Day 12-13: Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

by - June 23, 2011

Our four train journeys across Russia could be split into two categories: bearably small and unbearably massive. By the time we had left Yekaterinburg, we had completed the former category and entered the latter.  The journey from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk is a big one, weighing in at 3,369km and crossing 3 time zones.  It is the equivalent of travelling due east from Kandahar, Afghanistan to Singapore - so roughly the combined width of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma.  We got on the train at 22.50 on the 21st and didn’t arrive in Irkutsk until 09.40 on the 24th.  To make matters worse, we had done our first two journeys in the relatively luxurious ‘Firmenny’ class of train, which are more modern and better equipped than their standard equivalents.  Fearing a nightmare of a journey, it actually started out pretty nicely.  The only person in our carriage was a friendly old man (with a very complicated name which we forgot and didn’t have the courage to ask for again).  The train was a lot older than the other two, but it was clean and relatively comfortable and we were able to get off to sleep fairly quickly on our first night.

Baraba Steppe, Siberia - notice 'tree line’ on horizon
For those people who believe that the Trans-Siberian railway runs its entire length through spectacular terrain are sadly mistaken.  Between the Urals and Irkutsk, there is very little of interest.  At the start of the journey we passed through dense Taiga forest, which was impressive in its scale, but meant that the view for a day consisted of evergreen trees.  After this we entered a 600km stretch of nothingness called the Baraba Steppe.  This is essentially a massive, flat swamp where occasionally there is enough firm ground for trees to grow, or for a village to have sprung up.  The sheer vastness of this nothingness is best demonstrated through an odd optical illusion.  On the horizon it always seems as though there is a line of trees.  This doesn’t actually exist however as it is the combination of the small copses of trees and the vast space that appear to merge into a forest - the trees that appear to be in a continuous line could be several kilometres apart.  It is a marvel that they managed do construct the railway through this terrain at all.

A village, around 400km before Irkutsk
Towards the end of the journey, on the third day, the terrain began to become more interesting as the train snaked it way through valleys and hills on the way to Irkutsk.  We passed lots of villages, some of which were made up of picturesque wooden houses but some of which were pretty ugly.  The towns in particular were pretty horrid to look at and our Trans-Siberian guidebook (which contains a handy kilometer by kilometer guide) doesn’t have much good to say about them - each town is normally centered around a factory, which everybody works at.  The guidebook says things like “don’t go to so-and-so unless you want to buy bricks/paper/timber” for example.  In the morning we had gone through the city of Omsk, where we picked up a young guy called Ilya who didn’t say much and slept and sweated a lot.  We passed through the city of Novosibirsk, the third largest in Russia, at around midnight and collected another guy called Max - it turned out that Ilya had read his ticket wrong and was in the wrong bed.

Our friends on the train
Travelling east overland through three time zones means that you essentially have to choose when  you change your watch.  Some people have their watch set on Moscow time for the entire journey, but we decided to stay with Yekaterinburg time (MT+3), which gave us three hours that we could 'skip’ throughout the journey by jumping our watches forwards an hour until we reached Irkutsk time (MT+6).  Meal time can therefore occur whenever anybody fancies it (as everybody has their watches set to a different time) and tends to be a communal affair where everybody shares the food that they brought with them.  The food that Alex and I bought with us was consistently rejected, whether out of politeness or disgust we don’t know.  The only thing that we offered and they accepted were apples and the plastic forks that we had with us.  The first night, before Ilya left, Alex and I ate the pasta that we had made in Yekaterinburg along with the fresh cucumber, tomato and bread provided by the older guy.  Ilya kind of ate everybody’s food and didn’t say anything.  The second night was a far more rowdy affair - Max was a lot more lively that Ilya and cracked out the Russian Vodka.  This was eaten along with tinned fish, dry brown bread and smoked pork fat, which you have to inhale before and after your shot of vodka to take the edge of it.  This seemed to work - the four of us got through two bottles of vodka (one of which me and Alex went and bought from the restaurant car), meaning that we spend the evening fairly merry.  Before the journey started we were worried about the idea of sharing a carriage with drunks - having had uncomfortable experiences with a few already.  If you can’t beat them, join them.  We rolled into Irkutsk in the morning on the 24th, feeling surprisingly fresh but thinking that the sight of another vodka shot, or the smell of smoked pork fat, would make us pretty unwell.

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