Last night around midnight we boarded the Trans Siberian railroad bound for Ulan Bator (capital of Mongolia). Train 6 starts in Moscow and ends in Ulan Bator, meaning I will be the one and only occupant of carriage 5 bunk 9 for the duration of it’s journey. I had expected to see a train of this century imprinted with the grand letters of “TRANS SIBERIAN EXPRESSWAY” on it’s side, greeted with a warm welcome as though this was to be a special journey, a right of passage, something of a spectacular to remember for years to come. Though it was just a train, like every other train, nothing special, and frozen in time from the soviet era. Carriage 5 was the first class cabin which contained 10 suites with two bunks each.
Walking into the carriage, the walls are a wood lacquer and the floors are covered in a red and black carpet. The suites were numbered 1/2, 3/4, 5/6…until I got to mine, bunks 9/10, which meant I scored and got a forward facing bunk. My motion sickness inclined stomach did a huge hooray at that! Inside were two bunks, one on each wall, about 2 feet in width and only a foot or so off the ground. In the middle was a small narrow table draped in a cloth napkin for elegance. Each bunk was already made with soft white sheets and a warm brown fleece blanket and two large fluffy pillows. In the cubby above the door were two large white comforters in case we got cold.
The primary focus of the suite was the large window that took up the bulk of the far wall and provided the endless hours of entertainment as we would watch Russia pass us by. On the wall above the bunk was a decent size mirror with it’s own light, a netting to stuff items for quick access, a hook to hang a garbage bag or whatever else, and a small towel rod for the two hand towels they provide each bunk. Beside the door on either side was a coat rack with two wood hangers. The walls inside the suite were the same wood lacquer and the window had light grey curtains and a blackout shade. If you lifted your bunk seat, underneath was a cubby for storage of items you wanted to keep hidden.
Shortly after I got settled, what would be my bunk mate for the first two days of the journey arrived. A lovely Russian woman in her 50/60s who was returning home to her city in Siberia from attending a conference in Moscow as well as sneaking in time to see her son who lives there with his family. She spoke only Russian and Dutch. I spoke only English and broken Spanish. We said our hellos and then tuckered out for the night as by the time the train started to roll away from the station it was midnight. It was clear almost immediately the difference between the lie flat sleeper seats on an airplane, which is rather silent and motionless to this train, who wobbles continuously from side to side along the track and routinely changes its pace. There’s the occasional passing train that creates a jarring hum as it rushes by. After a bit of getting used to, the night got me and my heavy eyes closed and I was off to a slumber.
I woke up a few hundred miles from Moscow when we stopped around 6:00am or so. The suites were full leaving Moscow and all but two suites exited at that morning stop. The carriage became silent. My bunk mate Nina awoke around 9am and was kind enough to share her coffee with me. She had brought some in her mug from the night before. It was cold, but better than nothing given I realized the ‘coffee’ I thought I brought was in fact hot chocolate. Coffee bean, cocoa bean, without English I obviously couldn’t tell the difference. Leveraging Google Translate we talked about where we were from and admired the scenery out the window. She taught me the Russian words for city and village, for snow, for trees, and grain.
With no real activity for the day, it was much like I suspect happens when you retire or become well into your later years, the day revolved around food. Breakfast, snack time, lunch, snack time, dinner, wine time. All self-induced as I am a task oriented person who adores structure so in a world without structure, I just impose it upon myself. Being a person who enjoys consistency and rituals, I brought along multiples of the items for each meal, so every day was exactly the same. No wondering, no questions, etc – much like the person that owns 5 white shirts and 5 black pants and just rotates daily for work to not have to think (which admittedly I am, but cheat a little because as a woman that would be shunned, so I just own what I called ‘robot’ dresses, where I have 10 almost identical work dresses of different colors that I rotate through without thinking. They required no matching necklaces, no matching shoes, no thought whatsoever. Perfect!).
Anyhow, the first full day (i.e. Day 2) crossed through Glazov, Balezino, and Perm. Not quite to Siberia but a little over 1,300 kilometers from Moscow. Hours of the tall skinny white barked trees that look like Aspens but are much taller and much straighter. Periodically we’d pass villages of small simple wood houses with wood roofs, then bigger villages with colored houses and tin roofs, and then cities with cinder block buildings and paved roads. Everything passing by in the blink of an eye. Millions of people’s lives surrounding us as we take a few second glimmer into their environment to breath in what a moment there would be like.
The train car was quiet. Besides me and Nina, there was only one other couple a few suites down who brought along a little Jack Russell terrier that was a remarkably laid back travel companion. Occasionally he’d pop in to wag his tail and steal a few pets, but for the most part snuggled quietly in his room awaiting the next train stop to get some free time. There was a nice woman with blonde hair who managed the carriage. Every day around noon she would vacuum, clean the windows, scrub the bathrooms, and tidy up the carriage. It was immaculate at all times, for as clean as one could get a 50+ year old carriage.
Underneath the hallway rug was cubbies where dirty laundry and other things could be stored between stops. Each time people got off, the bunk had to be cleaned and prepared for the next occupant. Until we reached Perm around 10:00pm their time (8:00pm Moscow time), the carriage remained just the five of us, quiet, and enjoying the peace. Our carriage was not a walkway for other carriages, so the traffic was non-existent. It had two power outlets (single sockets) at either end for Russian/European plugs. Given the how empty it was, finding space to charge things wasn’t an issue at all. Neither was worrying someone might run off with it while it was hanging out in the hallway.
Nina and I surprisingly had quite a number of conversations thanks to Google Translate. Unfortunately we couldn’t get into the depth that I so longed for. Nina was a philosophy professor who moved to Omsk 40 years ago. She had two children, five grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. Plus an adorable white kitty! She was a sweet lady who shared her food and drink, was very patient with our conversations, and was such an amazing companion. I truly wished I could have got to know her better. As she showed me pictures of her family, you could see how proud she was of all of them. In pictures they don’t smile, much like in the US photos from the 19th century. Though occasionally her photos would be adhoc and you could see the joy and love they had for each other. So sweet really. I don’t feel like my life is empty, but it is in moments like these when I realize I have nothing to contribute – no photos of a husband, of kids, not even a pet…
As the day grew on, we became more and more bonded. Like kindred spirits from opposite sides of the planet. We both brought all of our food and beverage on, so neither of us left the suite or the carriage the entire day. We kept the door open to get light coming in from both sides since the carriage was mostly empty. I was the only one in the carriage that didn’t speak Russian and given the non existent English of anyone working on the train, I am guessing this is no longer the glamorous western ‘thing to do’ and it’s more of the primary mode of transportation to/from Moscow for folks living in Eastern Russia.
Today we crossed two time zones so by 4pm Moscow time it was already pitch black. Everything on the train kept with Moscow time, regardless of what time zones we passed through. Nina and I got out our packages of ramen and commenced dinner enjoying a few glasses of the red wine I purchased in Moscow for the trip. It was impossible to see out the window as the outside was so dark compared to the well lit inside which made the room start to feel small. We joked and chatted and got to know each other better. She showed me videos from her grand daughter who is living in Iceland. We oohed and awed over photos of her beautiful white cat. It was a good night.
By 8pm (to be fair 10pm local time) my heavy eyes gave in to a night of slumber somewhere due west of Siberia. I woke up briefly a few hours later as Nina gently pulled my comforter from the top bin and laid in on me so I’d stay warm for the night. In that moment, it felt like home.