Tuesday, June 3, 2008

what the Lonely Planet doesn't tell you about the trans-siberian

I broke up my trans-siberian journey into 3 different legs -- Beijing:UB, UB:Irkutsk, Irkutsk:Moscow -- and the first 2 trains were pretty tame, as I had expected from reading up on my trusted Lonely Planet. Maybe that's because there's only 1 express train/wk right now that stops off in UB between Beijing-Russia, so naturally it will be filled with westerners, and UB:Irkutsk is relatively short at 28 hours so perhaps that's not enough time to get into the full swing of train dynamics. But my journey from Irkutsk to Moscow was a 3-night/4-day slog through Russia, which afforded me plenty of time to meet/avoid various people on the train as well as curse my Lonely Planet for not better-informing me about what to expect.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the train ride overall -- there is beautiful scenery outside, ample time to read and listen to music, and great people-watching. and I don't think all trains are like this -- 2 of my friends from Irkutsk were on train #1, the Rossiya, which is as tricked out as you can get and costs about $80 more as a result. But if you take a regular express train, you can expect any/all of the following:

1) crazy Mongolian traders: I had no idea these people existed until 4 days ago, perhaps the LP writers lucked out and didn't run into them. the traders buy a load of cheap wares in China (jeans, shirts, tracksuits, blankets, etc), and then get on the train with not only boxes of this stuff, but mannequins for displaying the clothing. the train had been an hour late arriving in Irkutsk from Mongolia, and 2 friends I met on the train told me that it was because the traders took so long getting through Russian customs. apparently most of them pony up some cash for bribing Russian border patrol, but those who come up short are kicked off the train (but not before a lot of screaming and cursing apparently). furthermore, to avoid customs tax, the traders usually distribute their wares to other non-traders throughout the train car (who are also bribed) so that it looks like they have less stuff. if you think there's a lot of bribing going on, just wait.

so once they get across the border, what happens? they sell the clothing on russian train platforms or from the train car during the short 20-min breaks we get every few hours. russians must come to the train station just to shop, because it is mayhem outside and there aren't very many people getting on the train. the traders bribe the provodnitsas so they can sell from the entrance of the train car, so if both doors to your carriage are blocked up by traders, well you're just shit out of luck and you're not going to get outside for fresh air until Moscow.

the traders also bribe the manager of the dining car so they can use the tables to prepare for arrival at each station, i.e. dressing mannequins, taping boxes, etc. and when they're not doing that, they're in the dining car anyway, getting wasted at 10am, chain-smoking, getting into fights, harassing their women, and generally being the source of eye-rolling from Russians all around. I thought the traders were Russian at first and I asked the dining car manager something about whether they live in Moscow, and he was like, "nyet, nyet, mongolian!" and gave me this look as if to say, we might like a bit of the drinky-drinky, but we're not bootleg heathens!

once the train gets to Moscow, the traders don't even get off -- they have tickets to go back to Mongolia on the same train. this repeats itself all summer long apparently, with traders getting off just to buy more stuff.

2) crazy provodnitsas: provodnitsas are the train carriage attendants who are in charge of distributing linens, cleaning bathrooms, and generally insuring your well-being on the train. I was lucky and had 2 really nice provodnitsas who were cool with my requests to borrow a knife, turn down the light, etc. but 2 of my friends in the next carriage over had fascist provodnitsas, who wouldn't let them off the train at stops and continuously locked the women's bathroom in the train car for their exclusive use. my friend Elsa told me a great story about how the provodnitsa was cleaning the bathroom, so she waited in the hallway until the cleaning was done. the provodnitsa noticed her, then locked the door to the bathroom and walked off.

3) lots of roommates: no one gets off the mongolian train carriages since they were mainly full off traders bound for Moscow, but I was in a russian train carriage, which is an entirely different story. most Russians thought I was insane for taking the train instead of just flying to Moscow; they were only on the train for 1 night max. as a result, I went through 12 different roommates in the span of 3 nights, ranging in age from 7 mos. old to mid-80's.

4) russian vs. mongolian train cars: if your journey originates in mongolia, you get on a mongolian train car, and if you start in russia, you get on a russian train car. I didn't think there was much difference until day 2, when it was swelteringly hot in siberia for some reason and none of the windows in the russian train car would open. everyone starts sweating, and when you're on a long-haul train with no showers, that is serious trouble. meanwhile, my friends in the mongolian train car were enjoying nice summery breezes.

5) nonexistent train platform food: I had brought limited provisions with me on the train thinking that it would be easy to find hot station food for at least one meal each day. after all, the LP said that the choice of fresh items on train platforms was excellent, ranging from grilled chicken, dumplings, forest berries, etc. well it turns out that LP is full of shit :) I asked about hot food at all the stops, but most of the them only had kiosks selling more ramen noodles and cookies. of approximately 13 stops between Irkutsk and Moscow, only the following stops had real food:
Zima -- sketchy looking fried pies sitting around at room temp for lord only knows how long, filled with an even more mysterious meat; one of my russian roommates advised avoiding them at all costs, saying they were probably filled with "sausage from cat or dog."
Novosibirsk -- my friends came back with succulent looking pieces of grilled chicken. unfortunately, I had been lounging in the dining car and mongolian traders were blocking both exits, so I couldn't get off the train.
Yekaterinburg -- I don't know if this counts, because I left the station and crossed the street to buy hot meat-filled pastries so technically it wasn't train platform food.

6) time zones: it's already pretty disorienting to go through 3 russian time zones in a day at the beginning of summer, when the sun sets at 10:30pm as it is and you're basically chasing the sun, elongating all your sunsets on the train. not to mention the fact that all trains run on moscow time, but operate on local time -- so if you're looking at your train ticket and it says your train leaves at 10:30 am from Irkutsk, because Irkutsk is 5 hrs ahead of moscow, you should get to the station for 3:30pm. but try going from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Irkutsk, which is further west since it's in russia, yet you gain an hour's time. huh?

7) almost no westerners: I thought there would be a ton of backpackers on the train from Irkutsk to Moscow. but most people go in the other direction, so there were only 5 of us on the train. so don't go thinking that it's necessarily going to be a travelling hostel, because it might be more like a mongolian barrio :)
Lonely Planet, I am disappointed in you.


velander said...

Fucking. AWESOME. Post! I wanna be a Mongolian trader for a summer!

Michael said...

I demand pictures of drunk, topless Mongolian traders....