Midnight Express from Moscow, Singapore Airlines
Beneath the fairytale roof of Yaroslavsky Terminal in Moscow, hundreds of passengers are on the move. Russian soldiers wearing ushanka fur hats, the flaps covering their ears from the cold, and elderly Babushkas laden down with suitcases rush past.
Above my head is what looks like the world’s most complex physics equation. Listing dozens of destinations in Cyrillic, the departures board constantly ticks over as train after train depart and arrive.
My train number is easy enough to spot though: I am taking the 9.20pm night-time 002 Rossiya bound for Vladivostok, or the Trans-Siberian Railway as it is better known. Costing upwards of 15,000 Russian Rubles for a one-way ticket across country, it is an inexpensive way to see the whole of Russia pass by outside your window [if you want to stop along the way, individual journeys must be paid for separately]. On the platform, I see my train’s distinctive livery of white, blue and red stripes – aping the Russian flag – and board just in time. Five minutes later, the train glides out of the station under cover of darkness.
With 9,289km between Moscow and my final destination in Vladivostok, I have no idea as to what awaits me. The world’s longest train ride, the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the world’s epic train journeys. Built from 1891 to 1916 at the request of the future Tsar Nicholas II and His father Alexander, the railway was intended to aid government ministers and their staff to cross Siberia in comfort. Today, it passes through seven time zones and takes eight days to complete without any stops. Even more confusing is the fact that all trains run on Moscow time, no matter where in the country you are. My plan is to break up the journey at Yekaterinburg, 1,816km from Moscow, and at Irkutsk, beside Lake Baikal, 5,185km away.
I have booked a second-class ticket (kupe) and find my lower bunk sleeping couchette in a four-bed cabin. My fellow passengers are two soldiers on leave, both of whom speak little English, and a salesman from Omsk. We begin by communicating with hand signals, but within hours, they are sharing meat and potato pies with me, singing army songs and toasting to my good health with Russia’s ubiquitous national drink, vodka. I quickly realise that drinking the crystal-clear alcohol is the country’s favourite pastime – no matter what time of the day it is.
Outside my window, storybook Russia begins to roll past; a non-stop montage of landscapes: coniferous taiga forests merge into rusting railway bridges, farmlands and unpronounceable industrial cities like Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Birobidzhan. The views are surprisingly seductive and are almost hypnotic. Hours pass as our newly formed train community trundles on; Kirov marks the 957km point, then Perm at 1,436km.
“Yekaterinburg,” my guide book tells me the following morning, is famous for “myths of lizard-queens and giant ground cats guarding caves full of lustrous treasure”. Instead, I find the capital of the Urals to be a modern thriving metropolis: there are no Doctor Zhivago stereotypes here; only new hotels, sushi bars and Irish theme pubs. Days later in Irkutsk, I find Decembrist (referring to rebels who revolted against the government in 1825) houses, Siberian supermarkets and pulsating nightclubs.
The great 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev once said, “You can’t understand Russia with reason. You can only believe in her.” Admittedly, though I can’t even begin to understand the complexities of this vast country on such a short visit, the Trans-Siberian has certainly given me enough reason to believe until the next time I return.