Day 18-20: Irkutsk to Vladivostok

by - June 30, 2011

This was going to be the big one.  A lot of people say that Irkutsk is the half way point between Moscow and Vladivostok and give or take 500km or so (which is nothing in Siberian terms), they probably wouldn’t be far off.  The journey seems fairly short on the map - as the crow flies, but the line heads due east from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk before hooking south to Vladivostok, roughly following the Russian border with China.  In total, we would be travelling 4000km in three days.  We got on the train at 7.50 on the 28th June and finally got off three days later at 6.20am on the 1st July.  For the sake of writing the blog I am going to merge the three days into one - you would enjoy reading a minute by minute account about as little as I would enjoy writing it.

Me and Sergey
In terms of fellow travellers, we had a really good mix.  For the first day, from Irkutsk to Chita, we had an old mother and her daughter.  They didn’t say much and seemed pretty in awe of us as english people - just before they got off they asked, bashfully, whether they could take a photograph of us.  For most of the second day we had the cabin to ourselves, which was nice as it allowed us to spread out a bit.  In the evening, a retired army major called Vlad got on with a woman called Liliana.  They both came from the same little town and the former could speak broken English.  A lot of people had got on at the town and they all seemed to know each other.  They were fascinated by us as we were the first English people that they had ever met and they kept popping their heads into our carriage to say hi and gawp a bit.  Most foreigners don’t come this far - by now they will have turned off to Mongolia or China, so the locals are all very interested.  When we woke up the next morning the townpeople had left and had been replaced by Vladivostok Football Club’s youth team, who were just coming back from an away match at Belogorsk (which was a day and a half’s train journey away).  The first team play in Russia’s Premier Division and the youth team is in the Russian Youth First Division - so they are pretty good and get paid for playing.  Luckily the goalkeeper, Sergey, could speak really good English and as the team was going home to Vladivostok they made excellent companions for the last leg of our trip.  Over the whole length of the journey, from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, we had had some real gems.

The dining car
After eating our sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner on the first day (we had prepared these in Irkutsk), we had to resort to a lot of instant noodles and snacks.  Both were available from the ‘provinista’ - the woman who maintains the carriage.  We also sampled the restaurant car, partially for the novelty and partially for a change of scene from the cabin.  The food was expensive and came in extremely small portions, but it gave us an excuse to stretch our legs and sit somewhere different for an hour or two.  We picked up a few bits from the platforms - biscuits and ice creams for example, but the barrows full of fresh produce, that fellow travellers suggested we would see, just weren’t evident.  With a constant supply of hot water for tea and coffee, a few supplies from Irkutsk and an ample supply of bits on the train, we were able to stave off hunger and have a relatively balanced diet.

The main form of entertainment for me was War and Peace, which I took a fairly hefty chunk out of.  Among with book reading, we played a lot of cards and generally tried to make things take longer than they should - having massive lie-ins in the morning, or taking ages having a wash for example.  The whole goal of every action was to waste as much time as possible, which may come as a surprise to people who see it all as a huge adventure, but with a total of over 150 hours spent on trains, you do everything to pass the time.  The scenery itself was quite impressive around Irkutsk for the first day or so, as we passed through vast valleys and along the side of rivers.  On the second day we entered a limestone region where the ground is permafrost - frozen all year round.  Not a lot grows here and it is only the hardiest Russians who live here.  When the railway was constructed, fires had to be lit along the entire length to melt the ground temporarily in order to dig foundations.  Any tools that were thrust into unmelted permafrost would just deflect off the surface.  This process would have continued along thousands of kilometers, just proving what an unbelieveable feat of engineering the railroad is.  This was, paradoxically perhaps, the hottest part of the journey.  The days were long and the train had turned south - exposing the west side of the train (where the cabins are) to the full force of the sun.  As we approached Vladivostok it began to get cooler as the Pacific drew near.  The trees changed from evergreen to deciduous and we finally, 10,000km and 9 days on a train after we had left St Petersburg, arrived at the end of the line.

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