The Trans-Siberian Railway offers passengers a rare look into the lives of the people along the way.
The island before us looked deserted. But the helmsman motioned for my boat group to go ashore. We complied and he promptly steered the boat out of sight. We were on our own. In the heart of Siberia.
It was the sixth day of my Trans-Siberian journey, which is often touted as an epic train ride from one end of Russia to the other. The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railroads that stretches from Moscow to the Russian Far East, stopping by metropolises, border towns and the vast expanse of stunning landscapes.
There are many ways to experience the Trans-Siberian. Most would ride from Moscow to the furthest eastern town, Vladivostok. I went in the opposite direction. This happens to be the route taken mainly by locals, from home-bound soldiers to men heading west to find work and families on vacation.
My boat tour companions were four Russians on a holiday. We were at the deepest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal. In winter, tourists come to the frozen Siberian waters to try their hands at dog sledging or ice-fishing. In summer, boat rides are plentiful. These trips often include exploring nearby islands.
The elderly couple in my boat tour were the first to climb a 20ft cliff on the island. They were up in a minute. I struggled and rolled in mud for a quarter of an hour before I made it to the top. It was embarrassing. But the view above was stunning.
We were on the Circumbaikal Railway tracks, which was once part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. It stretched 89km through islands and fishing villages, set atop the clear blue water of the Angara River and Lake Baikal. When the tracks were built a century ago, they were an impressive sight with looming tunnels and bridges. But its time in the sun ended in the 1950s when the new Angara Dam was built, submerging part of its tracks.
As we walked along the tracks to meet our helmsman on the other side of the island, I noticed the rails had held their age well despite times of wars and extreme weather. They were worn but in good order.
Similarly, they reflected the country itself. Russia is in an economic upheaval. Sanctions from the European Union and the US have left thousands without a job. Falling oil prices led to a weaker ruble, decimating the middle class that Russian President Vladimir Putin painstakingly built over many years.
But through all that, every Russian I met on my journey to Moscow was resilient and industrious — like the tracks. They took life in strides. No complaints, like the elderly couple who tackled the cliff and made it to the other side of the island (a journey that included more cliffs) a good half hour before I did.
Aboard the Trans-Siberian
Most travellers would tell you the best part of the train journey is the people you meet, which depends on your carriage class. The firstclass cabins have two beds and are good for those who want privacy. The second-class cabins have four bunk beds, and most passengers tend to congregate in the corridors. Third class is basically 54 people sleeping together in an open-space carriage. It can be really fun or really uncomfortable.
With that said, Russians are not chatty. Ivan was a middle- aged Russian I befriended on the train. He would spend hours staring quietly out the window at the changing landscape of Siberia. I would join him, and occasionally, we would converse in a combination of hand gestures and badly pronounced Russian. I learned he was returning home to his wife.
The other highlights of the Trans-Siberian are the brief stops along the way. At some stations, there are local traders selling homemade food. Packed neatly in carton boxes are dumplings, meat pies, fried bread, chicken legs and honey cakes. They are a welcome sight in the bitter cold.
During stopovers or on the train, each carriage comes with a minder who must be obeyed because she can ban you from the train. Mine, a silver-haired lady, followed us everywhere, beckoning us back to her if we wandered too far into the old-world, Soviet-isque towns that decorated central Russia.
In the Far East, Vladivostok
There are hundreds of stops on the Trans-Siberia, and most travellers pick a handful of stops for a longer layover. My first was Vladivostok — a former naval base that played host to merchants of the world. When Stalin came to power, he shot and chased them all out of the city. For 40 years, no foreigner was allowed in Vladivostok.
Today, it is a city of old and new. Big navy ships still line the dock. There are also shops selling old military gears and Soviet-era souvenirs — for example, Flotsky Univermag is run by an ex-Navy officer who claims to have spent some time in Singapore. The city has added to its old charm some modern structures, including two suspension bridges and a university campus.
As it opens its border again, a new wave of foreigners settled in — the North Koreans. Some reports suggest that Vladivostok’s North Koreans are freer than their counterparts in North Korea. Some have branded them as “slave labours” of the port city.
Over to the West, Kazan
The west of Russia has a European tinge to it, yet it is not quite European. Kazan is a city of equalparts Christianity and Islam.
For centuries, the Russians and the Tatar folks had been going at each other. In the 1500s, Russia’s Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, conquered the city and forcefully baptised the whole lot of them. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazan once again became the centre of Tatar culture and Islam.
Today, the Annunciation Cathedral of Kazan, built in the 16th century, stands alongside the Qolsarif Mosque in the Kremlin. The mosque is a blend of modern Russian architecture and Islamic symbols, which reflects present- day Kazan.
While I was being charmed by the city’s architecture, a museum guide tapped me on the shoulder and asked where I came from. “Singapore,” said I, but she shook her head. I Google-imaged “Singapore” on my phone, and Marina Bay Sands, flanked by a Merlion, popped up. What came next surprised me. She squealed in delight at the image of the Republic (or the laser lights of Marina Bay Sands). But it felt humbling that we were both enthralled by the other’s home city.
Peter the ‘Ugly’
My last stop in Russia was Moscow. My hotel’s concierge insisted I visit the ugliest statue in Moscow: a 600-ton statue depicting Tsar Peter on the deck of a warship, holding a golden scroll. Smaller ships languish beneath its feet. The depiction is rather odd, considering Russia is not known for big maritime conquests.
According to the locals, its sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, originally meant it as Christopher Columbus for a museum in New York. But the museum politely returned the statue after taking a good look at it. So, Tsereteli replaced its head with Peter’s. Present- day Moscovites scowl at the mention of this statue.
Moscow is a city capable of blowing your hat away as it did to Napoleon when he rode into the city and refused to bow. Every building — from the legendary Bolshoi Theatre to the whimsical tops of St Basil’s Cathedral — is a sight to behold. Most of the historical buildings are located at the Kremlin, a mix of Russian victorious past. The Tsars’ bells and cannons stand here.
As we made our way through the city, our guide said many took comfort in the stories of their country’s past amid the economic hardship plaguing the country. She had recently quit her job to lead tours, because “I want to share these stories”.
This article appeared in the Options of Issue 751 (Oct 24) of The Edge Singapore.