‘chats’ with your new non-English speaking friends
- A pack of cards
- A good book or four
- Souvenirs from home – as gifts for new friends or homestay hosts.
- iPod – useful if your cabin mates snore
- Toilet paper and antiseptic wipes, cup, spoon, hot chocolate, teabags, coffee, instant noodles, packet soups, lollies.
- Tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt – release your inner chav. This ain’t the Orient Express, innit?
Off the train
Ride the Metro in Moscow
The Metro stations are a tourist attraction in their own right, but head above ground to visit the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral.
Camping in Mongolia
Live like a nomad in a traditional-style ger in Terelj National Park. The felt-covered tents will keep you toasty in winter but you can work up a sweat hiking and rock climbing in the national park.
Dog-sledding in Siberia
Stop at Irkutsk, then head to Lake Baikal. In summer, spend your days diving, hiking and eating omul (the local fish). In winter you’ll be skiing, snow-mobiling, dog sledging and eating omul.
Wall climbing in Beijing
Plan to stay at least three nights in the Chinese capital. See pandas at the zoo, visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, then go and climb the Great Wall.