Notebook - Travel with Immersion in Russia
What is left to be written about the Trans-Siberian Railway, a journey on which everything has been said? Every metre of the 9288 is entitled to an author’s words. Each rail has its verse, each wagon its poem. A journey of all 'fantasies, the one who wrote best about it never stepped into it. To Pierre Lazareff’s question “Did you take the Trans-Siberian Railway?” the French poet Blaise Cendrars replied, “but I made you take it, didn’t I?”.
Hardly accessible for any foreigner, the safest solution to travel into the Trans-Siberian Railway might be through an agency to avoid obscure Russian booking websites, to ensure being surrounded by foreigners and benefiting from guides’ expert advice. Specificity of “Immersion in Russia”: Russian language is taught across the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway.
Few hours after warm introductions, the train departs and slowly sinks into the largest country in the world, the country of extremes, into its legends and occult forces. Here we are: now involved into the Trans-Siberian daily life, its little infortunes and great joys. The memorable encounters, the card playing and the wagon’s laughs … The Russians, the Uzbeks, the Coreans … Finally, you stamp your ticket as much for the steppes and the taiga than for the simplicity of the train’s relations. Here we are on board, putting our life in brackets within the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Jérémie, Guilhem and Frédéric, the founders of the agency (travelling with customers) are three French guys in love with Russian culture who set themselves the goal of sharing their Russian experience in a dynamic, young, vibrant and rich country. At the antipodes of our European countries, but so whimsical, original and trendy. However, Russia intimidate the foreigners and travelling there without a specialized agency is too hazardous.
Immersion in Russia chose four stopovers for our trip: Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital. Ekateinburg, the murder’s site of the last Tsar and his family. The legendary Baikal and Vladivostok, the railway terminus near the border with North Korea.
The perpetual round trips of freight trains reminds us that the Trans-Siberian Railway was built for economic reasons before acquiring a romantic aura that shines far beyond Russia. Nowadays, it is the only thing that connects some Russian citizens to their homeland. The only two things a Muscovite and Buryat have in common are a passport and the train they use.
Travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway and learning Russian aboard is uprooting yourself from your being and your culture. It is borrowing History and customs of a country for a time. This is what two weeks of Russian travel and classes on the Trans-Siberian offers us: becoming part of a great Russian tale.
First thing that strikes me about the Trans-Siberian Railway is the simplicity and benevolence of relationships within the wagon. There is a strange je-ne-sais-quoi about social interactions in Russia. From a cold and distant attitude in everyday life to warm and easy-going socialization on the Trans-Siberian. The Russians share a strong train culture and are able to establish conversation with such ease that you would think they have all known each other for years. The conversation with my compartment mates is made possible by Guilhem, who served as our interpreter. The first laughs came quickly, just long enough to make our beds. A man finishing his newspaper was naturally interrupted by an elderly lady going to bed ; brief discussion from the pillow. The train leaves right on time. 00.43. Let’s go for a journey crossing a quarter of the planet.
It is dark outside, the wagon lights will remain switched on for a few more moments. Time for the late discussions to fall asleep. The sleepers will sleep, the snorers will snore and the insomniacs will wait.
Our journey takes place in kupe sleepers, the second class of Russian trains, wich offers us more comfort than the basic platzcart wagon: 54 beds, one toilet, no shower. The classes are held in the compartments shared by four travelers, I’m following them on the first day perched from my bunk ; the musicality of Russian language is pleasant to me.
Nothing interrupts my reading in the calm of the first afternoon in the train. Everyone quickly identifies us as the wagon’s foreigner group, which attracts the sympathy of Russian children asking us tons of questions about our countries and the provdanitsa, the wagon manager, who keeps order in her small kingdom.
At 7pm the white forests of birchs tree becomes red, grey, then black. The light falls. The night, starved by the day, bites into everything. Firstly the steppes, the few villages and then the trees. Quickly, the only thing left to be seen is the side of the rails.
After a deserved break in Kazan to discover its treasures and the Russian soul in a late evening shared with a true Tatar family : Roustam’s family, we are back in the Trans-Siberian next morning, that’s the moment a Russian guide chose to expose the history of the Railway while preparing our bunks, the Trans-Siberian Railway is in fact a network of trains rather than a train line. Most trains use the main line (Moscow – Vladivostok), but it is possible to branch off at Ulan-Ude to step into the Transmangolian and Transmandchurian, which will take you through the Mongolian steppes to take you to Ulan Bator or Beijing.
Upon our arrival at Ekaterinburg, we walked up the city to the Skver park, crossed by a river. A quick visit to the Fine Arts Museum on its left bank. The art of the Urals from the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century and then some Japanese prints. The museum main piece is an iron pavilion award winning at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900.
Our walked wrapped up around the Blood spilled Church. Built on the Ipatev house requisitioned by the Bolcheviks on April 27th, 1918. In this house on a night of July 1918 the last czar, his family and his last servants were murdered. Yeltsin had this house destroyed in 1977. Everything was done and undone. The truth about what happened, the house’s walls, its doors, its roof and windows. Today stands the imposing church of all saints, a small wooden chapel and a white cross.
The moment is striking. The deep voice of jailer Yakov Yurovsky addressing the Csar resonates in our guides’ mouth. Nikolaï Alexandrovitch, your relatives tried to save you, but they couldn’t. We have the order to kill you, your life is over. A bullet burst was fired ; the bodies fell. The guide breaks the silence: bodies are burned, truths are manipulated, walls are destroyed, but violence leaves an echo that still resonates today. This trip took us one step further in the Russian history.
Russian classes continue in the train that takes us to Irkutsk, the main stop to access Baikal Lake. We spent another two days on this train, the quietest of our trip.
On the Trans-Siberian Railway, looking at the time running takes time. Music, reading, talking with my fellow travelers keeps me busy. Card games usually follows Russian classes (in which our progress are impressive!). On some bunks books are piling up, the most skilled are already chatting with Russians. Jérémie, Guilhem and Frédéric are always there to give information about the next stop, how long it will last, to offer us some tea and make sure our trip goes well.
Vans transferring us to Baikal Lake are already waiting for us at Irkutsk’s train station at our arrival. The group is split into two cars ; the opportunity to appreciate the snow-covered steppes of Siberia from a new perspective.
The arrival in Baikal widens the horizon. The frozen lake extends as far as the eye can see. Our accommodation is found in the village of Kizhir, located on Olkhon Island. Our first walks led us to the shamanic iconic places located a few steps from our hostel. The more adventurous among us venture out on the lake. The activities will follow one another during the two days spent in Baikal : excursion takes us from the southern tip panoramas of the Island to the steep cliffs of the North. We spend our evenings in Banias: the best indicator of a country that does not know how to find the right balance between its excesses, the right temperature between excess heat and striking cold. At lunches and dinners our Russian guides cook our shashliks at the inn or we share fish soups on the lake: we eat Russian, talk Russian and sleep Russian.
We emotionally left Baikal lake behind us. Seeing this gem once is a benediction, seeing it twice in a life is an exception. Back to Irkutsk to catch the Trans-Siberian in which now everyone has their own habits. Three days of travel separate us from Vladivostok. This may be the last time in my life I step into this mythical train, it’s the last three days of a lifetime journey. I decided to make the most out of the remaining time and went to explore the train.
It is possible to visit the immense Trans-Siberian Railway, a true rolling city. Visit the luxurious first-class districts, the smell and bubbling life of the platzcart. See the many nationalities that mix wagons after wagons.
I choose to stop in one of the wagon restaurants. A group of three Russians noticed that I was a foreigner and invited myself into their table. They offered me a vodka, the waitress offered me food. They were playing a Russian card game, tried to explain the rules but my Russian wasn’t good enough yet. Disconcerted by the situation, they chose to buy me a vodka. One of the three Russians had a brilliant idea: organizing an arm wrestling competition, those fighting challenges are universal. Happy with this new idea, they offered me a vodka.
There are four of us, the organization is easy, there will be semi-finals and then the grand finale. I easily won my first round. The crowd was hysterical. I resisted, resisted, took the advantage, we were pulling on our muscles like hell, our faces turned red, he took advantage, I started to let go, he broke the arm symmetry, took a slight advantage. Veins coming out of his forehead, mine coming out of my arm, blood pumping everywhere in our bodies. He got closer, closer to victory … Always closer. That’s it, he won. He shouts, eructs, hits the table three times and gave me a big hug. Russia Ura!
The gold medalist won a shot a vodka. The silver medalist got a shot of vodka. The bronze medalist got a shot of vodka, as a consolation. The last one got a shot of vodka too but drank three. We still don’t know why.
I wrote in my notebook while drinking the glasses of vodka in front of me and eating the candy that the waitress continued to give me. We all understood each other much better now than we did before the vodka jugs. The world is quite simple on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The train moves forward, the landscapes pass by, people share something.
One of the Russians took my pen to write a note in my notebook. I would translate it much later: круче нас горы только нас нас выше выше нас только звезды "Stiffer than us only mountains above us only stars", a Red Army song.
I fell asleep for the last time on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Tomorrow is our arrival to Vladivostok. I looked behind me, towards the rails of the last wagon, to remember the journey we just experienced. The encounters, the Baikal, the progress in Russian, the unique moments, the friendships formed and our countries forgotten the time of an enchanted interlude.