In my mind, I’ve always wanted to “do” the Trans-Siberian Railway. Something about the idea of covering such a huge distance by train intrigued me, and evoked images of unexplored frontiers. Also, my aunt had done travelled by train from Khabarovsk to Moscow in the 80s, and told stories of babushkas selling pierogi from strollers whenever the train stopped for more than two minutes. I wanted to try some of those pierogi.
24 years after my aunt had travelled in the region, I found myself at Leningradsky Station in Moscow, in hand a ticket with kryptic cyrillic characters that had, with foresight, been translated by the booking agency. Armed with my backpack and a daypack full with food, I handed the ticket to the Provodnitsa, or wagon attendant, and squeezed my way to the compartment I was assigned to. Two minutes later, my roomies for the next three days arrived: Dasha, Marina and Ksusha, three students on summer vacation. In comparison to their 18 bags and 2 suitcases, I was travelling light. The next couple of days they produced mountains of food, beauty and art supplies from those bags. At various intervals, our cabin was transformed into a nail studio, post office, picnic area and massage parlor.
Life on the train is actually very pleasant. The Russians mostly sleep and eat, sleep and eat. It’s a bit like going to a health resort, minus the hot springs. I read a lot, and met fellow passengers. However, one of the parts I’d most looked forward to - spending hours in the restaurant car, drinking tea and watching the landscape change from wooded taiga to wide open tundra - didn’t really work out as planned. The lady in charge of the restaurant had set up shop on one of the restaurant tables, complete with table cloth, desk lamp, laptop and printer. As far as I could tell, she never left that seat, and she didn’t like company. Which is why she kicked people out as soon as they had sat down for longer than ten minutes, even if they still had their full drinks in front of them. She had a distinct resemblance with Roz from Monsters Inc., complete with reading glasses on a chain. We took to calling her “the Dragon Lady”.
Since the restaurant car was not an option, the international travelers met on the platform whenever we stopped for more than 10 minutes. We had all been looking forward to the Russian babushkas peddling their wares, but it turned out that they seemed to have been replaced by kiosks selling instant coffee, cold drinks, yogurt and the occasional pierogi. Only upon entering Siberia, at a stop in the middle of nowhere at 7am, a couple of local women were selling berries, dried fish and - in the summer heat - fur hats and jackets. This, however, turned out to be the only appearance of the babushkas. From then on, we had to make do with instant noodles prepared with hot water from the samovar.
After 3.5 days on the train, we arrived in Irkutsk, a place the Lonely Planet calls “the unofficial capital of Eastern Siberia”. It does have the feeling of an old gold rush town, which can’t be too far off since 200 years ago nearby towns on Lake Baikal experienced an influx of gold diggers looking to make their fortune. While you can find recognizable brands on the high street and coffee shops everywhere, Irkutsk still resembles an outpost keeping wild Siberia at bay. The general population appears to be rather poor, with facial features now markedly more Asian. Prices are low - a bed in a hostel dorm costs around 9 EUR, a ride on the tram a mere 5 cents.
I decided to spend the 4 days until the departure of my train to Mongolia at Lake Baikal, and took a minibus to Listvyanka, which functions as a sort of resort town for Russians on summer holidays. Apart from a candy colored monstrosity masking as a hotel, Listvyanka consists of wooden cabins with brightly painted window panes, and is famous for smoked Omul, a local type of fish that resembles trout. I stayed in a hostel, and decided to trek to Bolshiye Koty the next morning, an old gold digger outpost 20km to the north of Listvyanka. 20km sounded easy enough, but it turned out that the famous “Lake Baikal Trail” tends to be unmarked. At certain points, it is not more than a goat path, passing along the face of a cliff. Nonetheless, I thought I was making good progress when I saw a couple coming towards me. I asked them where they were headed. "Bolshiye Koty", they answered. Turns out I had walked back back towards Listvyanka for about an hour.
Arriving in Koty in the early afternoon, I found an idyllic outpost of civilisation, with a couple of cabins and one shop run by two women with gold teeth. When I entered the shop around 2pm, they were arguing loudly with a very drunk man dressed only in trousers and swinging a half-full bottle of red wine. I didn’t buy anything. Overall, though, the place was very tranquil and a welcome change from the stuffiness of the train cabin. Surrounded by woods, Koty looks out on the perfectly blue Lake Baikal, which is so cold that it took my breath away should when decided to take a dip. I was looking forward to gliding across its surface on my way back to Listvyanka in the hydrofoil. However, my dreams ware shattered by the owner of my hostel, who declared in no uncertain terms that I would have had to buy the ticket back in Irkutsk. "Maybe you walk?", he suggested.
At 6am the next morning I was thus on my way back by foot. I came across by a secluded beach with two tents, a few empty vodka bottles and a guy seemingly passed out by the edge of the water. His companions, tending the fire and drinking the rest of last nights provisions, appeared undisturbed. I walked through two other camp sites in similar condition. At one of these, a big German shepherd decided to join my trek and faithfully walked with me for the next three hours, taking a break in the shade when I did. At some point, we passed a group of Russian hikers. The guys were wearing military pants, boots and nothing else apart from thick golds around their neck, blinking in their chest hair. The girls were sporting shorts and bras. The dog, maybe finding them familiar, changed allegiance and turned around to follow them. I waved good-bye, and emerged from the woods just in time for my minibus back to Irkutsk, back to the comfort of a tiny train cabin.