In the Kremlin armory, there’s an ornately crafted Faberge egg, given by Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra. It celebrates the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was a project under Nicholas’s leadership when he was Tsarevich. Inside the egg is a minute replica of the royal train. While the real train wasn’t made out of silver, I’m sure it was probably a more luxurious travel experience than the one I had traveling the Trans-Sib.
We boarded our train in Irkutsk at midnight (seven in the evening Moscow time) and arrived in Moscow three and a half days later at five in the morning (ten o’clock Irkutsk time). Over the course of our journey, we traversed most of the east-to-west breadth of the largest country in the world. Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway really drove home the enormity of modern Russia (and the Soviet Union before that, and the Russian Empire before that) as a continuous expanse of land, spanning time zones, climate regions, ethnicities, and cultures.
I was excited for the journey—trains are my favorite way to travel, since I get motion sickness easily and I find them the smoothest, as well as the most scenic. Unfortunately, in America trains aren’t nearly as common as they are in Russia. For long-distance trips, most Americans fly or take road trips, while in Russia many people would just take a train. Trains are also a subject of historical interest in Russia, to a greater extent than in America (other than among preschool-age Thomas The Tank Engine fans, of course). Along the Trans-Sib route, there seems to be a particular fascinating. Irkutsk has a monument to Alexander III in its downtown, because he was the tsar under which the railway was built. Many of the towns along the route have old-fashioned locomotives on display, and we also visited museums with exhibitions about the railway in the Baikal area.
Before we took the Trans-Siberian ourselves, the longest train ride I’d taken had been an overnight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but I had been asleep for most of the ride. This time, I’d have multiple days to spend. I was excited to see the world around me, but I was also nervous about going stir-crazy.
The cramped quarters of our cabin—four bunk beds, plus a tiny table squished in between—were a bit daunting. I felt like a monkey, clambering cautiously up to my top bunk or swinging my legs casually off the side while conversing with my bunkmate. Sneaking down to the bathroom in the middle of the night when it was dark and everyone was asleep felt like crossing a minefield. (Speaking of bathrooms, there was no way to shower, definitely the biggest hardship of the journey for me). There was, however, a hallway where I could stretch my legs, and periodic half-hour stops at various cities along the way. Making a frenzied grocery run in Omsk over the course of twenty minutes with my professor and several other students was nerve-wracking, but certainly an experience. Since we were mainly living off of easy non-perishable foods like instant ramen and crab-flavored potato chips (I like them, but most of our group found them an acquired taste), the cucumbers and tomatoes we bought were priceless. If you’ve never lain on a bunk bed eating a full cucumber like an ice cream cone, you haven’t lived.
Aside from what went on inside the train, the outside world fascinated. It felt oddly intimate, coasting by getting glimpses into everyone’s backyards as we passed through small villages. Many houses have their kitchen gardens up until a few meters from the tracks, and since Siberian spring comes late, we passed families out planting their potatoes or breaking sod. I also saw people herding animals, dogs sunning themselves next to the tracks, and at one point an odd and almost Aesopian-seeming collection of comrades—two goats, a dog, and a horse, trotting along together without a human in sight. The natural scenery was also breathtaking—rolling hills, snow-capped mountains, golden fields of grain as we entered the warmer climate of European Russia, scraggly taiga—all were beautiful, and we saw them all.