It was finally time for me to catch the longest and most awesome train journey I've ever taken. 5 days on a train across the Siberian plains from Moscow to Mongolia. This was a key part of my trip and I was pretty apprehensive about how my train and the other people on it would transpire to make my trip
Already feeling pretty isolated by the general travelling difficulties presented by Moscow, I had visions of hellish journey crammed in with rowdy, unfriendly drunken Russians with very little opportunity to talk to anyone or naturally express myself...
As I waited on the platform, I heard the sound of travellers speaking English, took a swig of vodka (bought partly as a result of a cash machine that conveniently gave me one single, crisp 1,000 russian rouble note that I found difficulty getting anywhere to accept (worth about £100!).
So I got talking to Jens, a Swedish guy, and a couple of swiss people all of whom spoke English and were catching the same train as me. It was very refreshing to meet fellow long distance travellers. Various other people overheard our little group and came to join and I met several cool people this way.
It turns out they tend to group tourists/english speaking people together on these trains, so really I had nothing to worry about. I guess strictly speaking, it wasn't a very 'russian' experience whatsoever, but I met a whole load of people with super interesting travel plans and stories to tell, from the 60+ tour group of Swedes to solo fellow English travellers.
I was travelling 2nd class (Kupe) which means you will be one of four travellers in a single compartment. In the end, it was just me and Markus, a youthful German train driver in our compartment. He'd brought some beers with him, and I had some vodka so we started getting on it pretty much straight away. In our neighbouring compartment we had two swedes (Jens, who was actually half swedish, like me), and Veronica. Jens brought along Gin and Tonic...very english and a nice comforting surprise.
I also didn't actually properly realise that we were going to be on a Chinese train rather than a Russian one, which meant that we had friendly Chinese train. They didn't speak any English. They did however have a secret stash of cheap Chinese beer hidden in their private quarters that I ended up blowing most of money on, including my food budget, so I spent most of the journey eating instant noodles!
That said, I'm actually quite relieved because on the first night we did try out the Russian restaurant carriage. After about 2 hours of ordering what really was a very simple set of dishes off the menu, ONE person (out of four) got their meal. It was then a further 20 minutes each for each person to get their food...needless to say, we didn't try eating in their again!
This was a good job, because many of the elderly swedish tour group had all inclusive meals in this place, and although they got their food relatively quickly, a whole load of them ended up getting food poisoning and being sick for the majority of this train journey. I shudder to think how horrible a jerky train journey like this would be if you actually felt properly ill!
These trains have their heating powered by burning coal. This keeps the carriages almost warm (when they havn't run out of coal). It also powers a container of hot water called a 'samova' that the passengers used, hence the ubiquitous popularity of instant noodles, cups of tea, and instant coffee as you just need to go to the end of your carriage to stock up on boiling water if you need it. There's no shower though, by the way, unless you take first class.
I found it awesome being on this train, flying through siberia and watching the landscape gradually evolve as we went along. One night we stayed awake all night to around 6am to watch the train sweep past Lake Baikal, the biggest freshwater lake in the world. This was really cool to see in the icy cold morning sunrise.
But whatever about landscapes and shit...what made this trip really awesome was the party atmosphere, people to talk to and conversations we had. I managed to get a frequently sought after opportunity to move beyond basic topics of conversation to actually interesting stuff, including differences in national political and education systems, social injustice, music festivals, psychedelic drugs, DMT, bitcoins, etc. etc.
Also really cool was that I had my little speaker set up and was kind of acting as a DJ and rinsing out the tunes (including my own productions) as much as I could...was good to have cool people that were receptive to this and to be able to exchange music with people...so some new stuff I ended up with included swedish reggae and some electro-swing.
As i've mentioned before, its strange how super long journeys work on your perception of time, and the trans-siberian is no exception, especially as you move through about 8 times zones as you travel east-wards, which left me totally confused about what DAY it was, let alone what time it was! The time just rinsed pass quicker than I could keep track of (honestly, no pun intended)...it seemed really weird when Veronica and a few others got off the train before I did, none of us could really believe that she would actually be leaving the train and our little crew at this point.
Likewise, when the time came round for me to get off I really felt like I wasn't properly ready to deal with this whole getting off the train bollocks. I'm actually really satisfactorily settled in here now. Please conductor, just go away with your whole "now's the time to get off the train" superiority complex, yeah right, you're just gonna drop me off by myself with all these god-damn mongolians!! ;)
To summarise, if you like long distance travel, are eager to experience new things, meet new people and see new places, you should definately take the trans-siberian train. Also, if you are a lazy, no good, sit in front of ma facebook all day type of person, you should definately take the trans-siberian train.
Michaela's look of trepidation before an imminent reunion, a long time coming...