Travels across Russia on the “Trans-Siberian” train.

Trans Siberian TrainBack in 1992, when I was attempting to travel around the world without flying.  (well except for the beginning when we left NY city and flew to London to get started)  Since I was on a ship that went across the Atlantic 7 times in my navy days, I figured I could start that way.

I will jump ahead for now to the Russian portion of the trip.    After a lot of red tape and stress and faxes, etc.,  We finally got permission to visit Russia while we were in Prague.

Back then , in order to get a visa to Russia, you had to be invited.   We found out that there was an American guy in Moscow who would fax you the invitation if you could get a hold of him.   Then when you got there, he asked if you would stay at least a night in his hotel/hostel there.

 So, we finally got the visa in Prague and then proceeded to travel via train thru the Czech Republic, Poland the Ukraine and on to Moscow.

Of course we wanted to stop everywhere but didn’t spend enough time in Poland as we would’ve liked.
The thing I remember most about Poland is how cheap the living was there (20,000 zlotys to the dollar I believe), how hard it was to get into a bathroom when we first arrived (we had no Zlotys)  and how cheap amber was there.

We found a cool hostel however and had a good time although it was too short.

We then proceeded on a train all the way to Moscow and didn’t get the chance to visit the Ukraine.   (we didn’t have visa’s for there)

I remember the cabins were built for 3 people to sleep in on that overnight ride (maybe 2 nights I don’t remember)   and that when we entered Russia, we stopped for about 7 hours and they jacked the whole train up about 6 feet in the air and pulled all the wheels out and put different ones on as the tracks are narrower (or wider, I don’t remember) in Russia.      This was done so that anyone who went to war with them wouldn’t be able to use their tracks for invasion.

We finally got to Moscow and the next thing that amazed me was that we were so far underground and had to go up these seemingly ancient escalators.    And at the top of every one was a mean looking woman who was yelling something at everyone.   We finally figured out, she was getting everyone to hurry so that things could move along as fast as possible.      It was pretty crazy as we had never seen anything like it.   Looking back I think it wasn’t a bad idea as I often get anxious going up or down escalators because 90% of the people assume it’s time to rest and they stop.    Used to be those who wanted to stop would step to one side so that other’s could hurry past them.   I don’t see much of that anymore, at least where I live in Thailand now.

OK, back to Moscow and it was our first visit inside the so called “Iron Curtain”  Everything was different since we got to Poland it seemed.    No more western cars or trucks, the variety of food was limited as well as the quality it seemed.

We were on a low budget trip as we were trying to travel around the world for a year without flying and I only had $6,000 US so, we always were doing a lot of our own cooking.

 But in Moscow, that meant standing in lines to point at the food you wanted in the shop, and then standing in another line to pay for it and then standing in another line to get it.   Winter was coming on and I remember one time they said they had no potatoes yet I noticed a big pile of potatoes in the back room.   I pointed to them and someone who spoke English told me that they were no good because they had frozen before they harvested them.    I think perhaps this is one of the reasons why communism just didn’t work.   No one cared if the potatoes rotted or froze in the ground.

 We spent Thanksgiving Day (late November) in Moscow and wanted a good dinner so we went back to a restaurant that we had a good meal in previously.  It was right near the Kremlin on the top floor of a 7 or 8 story hotel there.    This time, there was no one to interpret our order for us and we ended up getting a dried up piece of beef (small) on a plate.   It was as bad as it looked.

So, we ate it and went out and found the McDonald’s not too far away which was one of the few clean restaurants and brightly lit with someone who’s sole job was to mop up the floor as everyone walked in.   (because it was snow flurries outside and a bid muddy)

Although I normally don’t like McDonald’s, this was one of the better meals that we ate out at a restaurant in Moscow.    We did cook most of our meals back at our boarding house which had a nice kitchen.

We walked around the Kremlin, figured out the subways and some of the Russian alphabet and signs which is really not that difficult as it compares easily to the English alphabet.   A few letters are different and once you learn those differences, it’s easy to find a coffee shop.     One of the intresting things we had to learn, was that the diffence in the words entrance and exit on the signs was only one letter different in a long word.

We spent 9 days there and I met a friend who worked in a nightclub on the 1st floor of our resident building.    He wanted to get me high (pot) a few times and I said: “No way, I can’t get caught, this is Russia”  and he said:  “No problem, this is Russia!”  but I didn’t want to take any chances as the country had just opened up to tourists like me and I didn’t want to set a bad example.

The Russian ruble was dropping at the time and things were cheap. I remember that guitar picks cost less than a penny a piece in comparison to our money. (dollars)   Also, anything controlled by the government was very cheap at the time.  For example, we could send postcards back to the US for about 3 cents!   So, I ended up sending lots.  This was one of the few times I sent home postcards in the whole year.

Train tickets were cheap as well. But only if you bought them yourself.  If you had to go to the Intourist office (government run travel agency) and tried to buy a ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway for a ticket to Irkutsk (Siberia), the cost was over $100 for the 5 day train trip.

 But, if you could speak a little Russian (I always attempted to learn as much language as I could for the countries I was passing through), well, I practiced and stood in the Russian common people’s line and got up to the front and said in Russian: “two tickets to Irkutsk please”     The guy didn’t even look up and told me it would be $36 total for the two one way tickets!    (I don’t remember how many rubles that was)  So, we had some cheap tickets that went through 5 time zones.!

The night it was time to get on the train, I finally said ok to my Russian friend and smoked a little with him.   We still got to the train station on time but couldn’t find our train.  When it got close to the departure time, and still no train, we started asking people if they were waiting for the same train.   Two girls who heard us and spoke a little English, came to our rescue and looked at our tickets and said we were at the wrong train station and we’d better hurry if we wanted to get to the right one on time.

We took off running with them and they knew a few shortcuts and we had our backpacks, guitar, and food for the train and were trying to keep up.   Finally we came out of an alley into a similar train station that was probably a mile away, only to see the end of our train leaving the dock there and no way could we catch it.    So, we stopped to catch our breath and decide what we could do from here.   It turned out that the two train stations were not only close together but only (once again) had one letter different in their alphabet to discern between the two!   Oh well, life traveling is not always easy.

So, what to do?   We went back to our guesthouse and paid for another night and after discussing with our friends, figured we had to go spend another $18 each for another ticket rather than try to exchange them in our meager Russian-speak.     But the train only left every other day so we had to spend a few more days there which was fine as now I was getting high and enjoying a different part of Russia.

Finally we got on the train, at the right station, in plenty of time (we even practiced the night before). Once we were on the train, we found out that we’d be sharing the 4 bed berth with a family that consisted of a Mother with two small children and a ton of luggage and boxes and baskets and everything, so much so that they used one of their beds to store all of their stuff and they all slept in the other one.

We heard some strange noises that first night only to discover that one of the baskets held their live chickens.   Although we didn’t speak their dialect, we learned some valuable things from this family.   First of all, don’t buy the food on the train.   Wait until you get to a station stop,   (we had a book about the trip which described how long the stops would be)  and when you had a 15 minute stop or longer, go out in the cold, and walk around a bit and there were lots of people there holding up chickens, or shoes, or pierogies, or bread or whatever.  It was like these people were learning capitalism but weren’t sure exactly how it worked.  There was no hawking or yelling or describing their wares, only people quietly standing there holding one of whatever it was they were selling with a pile of them behind them.

Most people on the train would then walk around and buy the foods that they wanted including beer and vodka.   They mostly thought we were nuts for buying beer instead of vodka but, I remember the beer being pretty good and cheap (4 for a dollar?)  and the Vodka being something that didn’t agree with me.

Each railroad car on the train consisted of 12 small rooms that had 2 sets of bunks in each.   So, 4 people to a room normally.   Since I had my acoustic guitar along, and it was a long train ride, I was a popular person on our car.

Almost everyone wanted the American with the music to enter their little room and play and sing some songs.   This enabled me to find out what kind of  western music made it to Russia and become popular, as well as meet the people and swap stories.

I found out that the Beatles are very popular there, as are Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.  Of course they wanted to hear many songs that I had never heard of, mostly Russian folk songs that some of them could play and sing and did.

By the end of the 5 days, I knew everyone on board our car and found out a few interesting things: first of all, the ladies liked to flirt and any ladies who were married to officers in the military, knew some English.  It turns out that officers had to learn English and they’re spouses either helped them or knew it too.    The social structure was a bit surprising as I found out that a merchant or trader of goods was of a higher social standing than a doctor or schoolteacher!    This is why many of them were going on the trip.  They would buy clothes in China, and return to Russia to sell them.   Or they would be taking clothes to eastern Russia with hopes of making a huge profit there.   I remember many of the coats were from NFL (American football) teams and they were considered a hot item.   Once I went up to a lady who had a Philadelphia Eagles coat on to ask her if she liked the quarterback only to find out that she had no idea what kind of jacket she was wearing.   (but it looked good I guess and probably kept her warm)

I met a doctor who was doing this also as they didn’t make much money as doctors in the communist country.        Also, many of the people had bad teeth.   Many were farmers.

It was very hot on the train and the windows didn’t work so we sweated a lot.   You had to go to the small space between the cars to try to cool off but, this was also the smoking area.  They didn’t allow smoking in the rooms which was a good thing as most Russian people smoked I think.

Also, when the train would stop in a town, we often would go out just to cool off a bit.   I remember sometimes going outside where it was bitter cold in my shorts, t-shirt and flip flops and hoping it was a long stop so I could cool off.   Of course many people thought we were nuts.

There was a big brass urn in one corner of the train that always had available hot water.   I think some call it a “samovar”? So, we could have coffee, tea, instant soups, and many drinks any time as long as we had the ingredients.  (they were also available from the people standing on the platform selling you things)

We found out that all trains in Russia go by Moscow time.   Even though Irkutsk is 5 time zones away, the trains all keep to Moscow time.   This can be a bit confusing when it’s 1 or 2 pm and already getting dark out!

I remember going through small towns and looking out at people who were pulling old fashioned type sleds or sleighs through the streets with a milk can or water can or two lashed on board.   They were heading to the center of town and the towns water supply there.   It seemed like we were back 100 years in time when we saw some of these things.  Not very many cars outside of Moscow.   Only buses, trucks, motorcycles and we still saw horse drawn wagons and carts!

We did try to get visas in Moscow for Mongolia and Ulah Batar (it’s capitol) but it wasn’t feasible as it was a holiday and we needed to have 3-5 days to pick it up and….we.. after all the interesting people we met, I remember a few who were overly friendly and they said they were from Ulan-Baatar        About a day before our stop, a lot of these people got off as the train tracks branched off to their country to the south.  One in particular stood out in that he said if we would go to his country, he would put us up and show us all around and feed us and welcome us and he seemed so sincere.

But Irkutsk was our short term goal as we hoped to visit Lake Baikal there and spend some time before continuing our journey to China.

We pulled in and had to go find a place to stay as it was cold once you got out of that hot train for more than 15 minutes.

We went to the Intourist office where they wanted $100 a night for a room ( nowhere near our budget) and then we went to a hotel that had been recommended to us where they started out by saying they wanted $60 a night and we said: “but we heard it was only $12” and they said “OK”

The same thing happened when we tried to change money (our dollars to rubles) They said they would give us 4,000 rubles to the dollar and we said:  “But we just came from Moscow where the exchange rate was 5,000 rubles to dollar”   And they would say OK then we’ll give you 5,000!     This goes to show you the immense change that was taking place in Russia at that time and how people didn’t know what was going on in other areas and didn’t really care about the value of money.

We ended up staying in the area of Lake Baikal and Irkutsk for about a week and had a great time as we met some very interesting students from all parts of Russia going to school there (barber school) but I am going to continue that story another day.   Like I said, it was a year long trip and I will try to write about all of it sooner or later but this has been the story of our trip from Eastern Europe to Siberia.  And it was one to remember the rest of my life.

My biggest regret is that i didn’t have a camera and neither did my traveling companion “Party Animal”.