When my friend Iain had suggested the Trans-Siberian railway to me, it had sounded like a pretty cool idea, although in retrospect I think I vastly underestimated the journey. I’d sent out a Facebook post last year when I was in stages of planning my trip, asking for the opinions of my well-travelled friends on things like round the world plane tickets, overland travelling, what was the best, what was most cost effective, and other details like that. Iain is a Scottish friend of mine who now lives in Australia, and he travelled the Trans-Siberian railway from Russia to China and continued his travels further south from there – essentially the reverse of what I would be doing. He recommended the tour he had gone with, a company called Vodkatrain, and the enthusiasm with which he talked about it almost sold it to me straight away. But I did my own investigation, and it turned out that this train route had been exactly the answer to the questions I had been asking.
I was a little taken aback by some of the reactions I got when I told my friends of my plans.
“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” my good friend Blythe had exclaimed. “Wow! Robert, that’s like an ultimate bucket list journey for some people!” Maybe I’d sounded a little nonchalant, I don’t know, but it was almost as if she didn’t believe me.
“Umm… Okay? Is that a bad thing for me?”
“What? No, it’s incredible! I know so many people who would be so jealous of you! You’re going to have such an amazing time, it’s supposed to be an awesome experience.”
I think that was the first time that I realised this journey was going to be quite unlike any kind of holiday I’d had before.
When we arrived back at Irkutsk train station, Kostya handed out the tickets and made sure we all got onto the train without any problems. He wished us luck and bid us farewell, and it all felt very similar to most of our other train journeys. There were a few major differences though. Firstly, the quality of the cabins. There wasn’t anything exactly wrong with them – they were just a bit older, a little rickety. Jen, Matt and Tracy had found rubbish in our cabin – we had to wonder if this train had even been cleaned at all before we got on.The previous trains we’d been on had had carpeted floors and hallways, but this train had a dull linoleum surface that made the soles of your feet a gross black colour if you forgot to wear shoes when you walked around. The trains were adequate, and I guess we’d just had some nicer trains on our previous trips so we had harboured some expectations. “I just think its hilarious,” Tracy had said with a giggle, “that we’ve had the more cushy trains for the short trips and now it’s back to basics for the long haul! I love it, bring it on!” Tracy had worked as a tour guide on bus trips through both South America and the Middle East – no doubt she’d seen far worse living conditions, and part of me suspected that ‘roughing it’ was simply more her style.
But there was another thing that none of us had really planned on. On the previous trains, we’d all been in cabins together, save the one extra person who was on their own – which so far had been myself from Beijing and Dan from Ulaanbaatar. So we were all very confused to find that all that had changed. We had two cabins all together – I was with the same three as last time, and Tim, Don, Marti and Rach were in another. But Claire and Alyson were in a room with two other Russian passengers, as were Kaylah and Jenna, and poor Dan was stuck in a cabin on his own again. It was a puzzling set up, considering pairs that had booked together – like Alyson and Kaylah, and Dan and Claire – weren’t supposed to be split up when it came to sleeping arrangements. In any other scenario, we would have spoken to the carriage attendants and asked them what had happened. As it happens, none of us could speak Russian, so in the end we all just ended up shrugging our shoulders and concluding that the one thing we can learn from the past 10 minutes was that the Russian train system is anything but consistent.
After we’d gotten over the slight drama, I was sitting on my bed eating some bread and cheese with salami, carefully managing my portions so as not to eat it all in one go and be left hungry come day four of this journey. As I nibbled away, Tim stuck his head into our cabin.
“Ah, on the vodka already then?” Matt asked, noticing the cup in Tim’s hand.
“Well, they don’t call it the Vodkatrain for nothing!” he laughed. “But yeah, I know it’s still early, but we’re getting the party started in our cabin if anyone wants to join.”
I never really need an excuse to drink, but having one always helps. I grabbed my vodka, Coke, and made my way to the neighbouring cabin. The vodka was flowing freely, and we managed to cram eight people into the bottom bunk seats without too much discomfort. When there are that many people in a confided space drinking alcohol, its inevitable that the drinking games are going to start.
“We’re not playing ‘Never Have I Ever’, not when we have couples present,” Tim said adamantly. “I’ve seen too many awkward fights start over that game.” Both Dan and Claire and Rach and Marti were part of the vodka party. Marti was trying to get us to play card games, but in the end I joined voices with Alyson to champion for a game of ‘Two Truths, One Lie’. Technically not a drinking game, but always better when drinking is involved, I figured it was a happy medium – people can still make those drunken confessions with their truths, instead of drinking to their own statements in Never Have I Ever. and people can still withhold all the secrets they want.
I’m not going to explain drinking game rules, but Two Truths, One Lie was a fun way to learn a few quirky things about my fellow travellers – Alyson played the violin for 14 years, Marti was a maths champion in the 9th grade and has a near photographic memory, and Dan once poured frozen peas down a toilet at a party at Johnny Wilkinson’s house. There was plenty more, and I probably did some lame confession about coming out when I was only 15 – my lack of dinner and the amount of vodka I ended up consuming meant that a lot of the finer details were lost on me. Later reports would inform me that I shakily stood up, announced to the cabin through slurred speech “I really need to go to bed now”, and sauntered my way into the hallway and back into my room. I woke up at some point in the night, face up and back arched over a mound in the middle of my bed that turned out to be both my pillow and my blanket, and only half aware of where I actually was. I crawled out of the uncomfortable position and very quickly slipped back into my drunken slumber.
The following day was a complete write-off. Luckily, we didn’t exactly have anywhere to be. It wasn’t until midday that I was able to sit up in my bed and eat a few flakes of cereal, some super sweet version of honey coated corn flakes I’d picked up in Irkutsk. It was all I could really stomach, and though I felt absolutely awful, I found a silver lining in the fact that my food might last a little longer now. Kaylah eventually visited me on my top bunk, as I was strumming away clumsily on my ukulele.
“How’re you feeling?” she said with a knowing smile.
“Ugh,” was all I could manage at first, dropping the ukulele on my chest to rub the palms of my hands into my tired eyes. I then picked up the bottle of vodka – which for some reason I had been cradling in my sleep – to show that it only had about a quarter of the bottle remaining. “I shouldn’t drink vodka!”
“Aww, you poor thing,” she said as she rested a hand on my shin, sounding very genuine despite there being a giggle in her voice.
“But what happened to you last night?” I said, only now really realising that Kaylah had been absent from the vodka party.
“I don’t know!” she said. “I think I just started reading my book and… I fell asleep? I don’t know I just woke up and it was morning!” She just laughed it off, and I found myself rolling my eyes and laughing along with her infectious mirth.
I didn’t change out of my pajamas at all that day. Every time I even thought about it, part of my brain kicked in saying, Why? Who are you trying to impress? It was a fair point. Most of us had all seen each other at our various high and low points by now, and as long as I didn’t begin to smell incredibly offensive, I was more than happy to lounge around in my bed, read my book and watch the Siberian scenery pass us by. I was on he top bunk this time, which meant I wasn’t in anyone’s way if I didn’t get out of bed. On one of my toilet breaks I stuck my head in to say hello to Tim, Rach and Marti.
“Ah, he’s alive!” Marti had exclaimed as I appeared at the door. “You were so funny last night Rob, you nearly fell asleep in the corner there.” They recounted my final moments of the previous evening to me, and I asserted that it sounded exactly like something I would do, before dragging myself back up into my bunk and attempted to sleep off what was one of the worst hangovers I’d had in a while. I couldn’t seem to stick with one activity for more than half an hour, whether it was reading, sleeping, plucking at the ukulele or gazing out the window. That much restlessness after the first full day definitely couldn’t be a good sign, and I feared I might be climbing the walls sooner than I’d anticipated.
I woke up on my second morning on the train feeling gross again, but this time it wasn’t a hangover. Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my hygiene routine knows that I’m pretty regular when it comes to showering, usually twice a day, and I always use a fresh pair of underwear. But this wasn’t regular life – this was life on the Trans-Siberian, and showers were a luxury we didn’t have. I’d gotten lazy yesterday, and allowed myself to fester in my filth, but it couldn’t go on like that any longer. When you can’t stand your own BO, things are a stones throw away from getting very ugly, plus I hadn’t even brushed my teeth in at least 24 hours. Long story short: I was a hot mess.
So I had my first of what had been coined ‘Baby Wipe Showers’. They’re pretty self-explanatory – in the absence of a running water shower, you simply mop yourself down with baby wipes, or just a wet corner of your towel with some soap, and trick yourself into feeling just a little bit fresher. I also spritzed a little bit of cologne on my faux-fresh body, to keep the stale, unwashed scent at bay for a little longer. It was a far cry from an actual shower, but when you’re feeling the way I did, a slap of cold water to the face and even the slightest bit of a scrub down made me feel like a new man. About five minutes later, I ran into Marti out in the hallway.
“Hey Rob, were you just in the bathroom?”
I was struck with a moment of intense panic – had I done something wrong, broken the toilet, perhaps? I hadn’t even used the toilet, but I’ve had worse luck before, so who knew? A few of our group conversations on the trains had been about the lack of etiquette in some people when it comes to shared bathrooms. I’d hate to become one of the case studies.
“Ah, yeah I had a baby wipe shower just before,” I said tentatively.
“It just smells so nice in there!” she said with a laugh, and I relaxed a little. “I was expecting it to smell of like, you know, piss or whatever. But I stepped in and was like, ‘Ah, smells really nice in here!’ So thank you!”
“Ah.. Well you’re welcome, I guess?” I said as I laughed along with her. And to think, I nearly didn’t bring my two favourite colognes – out of a collection of seven – because they didn’t seem ‘essential’ enough.
By now, the days had really started to drag on. We watched a movie called TransSiberian that Marti had on her hard drive. It was pretty cool to see the story begin in Beijing, recognising the very same train station hall that we’d sat in about a week ago, and we empathised with the main characters as the train attendants yelled at them in Russian. We had actually been much luckier on this train in that regard – the main train attendant was a much younger woman than the previous train, and while not exactly polite, such was much more mild mannered than the ranting woman on the train from Ulaanbaatar.
But the movie was a thriller about drug smuggling where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and thankfully the rest of it was not quite so relatable. It killed some time though, and time was the one thing we had in complete excess. The entire Trans-Siberian route crosses 7 different time zones, with most of them occurring on this particular trip. Matt and Jen were very clued in to the changes, thanks to their Lonely Planet guide, and would give us the regular updates.
“So at about 12 o’clock it becomes 11 o’clock again”, said Matt as he studied one of the pages, while Jen consulted the timetable to check the next station we’d be passing through.
“Seriously? God, it’s like my lunch is trying to run away from me!”
While the socially dictated times for our meals kept slipping away from us, the food was well within reach, and many of us adopted a ‘Second Breakfast’ attitude. While I had previously feared for my food supplies, I managed to ration it all rather well, and soon enough these multiple meals became our own form of telling the time, creating a new meals through which to structure our day.
“They say it’s 2am somewhere, right? Well I say it’s noon somewhere in the world, so it’s time for lunch!” Tim had asserted.
“Yeah,” Rach had agreed. “We can have our Irkutsk lunch, and then our Moscow lunch later.”
“Mmm yeah, I could smash a second lunch!” added Marti, and we all laughed at what had become her own little catchphrase.
“It’s 3pm in Melbourne – this might as well just be my afternoon snack!” laughed Tim, and the banter continued as we all obsessed over our food. Soon we were laughing at pretty much anything.
Whenever Kaylah dropped by we would all end up in stitches – I can’t really put my finger on it, but her laugh was just so contagious that I can’t keep a straight face when she’s in a good mood. In the evening we tried to have another vodka party. I say tried because firstly, we didn’t have that much vodka left, and secondly, none of us seemed to really be in the mood – I personally just wanted to discard the bottle. However, alcohol goes straight to Kaylah’s head, and she was laughing like a maniac after only one drink. I, on the other hand, was definitely not in the mood for vodka, and only managed about one small drink before volunteering it up to the rest of the cabin. They were more than happy to help me finish it.
“Oh dear,” Tim had said with a sigh, after we’d settled down from a bout of hysterical laughter about something I honestly don’t even remember. “I think cabin fever has well and truly sunk in.”
On our final full day on the train, I woke up with the intention of changing out of my dirty clothes and freshening up like I had the day before – I had been wearing the same pair of underwear since the morning we’d left Lake Baikal, and was feeling pretty rank in general. Though the devil on my shoulder of personal hygiene argued that I only had to stick it out for one more day, and then I could actually have a shower before putting on clean underwear. I have this weird thing about putting clean clothes on a dirty body – I just hate doing it – so in the end I decided to fester in my well-worn clothes for another 24 hours and hold out until Moscow. For anyone who knew me before this train trip – I’m definitely a changed man.
The last day was mostly spent doing the same activities – watching episodes of TV shows on laptops, making tea, coffee and two minute noodles, chatting with each other, staring out the window and – something that had become a personal favourite – playing cards. Tim and Alyson taught us how to play a game called ‘Asshole’, where the objective is to get rid of all your cards lest you become the Asshole in the next round, suffering a relative disadvantage. It’s a fun game, but in the heat of cabin fever, when we’ve all been up in each others personal space for the last few days, our investment into the game was close to maniacal.
Though it was over one of these card games that the craziest and most brilliant idea of all was formed.
“You know what I really want?” said Marti as we took turns throwing our cards into the pile in the middle of the table. “I could totally smash a chicken right now. A big juicy chicken with some potatoes! Mmm, that would be the best!”
Having lived predominantly of bread, cheese, cold meat and two minutes noodles, you could almost hear the salivation from everyone in the cabin as soon at Marti mentioned it.
“That would be so amazing!” Tim exclaimed.
“When’s our next longer stop?” asked Rach. The train made short stops at some of the local stations along the way – sometimes they were five minutes, other times they were as long as 45 minutes.”
“There’s a 30 minute stop in about an hour,” Marti said as she checked the schedule, and looked up to grin at us. “What do you think guys – wanna see if we can get some chicken?!”
There were various rounds of agreement from Tim, Rach, Kaylah – I had rationed enough of my food to last me, but the thought of a hot roast chicken was just absolutely mouth watering, so I tagged along in the quest for poultry.
As we rolled into the stop though, our hopes sunk. Some of the stations had been quite big, with people selling all kinds of food on the platforms. However, this station was a tiny town, with a platform that wasn’t even long enough for the train. Marti and Kaylah had to jump down from the train and walk along the unsealed road to get back to the platform, but they did it in their desperate attempt to find chicken. Rach, Tim and I stayed back in the train to hold the fort, but we all agreed that we didn’t like their chances, and so had already really accepted the fact it would be one final night of noodles and bread.
So you can imagine our surprise when the girls burst back into the cabin with two roast chickens.
“Chicken run was a success!” Marti shouted gleefully as she put the birds down on the table in the middle of the cabin. Claire and Dan had also bought a third one, and Kaylah had picked up some instant mash potato that only required the hot water, and so together we all had a final train meal together, a feast for our last night on the Trans-Siberian.
“Smash that chicken!” Marti said with a laugh, and we all literally pulled the carcasses apart, ripped the meat off and sucking the bones clean, leaving no edible scrap to go to waste. We must have looked like starved savages, but the freshly cooked meat was such a welcome change that I don’t think any of us cared in the slightest.
When the feast was over and we’d eaten our fill, we all started to prepare for bed. We were due to arrive in Moscow at 4am, and most of us wanted to get some semblance of a decent sleep. As I readied myself for bed, I had a brief chat with Jen:
“I can’t believe it’s almost over – it felt like this train ride was never going to end,” I said with an exhausted laugh as I fell back onto my pillow.
“It’s been rather interesting though. I mean I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d ever do again. Do you know what I mean?”
“Absolutely. I guess there’s a reason why it’s described as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, right?”
“Exactly!” she said with a smile. “Although it would be pretty to see the scenery of Siberia in the winter… but no. I think it’s definitely more than a journey. It’s a challenge, really, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have to consider that question long. “Definitely. Well, I know I found it a little challenging at times. But hey, we did it! We travelled the Trans-Siberian railway!”
Despite going to bed relatively early, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that last night. I don’t know if it was the train, the tracks, or some other factor, but it was one of the roughest and bumpiest sections of any of the train journeys we’d been on so far. Loud and rickety creaks continued through the whole night, and several times I felt as though I was about to be thrown out of my bed. Another downfall about these cabins was the the windows didn’t open, and so four sleeping bodies in that tiny space had turned it into somewhat of a mild oven.
Yet I must have slept for a little bit, because I was woken up as we were approaching Moscow station, at some ungodly hour that didn’t agree with any of the multiple body clocks I had been running on for the past few days. When we arrived, we jumped off the train and were greeted by a small woman, who informed us that she wasn’t our guide, but another Vodkatrain employee who would take us to our hostel. “We should also decide on a time to meet you guide”, she had said to the group. “But it’s still quite early, and I’m guessing that most of you would like to have a shower, yes?”
I don’t think I have to tell you what our unanimous group response was.