Thirty-seven hours in the blink of an eye

Dec. 9 – Novosibirsk to Kazan

It was a long haul from Siberia through the Urals to the Volga River; 2,400 km. But it went fast for me. Here’s why;


Eighteen hours, boom, done. Unconscious for half the trip. Well, not quite like that. It was a painful start yesterday at the Tsentralnaya Hotel. Up several times before my 0430 alarm, anxious to not sleep through it. Finally decided, the hell with it, get dressed and walk the two kilometres to the station through the dark morning. A security guard directed me to the train, using a bit of German. “Dresden! Tankovy!” he said, pantomiming driving at T-36. “Brrrrrm!”

Yet again I was blessed to have a compartment to myself. It’s an old wagon, with hard seats and stiff joints that squeak and groan. There’s a “clackclackclack”, like a moth beating its wings against a screen door. But it’s a more-or-less regular sound, and I settle in for six hours of deep sleep. And then later, as darkness falls again, I sleep a dozen more hours as the train continues ever westward.


Fortune smiled on me in Omsk, when Oleg the non-snorer came into the compartment. Trim, salt and pepper hair, fifties, firm handshake. His English is at the same level as my Russian. Exhausting, usually mutually-incomprehensible conversations ensue, using the inadequate Lonely Planet glossary. I gather he lives in Krasnoyarsk, is on his way to Nizhny Novgorod, works for the energy firm Gazprom, has a wife and three daughters. Oleg is a musician, plays classic guitar, as the train shakes he jokes “We will rock you!” He asks me about immigration to Canada. It’s all clumsy “I don’t understands”, vigorous nods, and guesses. A language being learned. His mobile phone rings, “My vwooman” he says. Later, I learn his grandfather was Estonian. I ask, “Why Siberia him?” Stupid question. He shrugs. “Stalin”.


After two weeks on an ocean, a couple of days on a train is easy. Clichés like “unchanging panorama” simply don’t apply on land as they do at sea. There are snowy fields and forests, alternating with villages, ice covered rivers, a pink pastel sunrise spreading over the plain.

The Trans Siberian route is not the 401 or the Interstate. On North American highways, you’re in a car, you know what to expect, you’ve seen it all before, it holds few surprises. Russians feel the same way about their railways, I suspect. But for me, even the banal details are different enough to be interesting.

And at least I’m not in the plastkartny (fourth class) wagons. I walked to the back of the train in hopes of taking more pictures of the rail line. It’s a tough, smelly way to spend a few days, in an open compartment with 50 strangers. Kupe class  is luxuriously private by comparison.


Oatmeal, chocolate, cookies, salami, cheese, noodles, plus some pastries made by Oleg’s wife. I eat a little every hour or so, chewing through the kilometres as I nibble on my supplies. I have that greasy, road trip, clothes-slept-in feel, but it’s almost done. I’ll leave my oily mark on Kazan, no doubt.


I’ve started an old (but new to me) Paul Theroux book on his journey around Britain. Many short chapters make it easy to get in, escape to another part of the world, another time. Another work of Theroux’s, “The Great Railway Bazaar”, was my introduction to the Transsiberian route.

One hour, more or less, to put together the 600 words you’re reading. Saves me having to slap things together this evening in Kazan.

Oleg has set his mobile phone to radio. Under normal conditions, I’d consider the commercials and pop and static a distracting noise. But as I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve been musically deprived. So here’s to “Honey honey” (Abba), “Eye of the tiger”, and “House of the rising sun”.

In Kazan only tonight, then tomorrow overnight to Moscow!

Siberian Idol

Dec. 2 – Irkutsk

I’ve now reached Siberia and have to catch you up on the journey from Beijing. I’ll do it gradually, so I won’t be dumping it all in this post.

But first I want you to help decide my next destination among the three below. They’re all on the route to Moscow, but I only have time for one of them. Research if you want, or pick at random, but all votes (informed or uninformed
doesn’t matter) must be in by 12:00 noon Irkutsk time on Dec. 3 so that I can book departure on Dec. 4. Vote by email, Facebook message, or blog comment. Looking forward to seeing where you will send me!

KRASNOYARSK (far from Irkutsk). Lonely Planet says “Vibrant, youthful and backed by attractive spikes of jagged, forested foothills, Krasnoyarsk has a much more appealing setting than most typically flat Siberian cities.

My comment: “Sounds promising. But can I get out to those attractions (which aren’t in town) and in winter? And makes for a heck of a long next leg of the trip.”

NOVOSIBIRSK (very far from Irkutsk). Lonely Planet says “If you want a night on the town, restaurants with big town glitz, or a choice of countless Irish pubs, Novosibirsk might be your Siberian dream come true.”

My comment: “I’m not a nightlife aficionado. But this is a big city and I’m surely up to the challenge of finding something worth writing home about.”

OMSK (very, very far from Irkutsk). Lonely Planet says “Vast and sprawling, Omsk’s industrial suburbs look off-putting, but the gently attractive central core has some fine centuries-old architecture and is dotted with parks, museums, restaurants and quirky public sculptures.”

My comment: “Could be good, since I like quirky. A long trip there, but on the other hand a shorter next leg.”

Now back to the journey. Two entries today covering Nov. 30 and Dec. 1!

Nov. 30 – K3 Train from Beijing to Irkutsk – At Erlian, China-Mongolia border

“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let
life proceed, in its own discretion, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them – the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed to be a threatening place.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho


I’m on a warm train on a cold night, headed towards a new country. I’ve met fellow travellers, I’m one day closer to old friends and I have a good book to read. Life can get better than this, but not by much.

More to follow…