MURDER ON THE TRANS SIBERIAN EXPRESS

IRKUTSK | RUSSIA

FINE, I HADN’T BEEN MURDERED. BUT IT SURE FELT LIKE IT.

I’d boarded my train from Moscow’s Yarosalvski Station and began my journey into the heart of Siberia. After lugging my backpack into the cabin I climbed up into my bunk and began busying myself with taking out, and sorting through, all my crap. There was a surly looking Russian guy looking out the window when I’d first arrived, but after a courteous greeting he didn’t seem to pay me much attention.

That wasn’t to last.

Soon after two good ‘ol Russian boys entered, already drunk, one guy very much so. By Irish standards these guys looked like they had been stopping off at every funeral in the country and drinking each one of them dry. By Russian standards they’d probably only had a night cap. The vodka was out, along with an assortment of cold vegetables such as cucumbers and tomatoes. (I know tomatoes aren’t technically vegetables Nerd Police, don’t bother commenting)

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The mugs were cool though. I really should have stolen one.

Before I knew it my name was “My friend” and thinking it’d be rude not to have one drink with them, I had climbed down and began to down some shots. Purely in the interests of international relations. I’m not a big vodka fan, especially neat. I also don’t like cucumbers or tomatoes, but here I was mixing it with the local drunks like my name was Boris.

Irish / Russian drinking relations have never ended very well. I think it all started when our good friend Russian president Boris Yeltsin flew into Dublin airport but was too drunk to actually get off the plane. I wasn’t the guy to improve things. I’m not sure if it was the amount I drank, my body reacting angrily to vegetables, or the motion of the train, but long story short I spent most of the night in the fetal position in the train bathroom. My Russian friend was so worried he tried breaking down the door before dragging me out and force feeding me tea. “This will make you feel good” he assured me. It did not.

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One of the prettier views from the train window. Traditional forest villages rather than industrial hell holes.

I woke up the next morning, and through my blurry vision my drinking mates from the night before weere having a hearty breakfast of beers below me.They asked me to come down and join them. That’s when I knew it was time to go back to sleep.

And so ended my most memorable vodka session in Russia. I prayed for death.

The train isn’t ultra flashy or super modern. Don’t expect a bullet train, or shinkansen here. Still, it’s airy (for a train), clean and comfortable. I had booked a bed in a four bunk male cabin. My cabin mates would change regularly. A lot of times I would wake up to completely different people then I had said goodnight to. It was like being stuck in a low budget Twilight Zone episode. You could probably sum up all my travels that way actually.

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Call me Ishmael. And get me a coat.

The Trans Siberian railway has a very adventurous reputation outside of Russia, and it certainly is. More importantly though it serves as an everyday mode of transport for locals living along it’s stretches. It’s not a train that will be chock full of backpackers unlike some places in Asia or South America – well maybe in the summer, this was February after all. Each carriage seemed to have a matron who would look after the cleaning, bedding and meals. My matron was a bear of a woman with shoulders that filled the corridor. She found me hilarious, probably due to the fact I could speak no Russian whatsoever and she had no English. We got along great. I get the impression she took pity on me in the same way people from every country except China take pity on stray kittens.

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Ice bound. The ferry is scheduled to depart in five months.

Breakfast and a main meal was included in the ticket, but there was also a dining car a few carriages down. The goulash is fantastic. One confusing thing about the Trans Siberian is the fact that all trains run on Moscow time. Considering the line traverses nine time zones, this can get tricky. Looking at the posting on the wall it could inform you that you’re arriving at 4 am when in reality you are arriving at 9 am local time. It’s not always easy to work out which time zone you are in at any particular time. The train would stop at it’s designated stations for varying amounts of time. Sometimes only a few minutes, other times an hour or two. The stoppages were easy to work out from the schedule, so it was nice to get out for some fresh air and some cheap snacks. There was a dining car on the train, complete with beer and wine. The prices were a bit steeper than you’d pay in a restaurant, but not prohibitively so. The food was passable but the only downside was that the locals never seemed to make use of it. I’m guessing it’s a much more sociable place in the summer with the larger number of visitors.

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Baikal freezes into giant block of ice.

Another huge mistake was making a B-Line for Irkutsk which meant spending five nights straight on the train. FIVE NIGHTS. Unfortunately at this time there are no open tickets for the Trans Siberian. You must plan out, and book, each leg of the journey separately. I’d recommend breaking the trip up into a few sections. There are many interesting looking stops before Irkutsk such as Novosibirsk / Tomsk,  and Yekaterinburg where the Romanovs (the last Russian royal family) where executed. Whatever you pick, it’s gotta be better than five nights on a train. FIVE.

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All aboard the Mystery Machine. The mystery being how it’s still operational.

At least the scenery was cute at times. A lot of industrial looking soviet wastelands pepper the landscape, but there are also quirky little wooden villages, and dense woods which invoke a more old fashioned Siberian atmosphere – the same type of remote landscapes that inspired dark folktakes such as Baba Yaga and other strange creatures in the woods. The February snow lay thick on the ground, and I was thankful I was staring at it from inside a warm cabin.

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At the north point of Olkhon Island

Sure enough before I knew it, the train chugged into Irkutsk station after only five days. It was the middle of the night and -17 degrees celsius. I flopped out of the carriage and onto the platform like a melted octopus, and through the flurries of snow glanced around. Yup, I’d arrived in Siberia alright.

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Shamanka juts out from the ice

The icy streets made me appreciate my Russian army boots even more. At my hostel I met two Irish girls who had also been doing the Trans Siberian and were planning to spend a few days in Irkutsk before eventually completing the journey to Beijing.The planned to go dog sledding around Lake Baikal – something they later said was a great experience.

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Like tectonic plates, the ice crashes against each other forming mini mountains of frozen water. Geography lessons at -17 always carry more weight.

The next day I hopped on the small tourist minibus to make the five hour drive to the village of Khuzhir, situated on the western side of Olkhon Island. Olkhon, as it’s name suggests is an island in Lake Baikal. Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, created by a huge tear in the Siberian rift zone. At almost 5,500 feet deep it is also the world’s laregest lake by volume of water containing roughly 20% of the entire world’s unfrozen fresh water! What a monster. Lake Baikal is more than impressive facts and figures. At -17 degrees celsius, in the midst of the Siberian winter it also displays another interesting trait – it completely freezes over, covering itself in an impenetrable sheet of ice two meters thick. This provided the key to reaching Olkhon Island.

We would drive over the lake.

I’d seen plenty of Ice Road Truckers so I knew what to expect. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good because it was a spine tingleling, exciting way to travel. Bad because it was potentially an excruciatingly painful way to die. Thankfully I’ve never been that smart. I’m also in the habit of surrounding myself with people just as stupid and reckless as myself, so everything usually works out well. So there we were, perched on top of a frosty incline, the frozen expanse of Lake Baikal below us. With a sharp inhale we accelerated downwards and onto the ice.

Our vehicle of choice was the instantly familiar Russian UAZ-452, better known as the “breadloaf”. Because when you are driving on a crust of ice floating on top of 5,500 feet of freezing water you want the security of driving in a van better known for it’s resemblance to baked goods then safety. Driving on solid ice feels weird because of how un-weird it actually was. I had images of dangerous skids and spinning wheels trying desperately to propel us across shifting ice plates. Our breadloaf had great tires and an experienced driver. Couple that with the fact that there appeared to have been a fresh smattering of snow which added a small bit of traction. The surface had been crisscrossed with makeshift roads, ploughed by the first few brave drivers finding the strongest parts in the ice. There are even road signs planted into it. This remote, frozen lake in the middle of Siberia had a better traffic management system than my home town in Ireland.

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An old school house in Siberia.

We arrived in the tiny wooden village of Khuzhir right on the shore that evening. The sun was beginning to set as I set my backpack down inside the wooden shack where I’d be spending two nights. Outside it was now reaching -20, but inside, thanks to the nuclear powered furnace beside one of the beds, it felt closer to the surface of the sun. Maybe it only felt that way because of the extreme contrast between the interior and exterior temperatures. I wrapped up warm and headed back out for a walk on the ice. Navigating the identical looking little streets to reach the shoreline was a bit confusing, but eventually I encountered the frozen docks. The small fishing vessels were imprisoned in the thick ice, and bony white fingers saturated the dark wooden decking and rails. With the lengthening shadows of the evening it looked like a scene from an abandoned arctic whaling station. Creepy as all hell.

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Shaman pole at Shamanka on the shores of Lake Baikal

After a few minutes gingerly strolling on what would normally be the wrong side of the shoreline I caught a glimpse of a hulking pinnacle of rock jutting out from the ice. This was Shamanka, more commonly known as Shaman’s Rock, a sacred place among the local Buryat witch doctors. Rituals were performed here and oaths taken. According to legend criminals were brought here and left over night. If fear, or the freezing water hadn’t claimed them, it was believed that they were spared by the spirit of Baikal and were set free. It’s a cragged horn of rock, and almost looks like a giant stone rhinoceros is just about the come up for air.

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Like an entire frozen waterfall

The next day saw us drive along the coast, visiting ice caves and sculptures until we reached the northern point of the island. With the land disappearing behind us and Baikal flaunting it’s size it’s easy to see how the lake was commonly known as the Baikal Sea among Russians. Here, the cracks and fissures between the ice plates was very apparent. Where they collided cast up jagged ridges of ice, looking for all the world waves frozen in time. On the cliffs the waves themselves had frozen in mid splash, the insta-freeze creating unnerving looking boney tendrils reaching down for you like skeletal fingers. I’d seen the videos on youtube of the waves freezing as they lapped up on the shore,but this was my first time seeing Siberia’s Elsa impersonation up close. Truth is stranger then fiction as they say, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a talking snowman around the next bend.

Actually, no that’s stupid. Anyone would be surprised to see a real talking snowman.

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Run

Our guide taught us the art of Siberian ice fishing, which basically involved cutting a hole in the ice, sticking a hook inside, and then checking it the next day hoping no one had stolen your fish. Apparently someone had stolen our guide’s fish, so the atmosphere on the ride back suffered a little bit for it.

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“Damn it! And I left a Snickers bar in here too”

The bulk of my Trans Siberian adventure was almost over. All that remained was one final night on the train as it chugged along from Irkutsk through Ulan Ude on the Mongolian border, before finishing in the remote capital of Ulaanbataar, a city with numerous different ways of spelling it. I’d be lying if I said I’d miss the train, but then again I’d also be lying if I said I planned the journey properly too

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Irkutsk’s old town is made up of old wooden houses like these. Well worth the walk.

Next time: Team Ireland becomes Team Mongolia. A dashing young hostel owner, a shady driver, horses and camels. And it’s cold. REALLY cold.

 

 

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