I remember earlier in this term one of our professors jokingly described our trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad would be like sitting in jail for three days. We all laughed off what was clearly a joke but as the time flew by in Moscow and then in Siberia, I started to think more about that statement. Before the big ride, our group had spent some serious time on trains in Russia. With two overnight trips to Saint Petersburg, a handful of rides to Vladimir, and one ride to Murom, I thought of myself as a seasoned passenger of Russia’s railroads but right before we boarded our train in Irkutsk, I made a dire mistake. Instead of simply boarding the train and facing my inevitable fate, I foolishly did the math and realized we would be on the train for about 81 hours. I was not a happy man boarding the train in Irkutsk.
Much to my relief, I was lifted out of my grumpy mood almost instantly on the first night. Our coupe stayed up talking and cracking jokes for several hours after we boarded. Before falling asleep I began to think that this ride wouldn’t be so bad. Waking up the next day, I realized we were already about 1/10th of the way into the journey. Not bad. Time flew by equally as fast for the rest of the day and soon enough we were about 1/5th of the way there. Not even finished with the first full day of the train ride and concerns about the lengthy ride were quashed.
It was sometime in the afternoon during the second day of the ride that I noticed something peculiar while staring out the window of our coupe. For whatever reason, I had this idea in my head that the Trans-Siberian Railroad would be cutting through the pure, unadulterated wilderness of Siberia. Of course, there would be the big towns such as Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg, Kazan etc. but otherwise I expected limited visible signs of human activity. This idea of mine was far from correct. Much of the journey was accompanied with the marks of humanity zooming by in the window whether that be in the form of power lines or small barns and towns. The Trans-Siberian Railroad brought life to Siberia in the early 20th century and is still vital for much of the region’s survival. It makes perfect sense that life would be concentrated by the tracks, I had just never put the pieces together until I saw it in real life.
After my miniature epiphany, I found much of my day time being spent window watching. During our approach to Krasnoyarsk on the second day, I was taken back by the infrastructure directly adjacent to the train tracks. As is the case in certain big cities, including Moscow, travel further from the city center correlates with the amount of money present in that area. The ride into Krasnoyarsk was eye opening as the outskirts of the city produced some of the most depressing sights of my entire trip. For something that brings life to the towns in the countryside, the Railroad seemed to produce the opposite effect in larger cities. Decrepit brick buildings, overgrown plants and trees, and copious amounts of graffiti followed the tracks into the city and dissipated towards the center.
Similar sights could be seen on the journey out of Kazan, one of the largest cities in Russia. I was put into a somber mood as I watched the tiny wooden houses and overgrown yards became more abundant as the distance from Kazan’s center increased. I had visited several small towns before this train ride, yet I found myself moved more from the view on the train than by walking around a village in rural Russia. Before boarding, I thought I would be halfway to insanity on the third day and that could not have been farther from the truth. 70 hours into the trip and I had moved into an unexpected, but surely welcomed, introspective portion of my journey. The Trans-Siberian Railroad was the perfect place to reflect upon the ten weeks I had spent in Russia. Three days felt like a single afternoon on this magnificent journey across the longest railroad in the world. If you are ever blessed with the opportunity to ride on the Trans-Siberian, go for it. Hilarious experiences are accompanied by humbling ones as well as by the many smells formulated along the way.