1668 Kilometers: To Moscow with the Trans-Siberian Railway

The sky was grey on this Sunday morning, it was raining again, but today was the day. 1668 kilometers from Yekaterinburg to Moscow, aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway. I arrived at the main station at around 9:20 AM, and train number 15 was already listed on the departure table.

But wait, what was going on? It was 9:20 AM, but the train had already left at 8:12 AM? Did I miss the train?!? And why does it say “7:20” in the top right?

The surprise: In Russia you can travel through time just by going to a train station, and that doesn’t just apply to the architecture 😉

The country measures about 8.000 kilometers from East to West and spans across eleven time zones. The Trans-Siberian Railway alone travels through seven of them. To avoid confusion (or, depending on how you see it, increase confusion…) all times are stated in Moscow time (UTC+3). Most train stations are east of Moscow, so if you confuse the timezones you tend to go to the station too early instead of too late.

Every single car has a “hostess” which is responsible for her passengers. My hostess was standing in the cold rain like all the others and really didn’t know a single word of English. We made it through the ticket checking process without help, and I didn’t need any help with finding my compartment.

It was quite busy, but train number 15 just goes from Yekaterinburg to Moscow and doesn’t cover the full route from Wladiwostok. The national train operator reports an average utilization of 96% for the Trans-Siberian Railway, and tickets can be sold out months in advance during the summer months. This Sunday wasn’t that busy though, I ended up with the whole compartment to myself.

The train left on time, and I spent the first couple of hours looking out of the window…

We first had to conquer the Ural Mountains. The term “mountains” might be a bit much depending on where you come from, though. The Narodnaja (Народная) is the highest mountain at 1895 meters and is located in the North, close to the Arctic Ocean. The Ural Mountains then level out a bit towards South, most mountains there are below 1500 meters, and at the level of Yekaterinburg most elevations could probably be called “hills”. Our train would not go higher than 450 meters.

Many people in the country seem to be quite poor. A small piece of land with an old house on it are a common sights. Most grow vegetables in small gardens or in greenhouses. Some houses looked like ruins, but in Russia you never know if someone isn’t still living there.

The area around Yekaterinburg only gets about 500 millimeters of rain a year. That’s not more than some coastal areas in the Mediterranean!

I wonder what might be hidden in this “bunker”?

The Ural Mountains were finally behind us and the view opened into the endless East European Plain. You could pretty much continue for more than 3.000 kilometers well into Poland without running into major elevations. Yekaterinburg is only about 100 meters higher than Moscow, and Sarapul is at an elevation of just 80 meters. That’s about as high as some places in the Netherlands are.

So we traveled through an endless Forest steppe with birches and swamps. This must be heaven for beavers! A beaver supposedly gnawed through a cable in 2015 and brought the Trans-Siberian Railway to a halt, luckily nothing like that happend to us, but we thought we saw small beaver dams a couple of times…

The train only stops ten times on the whole route, in Druzhinino (Дружинино), Krasnoufimsk (Красноуфимск), Yanaul (Янаул), Sarapul (Сарапул), Agryz (Агры́з), Kasan (Каза́нь), Kanash (Кана́ш), Sergach (Серга́ч), Murom (Му́ром) and at the Moscow Kazanskaya railway station (Казанский вокзал).

Without a map and any major landmarks I quickly lost track of time, until my stomach started to rumble. Time for lunch!

There are two possibilities for getting food on the train. If you have money, you can go to the restaurant car. If you don’t have money of prefer a bit of variety, you stock up on food before boarding the train. I had opted for the latter, but decided to take a look at the restaurant car anyways.

The cook will prepare fresh dishes, but the prices are about five to ten times higher than on the street. A pot of tea was 150 Rubles (about 2.50 €) while a cup of tea goes for 15 to 20 rubles at the fast food places. The menu also supposedly gets shorter and shorter on the route from Wladiwostok to Moscow because the supplies are run out. I’ve also been told that the servings are much bigger on the Chinese Eastern Railway (route Beijing – Wladiwostok).

I sat down with my tea and just let the camera record out of the window. The catchy pop music tunes came from the barkeeper’s laptop, by the way 🙂

Extra points for so much creativity!

I got a bit tired after listening to Russian pop music for half an hour and returned to my compartment. There I encountered my “neighbors” for the first time: Shria was a twenty-something from India, but lived in Singapore and was traveling alone. She had started her trip in Mongolia, with stops in Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Sergey and his wife Yulia, a married couple from Russia, were on their way back to a small town two hundred kilometers from Moscow after having visited their grown-up son in Yekaterinburg.

There’s not much to do when you are on a train for 27 hours straight. We sat down in Sergey and Yulia’s compartment and slowly started to enter into a long conversation. Shria had a degree in mechanical engineering and working in aircraft turbine maintenance. Sergey had a degree in nuclear engineering and used to design nuclear power plants before his retirement. He had been allowed to travel to the United States of America thirty years ago and still spoke very good English. Yulia didn’t speak much English, but with our combined efforts and a dictionary app we did quite well.

Like many Russians, Sergey and Yulia had a healthy amount of distrust against the government. Putin was not exactly their favourite politician, but they acknowledged that much had changed for the better under his rule. There had been a lot of investments into infrastructure, there was peace in Chechnya, and international relations had much improved before the Crimea crisis. There were now enough gas stations on major roads so you no longer needed to mount an additional tank when traveling long distances. And the prices for transportation had come down enough that many people had switched to airplanes or cars from the Trans-Siberian Railway.

A great snapshot 🙂

The weather took a turn for the worse in the late afternoon. For a moment we even went through an actual snow storm, in May 😯

After eight and a half hours we arrived in Agryz (Агры́з) in Tatarstan, one of the autonomous regions of Russia. About half of the population are Tatars, 54 percent are Muslims. Tatar is an official language besides Russian.

Sergey was full of admiration for the Tatars, their history and their beautiful mosques. A good reminder for how well-integrated many Muslims are in Russia. The Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan even is one of the largest moques in in Europe.

Our train didn’t just get fresh water in Agryz. The national train operator (Российские железные дороги РЖД, Rossijskije schelesnyje dorogi RŽD) is organized in sixteen regional divisions, and the locomotives are exchanged at the regional borders.

Food on the train was limited to whatever you could get in the restaurant car or pack in your luggage, you the platforms used to be full of merchants selling food. That was years ago, after cases of food poisoning the rules became stricter and stricter. Another adventure gone 🙁

Sergey surprised us with with a table full of bread, tea and fish! The bread came from is luggage, the fish from the merchant on the platform, and there was a 24/7 hot water boiler at the other end of the car. The fish was a smoked Beluga sturgeon, which is usually captured for its Beluga caviar, but it also tastes very good!

I slowly became tired from all the new impressions and decided it was time to go to sleep. The bed can be folded out of the wall and is made in zero time.

Next time there will finally be pictures from Victory Day in Moscow 🙂

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3 comments

  1. This was quite well done. I have traveled this track over 50 times. Russia is dynamic, as the non-fans of President Putin, Sergey and Julia said… many improvements for common people under his leadership. Infrastructure is: schools, churches, kindergartens, libraries, sports facilities (not just giant Olympic and World Cup projects) and stadiums, parks, hospitals, pediatric clinics; as well as paying families to grow!

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