Le train transsibérien
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The Trans-Siberian: Journey to the Other Russia

Le train transsibérien
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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.

Frozen Exoticism

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.

Jean-François Bélanger

Le train transsibérien

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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.

Frozen Exoticism

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.

Jean-François Bélanger

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Credits:

  • Text Jean-François Bélanger
  • Photos Jean-François Bélanger, Alexey Sergeev
  • Editing Florent Daudens
  • Multimedia Design and Production Daniel Herrera-Castillo
  • Design Anne-Marie Duguay
  • Project Management Julie Gauthier
  • Translation Evguenia Kossogova, Genevieve Oger

With its 128,000 kilometres of track, Russia’s train network is one of the largest in the world.

Trains 1 and 2 proudly wear the colours of the Russian flag.

Yaroslavsky Station, Moscow: These demobilized soldiers are about to step aboard train number 2, the famous Trans-Siberian.

Trains 1 and 2, better known as the Trans-Siberian, link Moscow to Vladivostok in seven days.

The ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok costs more than $1,000 in first class, almost $600 in kupe or second class and $400 in platzkart or third class.

Angelika Podobina, the provodnitsa, is in charge of one train car and spends half her life onboard the train.

The head of the Russian railway company announced it will phase out platskart, or third class. It was a controversial decision.

The third-class cars are an open space, which breaks down social barriers and offers passengers an opportunity to meet and converse with others.

These recently demobilized drafted soldiers celebrate their newfound freedom in third class, at the tail end of the train.

And old-fashioned blog post.

The restaurant car’s antiquated charm.

Boris Piaterikov swears by train travel and is never far from the Chainik, the kettle that heats water for tea in each car.

The Trans-Siberian goes through the Ural region and Siberia: 9,300 kilometres of snowy landscapes. It’s the longest rail line in the world.

At every stop, passengers step onto the platform to buy food and drink.

The Trans-Siberian evokes romanticism for many. Natalie and Dean Smart are travelling 20,000 km by train from London to Melbourne for their honeymoon.