"Husband snaring" on the Trans Siberian Railroad
ABOARD THE TRANS SIBERIAN EXPRESS -- I am sitting in the somewhat dated but cosy Restaurant Car as we speed across the forested plain between Krasnoysk and Irkutsk on the Trans Siberian railway. A plethora of trains take different variants over the world’s longest rail network from Moscow to Vladivostok. Technically we leave the Trans Siberian at Irkutsk and switch to the Trans Mongolian to journey through Mongolia to Beijing.
The genesis of our epic journey was when friends Brian and Judy from Coffs Harbour, Australia, decided to visit us in Switzerland before flying to St Petersburg to join a group of Aussies journeying to Beijing by rail. We agreed it would be fun to join them travelling through Russia, albeit in a group of 15.
My interest in Russia dates to the 1960s when my first girlfriend, Suzanne, studied Russian. I did courses in Russian Geography before a postgraduate degree in Soviet Foreign Policy. A £100 Travel Scholarship in 1968 went towards a camping trip to former USSR. I escorted tours here in the 1980s, one extensive trip including Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Alma Alta, Dushanbe, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and Tbilisi. The last six cities are part of new nations following the Soviet Union break-up.
Not having been here since Glasnost, Perestroika and Gorbachev, I find many changes. LG and Samsung signs often dominate streetscapes, I have barely seen a handful of Russian cars (what happened to Lada?) There are many fast food outlets, more Subways than Macdonalds, Burger King or KFCs. Shops in cities are full of western goods. Pleasingly, coffee shops rule with as plentiful a supply of lattes, cappuccinos and free internet in St Petersburg and Moscow as any Western city. I recommend the Coffee Company’s great coffees, pastries and waitresses.
I forgot how attractive St Petersburg and Moscow are. St Petersburg is a vast repository of spectacular buildings. The majority date from one concentrated effort to build a city from scratch by Peter the Great. They complement each other in a pleasing whole. St Petersburg ranks with Budapest, Prague and Paris as contenders for Europe’s most alluring city. Moscow, more spread out, is easy to navigate by the impressive underground. The sheer scale of Red Square and surrounding buildings – St Basil’s Cathedral, the historic Gum Department Store arcades, the State History Museum and the vast Kremlin complex -- is impressive however often you visit. Our friend Tatiana took us to the historic Novokuznetskaya area, quiet and full of interesting shops, churches and historic buildings including a mansion once owned by Tatiana’s family. The seven distinctive Stalinist skyscrapers are now accepted, even fondly, as part of Moscow’s skyline. (The 8th was a ‘gift’ to a resentful Poland, which disdains a symbol of their ‘friendly neighbour’ dominating Warsaw). These ‘wedding cake’ skyscrapers are as integral a part of Moscow as the Art Deco skyscrapers are of Manhattan.
We travelled from St Petersburg to Moscow by comfortable night train. The real journey began when we boarded Train 44 for the four day trip from Moscow to Irkutsk. Our four berth compartment is like a tent. We have two upper and two lower berths and much storage space – it comes down to deciding what is required and keeping that accessible in a day pack. The upper bunks serve as a shelf to store food and day packs during the day, leaving the two lower bunks as seats and a small table which stores snacks and food. Everyone has a clean mattress sheet and duvet cover. It is not cramped, unless we are all coming and going simultaneously.
Each carriage has two basic toilets that are locked 30 minutes before arriving at stations, and an attendant with duties including keeping the corridor clean, sweeping floors daily, keeping the samivdor replenished with coal (each carriage has a boiler to provide piping hot water), selling snacks and locking compartments if we get off at a station. As we approach a station they change into official uniform and rain or sun stand at carriage steps to check tickets. I hesitate to use the words Greet and Welcome – this is Siberia!
So what does one do on the Trans Siberian? Tracking time is a challenge. Bizarrely whilst the train timetable runs on Moscow time, the restaurant car runs on local time, which changes as we cross four time zones – one two hour change and three subsequent one hour changes. Some of us sleep and eat on Moscow time, others on local time. Dinner is at 6pm tonight in the restaurant car which is 1pm Moscow time. There is much to see. Some cities along the railway are amongst the largest in present day Russia – Novosibirsk with 1.5 million is ranked third and Yekaterinburg where the last Czar was murdered, with 1.35 million people is fifth, underlining the importance of modern day Siberia and its wealth to Russia. Siberia’s scale is apparent when our Guide Diana tells us her family live in a big city 600 miles up a branch line north of the booming oil city of Tyumen. This is the main artery across Siberia. We see buildings old and new and small towns and villages frequently. It is not a vast wilderness like Nullabor Plain in Australia.
As we breached the Urals we passed from Europe into Asia with no sign of hills let alone mountains as we sped through Yekaterinburg situated in a pass. Initially we journeyed through forest interspersed with wooden cottages and houses often in a poor state of disrepair, many with vegetable plots. In Soviet days private plots were essential to subsidise collective farm output and feed people. Unsurprisingly many houses are in poor state – wood is the primary building material and winters severe. Subsistence living in Siberia is no fun. Only a few share the benefits of the mineral wealth. Some settlements remind me of Patagonia – erected without a plan and challenged by a severe climate for part of the year.
Today is sunny, there is more grassland and the landscape’s gold and yellow foliage is worthy of New England or the Appalachian Blue Ridge Mountains. Highlight each day is preparing for a few stops of 20-40 minutes where one can explore the large, spotless stations. At out last stop the train Handyman (who managed to open our jammed compartment door with a shrug and ‘Huh – its German made’) was under a carriage checking pressure. Evidently Health and Safety checks are important in Russia today. I was wondering if the driver had fallen asleep with his foot on the accelerator the other night as I bounced around on the top bunk. When we stop and visit the myriad of kiosks at stations run by babushkas (old ladies) selling snacks and souvenirs every item is clearly marked with its price however cheap. You can hardly see the attendant for the price tags and no chance of being ripped off.
My favourite place is the splendidly dated restaurant car -- normally deserted. I get a full table for my laptop. Downsides are heat and incessant 1980s Russian pop. A team of four run the restaurant. The ever present Boss sells snacks, beer and vodka usually sporting just shorts and a T shirt. Occasionally the cook emerges, always in a head scarf. The waitress is Lucy, a charmer in early 30s, blonde and dumpy. Most times she walks past my table she practices her English which consists of ‘Michael, How are you?’ Today she patted my head and as I prepared to take a picture I heard this sensual Slav voice ‘Michael. Is beautiful. Yes?’ She sounds like Greta Garbo and resembles Hattie Jacques.
Last night after work she changed out of her uniform and returned to the restaurant in a skin tight Leopard skin patterned halter. ‘I think she fancies you’ opined Sharon. I replied ‘But she’s married with a husband in Kharbarovsk’. Judy explained that apparently her husband drinks, her daughter lives with her mother so Lucy works on the train to provide family income. And looking for love maybe?
The fourth and final member of the restaurant car crew is Elvira, the Dolly with the Trolley. She is looking for a husband and will use all weapons in her armoury. And what else would a woman use to snare a man songs and poetry! We are heading East rapidly. We first noticed Elvira on Day 1 as she pushed her trolley up and down the train selling Drinks, Biscuits, Crisps, Bread and Noodles. She stood out because she smiled, with an extrovert personality. When our guide Diana asked her items’ prices we got detailed explanations and dramatic gestures.
Elvira had a good figure and a tired face that still lit up with a mischievous, engaging smile. Formerly a Drama Teacher, she wants a career in catering. She is learning from the bottom up but the actress was never far below the surface. She loves engaging with people and wants to learn English to work as a tour guide and meet a potential foreign husband.
When Elvira learnt that yesterday was our wedding anniversary she recited a dramatic poem she wrote as a love struck teenager to her future first husband. ‘We got divorced and now I am looking for a new husband,’ she explained. No wonder www.russianbrides.com flourishes. There is no shortage of young girls looking for an exciting life outside Russia or middle aged women craving a new beginning.
Whenever we walked up the train we would find Elvira deep in animated conversation with a (usually male) passenger. On our second evening she was sitting hand in hand with a passenger sharing a beer in the restaurant. The following evening she tried her luck with a couple of younger guys before being sent back to trolley duties. Today we fear Elvira is about to be dropped off at the Salt Mines as her boss has said ‘Enough.’ This morning he came down the train looking for her to find her sitting in a carriage chatting! Then we saw a dejected Elvira was on washing up duty.
Elvira was great entertainment. I hope she finds her husband but she may prove a handful.
I like Russians and wish I could interact more. In Moscow we met friends Tatiana and Erika who stayed with us in 1988 for a week in an exchange program. Tatiana, a university professor, taught in the USA. Erika works for the BBC Russian Service in Moscow since 1990. Her English accent is better than mine! They are worldly, educated and liberal by Russian standards but their thought processes were inevitably shaped growing up in the Socialist era.
There have recently been many protests in the West over the imprisonment of the three Pussy Riot demonstrators who staged a sacrilegious protest performance in St Basil’s Cathedral. Their sentences were perceived as overreaction by a repressive Russian government under Putin who many believe would like to turn the clock back. Tatiana and our Moscow guide were ambivalent about Pussy Riot or thought it was perhaps a just sentence for offending many. The Orthodox Church is an important power in this religious, conservative nation.
Russia has always responded to strong leaders, from Czars like Peter to Socialist dictators like Stalin. An authoritarian and decisive figure like Putin has a receptive electorate even if he makes a few short cuts through due constitutional process. He is seen as a master of detail, intellectually bright. Resuming the Presidency after a period as Prime Minister may be questioned in the West but many Russians appear phlegmatic about dictatorial leaders. Russians have only been ‘free’ officially for 20 years after 75 years of oppressive Socialist rule which did, however, leave benefits and positive legacies.
Alcohol always has been a major problem in Russia and even afflicted its leaders with Yeltsin once famously unable to exit his plane. Yet one sees little evidence of loutishness or threatening behaviour. I have lost count of the times I have seen men offer to carry cases for women up steps at stations. On a crowded subway people are forever giving up seats.
Our guide Diana is barely 26, a slight doll of a girl with excellent English. She divides time between working as a guide for Australian and Finnish Tour Operators. Her English is excellent but more impressive is her sense of responsibility and organisational skills. I trained and employed hundreds of tour guides from as young as 19 to as old as 74 but I have been impressed with Diana.
As we disembarked at Irkutsk after four days on the train we discovered Elvira back on the trolley at the end of the train. Like all Russian women she was quick to strike a provocative model’s pose for a farewell photo.
I think Russia is going to make it and prosper. Whilst their beleaguered and despairing men console themselves with drink in the provinces, the Lucys and Elviras will still be on the prowl on the Trans Siberian looking for dream husbands.
Nevertheless far more has been achieved than most people believed possible when the Socialist system was discarded in the early 90s. As the benefits trickle down from the oligarchs to the middle classes in the prosperous cities the next challenge will be to spread the wealth to the provinces and backwaters.
Michael Bromfield was the founder and Chairman of a major travel company for 31 years. He sold his company in 2011 and has been attending rock concerts and festivals regularly since he saw the Beatles and Stones live in the early 60s. He now devotes his time to writing and photography and divides his time between homes in Switzerland, Canada and the USA as well as spending part of each year in the Himalaya and Thailand. His photography is on permanent exhibition at the Global Images Gallery, Sherborne, Dorset, UK and can be viewed at www.globalimagesgallery.com Michael writes a series of occasional articles on Remarkable People, Memorable Events and Fascinating Destinations from around the world at www.notesfromanomad.net. He can be followed on twitter@notesfromanomad.