A train too far

I am standing on the platform of a train station on the Mongolian and Chinese border watching the workings of a number of huge machines which lift the whole train in one go and remove the bogies (the undercarriages) in order to replace them with one to fit the standard Russian gauge. Soon, when the train reaches Ulaan Ude, my train will be on the Trans-Siberian railway track which stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok, measures 9,289 km, and takes 6 days and 4 hours to complete.

 I will miss the section that starts in Vladivostok as my start on that stretch is Ulan-Ude and I will go from there to Irkutsk and then to Moscow. Then - just a short jump to St. Petersburg and Helsinki, hop on a flight to Berlin, and by train again to Salzburg. Altogether 8,078 km, by far the longest rail trip I have ever made.

 The start was not very pleasant. When boarding the train at Beijing our group was asked to supply some young hands to help the older ones with the baggage. Having forgotten to read my birth certificate lately I missed the fact that I was already past the “three score years and ten” category  -  but I did help – and so did one of the local members of the light-fingered gentry of the Han tribe who helped himself to my wallet. (Han represent 92% of the Chinese population)

 To familiarise myself with the Trans-Siberian stretch of the railway is important to me as I intend to write about the “Anabasis” of the Czechoslovak troops who fought against the Bolsheviks all the way along to Vladivostok – nearly 10,000 km from central Russia. All this happened between 1917 and 1920.   Many of the 67,500 legionnaires did not get home till – nearly – 2 years after WWII ended. As the Russian 1917 revolution brought an end to hostilities with the Germans and Austrians, the Czechoslovakians had to go east along the Trans-Siberian line to catch boats to take them to Western Europe. Some of the troops spent 4 years on the line.

Now I am in Mother Russia at last and my railway wagon rides the sleepers along the Trans-Siberian railway, a real marvel carved out of the taiga and crossing many big rivers. In places, stones had to be imported, frozen rivers crossed when iced over by laying tracks on top of the ice, with periodic tragedies when the ice broke and many workers drowned. To read about the construction is to read an epic and there is ample literature about this feat, which took 25 years to finish. Most of this track lies in Siberia, all of which is in Asia. This huge area starts east of the Ural Mountains (the border between Europe and Asia) and it contains only about a third of Russia’s population, although it covers three quarters of Russia.

One of the luxuries on my train was a contraption called a Samovar.

It’s a work of art (and science) and it could be 300 mm tall or twice that height. It  is usually silvery, filled with water and has a number of openings and producing hot water and steam, mostly for cups of tea, coffee or hot soup. There is one of them in every railway carriage. You wouldn’t call it just a kettle or a jug or a pot – it is a magnificent appliance. I am sure you could find a museum in Russia devoted to Samovars (look for “images” of Samovars on Google). I had another special use for it. Whilst we had a comfortable sleeper cabin we had no bathroom. There was a cold water tap in the toilet, but you had to keep the tap down with one hand and wash your body with a sponge in the other hand – but now it was at least a hot-water sponge. Oh, I wished this had been the Middle Ages when people only poured water on themselves once a week, or if I were an octopus (as I was wrongly accused of being in my teens).

Our first stop in Russian Siberia was Irkutsk, one of the half a dozen large towns in Siberia. It has a population of over 500,000. I arrived in Irkutsk on a Saturday afternoon on a balmy spring day and found that most of the young people, all well dressed, were promenading on the river bank. Further along, a large canvas tent in the shape of the Sydney Opera House, was an entertainment centre. The town also possesses a hyper-modern Medical Centre, a one-level circular building, where you have to slip into special hospital shoes, each doctor has a suite with a computer and a nurse and all specialists and x-ray and other equipment are situated on the other side of the building.  You pay for each procedure separately and on the spot. I didn’t have the impression that this, previously socialist country, has free medicine any more.

Adjacent to the town is Lake Baikal, which is quite unique. It contains one fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and all the numbers are huge – it is 636 kilometres long, up to 1,642 metres deep and has a fish called Omul which is of the salmon family. I went on a boat trip from a pretty fishing village called Listvyanka on the lake and had a taste of that very fine fish, in fact I had a second helping. The lake has 333 creeks flowing into it, but only one outflow, namely the river Angara. The lake is surrounded by hills.


An idea of The Last Colonial Empire came to me after I read about the huge distances in this area in one of James Michener’s books, where he recounted the arrest of a criminal in Petro-Pavlovsk/Kamchatski and his transportation to St Petersburg which took a full year. That place in Kamchatka is about 35 kilometres per day from the then capital of Russia – St. Petersburg. The Russians did not colonise other lands by navigating their ships to distant places, they just rolled onto land further east. Their expeditions from the capital city reached all the way across the Bering Sea to Alaska in the Americas, but then the Tsar decided that that was a little bit too far and sold Alaska to the United States. In the process they only had small pockets of aborigines mainly of Turkic or Mongol peoples with Chinese and mixed races, to subdue and absorb. No need to grant independence to the conquered territories – just flood them with ethnic Russians and grant some autonomy to these “new” lands. Even the European part of Russia has people of Turkic and Mongol origin. Today’s’ Federation of Russia was one of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics (divided generally into 14 ethnic groups). New conquests were always included in the territory of Russia (Russian Federation – not the other 14). Some territories gained after the Second World War – the southern half of the island Sakhalin and Kurily Islands (from Japan) and part of East Prussia (from Germany) were also included in The Russian Federation.

 The area of Vladivostok and Nakhodka are the southernmost points of this empire and they are on latitude 43 North. Most central European countries and all of UK are closer to the north pole (Brisbane is on latitude 28 degrees south.)

The Russian Federation is spread over eight time zones. There are also eight zones between Australia and the UK. Russia’s area is over double (2.22 times) that of Australia.

Putting the “Empire “idea” aside, we allowed ourselves to be rocked by the rhythmic motion of the train, or just sleep, or play cards, or talk or do anything as the scenery is about as exciting as the Nullarbor Plain (except for the hilly track around Lake Baikal) but the colour is different – it’s green in summer and white in winter. And if you feel that you may have wasted your money on this expedition, consider this: – You had the courage to venture into this country inhabited by northern antipodeans and you crossed some very mighty rivers – Ob, Irtysh, Yenisei, Lena and Indigirka. When I was learning Russian (which I have now nearly totally forgotten) I was struck by the ease of creating rhymes in Russian, and a rhyme listing these rivers has stayed in my memory.

 You tasted some tit-bits of food at railway stations as simple as boiled potatoes with dill sauce, piroshky, fresh water crayfish (that’s if you got bored with the dining car). You have stopped for a few minutes in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Novosibirsk and if you were awake when the train reached the Ural Mountains you may have even noticed a simple sign that tells you that you left Asia and are now in Europe. (On kilometre 1777 from Moscow). I must give particular credit to the efficiency of the Russian train system. It runs like a clock, both the city underground and the Trans-Siberian.

I had a chance to have a good look at Moscow and St. Petersburg and I found the capital city Moscow to be much more interesting than I expected. The Kremlin is very impressive, but to catch a Russian men’s’ choir singing a Gregorian chant in a cathedral is even more impressive. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is an indication of the total failure of the Communist system to kill religions. He Cathedral was totally demolished by the Soviets and a hot water swimming pool was built on its site with the intention to build a Communist Party Palace later. That never happened, but original detailed plans were found for the demolished church, which was rebuilt and opened in 2000. The underground suburban railway is a museum, as every level is dedicated – artistically – to certain parts of the country. Around the Red Square you can find actors dressed as historical figures - good look-alikes of Lenin, Stalin, various Tsars or even Vladimir Putin. They will allow you to stand beside them and take a selfie or have a photo taken, for which you pay the actor a small fee.

One aspect of architecture which attracted my attention, was the use of colour on the exteriors, particularly on older buildings. Pastel colours were used on the masonry with  white colour on window frames, which are generally very large. The effect is startling. The old system produced buildings looking rather drab, as the trend was towards weather resistant and grey plaster on the outside of buildings.

At the edge of cities there are rows of small buildings – garages. The communist system did not envisage that comrades would be able to afford cars and thus garages were not built as parts of dwellings. 

Saint Petersburg is a fairly young town. Peter the Great opened it “for business” in 1703 and I was there a year before its 300th anniversary. He was an impressive Tsar, actually the creator of a budding superpower. In his youth he spent some time in Holland where he learned and physically participated in shipbuilding and allied trades. He put these skills to good use when building his new capital. The city is well laid out, has access to the Baltic, and boasts an attractive Tsar’s residence at Peterhof. It also possesses one of the world’s greatest art collection – The Hermitage – in the Winter Palace. I was very keen to have more time in this city just to spend it at that Museum, but my travel agent couldn’t obtain an extension of my visa at short notice.

When your tour guide takes to a shop, you will be offered a vodka for free, but be careful. It isn’t always of good quality. The Russian word for water is VODA, but if you add just one letter to that word – “K’- you get that potentially deadly beveridge - VODKA. It is relatively cheap,  and if you are a homeless person in winter, your passage to the other world, is guaranteed.

Russia has a problem of surviving in the market-oriented (read “non-communist”) world. Having lost control over the other 14 republics doesn’t help. Transition to capitalism in 1991 was botched. I suspect that political advisers, many of them from western countries, misled the Russian leaders (deliberately?)  Employment opportunities were reduced, lot of people became unemployed, and mortality rate rose. It appeared that the only way to create a modern and efficient state after the disastrous rule of Boris Yeltsin would be Vladimir Putin’s way (but God help us). I doubt that in the future, Russia will be able to hang on to its far eastern parts (Siberia) bordering China and close to Japan. The fact that Russia’s population is decreasing (in 16 years, 1991 to 2007, the population declined by 12.4 million), doesn’t help. In those years many were subsisting on a diet of cabbage and potatoes. (If only Capt. Cook had known how effective that diet would have been for fighting scurvy!)


All over Russia you will find salesmen offering you Caviar, a tin of so many grams of these wonderful and luxurious fish roe. You could bring it home and Customs would allow you to import it, but I think you would bite your lip before spending something like $15,000 per kilo and buy a 50 gram tin of lungfish back home instead.  Of course you could bring back a matrioshka, (a light and hollow) wooden figurine of a girl, or any person of distinction – including Putin.  Four (or more) figurines, in decreasing sizes, are fitted inside. Alternatively, you can buy some decorated coloured Easter eggs.


Some time ago the Sydney University published its own song book which included one on caviar – and I can guarantee the truth of most of the facts:-


Caviar comes from a virgin sturgeon

The virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish

The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin’

That’s why caviar is my dish

……… (My bloody oath it is….)


I gave caviar to my grandpa

The grandpa’s age is 93

I gave caviar to my grandpa

He chased grandma up a tree

.….…. (My bloody oath he did….)