I’m not sure what to expect from Siberia — pine and birch forests with an occasional gulag, perhaps — but I’ll soon be experiencing the real thing as my train rolls out of Moscow’s Kazan station and heads east, rattling through a series of switches and out onto the main line. It’s the start of a 12-day, 4000-mile rail journey that will take us across Siberia and to Mongolia before heading south into China and, eventually, to Beijing.
Our train has been chartered by a German firm specializing in rail and cruise travel. It’s a big train, with a baggage car, a couple of crew cars, three “restaurant cars” and 14 sleeping cars accommodating close to 300 passengers. We are divided into three groups: one for Germans, another for Spanish speakers, and a third for those of us speaking English. Interestingly, I’m the only American in my contingent, which is by far the smallest. There are a half dozen Brits, an Australian woman, a Dutch couple and 20 or so Scandinavians: Danes, Swedes and Norwegians.
The train itself is Russian and so is the crew, with one male and one female attendant in charge of each sleeping car. Mine is under the care of Serge and Victoria, whose entire English vocabulary apparently consists of “Gud mawnink” and “Gud night.” Still, they are cordial and efficient, keeping the bathrooms and shower room tidy, making up our berths, and providing us with bottled water upon request, either “gaz” or “nyet gaz.”
My single compartment is utilitarian and comfortable enough, but gives the illusion of being posh, with deep burgundy the predominant color for the heavy drapes framing the window and the upholstered seat which becomes the bed at night.
Our first morning aboard begins precisely and abruptly at 7:00 a.m. when the train’s public address system suddenly pours out a rousing Russian song. It takes a bit of fumbling to find the control knob cleverly concealed in the fancy trim above the window, but it’s now twisted full left although the music can still be faintly heard above the usual rumblings of a moving train.
On the afternoon of our second day aboard, we stop for a tour of Ekaterineburg, a major city in Central Russia, modern by almost any standard, but remembered now as the city where, in 1918, the last Russian tsar, Nikolai Romanov, was assassinated along with his wife and children. Today, the Cathedral-on-the-Blood has been erected at the site of that tragic event.
Another night on the train and we’re now well into Siberia. Novosibirsk comes the following day. It is, in fact, the third largest city in all of Russia, with a population of about 1.5 million people. There are high-rise apartments and office buildings and residents zip back and forth on an extensive metro system.
Two more days pass and as we cross from Europe into Asia, my changing impression of Siberia seems to be universally shared with others on board: It’s nothing like what we may have expected. Of course it’s big – vast, really – and the cities we visit are indeed separated by great stretches of forest interrupted by tiny villages whizzing by every hour or so.
But most of those cities, with their unfamiliar names, are modern metropolises in every way, many of them with a half-million inhabitants or more. There are transit systems, six-lane boulevards, flashy brand-name hotels, apartment and townhouse complexes, and shopping centers teeming with customers chatting on cell phones or busily texting as they hurry along.
That said, not everything is coming up roses here. Most people have to work very hard and are just getting by. The effects from the collapse of Communism are still being felt: factories that employed thousands of people just a decade or so ago and, at the direction of Moscow, produced helicopters or cars or dishwashers, have struggled and often closed down when left to sink or swim in the scary new world of free enterprise.
Yes, there are modern high-rise buildings with spacious apartments, but they are far beyond the means of average working people. Who lives there? Government officials, managers of whatever factories are still operating, and business entrepreneurs, universally described here by the locals as “merchants”.
Twenty years after glasnost, life is not easy for ordinary Siberians working for wages that would be considered out of kilter in the west. Top pay for a university professor is about $12,000 a year. Schoolteachers can earn as much as $500 a month, but physicians in private practice make 30 percent less than that. Construction workers and unskilled laborers are even farther down the chain.
There are some compensating factors, of course. Most of the apartments, built by the state in the ’70s and ’80s, were sold off to individuals at very low cost by the government. And, in the city of Irkutsk, for example, electricity coming from a huge hydroelectric plant on the Angara River, typically costs a flat rate of about $10 a month, with no limit on the amount used.
Siberians who live in small villages out in the countryside have quite a different existence. It’s all very picturesque from the train, of course, but many of the small rough-framed houses we pass are set on muddy dirt roads and have privies in their tiny backyards. Family garden plots are necessary for subsistence and most of these people live a great distance from cities of any significance. The only real link between their very basic existence and the modern world is this trans-continental rail line.
But today, seven days into my rail journey, the train eases to a stop in Ulan-Ude, capital of the republic of Buryatia and a city of some 400,000 people. It lies in the middle of the Siberian steppes less than 300 miles from the Mongolian border.
I informally survey the members of our group of English-speakers as we step off the train and not one of us has ever before heard of this city. And so we are all appropriately astonished to come across the Theater of Opera and Ballet, just at the corner of the city’s central square and recently re-opened after several years of extensive renovation. It is a magnificent facility and our timing is excellent because this evening there’s a performance featuring local singers and dancers.
The concert begins when a strikingly handsome man, Asian by appearance and natty in a tuxedo, strides to center stage, nods to the orchestra, and launches into a booming O Sole Mio. Locals in the audience are comfortably enjoying the experience while members of our tour group are stunned. The tenor is followed by a pair of dancers performing a ballet from Carmen. The next soloist offers a Puccini aria, then Tchaikovsky is marvelously represented. The evening finally concludes as a beautiful blond woman, stunning in a red sequined gown, delivers a rendition of “Memory” from Cats that can only be described as thrilling.
Another member of our group is sitting next to me. A 60ish Dutch woman, she is dabbing at her eyes. “That song was performed at my husband’s funeral,” she says. “It was quite unexpected.
I mean we’re in Siberia, for God’s sake!”
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If You Go
Lernidee trans-Siberian rail journeys originate from either Moscow or Beijing, with several departures from May through September. Note that not every departure features an English-speaking group.
Book direct through Lernidee (www.lernidee.de/en), but if your itinerary includes additional rail travel in Europe or Asia, it will likely mean a confusing variety of visa requirements. In those cases, I recommend using a rail-savvy travel agency. Details of my extended itinerary were handled flawlessly by Railbookers in London (www.railbookers.com).
If you book the Moscow-to-Beijing journey, consider flying to a major European city and taking an overnight train from there to the Russian capital. It’s an interesting ride, adds just a day-and-a-half to your itinerary, and you’ll avoid the horrendous customs and immigration hassle at the Moscow airport, which often takes as long as three hours.
Pack light! Dress is casual throughout the journey and there is limited storage space for luggage in rail car compartments.
Photos: Jim Loomis