Carriage returns

Emily Barr

Guardian, U.K.

Saturday March 10, 2001

We boarded the train in Moscow as the sun was setting. Our cabin was a vision of faded grandeur: heavy mirrors, old light fittings and kitsch landscape prints. Charlotte and I sat on our beds and shared a beer as we watched Moscow slipping away. This was to be our home for the next four nights. The greatest train journey in the world was, so far, living up to expectations.

"Hi guys," said a hearty New Zealander from the next-door cabin. "I'm Rachel." Her friend appeared. "And I'm Rachel," she added. The Rachels were going to be our companions all the way through to Beijing. Luckily, we liked them.

We had the luxury of a two-berth cabin, and a carriage attendant who vacuumed and dusted every day and made sure we were back on board in time when the train stopped. On the first night, we puzzled over how to get any water from the taps, and ended up brushing our teeth in mineral water. We later discovered that there is a piece of metal poking down behind the tap, and that this has to be pushed up, an eccentric method of supplying water, but it worked.

This was proper train travel. Railtrack wasn't involved, the timetable was gospel, and, if there were any leaves on the line, they didn't pose a problem. We drifted off to sleep chugging through western Russia, and woke up still chugging through western Russia. Outside, smoke curled from the chimneys of little houses surrounded by birch trees.

We sat, with the Rachels, in the restaurant car, in which the food is always provided by the country you're in at the time, resulting in meagre rations in Mongolia and multi-coursed feasts in China. We drank Baltika beer. We read books. At the stations, we got out to stretch our legs.

During this first and longest stretch of 5,191km, between Moscow and Siberia, we moved officially from Europe into Asia. We saw the underwhelming Ural mountains, and passed within 375 miles of the Tungunska River, where a massive explosion occurred in 1908. This has been variously blamed on an atomic spaceship, a mini-black hole and an asteroid collision.

We settled into a peaceful train life, broken only by an occasional vigorous walk round a platform in a remote town, smiling at local people whose lives we could barely begin to imagine. Between us, the passengers drank the bar dry of Baltika 3, the normal lager, and had to move on to Baltika 9, which is more like a spirit. We made plenty of friends after that.

Then suddenly, we were in Irkutsk, the self-styled "Paris of Eastern Siberia". We had crossed five time zones in four days, resulting in the unusual phenomenon of train lag.

The boulevards may feel slightly Parisian, but there is no escaping the fact that this is Russia. Imposing Stalinist edifices cast their shadows over white Orthodox churches with golden onion domes. Lenin stood with a raised hand in a square. "He wants a taxi", a local explained.

Charlotte and I looked at the monument to the completion of the railway, admired a bust of Yuri Gagarin, nodded curtly to some hideous art in the museum, and decided we needed to sit down.

"What do you think that means?" Charlotte asked, pointing to a piece of paper on a park bench. "It can't be anything important," I decided. Unfortunately, it meant "wet paint" and those trousers stayed in Siberia.

From Irkutsk, it's not much more than an hour's drive through snowy birch forests to Listvyanka, a village on the shores of Lake Baikal. From the moment we walked into Rita's house, and saw her table laden down with our second breakfast, we knew we were somewhere special.

Lake Baikal glimmered in the sunlight at the end of the street. The air was crystal clear, the sky deep blue. We walked on the shores, caught a boat, and vowed to come back for longer.

We discovered that Siberian loos are at the end of the garden, even though it is minus 30 degrees centigrade on winter nights. Stranger still, they don't have showers or baths, but saunas. Charlotte and I were sent into the sauna together, and instructed to hit each other with birch twigs.

Rita's table creaked under the weight of her gorgeous food four times a day. "I like it when tourists eat a lot," she told us pointedly, looking at our leftovers. We talked to her, through Lida, our guide, about communism and capitalism, about Chechnya and the Russian soul. We wanted to live with her forever.

Our last night in Listvyanka was Orthodox Easter. Before midnight mass, we nipped out for a drink in the Baikal bar by the lake. "We'll just have one vodka," we told each other, sensibly. By the time we staggered to the church, chatting amiably to everyone, we had consumed more alcohol units than my doctor believes I drink in a week, and had learned lots more Russian.

The train onward to Mongolia served as a drying-out clinic. The Rachels spent the entire day lying prostate and clutching their heads. When we pulled in to Ulan Baatar, the platform was heaving with people. They had come to buy from the traders whose boxes clogged the whole train as it crossed Siberia, and which suddenly vanished as soon as we reached customs.

The final train, which took us to China, stopped, considerately, at a station situated within the Great Wall, so we could take photos. That left two days in Beijing before we flew home. The whole trip lasted just over two weeks, and we came back feeling that we'd been away for months.

Way to go

Bridge the World (0870 444 7474, organises a 15-day Trans-Siberian trip for 1,263pp for departures until June 30. The price includes 14 nights' accommodation, including two nights in Moscow (three-star hotel or family), village stay in Baikal, an overnight stay with a family in Irkutsk and two nights at a Mongolian Ger Camp on the Steppe. The price also includes all train travel (second class/four berth), flights from London Heathrow to Moscow and Beijing to London, plus various meals and excursions. Emily Barr's novel Backpack is published by Headline at 5.99

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