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From our generous window on The Vostok, a modern train traveling an ancient route, snapshots of a remote landscape are passing from left to right.
Against a running backdrop of birch and pine, disorderly villages occasionally intrude. Most of the houses are about the size of fishing cabins, though an unexpected number are painted the most astonishing shade of turquoise, making them pop spectacularly against the snow and the pink sky of dawn. The cottages with gambrel roofs are as charming as obstacles on a miniature golf course.
And finally, so many Dr. Zhivago references, we rented the DVD it to see what Russia looks like in winter, only to learn the snowy Moscow scenes were filmed during summer in Madrid.
To see whether traveling to Siberia in wintertime was an idea with merit, there was only one way to find out. And so, starting at the end of a St. Louis summer, we began to plan our winter passage on the Trans Siberian railroad.
It is the longest railway trip anywhere in the world, if you don’t count the Amtrak a thon from St. Louis to Chicago on a Cards Cubs weekend. The Trans Siberian offers four slightly different routes across Russia. One route crosses Mongolia, another cuts through Manchuria. Two of the four routes end in Beijing, which is our destination. Seven days, 5,623 miles, two ungashtupt suitcases. If you are going to see Russia, you might as well do it in her signature season.
“In Russia, you tell a political joke three times: once to a friend, once to the secret police and once to your cell mate.”
That bit of gallows humor came from Daniel Procov, a mid 30ish, enthusiastic Russian history nerd we hired as our guide to help make the most of what would be a very long day in Moscow; the Trans Siberian romantically departs at midnight.
And while Daniel’s joke about jokes seems out of style, you get the feeling it’s not exactly outdated. The day before we arrived in Moscow, while touring St. Petersburg’s sprawling art museum called the Hermitage, a different guide pointed to a small renaissance sculpture of a dog with a curiously humanlike face. “You see that guard over there,” she nervously whispered. “They put her here to keep guides from pointing out that people say the face of the dog looks like.” Then she stopped. “Looks like who?” I asked. Turning her back to the guard and shielding her mouth, she whispered, “P U T I N.”
I don’t know how many people you’ve met who have traveled to Russia, but I know a lot of people and I’ve never met any. Thanks to the cold war, and perhaps the cold weather, it is not a popular tourist destination for Americans, which is too bad because Russia is full of surprises.
To begin with, Daniel tells us that Moscow, with its population of 16 million, is the largest city in Europe and accounts for 90% of Russia’s wealth. Didn’t know that.
Most of the buildings, many quite elegant, are fewer than 10 stories tall for the same reason its subway system is the deepest in the world. The capital of Russia is built on swampland. When Stalin closed or destroyed the actual palaces and cathedrals, these became Moscow’s temples to the communist ideal, lit by chandeliers and covered in frescoes, stained glass panels and gleaming mosaics depicting Russia’s military heroes. It is worth seeing even though the steepness and length of the escalators that lead into the subway feel like you’re descending into a coal mine.
Because we visited in low season, it was easy to zip through the major sites very quickly. Our wait to get into Lenin’s Tomb was almost as short as the time they allow you to walk past his glass encased corpse. It used to be a double feature, but Stalin’s body was eventually removed and buried near the wall of the Kremlin, just behind the mausoleum, which is also the final resting place of other familiar Soviet notables including Brezhnev, Chernenko, and astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
Lenin’s tomb is just one of the many attractions in Moscow’s famed Red Square, which is also home to both the city’s most famous church the kaleidoscopic St. Basil’s and a shopping mall. Adjacent to Red Square is the Kremlin, which, I did not realize, despite having been a government minor, is not a building, but a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall. (Kremlin, in English means “fortress.”) Inside the red brick Kremlin wall are a number of Orthodox cathedrals from Czarist times, along with military offices past and present, and the office of the President. The parliament, called the Duma, sits outside the Kremlin walls.
After a full day of seeing the sights, Daniel walked us to our train station. We said goodbye to him in English, and “thank you” in Russian. “Spasiba!” It’s the only Russian word I knew, and though I would try to pick up a phrase here and there over the next seven days, Russian, which sounds to me like three different languages pulsed in a Cuisinart, just doesn’t sit easily on the western tongue. And their Cyrillic alphabet doesn’t make it any easier. Elsewhere in Europe you can at least sound out “ristorante” or “toiletten.” Russian signs might as well be written in Vulcan.
Our midnight train from Moscow is not leaving at just any midnight. Our trip begins on New Years Eve, and as we depart, we can see the fireworks coming from Red Square. Over the loudspeaker onboard the train, 12 chimes are followed by a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem. Then, in Russian, a welcome speech the length of jury instructions. If these were the rules, I hoped I would not break any. After all, we are headed for Siberia, and no one on the train except for an equally puzzled young British couple who were also making the epic adventure, spoke a word of English. Most of the other passengers we encountered were Russian locals using the Trans Siberian for point to point commutes. It seems the complete week long trek taken for amusement appeals to a limited demographic, particularly in the dead of winter.
The Vostok’s passenger cars are painted a deep Russian red, with the words “Moscow Peking” emblazoned on her sides in white Cyrillic letters. Inside, in car number four, our first class compartment is roughly six feet wide and eight feet deep, with a large window, two couches that cleverly turn into twin size beds, and a sliding pocket door for privacy from the corridor. There is even a flat screen TV, though nothing to watch. Technically, the first day on the Trans Siberian is not in Siberia at all we’re still in European Russia. But for the first time on this trip we see snow, and it is getting considerably colder, though, as our new friend Daniel says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
The Vostok, which in English means “east,” is not the fastest way to get to the orient. She tends to mosey at around 40 miles per hour, slow enough to enjoy the scenery but fast enough to blur anything in the foreground of your photos. You’ll go for hours sometimes seeing nothing but forest, and then a clearing will appear with a collection of a dozen houses, or a smokestack, or a lumber mill, or sometimes the hulking shape of a Soviet era concrete building.
Village life in these remote spots looks more 19th century than 21st woodfire smoke from chimneys, no automobiles, a solitary person carting home groceries on a sled. There is little evidence they bother to plow the streets, or even have streets. And if winter weren’t bleak enough, in summer the region thaws into swampy bogs with great clouds of mosquitoes, or so our guidebook says. It’s easy to understand why this was a great place for a gulag.
By day three, the landscape had changed again, as flat plains of feather grass stalks poking out of the snow gradually turned hilly, then mountainous. Siberia, for all its harsh extremes can be quite beautiful, and is more populated than I would have guessed. Once or twice a day, for twenty minutes or so, the train pulls into the station of a town with a name like Krasnoyarsk, Sludyanka and Nizhneudinsk (mind you, these names are in Cyrillic on the station signs, so it hardly matters). Some of these are small towns, others are real cities with cell service, an opera house, and plowed streets traversed by a kind of boxy, retro styled car called a Lada, seemingly the Ford Escort of Russia, only less expensive, and more prone to rust.
At these station stops it’s not uncommon to be met by babushkas, old women bundled against the cold, who spread tablecloths on the train platform and lay out their wares bread, pickles, or entire home cooked meals to sell to train passengers. The chicken and potatoes dinner we bought was quite tasty, and still warm from the oven. We did not try the dried whole fish one lady had ingeniously skewered on a coat hanger for ease of transit.
There are also small commercial kiosks at many of the stations that offer chips, crackers, cheese and the like. My advice at such stands is to stick to items with a picture on the package. At one stop, I purchased a shrink wrapped triangular pastry with two English words on the label: “Mr. Piggie.” Even after eating it, I am not sure what it was.
In addition to what can be foraged on the station platforms, there is a serviceable dining car on the Vostok whose decor is a blend of 50’s diner, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Interesting tidbit: when crossing Russia, the dining car serves Russian food. When you cross the border into China, the restaurant car is switched out to a Chinese diner. On the Mongolian route, they even add a Mongolian diner that specializes in mutton. To our great relief, our restaurant car had at least one menu in English. The most memorable item listed was “Language Beef” which, after some head scratching, we realized was cow tongue as rendered by Google Translate.
I did become a fan of a local soup, the name of which I cannot remember, and the taste of which I can not forget. After several bowls of it, I think I have deconstructed its major components: onions, pickles, julienned salami, hot dog slices, lemon wedges, and black olives, all cooked up in a tomato broth with a buoy of sour cream bobbing around in a sea of grease. Very filling.