The following is an entry from a blog I wrote for London’s The Telegraph newspaper recounting a journey from England to Japan by train
At Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station we get our first glimpse of the Trans-Siberian express, the centrepoint of our journey.
A sky-blue train, each of its carriages decorated with the heraldiclooking insignia of the Russian railways, it snakes into the distance along the platform.
It is late evening and as we climb aboard there is a short fanfare of military music, presumably to herald the train’s departure. I’m not usually in to pomp and circumstance but given that we’re about to embark on a seven-day trek across Siberia, I don’t mind a bit of reverence.
The Trans-Siberian, in actual fact, refers to three separate train routes going variously to Mongolia, China and Russia’s Pacific coast.
The train we’re taking is the Rossiya and if you’re going to pull rank about these things, this is the service that could best claim to be the true Trans-Siberian express.
It was this route that Russia first began construction of in 1891, when the Tsarevitch Nicholas on a royal visit to Vladivostok symbolically emptied a wheelbarrow of dirt on to the ground.
Unbelievably, before the railway came along – it was finally completed in 1916 – it was actually quicker to get to Vladivostok by going via the Atlantic, North America, and the Pacific than attempting to cross Siberia.
The railway changed that, turning Siberia into Russia’s equivalent of the American Wild West, with hundreds of pioneering peasants and adventurers hitching a ride on the train to strike out east.
On board the modern equivalent, we latter-day pioneers cosy into our cabin home for the next seven days.
The welcome aboard is typically Russian, with our two carriage attendants mustering all the joie de vivre of a couple of professional mourners. Still, as seems the case with many Russians, we only need break the cool exterior to reveal a rich vein of humour and warmth just below the surface.
As the train rolls off into the night, we crack open a bottle of vodka and as we work our way through it – running out of things to toast (you must always toast with vodka) I tell my Japanese relatives how a Russian pilot assured me once that real soviet vodka leaves you clear-headed the next day.
Not surprisingly, the next morning I’m nursing the hangover from hell and I have no energy for much besides staring out of the window and cursing the advice of Russian pilots.
Fortunately, the view is captivating. The even farmland of Poland and Belarus has transformed into the steppe, the gently undulating grassland that stretches from the Caucasus to south western Siberia. From time to time, the rolling fields disappear behind forests of pine and birch that flicker past the window, the bark of their slender trunks a silvery grey.
It is all lovely and pleasant and flouts my expectations of Siberia, as a place of extremes of nature, and of human suffering.
First published 14 September, 2007