Trans-Siberian Magistral : a rail adventure

31/01/2007 21:30
7.203 lectures
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"I had only just shut my eyelids when the train moved off. It was beginning its long running ahead..."
Tuesday, January 4th

I had only just shut my eyelids when the train moved off. It was beginning its long running ahead. At that moment, I thought about the 10,000 kilometres or thereabouts which separated me from the terminus, Vladivostok. A strange idea made me shiver; I had forgotten my ticket. Hadn't I? My left hand got hurriedly closer to the pocket of my jacket and gripped about it. I took the ticket out. It was slightly creased, but I could still easily read:

9238 километров
Просьба предъявить билет проводнику
прежде чем садиться в поезд.

This means:

Trans-Siberian Magistral
Moscow - Vladivostok
5765 miles
Please show the ticket to the ticket-collector
before getting on the train.

What a relief! I calmly enjoyed the first steppes behind the window of the Magistral and fell asleep again, hearing the sweet melody of the axles knocking the rails. The beautiful Muscovite panoramas, its Большой театр (Bolchoï) and its Кремль (Kremlin) were already far away. My dreams were going up to the new wonders I was going to discover.

Wednesday, January 5th

I had been scanning the landscape for 2 hours without noticing any human construction. It was true that, since the river Волга (Volga) crossing near Ярославль (Iaroslavl), the train hadn't passed through any big city except Пермь (Perm), in which I hadn't dawdled even though it had an undeniable cultural lure.
Everybody around me seemed to be in a good mood. The sparse moments of calmness were cut by short interjections in a language that I didn't really master yet. За ваше здоровье (your health!) and other как дела (how do you do?) quickly made way for some intonations a lot more incomprehensible. I felt a bit lonely, certainly because I was too much in my head to understand the surrounding mood.

I took my eyes off the sight and turned round. A woman was standing there, in front of me, nearly motionless. She came out with a firm tiny voice:
- Здравствуйте! (Hello!)
- Здравствуйте, I babbled somehow or other.
- Вы ездите в Новосибирск? (Are you going up to Novosibirsk?)

I took advantage of the fact that I didn't understand any word of this sentence to answer back the only Russian expression I had learned by heart:
- Я не говорю по-русски. Вы говорете по-английски?
(- I don't speak Russian. Do you speak English?)
- Yes, I can get by, she answered fluently.
- Oh! Can you tell me where we are?
- Yes, we've arriving in Ekaterinburg in two or three minutes.

She had no sooner managed to finish her sentence than a hoarse voice was heard beyond the intercom in the corner of the carriage:

« Приезд на вокзал в Екатеринбург через минуту. »
“Arrival in Ekaterinburg station in a minute.”
A short time later, the door opened and most of the passengers got off the train. The woman took my right hand; I followed her and got off too. In front of us, we discovered a heavy board where we could read:

ЕКАТЕРИНБУРГ, километр 1800

I looked up and noticed that there the sky had been replaced by a huge greyish mantle. I quickly swept the landscape with my eyes and understood the reason. Ekaterinburg was a determinedly industrial city, in the heart of Ural, the non official capital city of the region. Since its founding in 1722 by Pierre le Grand, the city had always received marks of every age it had passed through. It was adorned as well with the marvellous industrial constructions as with ancient luxury buildings. Named Sverdlovsk in communistic years, it had got back in its former named in 1991, tribute to Empress Catherine Ist.

Scene of the assassination of czar Nicolas II in 1918, this city displayed such a historical and architectural wealth that an irrepressible desire to visit this curious place crossed my mind. No sooner had I shared this idea with my neighbour than the stationmaster lifted his whistle to his lips.

Садитесь в поезд пожалуйста!
(Please get on the train!)

I hurried in order not to miss the departure.

Thursday, January 6th

One day and more than a thousand miles later, an icy sun was standing upon our heads. We had been in Siberia for several hours. After a stop in Тюмень (Tyumen), the oil capital of the region, the train had crossed wide Russian steppes and Иртыш (Irtych) river. The curtain of greenery which had appeared near Омск (Osmk), a big Siberian centre, had pleased everybody again.

Macha was standing by my side, who had finally told me her name. We were looking at the other passengers who were busy decorating the carriage from top to bottom. After having a glance at my dictionary, I went up to her to murmur:
- Что они делают ?
- Они украшают вагон на сегодня вечером.
- Сегодня вечером ? Что произойдёт ?
- Вечером это рождество !

(- What are they doing?)
(- They are decorating the carriage for tonight.)
(- Tonight? What's happening?)
(- Tonight, it's Christmas!)

I was killing myself laughing:
- But Christmas, it was two weeks ago!
- In Western Europe maybe, but not here. Christmas Eve is tonight in Russia.

Suddenly, I remembered what my former teacher used to say. In Russia, Дед-Мороз (Father Freeze) and his daughter Снегурочка (Sniegourotchka) come and give presents to children on Christmas Eve. Father Freeze is in fact the former Морок (Morok), god of cold, who has turned his legendary nastiness into sweetness since he has come with Весна (Vesna), goddess of spring.

I shut my eyes and listened to the voices of my neighbours. Some children were singing koliadovanies to cast out demons; their parents were laughing and drinking. Yes, it was effectively Christmas Eve. While some pictures of Russian celebrations I had seen during my childhood ran in my head, the train entered Novosibirsk station:

НОВОСИБИРСК, километр 3300

The city was spreading over right in the middle of Siberia region. Founded in 1893 to give a stop to Trans-Siberian on the greatest and longest Russian river, the Ob, it was the house of around 1.5 million inhabitants. This place was certainly the 3rd Russian centre after Moscow and St Petersburg, at least intellectually speaking, thanks to its famous university and its several theatres. The Siberian capital was a great place to start discovering Altai Mountains which were not so far.

Macha told me that Novosibirsk was her terminus and she would leave me soon. I had a quick glance at the timetable in the middle of the station, and then decided to catch up with Macha to invite her to dinner. She smiled at me and escorted me to a little restaurant in the suburbs.

On the way, I was filled with wonder by the over-decorated streets. Even the entrance of the shop in front of me was full of pieces of tinsel. Only the sign took off its decorations to let some Cyrillic letters appear: Ресторан (Restaurant). We had arrived.
We entered the restaurant and sat down on a bench in front of a table covered with hay, as Russian Christmas tradition wanted. Koutia, a kind of rice and corn pulp, soon arrived on the table and in our stomach. Koliadki, made with cream cheese and flour, did too.
Then came the hour when Macha left.

С Рождеством!
(Merry Christmas!)

Friday, January 7th

The following day, I awoke in the train. I asked where we were, and another passenger, perhaps a Russian, answered me that we had crossed Красноярск (Krasnoyarsk) several hours before, a well known UFOs research centre and scientific city built on Енисей (Ienisseï) river. I gathered that we would soon enter the Siberian historical centre, Irkutsk.

ИРКУТСК, километр 5100

Irkutsk was a nice city with an unusual atmosphere and an interesting architecture. It had been one of the oldest cities in Siberia since it has been founded in 1686 by Cossacks. This city owed its wealth and expansion to gold, mammoths ivory and zibeline exportations. In the XIXth century, it had become the European gathering place of pioneers and gold seekers. But this wealth had always caused violence. So it was quite logical that the city was one of the most dangerous places to live in during the Russian Revolution, since it had been an impressive theatre of fights between communists and czarists.
Nevertheless, 66km on the West of Lake Baïkal, Irkutsk was said to be “Siberian Paris” thanks to the magic it gave off. As I already knew the truly amazing beauties of Lake Baïkal, I preferred to spend my time visiting the city itself.
I first noticed the beautiful Eastern Churches. Those buildings impressively radiated all the essence of Orthodox faith. Typical wooden houses, theatres and museums concluded my discovery of Irkutsk. I could now imagine better why some Russian writers had spent their entire carriers and lives in this city.

I had a look at my watch; it was time to return to the railway station.

The train stopped in the middle of the night and I gave a jump. Was it a technical problem? That was what I first thought, but this idea disappeared fast when the first passengers came in. We were in Ulan-Ude station:

УЛАН-УДЭ, километр 5600

The train had finally and definitively entered Asia. Indeed, a Mongolian atmosphere penetrated the carriage as new voyagers sat down opposite me. We were still on Russian territory, and yet I was sure that this calm and friendly Asian town had a lot of interesting and exotic things to show.
What a pity! The stop was too short to adventure into this puzzling place. I was reduced to travelling alongside huge and magnificent river Амур (Amur), natural border of more than 2000 miles long between Siberian Russia and North-Eastern China, on rails that guided me to Vladivostok. I would see just a little part of it before reaching salted landscapes of Far Eastern Russia.

Saturday, January 8th

I was still on board, playing cards with Russian friendly people. One of them said to me with a large smile:
- Ты проигрываешь. Почему ты улыбаешься?
- Я улыбаюсь потому что думаю о брате. Это его день рождения.
- Сосредоточивай твоё внимание скореи на твоей игре! he said to me with an amused wink.

(- You're losing. Why are you smiling?)
(- I'm smiling because I'm thinking about my brother. It's his birthday.)
(- You'd better concentrate yourself on your game!)

It was quite a long day. Even if I was happy to be there, on the train, watching landscapes that flashed past before my eyes, I began to feel jet lag weighing on my eyelids. Lots of the seven time zones the Trans-Siberian crossed were already behind us, but the ones in which we were that Saturday proposed no big cities to visit.

Nevertheless, the approach of Биробиджан (Birobidjan) station in the night, capital of Jewish Autonomous Oblast region created in 1934, was a singular moment. Indeed, an inhabitant of this city I met on board explained to me that the name of the city, written in Hebrew inside the station, was a symbol of the community pride. Even if the population of this town didn't reach 80.000 inhabitants, it was a place where it was good to live thanks to its surrounding greenery.

Sunday, January 9th

Early in the morning, our train entered the last big station before Vladivostok the following day, Khabarovsk one:

ХАБАРОВСК, километр 8500

This city was located on Amur river, not far from China since the country was just opposite, on the other shore. Founded in 1858 as a military observation post, Khabarovsk was now a nice and friendly town, but it was above all an important break from the train journey and the last before its terminus. Former capital of the Soviet Far East, the place is known as Boli in Chinese.
There were lots of little things to view in this important industrial centre of 600.000 inhabitants, but without any doubt the most interesting was its bridge. Khabarovsk Bridge used to be the longest in imperial Russia and Eurasia when it was build in 1916.

The stop ended, and for the last time I got on the train. Direction: Vladivostok.

Monday, January 10th

Finally we arrived. I felt really strange when I saw Vladivostok outlined on the horizon. All those kilometres to reach this town! It was a bit as if I was on a rocket and I was approaching another planet. Quite destabilizing.

ВЛАДИВОСТОК, километр 9238

I slowly got down from the step and my foot feverishly hit the ground of this cold but hearty world. Vladivostok was a small provincial town, and it wouldn't have been interesting at all if it had not been one of the most important strategic centres of Russia. In fact, during the first two decades after its annexation by Russia in 1860, Vladivostok had been a little port without importance. But at the end of the 1870s, the Russian government decided to transfer the general administration of the region there. That is why the tiny town had developed urban and port facilities and had become one of the town centres of the region with Khabarovsk.
That was how my journey ended. I knew that the following things I had to do were to visit the submarine which contained the Pacific War Marine Museum and maybe the Sakhalin Islands. Unless I write to Macha...

Thanks to my Russian teacher.
This short story was written for a socio-cultural project (English-Russian) in the 2nd year of my study in ENTPE... but it's clearly not mistakeless ! :o)

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