The Trans-Siberian: Journey to the Other Russia
Moscow, 1:30 pm, Yaroslavsky Station.
A metallic voice crackles through the loudspeakers: The “Rossiya” headed to Vladivostok will be departing from platform two in 20 minutes. It’s the legendary Trans-Siberian, the pride of the Russian railway company.
The provodnitsa, carriage attendants in navy uniforms, welcome passenger aboard at the entrance of each car.
The Virtue of Slowness
Boris Piaterikov is a regular. Posted near the chainik, the large tea kettle, this travelling salesman with a distinct heavy metal look has a lot to say about the beverage, a key component of any Russian train trip. Like vodka, it naturally lubricates every conversation.
He savours the gentle roll of the train and snubs his nose at the SAPSAN, the fast train that links Moscow to St. Petersburg in four hours. In his view, it’s nothing more than a vulgar bus on rails. He sees speed and trains as incompatible. He’d rather disconnect, think about time passing and reflect on his life.
“But only for short distances,” he says. “Only foreigners attempt the entire route from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Foreigners like Natalie and Dean Smart occupy the two lower berths in the compartment next to Boris’s. The couple lives to travel.
They chose a four-berth compartment on purpose, hoping to meet others. Their Russian is limited to a few words, but “it doesn’t mean we aren’t understood,” they say enthusiastically.
Dean is also a budding historian. Clutching the trans-Siberian guide, he explains that the train allowed Russia to colonize its far-East, unify its territory and send soldiers eastward. Otherwise China, Japan or Korea would probably have annexed this part of the country.
Slippers and Class Struggle
Relaxing is a luxury Angelika Podobina, our car’s provodnitsa, can’t afford. One month at a time, she goes back and forth between Moscow and Vladivostok. The schedules are tough: 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It’s hard on family life,” Angela admits, but adds that she wouldn’t change anything even if she could. She’s a patriot and proud of working on this iconic train. And she enjoys meeting travellers.
If you follow her through the cars, you can really see how this train breaks down class barriers, despite the existence of three distinct classes: lux (two berths per compartment), kupe (four berths) and platzkart (third-class open space). Practicality dictates the same dress code for all. During the evening, pyjama-clad travellers loiter in the gangways in their tapochkis (slippers), often lightly dressed given the extreme heat in the train, summer or winter.
Whatever the weather, everyone gets out at every stop to smoke a cigarette on the platform or stretch their legs.