Train Of Thought – Trans-Siberian Tour With FOX 2’s Paul Schankman

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From our generous window on The Vostok, a modern train traveling an ancient route, snapshots of a remote landscape are passing from left to right.

Against a running backdrop of birch and pine, disorderly villages occasionally intrude. Most of the houses are about the size of fishing cabins, though an unexpected number are painted the most astonishing shade of turquoise, making them pop spectacularly against the snow and the pink sky of dawn. The cottages with gambrel roofs are as charming as obstacles on a miniature golf course.

We are in Siberia.  Yes, that Siberia.

It’s January.

It’s Tuesday.

And as our train slowly rises into the Ural Mountains, we awake to the first light of day.  It is 10:05 am.

* * *

First there were the jokes. “You’re going on vacation to a place where people were banished?”

Then, the mocking. “Have fun, comrades!”

And finally, so many Dr. Zhivago references, we rented the DVD it to see what Russia looks like in winter, only to learn the snowy Moscow scenes were filmed during summer in Madrid.

To see whether traveling to Siberia in wintertime was an idea with merit, there was only one way to find out.  And so, starting at the end of a St. Louis summer, we began to plan our winter passage on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

It is the longest railway trip anywhere in the world, if you don’t count the Amtrak-a-thon from St. Louis to Chicago on a Cards-Cubs weekend. The Trans-Siberian offers four slightly different routes across Russia. One route crosses Mongolia, another cuts through Manchuria.  Two of the four routes end in Beijing, which is our destination. Seven days, 5,623 miles, two ungashtupt suitcases.  If you are going to see Russia, you might as well do it in her signature season.

*  * *

“In Russia, you tell a political joke three times: once to a friend, once to the secret police and once to your cell mate.”

That bit of gallows humor came from Daniel Procov, a mid-30ish, enthusiastic Russian history nerd we hired as our guide to help make the most of what would be a very long day in Moscow;  the Trans-Siberian romantically departs at midnight.

And while Daniel’s joke about jokes seems out of style, you get the feeling it’s not exactly outdated. The day before we arrived in Moscow, while touring St. Petersburg’s sprawling art museum called the Hermitage, a different guide pointed to a small renaissance sculpture of a dog with a curiously humanlike face. “You see that guard over there,” she nervously whispered.  “They put her here to keep guides from pointing out that people say the face of the dog looks like…” Then she stopped.  “Looks like who?” I asked. Turning her back to the guard and shielding her mouth, she whispered, “P-U-T-I-N.”

I don’t know how many people you’ve met who have traveled to Russia, but I know a lot of people and I’ve never met any. Thanks to the cold war, and perhaps the cold weather, it is not a popular tourist destination for Americans, which is too bad because Russia is full of surprises.

To begin with, Daniel tells us that Moscow, with its population of 16 million, is the largest city in Europe and accounts for 90% of Russia’s wealth. Didn’t know that.

Most of the buildings, many quite elegant, are fewer than 10 stories tall for the same reason its subway system is the deepest in the world.  The capital of Russia is built on swampland. Didn’t know that either.

We also did not expect Moscow subway stations to be filled with the kind of decoration usually reserved for palaces or cathedrals. When Stalin closed or destroyed the actual palaces and cathedrals, these became Moscow’s temples to the communist ideal, lit by chandeliers and covered in frescoes, stained glass panels and gleaming mosaics depicting Russia’s military heroes.  It is worth seeing even though the steepness and length of the escalators that lead into the subway feel like you’re descending into a coal mine.

Because we visited in low season, it was easy to zip through the major sites very quickly.  Our wait to get into Lenin’s Tomb was almost as short as the time they allow you to walk past his glass encased corpse. It used to be a double feature, but Stalin’s body was eventually removed and buried near the wall of the Kremlin, just behind the mausoleum, which is also the final resting place of other familiar Soviet notables including Brezhnev, Chernenko, and astronaut Yuri Gagarin.

Lenin’s tomb is just one of the many attractions in Moscow’s famed Red Square, which is also home to both the city’s most famous church—the kaleidoscopic St. Basil’s—and a shopping mall.  Adjacent to Red Square is the Kremlin, which,  I did not realize, despite having been a government minor, is not a building, but a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall. (Kremlin, in English means “fortress.”) Inside the red brick Kremlin wall are a number of Orthodox cathedrals from Czarist times, along with military offices past and present, and the office of the President.  The parliament, called the Duma, sits outside the Kremlin walls.

After a full day of seeing the sights, Daniel walked us to our train station. We said goodbye to  him in English, and “thank you” in Russian. “Spasiba!”  It’s the only Russian word I knew, and though I would try to pick up a phrase here and there over the next seven days, Russian, which sounds to me like three different languages pulsed in a Cuisinart, just doesn’t sit easily on the western tongue.  And their Cyrillic alphabet doesn’t make it any easier.  Elsewhere in Europe you can at least sound out “ristorante” or “toiletten.”  Russian signs might as well be written in Vulcan.

Our midnight train from Moscow is not leaving at just any midnight. Our trip begins on New Years Eve, and as we depart, we can see the fireworks coming from Red Square. Over the loudspeaker onboard the train, 12 chimes are followed by a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem. Then, in Russian, a welcome speech the length of jury instructions. If these were the rules, I hoped I would not break any.  After all, we are headed for Siberia, and no one on the train except for an equally puzzled young British couple who were also making the epic adventure, spoke a word of English. Most of the other passengers we encountered were Russian locals using the Trans-Siberian for point-to-point commutes. It seems the complete week-long trek taken for amusement appeals to a limited demographic, particularly in the dead of winter.

The Vostok’s passenger cars are painted a deep Russian red, with the words “Moscow-Peking” emblazoned on her sides in white Cyrillic letters.  Inside, in car number four, our first class compartment is roughly six feet wide and eight feet deep, with a large window, two couches that cleverly turn into twin-size beds, and a sliding pocket door for privacy from the corridor. There is even a flat screen TV, though nothing to watch. Technically, the first day on the Trans-Siberian is not in Siberia at all—we’re still in European Russia. But for the first time on this trip we see snow, and it is getting considerably colder, though, as our new friend Daniel says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

The Vostok, which in English means “east,” is not the fastest way to get to the orient. She tends to mosey at around 40 miles per hour, slow enough to enjoy the scenery but fast enough to blur anything in the foreground of your photos.  You’ll go for hours sometimes seeing nothing but forest, and then a clearing will appear with a collection of a dozen houses, or a smokestack, or a lumber mill, or sometimes the hulking shape of a Soviet-era concrete building.

Village life in these remote spots looks more 19th century than 21st—woodfire smoke from chimneys, no automobiles, a solitary person carting home groceries on a sled. There is little evidence they bother to plow the streets, or even have streets.  And if winter weren’t bleak enough, in summer the region thaws into swampy bogs with great clouds of mosquitoes, or so our guidebook says. It’s easy to understand why this was a great place for a gulag.

By day three, the landscape had changed again, as flat plains of feather grass stalks poking out of the snow gradually turned hilly, then mountainous. Siberia, for all its harsh extremes can be quite beautiful, and is more populated than I would have guessed. Once or twice a day, for twenty minutes or so, the train pulls into the station of a town with a name like Krasnoyarsk, Sludyanka and Nizhneudinsk (mind you, these names are in Cyrillic on the station signs, so it hardly matters). Some of these are small towns, others are real cities—with cell service, an opera house, and plowed streets traversed by a kind of boxy, retro-styled car called a Lada, seemingly the Ford Escort of Russia, only less expensive, and more prone to rust.

At these station stops it’s not uncommon to be met by babushkas, old women bundled against the cold, who spread tablecloths on the train platform and lay out their wares—bread, pickles, or entire home-cooked meals to sell to train passengers.  The chicken and potatoes dinner we bought was quite tasty, and still warm from the oven.  We did not try the dried whole fish one lady had ingeniously skewered on a coat hanger for ease of transit.

There are also small commercial kiosks at many of the stations that offer chips, crackers, cheese and the like.  My advice at such stands is to stick to items with a picture on the package.  At one stop,  I purchased a shrink wrapped triangular pastry with two English words on the label: “Mr. Piggie.” Even after eating it, I am not sure what it was.

In addition to what can be foraged on the station platforms, there is a serviceable dining car on the Vostok whose decor is a blend of 50’s diner, and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Interesting tidbit: when crossing Russia, the dining car serves Russian food.  When you cross the border into China, the restaurant car is switched out to a Chinese diner.  On the Mongolian route, they even add a Mongolian diner that specializes in mutton.  To our great relief, our restaurant car had at least one menu in English.  The most memorable item listed was “Language Beef” which, after some head scratching, we realized was cow tongue as rendered by Google Translate.

I did become a fan of a local soup, the name of which I cannot remember, and the taste of which I can not forget. After several bowls of it, I think I have deconstructed its major components: onions, pickles, julienned salami, hot dog slices, lemon wedges, and black olives, all cooked up in a tomato broth with a buoy of sour cream bobbing around in a sea of grease. Very filling.

While we’re on the subject of food, there’s another local favorite that bears retelling—a layered salad of herring cheeks, beets, and chopped hardboiled egg on top.  The name of the dish translates to “Herring in a Fur Coat,” which, for all its pungent ingredients was actually quite bland.

Now, a brief word about the Vostok’s showers. There are none.

Bathing, however, is technically possible if one is creative.

Near the entrance of each car, there is an endless supply of scalding water available from a Sputnik-style samovar provided to give passengers a way to enjoy a mug of instant coffee or tea.  On the advice of our guidebook we also wisely stocked up on Cup-a-Soups, Ramen Noodles, oatmeal that is instant, and macaroni and cheese, which, as it turns out, is not.

The most enterprising and hygienic passengers can also use the samovar for a kind of bathing ritual.

Carefully balancing half-full mugs of boiling hot water, trying to avoid second degree burns as the train rocks back and forth,  I head for the W.C. at the end of the car opposite the samovar where there in a drain in the floor. There I will then fill the mugs the rest of the way with cold water from the tap (which comes from turning either the red handle or the blue) and thereby produce a modest supply of  bath water.  As a first pass, I’ve also brought along a product called “Paper Shower,” ( a cleverly marketed giant moist towelette, which after prolonged unfolding, is about the size of a legal pad. Beyond these details I go no further.

Two additional questions beyond food and personal hygiene continually come up since our return from the Trans-Siberian adventure: “Was it comfortable?” and “Did it get boring?”

The question of comfort is easy to answer.  Yes, it was. After all, we were traveling first class, a small but significant step up from second class (four berths per car), and a giant leap from the dormitory style cars popular with younger travelers. My only complaint, counterintuitive as it may seem, was frequently being too hot. Even though it was frosty cold outside the train, the inside temperatures tended to run around 26 degrees Celsius, which is close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. An LED time and temperature sign inside the car kept us constantly advised of just how stifling is was most days and nights. When I tried asking our non-English speaking attendant—the provodna—for permission to open the window by fanning myself while rolling my eyes to indicate I was roasting, he simply took his finger, pointed to the outside world and then wrote in the air -10.

His female counterpart, the provodnitsa, was equally as strict and a little grumpy looking, but who could blame her?  When we would come to a station stop, it was her job to get out with an iron pike pole and knock the ice off the brakes.  Her other responsibilities included coming around once a day to vacuum the carpets, and to lock the restrooms a few minutes prior to arriving at a station. Toilets on the Vostok empty directly onto the tracks.

As for boredom, the short winter days passed surprisingly fast. Taking pictures, snacking, reading, napping, station stops, more snacking, and just sitting still looking out the window combine to create a pleasant, if slothful day—all to the gentle, rhythmic rocking of the tracks below.  You simply have to approach the thing in the right frame of mind.  On a plane, you get on, spend a few hours, and then get off in a new location as if by magic.  On a train, you can see and feel the kilometers go by in a continual motion-picture of scenery right outside your window.  It’s travel at human scale, at ground level.  It actually feels like you are going somewhere.

One particularly fascinating stretch of the journey comes mid-week, as we travel past the southern tip of Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest lake in the world, containing 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.  What impresses me most is despite stats like that, hardly any Americans have ever heard of it.

It is easy to lose track of time on the Vostok, not just because of the leisurely pace of progress, but because time quickly becomes irrelevant. The Trans-Siberian crosses seven times zones, so someone decided (a Soviet bureaucrat, I’m sure) that it would be easier to keep the train and all train stations on “Moscow time.”  At first, this seems reasonable enough.  But the further east we travel, the more ludicrous it becomes.  To begin with, the sun is up only five or six hours a day in winter at this latitude. Throw in “pretend” time displayed in military fashion just to make things more confusing, and by midway through the journey, the sun is setting at lunchtime, lunch is now taken at dinner time, and dinner at bedtime, which is now about 3:00 a.m.  Take a nap, and you will awake not knowing the day of the week.

Arriving at the Chinese border we were prepared for several hours of waiting. We were not prepared for 12 hours of waiting. Along with all the things you’d expect at a border crossing was something you would never expect.  It is called changing the bogies.  To protect it from invasion, or so the story goes,  Russia built its railway system on tracks ten centimeters wider than those in China and western Europe. And that means every train that crosses the border of Russia must first have its cars hydraulically lifted and refitted with different wheels. The longer the train, the longer the wait.

Perhaps that long-standing distrust is the reason crossing from Russia to China is such a disagreeable affair. Once the wheels are changed and passports checked, you’d think the journey would quickly resume. But this is travel from Russia to China, not Detroit to Windsor.  On both sides of the border, passport agents welcome you with the most distrustful glances, up and down, up and down, up and down, comparing the photographic you to the real you as if they are bewildered by the resemblance. At one point, a guard pulled at the corners of his mouth instructing me to smile to compare my feigned happiness to the photo taken when I actually had something to smile about. My faux smile faded fast when an agent returned to inspect my prescription medicines, leaving me little choice but to explain their purposes through pantomime. You try finding a way to act out “high cholesterol” on an empty stomach at midnight to an unappreciative audience dressed in fatigues and fur hats.

Finally, China.

The change from Russia was dramatic and immediate. Within five minutes of leaving the frostbitten hell hole of Zabaykalsk, we arrived in Manzhouli, a flashy collection of skyscrapers dressed like casinos, all chaser lights and ballyhoo. It’s as if China is trying to stick a swollen neon thumb in Russia’s eye.

A few hours of much needed sleep and we awoke to a landscape that had changed dramatically.  It’s not that the terrain was wildly different, but the trees in this part of the world are in ordered rows on tree farms, which are plentiful. And unlike Siberia which was mostly wild, every inch of Manchuria was put to productive use, with parallel plow marks and the tawny stubble of harvest.  It takes a lot of land to feed one point three billion people.

But even more amazing is the new crop of skyscrapers rising from the ground. Every town of consequence seems to be experiencing a building boom, as are places where there is no particular town in evidence. At one point, in a span of about thirty minutes, we passed five nuclear power plants. And that was long before we were even close to Beijing, our final stop.

While other large cities pulse, Beijing throbs.

It’s a city of broad boulevards and close calls. In China, cars, not pedestrians, have the right of way. Bejing claims a population of 25 million and has the pollution to prove it. Residents euphemistically call it “the mist,” which is often so dense you can safely stare at the sun. Some of the haze is generated by factories and construction, but most is from cars. On Beijing’s highways, electronic signs post a series of numbers every day to reveal who is allowed to drive the following day.  If the first number of your license plate matches one of the numbers on the screen, you’re out of luck. It’s like Keno, in reverse.

Our hotel was located in one of the city’s few remaining hutongs, small neighborhoods tucked into crisscrossing alleys that are the last remnants of old Beijing, before the sky scrapers and the Olympic Games.  Today, hutongs, with their narrow streets and low stone buildings, are mostly home to bars, boutiques, and restaurants. They are the retro-hip neighborhoods where the cool kids hang out.  In our hutong, there was a shop selling “Teedy bears,” (sic),  a plumbing supply store run by a hoarder, and one particular storefront with a line of people that was never less than a block long, many of the customers elderly, some still wearing Mao jackets and not for their kitch value. We were told the shop sold steamed bread.  Must be some very good steamed bread.  Down the street, a loudspeaker camouflaged in a burlap sack played a distorted continuous loop of a man yelling what sounds like “Condoleezza, Condoleezza!” It was not rice he was pushing, however, but chestnuts.

Our guide in Beijing was a sprite in leg warmers and Uggs who goes by “Lily,” and knows all the best places to catch a cab, dine on dim sum, buy fresh water pearls cheap and embroidered silks even cheaper. Her two favorite phrases were the “worlds largest” and the “world’s oldest,” and most of what we saw was probably one or the other.

A highlight of our four-day stay was a visit to Tienemen Square and the Forbidden City, home of the emperors when China had emperors, made all the more beautiful during our visit by a light snow.  As in Russia, visiting China in winter made it possible to see twice as much in half the time. It is easy to get “templed out” in Beijing, and eventually we did, so we decided to take in a modern temple instead, the 2008 Summer Olympic Stadium known as the “Bird’s Nest,” which in winter is now used as a ski resort.

But by far the most impressive relic we visited is also one of the oldest, The Great Wall, about a 90-minute drive outside Beijing to one of the most picturesque sections at Mutianyu.  Most of the wall, which once stretched more than 5,500 miles, is in ruins. But this well preserved stretch forms a wavy backbone along the mountain range that once was the border between China and the Mongol invaders. It is truly as impressive as it looks in photographs, and then some. To reach the wall, a cable car takes you up most of the hillside, but the rest is a steep hike. On the way down, visitors pass through a great wall of what I’m sure is the world’s largest and oldest collection of souvenir vendors.

Beijing is a remarkably economic place to visit.  It was not unusual for us to spend only $15 for lunch for three people, with many courses, at one of the city’s better restaurants. The most expensive meal we had was only $60, and that was for Peking Duck, carved tableside at the restaurant that first popularized the dish almost 200 years ago.  At no restaurant did we find General Tso’s chicken, though we did ask.  Lily had never heard of anybody named General Tso, either.

When the day finally came to leave Beijing, it was hard to say goodbye, not because we so enjoyed Beijing, although we did, but because our departure would mean the end of more than just a vacation.  In a way, traveling across two continents by land felt like an accomplishment.  It’s probably the closest I will ever come to the feeling one must get after running a marathon or finishing War and Peace. If only we could have returned home by ship.

I began the journey expecting to learn a lot about the places we visited, but I did not expect to learn so much about the value of how we got there. If this trip of a lifetime taught me anything, it’s that “going” someplace and “arriving” someplace are not the same thing at all.

There are faster ways to travel. But they are about expedience, not experience.  Slowing down enough to see the miles pass—whether by train or car or ship, makes the traveling itself part of the adventure.  If there can be a movement for slow food, why not slow travel?

And while it may have taken me 51 years to really appreciate that notion, at least I have come to realize it while still young enough to enjoy more trips of a lifetime in my lifetime.

And for that, I say, “Spasiba.”

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