The Republic of Buryatia, Russia. June 2019.
We were in Siberia, where the pace of life is slow. The Trans-Siberian Express was delayed and no one was quite sure when it would finally show up. We’d arrived on time in the Soviet-era station of the city of Ulan-Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, but the station master only gave a shrug when we’d asked about the whereabouts of the train.
So for about an hour, I stood on the dusty platform, grappling with uncertainty while observing the other passengers, mostly Russians of Mongol descent, waiting instead with quiet stoicism. No one seemed worried or perplexed. It was enough for them to know that the train would definitely appear sometime.
The world’s longest train ride
When it finally rolled up to platform #1, I marveled at the robustness of this steel contraption that traversed most of the length of Russia between Vladivostok in the Far East and Moscow via exotic destinations like Ulan-Ude, Yekaterinburg and Kazan. In the process, it crossed 9,258 kilometers and six time zones in seven days. This train was a legend, and now I was about to experience it.
By buying a pair of the highest category tickets, I got a compartment for two all to myself on a carriage that was empty save for a man several doors away who spent most of the time watching football games on his mobile phone with the volume turned up.
Meanwhile, I sat on one of the bunk beds for most of my trip, enjoying the views of the Siberia steppes and then eventually the shores of Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world. Visiting this lake and taking in the complete experience of being on this train, that had long been on my bucket list, were simply amazing.
Our first class compartment was manned by two elderly women who went about everything so efficiently that words were unnecessary. They would enter my cabin with one knock whenever it was time for meals or tea and then place two of everything on the narrow table by the window. Yes, two of everything because I’d bought two tickets for myself.
FOOD ONBOARD THE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS
Each meal consisted of a proper appetizer and a main course. It was always salad or a plate of smoked fish to start – the fish was delicious so I was happy to have two plates. Then the choices were either beef stroganoff or a Russian version of pasta. I always chose the beef stroganoff.
Chocolates accompanied each meal. These were the typical Russian chocolates one sees everywhere in Russia. They’re bit-size chocolate bars wrapped in colorful paper with flowers and a picture of a child in a headscarf.
When they weren’t serving food, the ladies sat in the staff compartment opposite an iron samovar. I went out often to replenish my tea pot filled with sea buckthorn tea made of twigs and fruit. This was the only movement in an otherwise quiet carriage.
The Trans-Siberian Railway traverses most of Russia between Vladivostok and Moscow via destinations like Ulan-Ude and the Urals. In the process, it crosses 9,258 kilometers and six time zones in seven days. There are many way more elegant trains operating around the world, but this Russian train is a legend.
The train ladies sat in a small staff room dominated by a table arranged like a mini grocery with sweets and snacks for sale. They must’ve been disappointed with me, though, as my meals for two were always more than enough for my stomach so they had no sales on that trip.
Siberia, a land of extremes
Between meals and thoughts, I simply went to sleep or did meditation. The bunk beds were narrow but comfortable, with small pillows and thick blankets. This ensures passengers remain snug against the unpredictable Siberian weather which was merciless when it decided to act up.
Temperatures easily dropped 30 degrees in Siberia as it did that day I boarded the train in Ulan-Ude. I left the city in the midst of summer heat, and by the time we were around Lake Baikal it was more like six degrees; the perfect temperature for a nap.
All too soon, my Trans-Siberian journey was over. I’d only booked a ride until the city of Irkutsk at the other end of Lake Baikal. As I disembarked, I espied one of the old ladies peeking out from the staff cabin. Her demeanor had that serious firmness so typical of older generations of Russians; but in her blue eyes, I swore I detected a hint of a smile.
Read more great stories on traveling in Siberia in Travelife Magazine.