Category Archives: travel

Trans-Siberian Day 1: Kirov


Russian Post logo on the Rossiya's mail car

The first chance I get to see the train in daylight is at Kirov. Most of the passengers get out to do some trackside shopping. Meanwhile, the mail car sandwiched between the locomotive and the passenger wagons gets loaded up with sacks of mail destined for points east.

Line for kiosk, Kirov

This guy, despite not speaking English, stopped me and indicated he wanted his picture taken. I tried to ask him for an email address, but he didn't understand.

Pulling the mail at the Kirov station.

Loading the mail at Kirov.

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Pictures from the Moving Train – Day 1

Passing Kotelnich, namesake of the Kotelnicheksaya Embankment Building.

All of the pictures in this post are taken from the train as it rolls towards Perm, gateway to Siberia, on my first full day on the Trans-Siberian. In some cases that means poor quality as the train is in motion and I’m shooting through glass, so there can be glare or blur. Oh well. I’ll post some of the shots from stations themselves in subsequent posts.

Across the Vyakta River, outside of Kotelnich. Shot from the top bunk.

View to a meadow

Train begins to roll out of Kirov, and the women selling toys have a long wait until the next one.

Pulling out of Kirov after the stop.

Street that intersects the railroad, Kirov.

As we pull into Balezino, a woman waits for a coal-laden freight train to pass.

Fishmonger at Balezino - the fish are on the far side of his body. You'll have to trust me.


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The Passengers on the Rossiya – Day 1

Maarten and Brigitte in their compartment

The next day I wake up around 9 am. I’m now 800km and one time zone away from Moscow. By 10am, most of the train carriage is up.

Your ticket on the Trans-Siberian only gets you a bunk – not a whole compartment, and the No. 2 Rossiya is a popular  route with few empty bunks. And since it takes seven days to complete its journey to Vladivostok, you’d better accept that you’re going to have to interact with your fellow passengers, even if you don’t speak the same language as them.

Next door, the English I heard earlier turns out to be a Dutch couple, Maarten and Brigitte.  The reason they’re speaking English is to communicate with the couple they’re sharing a cabin with,  Svetlana and Peter – young Russian newlyweds. Peter is a boxer who doesn’t say much, but while you certainly get the sense you wouldn’t want to cross him, he has a remarkably easygoing demeanor. His English is limited, but his wife speaks English fairly well. I spend a good portion of my first day on the train dropping in to this compartment from time to time.

Meanwhile, in my own compartment, there’s the young family of three, returning from a beach vacation somewhere on the Baltic sea. I learn that Yulia’s husband Aleks works for the railroad, but if Yulia told me what she did for a living, I’ve forgotten it. Yulia, as it turns out, speaks a little English, and she asks me about where I’m from. I take the opportunity to show her some pictures of Chicago I brought with me. My shot of the Bean in the snow is of interest to her: “winter!” she says.

I tell Yulia that I am trying to get to Lake Baikal. She tries to tell me something about it, but she doesn’t know quite the right word. She asks if she can draw it in my notebook. Turns out I’m supposed to look out for aliens – Baikal is apparently mildly famous for UFO sightings.

Unable to communicate the concept of aliens, Yulia had to resort to drawing in my journal. The rest of the scrawl is my own.

But Yulia’s favorite topic is definitely my family – or lack thereof. One of the pictures I show her is of me and my parents at Christmas dinner. She points to one of the empty chairs and tells me “wife.” I shake my head. She is undeterred: “and one, two, three, many children.” I tell her no more than two kids, which is easier than explaining the concept of “I’m not sure I’ll ever have kids,” which is tough to swallow even for most Americans. I ask her how many she plans on having, and she reveals with a smile that she is expecting her second in November. “I am hoping for a boy,” she tells me. After a moment, she points up towards the top bunk where her husband has been watching the absurd WWII drama all day, and corrects herself: “we are hoping for a boy.”

Still, socializing can only take up so much of your day. The rest of the time is passed reading, napping, eating, drinking, and staring out the window at a place I’ve never seen and may never see again. I’ve got my camera with me, as well as a Flip video and and iPod touch for video, and as I switch equipment on the top bunk, the Flip manages to fall through the narrow space between the wall and my mattress, narrowly missing Yulia sitting on the bunk underneath me. As she returns it, she scolds me: “You kill me with this.”


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First Night on the Trans-Siberian

"Rossiya" passengers stretch their legs and watch another train board at Vladimir.

The Rossiya leaves Moscow a few minutes before midnight, and though it’s been a long day, I want to stay up until the first stop at Vladimir. I’ve brought a lot of food with me, but I forgot to bring any bottled water. There was no reason for me to do so – I knew that the the train had a samovar where I could get hot water. I figured I’ll fill up my thermos tonight, leave the cap off, and have cool water in the morning.

First stop: Vladimir

My first encounter with the samovar ends in disaster. It’s a complicated looking apparatus, and I first try testing it by pouring some hot water into the cup that makes up the lid of my thermos. This test is a success. When I subsequently finish filling up my thermos proper, I absentmindedly replace the cap, dumping the still-steaming water on my hand. Result: hand burned slightly, but not nearly as much as my ears are  as my mishap did not go unnoticed by a few occupants of my wagon.

It wasn’t until the next day that I found another valve on the samovar that dispensed clean cool water.

Samovar, my old nemesis

The restaurant car is modern and clean but not particularly popular. Warned that the meal options on board might be limited, I’ve stocked up on food in Moscow – a lot of cured meats, some fruit, and some unhealthy snacks. There’s no fridge; you just have to store your food in your compartment somewhere. Chocolate is a bad idea as the train gets way too warm at the long stops, at least in the summer.


Shopping at the first stop. More detailed on Flickr, just click it.

Life on the Rossiya is surprisingly comfortable. As one of the flagship Russian train routes, the cars are modern. That means a TV screen and a power outlet in every carriage. Unfortunately the TV only plays a DVD picked by the provodnitsa, so I’m subjected to a Russian-produced WWII drama that follows a squad of Russians on a mission into Germany territory.  Aleks, who rarely moves from his top bunk on his day and a half ride to Perm, is thoroughly engrossed in the show. War movies are pretty easy to follow in any language, or so I think. What had seemed for hours to be a fairly historically accurate account of the WWII era ends with the Soviet squad storming Hitler’s bunker and unceremoniously dispatching der Führer with a quick burst from a machine gun.

Aleks’ wife Yulia speaks just a little bit of English, but it seems like I’m headed for 4 days of catching up on my reading. But as I walk down the corridor, I hear accented English coming from the compartment next to mine.



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All aboard

Stopover in Barabinsk.

Stopover in Barabinsk.

The No. 2 Rossiya Train leaves Moscow every other day just after 11 PM. Seven days later, it rolls into Vladivostok, Russia’s main port on the Pacific Ocean. I am not going that far, but I still have 74 hours to fill aboard the train. I’ll pass through 5 time zones; my Sunday departure will put me into Irkutsk around 8am Thursday morning.

This is the only part of the trip I have really planned in advance. The No. 2 is a popular train, and I was worried that tickets would sell out before I got to Moscow a few days prior, so I booked my ticket online. I seriously recommend doing so, if for no other reason than I seemed to have to deal with a lot less paperwork than folks who had a paper ticket (I’d have paper tickets for the next two long-distance trains).

Yaroslavl Station in Moscow is not particularly remarkable. It sits in an area of town that has at least 3 major rail terminals in close proximity to each other…and not much else, except one of Stalin’s Seven Sister skyscrapers, now a decidedly non-Communist Hilton. My extensive travels for work in the preceding months happened to leave me with a stockpile of Hilton Honors points which I used to book a few nights here before heading across Siberia.

Checking my watch outside Yaroslavl Station in a clearly staged photo taken by Shannon

I say goodbye to Shannon and, after the provodnitsa checks my confirmation number, I climb on board.

I’m the first one in my compartment, which is kupe, or second class. That means four people to a cabin. First class is called spalny vagon or SV; compartments are the same size as the kupe compartment, but with only 2 beds. There’s also platskart, which is open bunks without compartments. (I walked through the platskart carriage on day 2. It’s…dicey. Unless you are remarkably comfortable with a lack of privacy for 4 days, I do not recommend the platskart carriage.)

First to arrive - I don't get to pick my bunk though.

I’m not alone for long. A family of three – mom, dad, and their daughter of about 6 –  joins my compartment. Aleks, the father, wastes no time removing his shirt. I can’t blame him – the train is uncomfortably hot when it’s sitting at the station. I’d put him at about 35, with a significant beer belly. Aside from shaking my hand when I introduce myself, he seems to take little interest in me.

Be early for your train – the train pulled out of the station five minutes early, by my watch. In 13 days I am scheduled to meet up with my friend Scott in Beijing. Until then I am on my own.


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Notes from Underground

You can take shots like this in a lot of world metros – DC, London, and Prague jump to mind – but there’s a certain faded grandeur to the Moscow metro system that you don’t find elsewhere. It’s a remarkably vast system made up of twelve lines and 185 stations (for my local readers in Chicago, the El has 8 lines and 144 stations, and if you want to compare the relative layouts of world metros at scale, I recommend checking out this website after you’re done around here.)

Getting around can be a little tricky if you’re not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. (TRAVEL TIP: If you’re going to Russia, learn Cyrillic). This sign isn’t the pinnacle of clarity either. The top is dominated by an explanation of what you can find at each of the exits. The dark banner at the bottom shows you how to transfer to Line 5. The confusion comes in because if you can’t read Russian, you might think this sign is hanging IN Line 5. But it’s not. You’re in Line 1.

Lenin's presence is diminished in Moscow, but in the subways, he remains vigilant against those who would do harm to the Metro snack stand.


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