We ensured we were well stocked up with provisions for this journey. It takes two and a half days from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, so we spent three nights on the train. Porridge, pot noodles and cheese butties! And plenty of tea. The first night we shared a compartment with a Russian couple. The lady was very nice, but then she started showing us her holiday photos….from the past three years (or so it felt). I could hear the tone in Luke’s voice growing more sarcastic (oh, how beautiful!) as we were shown buildings from several different angles. It reminded me of a Monty Python episode, ‘here’s uncle Jim coming round the front of the house; and here’s uncle Jim just going round the side of the house, but you can still see him from the front of the house…’ I was half expecting to get rescued by the Spanish Inquisition, but of course, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
Trees, trees and more trees! Flat grassland! Flat grassland with a few trees in it! We met two Dutch girls who had been on the train since Moscow and they were desperate for a change of scenery, though the autumn colours were as beautiful as ever. They were sharing a compartment with a Slovakian couple, who had also quit their jobs and started a yearlong adventure. They plan to head to New Zealand, arriving in November and then look for work there. Slovakian shares similarities with Russian and so they were finding it easier to learn the language. I am still abysmal. I really like the sound of Russian, but I learn a word and it drops out of my head straight away because the sounds are so alien to me. I just wander about saying ‘spasiba’ all the time (thank you). I’ve got that one down. It is frustrating!
In the compartment next door to ours (which we temporarily had entirely to ourselves), there was a Chinese man called Shay. He was brilliant fun! He lives in Boston, USA and was on his way to Beijing to stay with his wife’s family. His wife flew directly there, but he wanted to do some travelling on the way. He is a retired computer programmer, but now writes internet travel articles for Mandarin speakers that live outside of China. His work can’t be accessed from within China as people often make political commentary on the website, so it is banned there.
Every now and then, the train would stop for half an hour or so and we were able to get off and stretch our legs in a station. At one station there was a woman selling smoked fish and the Slovakian chap bought one. He then didn’t know what to do with it, so called me in as a veterinary expert to help dissect it for him so he could eat it, as he was worried about encountering its innards!
After a couple of days, the scenery began to change a little – instead of being dead flat, we started to see some small hills. We often travelled past huge chains of oil tanks that seemed to go on forever. There were also little villages now and then of wooden houses with steeply pitched roofs, (sometimes of corrugated iron), presumably so the snow slides off more easily in winter. Many of the houses had their own little vegetable patches. Often, they were brightly painted, but they always looked quite worn – they must have to survive very harsh winters.
The atmosphere on the train was relaxed, but mostly the Russians kept themselves separate from the foreigners; it was not exactly the vodka sharing party train the guide books talk of! Probably because you’re not allowed to drink alcohol on board any more… Late on our last night, we were joined in our carriage by a Russian railway worker. He was very smiley and had lots of gold teeth. He gave us a bread roll each that was twisted like a small plait and had jam in the centre. His wife had made them and they were delicious! As the train pulled in to Irkutsk the next morning, we were eagerly anticipating a long hot shower. We had spent the entire journey in our pyjamas!