Finally I’m on the Trans Siberian, a five day trip that takes me from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and then on to Moscow. On the first leg I share a carriage with three Russians – Ludva, a plump, jovial woman of about my age and Andrei and Ivan, two oil workers, part of the team laying the controversial pipeline through Siberian. They’re in their late 20s and heading home for annual leave.
I quickly discover that the first thing Russian men do when they board the train is request a moment alone in the carriage to change. They emerge after a few minutes wearing shorts. Their legs are starkly white and the shorts are almost uniformly too short and a little on the tight side. When the train halts at the station you can spot the train passengers from those that have just boarded by the bare legs of the former.
We leave Irkutsk at 7.30pm and are soon all eating the snacks and food we’ve brought with us. Ludva whips out a huge bag filled with enough food to feed the entire train. For the rest of the journey I watch with envy as she creates delicious lunches and snacks for herself: dark rye bread with cheese, tomato, cucumber and freshly cut dill (yes, she has a whole bag of fresh herbs in there); hard boiled eggs with chives and onion; dried apricots and peanuts and more.
Ivan and Andrei, in contrast, rely mainly on instant noodles. For one meal they bring out a tin and using a seriously sharp knife, cut the lid off. It’s filled with a kind of fatty beef; like spam but more meaty. They cut it into their instant noodles and eat with relish. To my disappointment no-one drinks Vodka or misbehaves. The men quietly share a large bottle of beer and then go to their bunks where they sleep, almost solidly, for the next 18 hours.
Travelling with Russians is a lesson in generosity. Everyone I share a carriage with offers me a share of their food and drink. Ludva presses fruit, biscuits and all manner of treats on me; the boys share their beer. I offer round my Australian made chocolate biscuit and share my red wine but am conscious as I do so that this isn’t something I do as a matter of course. I make a vow to be more hospitable when I next travel in Europe.
When the others doze off, I’m drawn to the windows in the corridor, watching the beautiful Siberian countryside pass by outside. Occasionally we flash past small rural stations where solitary passengers wait for the next train. At one, a soldier in full uniform sits in the last rays of evening sunshine, feet up on his kit bag; at another two women wearing headscarves and brightly coloured full skirts, stand beside grocery bags full of produce.
Small villages of wooden houses flit in and out of sight from among the birch and pine forests. As the sun sets dramatically in the huge sky the colours wane softly
The next evening I take a rest day from the train in the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk (a busy if uninspiring city of 2million with plenty of shopping and cafes and a fine Lenin statue) where I have a shower and stock up with more supplies.
Then, over the next 50 hours I travel across the rest of Siberia, over the Urals and into Europe proper, sharing my carriage with a succession of Russian women and Richard, an English traveller. First up is Olga, dark haired and dark eyed, she’s heading home to Tuymen. She refuses to believe I don’t speak any Russian and happily chats away to me for a couple of hours. I try to explain I don’t understand but eventually give in and nod and smile at what I think are the appropriate moments. It seems to work, halfway through her chat she whips out a box of chocolates that we share before we lie down on opposite bunks and sleep another night away.
When Olga gets off, Irena gets on. She’s younger, maybe 30, with hair dyed dark black at the back and a bright red fringe at the front. She plays trance and dance music on her mobile phone and drinks fizzy drinks almost constantly for the 12 hours it takes us to get to Yekaterinburg. Towards the end of her journey she pulls a small bottle from her make-up bag. From her miming I realise it’s nail polish remover and that she’s noticed the state of my toe polish (untouched since China) and that she thinks it’s time I took it in hand. I take her advice and soon my feet are buffed and repolished and to Irena’s high standards.
Russian women make a big effort with their appearance every day (unlike the men who don’t seem to bother at all). High heels, cocktail dresses and immaculate hair and make up are every day wear for girls, both in country towns and in the cities. All the women that share my carriage apply their make up each morning and do a thorough touch up before they leave the train. It leaves me, in full grungy traveller mode, feeling particularly scruffy.
I never get to know the name of my final carriage mate. She joins me at Nizhny Novgorod, eight hours away from Moscow. We pull out of Nizhny at 9.30am. She waves goodbye to her husband and makes her bed as the train gathers speed. Within 10 minutes she’s asleep; lying in a position she doesn’t alter until five minutes before we arrive in Moscow at 4.30pm that afternoon. She lies on her back, hands outside of the blanket on either side, face waxy and pale. It’s a little like sharing a carriage with a corpse.
In a way she’s a fitting companion to this last leg. We’re still 400km from Moscow when the views outside the window start to become obscured by smoke. The haze worsens as we approach the city and when I step outside I’m hit by a wave of heat and air thick with smoke. I draw a breath and my eyes water and throat tickles. The sun hangs in the sky, obscured by smoke it looks like a deep red balloon. I pull on my backpack and walk down the platform; all I can think of is Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel, The Road.