I moved to St Petersburg on the last day of August, 2016. I had already been looking forward to my late October reading week, which I hoped to take as an opportunity to see some more of Russia. I like to think that my horizons are fairly broad; I thought I would take in couple of cities, read a couple of pages the Sunday before we restarted our university schedule, and return back to St. Petersburg as before.
Getting the message from two of my friends telling me they were in the process of buying their visas and flights to come and visit me was the kick in the rear I needed: I realised that I to had to make the most of the vastness of Russia while I was living there. I replied to my friends, enquiring as to whether they had the guts for a ten thousand kilometre journey from one end of Russia to the other: the Trans-Siberian Railway. Their reply in the affirmative was one of the proudest moments of my time in Russia – I had chosen my friends well.
On Russian trains you can travel first, second or third class. We took the decision, as impoverished young people, to travel third class. Truly, I remember being quite excited about the prospect of traveling alongside livestock. Our first train lasted thirty-six hours and was a baptism of fire as far as Russian train travel is concerned. We had supper in the dining car, drank tea from a space age samovar and solved four murders! In Yekaterinburg we saw the memorial church built on the former site of the building in which the Romanovs were murdered – Russians have not at all forgotten or banished their heritage. Boris Yeltsin’s heavily guarded and vandalised statue proved that he was not a loveable clown to all.
the Trans-Siberian railway is an adventure that would compare well to trekking in the Andes or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
On the next train, this time for fifty-five hours, I plucked up the courage to talk to our fellow travelers. They were fascinated to hear why we had decided to take on such a mammoth journey. Irkutsk gave us the opportunity to see Lake Baikal, which was absolutely stunning – we even managed to see a seal in the wild for a couple of seconds. The night before our next train some of the people in our hostel had organised a ‘night out’, so we went out on the town in minus fifteen degrees centigrade to have fun! In the last bar we met some women from Irkutsk, although a later look at the startling HIV statistics for Siberia made us relatively thankful these women has no interest in us. The morning after we boarded our carriage for the shortest leg of our journey feeling quite rough – three very hungover snakes on a train. In Ulan-Ude we became the tourist attraction as a group of about twenty Mongols all asked to have photos with us, bona-fide Englishmen. There also we saw the heart of Russian Buddhism, something I had known nothing about that really blew me away; it felt for the first time that we were in Asia.
Between St Petersburg and Vladivostok we covered over 9,500 kilometres on rail, spent roughly 170 hours on trains and most importantly I read exactly 1,980 pages of Harry Potter books (each book was read cover to cover, the more committed among you should be able to work out which books). Despite all this I still find it impossible to comprehend the vastness of the Russian Federation. There is just so much that I have yet to see, and so much that I would imagine no one has ever seen – the country is just too big.
At this point I would imagine most of you would like to know why on earth I did this trip. Well, 170 hours on trains was more than enough time to find myself. I believe that the Trans-Siberian railway is an adventure that would compare well to trekking in the Andes or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. It is not that I have no appetite for dirty Budapest pool parties, or tubing in Vang Vieng, but this had a feeling of the fresh and the unknown. It is something that I feel happy to bring up at dinner parties without watching people around the table corpse, cringe, or silently judge me.
In a two week holiday I travelled from the Gulf of Finland to the Sea of Japan along the greatest railway in the world. Had I forgone this trip for a peek at Helsinki or a tour of the Kremlin I believe the regret would have crippled me. The Trans-Siberian railway is an experience that relatively few people will have a chance to complete, but one that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who just bloody loves trains!