I couldn’t remember whether I had booked a berth in the open compartments of third class or in a four berth cabin of second class. I was happy enough to find myself in the later. Another girl joined me and together with her friend we managed to get the back of the seats down for the 2 bottom bunks before her friend left. No one was in the top bunks, and it stayed that way. The sleeper carriages were clean and modern, however the water in the samovar was heated by a fire! The conductor for the carriage threw our bags of sheets in to us. Before we left the station a muscly fellow dressed in shorts and a bright blue singlet with a gold chain around his neck stepped in to our cabin and tried to fix the curtain rail that was hanging askew. My cabin mate asked if he worked on the train and where his uniform was but got no answer. We thought perhaps he was the fixit man for the train.
An introduction to the characters of the carriage. It wasn’t very busy and there were generally only one or two people to each cabin. My cabin mate from Hong Kong was almost exactly the same age as me, also on her way to Scotland to complete studies related to my own. We got along well and spent our time off the train together. People assumed we were friends before getting on the train. The Chinese couple next door were on their way to Finland to see their new grandchild. Being Chinese they appeared to only be travelling with a large suitcase full of food, some of which Russian customs/quarantine confiscated. He had a deep rich singing voice that would throw out word or a phrase at random points through the days.
On our other side there was a quiet Russian fellow who we thought was Chinese to begin with. He did speak a decent amount of Mandarin once he warmed up, and eventually even let out a bit of English. He got off at Ulan-Ude with a bag full of goods to sell now he was home. For a day or so, he was joined by a young woman and her baby bundled up in a full length parka that caused his arms and legs to hang out like a stick figure. She didn’t say much and the baby was pretty quiet. The young Chinese grandmother was gaga over the baby. A Russian teacher of English travelling with her teenage granddaughter did a little translation for us and talked with us about various bits and pieces. When they got off in Irkutsk, the granddaughter could hardly bear to be hugged by her mother and father who hadn’t seen her for two weeks. So, nothing new there.
The carriage conductor seemed to have a few jobs. The first to tell us which toilet to use depending on which side of the border we were on. I couldn’t see the point – they both dropped to the tracks. His next job was to wave us back on the train as it approached time to leave each station. And his other main job was to vacuum daily. The teacher of English flirted with Muscles on the first day and got out of him that he was the manager of the train staff. So much for being the handyman. She also got out of him that he would wear his uniform for us at one of the big stations the next day. We just thought it was weird that we couldn’t identify that he was staff. It turned out that stations were the only times Muscles and Conductor Man wore their uniforms, and only at certain major stations for Muscles. Within seconds of being back on the train they would be back in their singlets and sweat pants or shorts. They changed so quickly and so often we decided they had strip show pants.
It took the first two nights and the whole of the first day to get across the remainder of China, going north east to Harbin before finally heading north west. At Harbin the engine changed, I think from electric to diesel. As we went north the air gradually began to clear so that by the time we reached Harbin the sky was actually visible, and blue. Coming north through China the corn crops matured until all were fully in flower. The houses gained a splash of colour around the edges. Sunflowers made their first appearance in gardens and would continue across Russia. The touch of colour and the gardens gave the homes of northern China a more loved and lived in feel than the plain rough red brick or grey concrete of the south. It was something about the attention to detail and the individuality that I liked.
The train runs on Moscow time, the sun ran on summer time, and our bodies just went along for the ride. My cabin mate put her phone to Moscow time, I changed mine an hour each day. It became difficult to say how long anything took, which was perfectly fine. We only had to know how many minutes past the hour the train was going to leave the station if we got out.
As the sun was rising early in the morning of the second day we reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. Another variation on a theme. Immigration took our passports or Chinese identity cards and a Chinese soldier, a two star something or other, stayed and chatted with us. His job might have been to keep an eye on us so we didn’t go wandering about the train, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the conversation. He worked at the border, but being in the army couldn’t step outside China. Eventually we were allowed off the train to walk around the station for a bit. We wanted to go up to the gates to look out at the town. They were obviously locked but the soldier on the platform wasn’t real keen on us doing it and kept a careful eye on us. Some on the train loaded up on duty free vodka. The sun came up on a city skyline that included European style domes. Then it was on to Russia.
At the Russian station we were told to return to our assigned seats. This time Russian immigration came through the train, checking and stamping our passports as they went. They had nifty little hand held machines to scan the passport and enter all the details they needed. This seemed the logical way to do it to me. They were followed by a stream of individuals each looking for something different. One with a black dog, another with a German shepherd. One saying loudly, “Tablets,” and another, “Money.” One fellow climbed up to check the space over the corridor and the space under the seat. A woman asked us to open some of our bags. It seemed rather haphazard, or maybe they decided we weren’t what they were interested in. Tablet man and Money man didn’t even stay long enough to see how little we had. This did not seem the logical way to do it. Finally all were satisfied, Muscles called out, “Welcome to Russia!” in his best Russian accent, and we disembarked. The train was whisked away to have its wheels changed in private while we sought out food. The teacher of English helped us order our first Russian breakfasts – mashed potato and cabbage salad for me.
Fed and with a couple of hours to wait for the train to leave, we set out to see a little of the town and to find supplies. It was a little unnerving leaving the station, and we didn’t stay out long, afraid we’d get lost or miss the train, but we found an informal street market for some fruit and a shop with bread, more specifically, sourdough! Real bread at last. Things were definitely different. The sky was blue. People looked and sounded different. The buildings were different. There were bright colours on the fences and timber houses. There were flowers planted simply for the sake of being flowers. We were in Russia! Our train came back with new wheels, an expensive restaurant carriage, and another huge new engine to forge across Siberia. The afternoon consisted of white clouds in a blue sky, occasional horses, and yellow and white wildflowers that speckled straw coloured undulating grasslands. Undulations! The first I could remember since leaving Australia. And naps on both sides of the cabin.