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The Trans Siberia Express in wintertime
Vladivostok (Russia), March 22nd 2004
The journey with the Trans Siberia Express has already for years a high position on our travel destination list. Now it is going to happen. We made the choice to do this magnificent trip in March. We made this choice consciously for two reasons. The most important reason is that we want to feel the spirit of the Trans Siberia Express in wintertime. Of course, it is not really winter in March, but cold enough for us to mention it “winter”. The second reason for going in March is the fact that it is outside the tourist season. We do not want to be packed like sardines in a “tourist train” which often happens in the typical Trans Siberia Express tourist season.

We start our journey in cold and white Sint Petersburg. The temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius and the Lena River is completely frozen. After a couple of days in Sint Petersburg we take the Red Arrow trans to Moscow. The train leaves just before midnight in Sint Petersburg and arrives at eight o’clock in the morning in Moscow. However, the real Trans Siberian Express starts from Yaroslavl station in Moscow. We have chosen for the trip to Vladivostok with a Russian train instead of the trip to Beijing. A Russian train (train No 2) was essential for us because it has more atmosphere than the more modern Chinese trains.

Very cold weather at railway station of Omsk
Exactly on schedule we start with our trip from Yaroslavl station. During the trip we will cross seven time zones and have eight full train days. To break the trip into pieces we have planned to stay several days in Irkutsk to visit the city and nearby located Lake Baikal. The compartment we have is small but comfortable. This compartment will be our house for the next couple of days. As expected, we travel outside the tourist season. The train is only for 50% occupied and we are the only foreigners on the train. In the compartment is a time schedule of the trip, which mentions on what day and what time the train will make a stop. This is important information because we have to plan where we will have to stock up our food. The stops of the train are between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on the size of the city/village.

After the train left the outskirts of Moscow, you will get a good feeling about the landscape you will see the next couple of days. Wooden houses that form small villages along the railway track substitute the concrete buildings. The houses are picturesque located in a white landscape, spewing up smoke, to give the dwellers a warm environment in these cold months. Regularly, the train reduces the speed to pass a switch. Most switches are still operated manually by switch civil servants. These servants are standing along the railway track in thick coats and fur hats, pulling a big lever to steer the train into the right direction. The railway servants live in small houses close to the track to be sure that they are close to work. The train traffic is a 24/7 business.

A stop at one of the railway stations is always an adventure. We carefully plan what railway station we will use to buy food. Only on the bigger railway station you will have a good choice. All kind of different types of food are available, made by local villagers who try to earn some extra money. Of course, there is always the possibility to use the restaurant in the train, but the quality is not that good and the prices are too high. Besides that, it’s great to join the local passengers in a search on the platform for some local culinary specialities. The food you can buy differs from station to station. The supply ranges from smoked salmon and stewed potatoes, to drumsticks and self-made alcoholically liquors. Sometimes the weather is really nice. In that case we use the stop also to stretch our legs with a short stroll on the platform and enjoy the Siberian winter sun. On the other hand, it is sometimes bitterly cold on the platform. In that case we buy what we need to buy and return to the train as soon as possible. In that case we feel sorry for the local people on the bitterly cold platform, who try to make a living. Life is hard along the Siberian railroad, especially in the winter.

Fishermen trying to catch fish on frozen lake Baikal
After 88 hours of travelling we enter the railway station of Irkutsk. We pack our luggage, say goodbye to the attendant of our carriage and walk to the city centre. We will spend the next couple of days in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. The temperature is mild because of the sun in combination with the absence of wind. Some local people even spend some time in the park, sitting on a bench, drinking vodka and enjoying the first sunbeams. Spring is in the air!

Early in the morning we take the first bus to Listvyanka, a small village on the shore of Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal in Siberia always had a special attraction to us. When we approach the lake from the hills, the view on the lake is superb. It is completely frozen, with one small exception. To keep the ferry running between Listvyanka and Port Baikal, an icebreaker is used on a daily basis to prevent that also this part freezes over. We move into the old Intourist hotel of Listvyanka. The hotel is almost empty. Only a couple of Russian tourist had the bravery to travel to Lake Baikal in wintertime. Our room has a fabulous view over the frozen lake. We toss our luggage in the room and leave the hotel immediately to make our first walk over the lake.

Carefully we make our first steps on the ice. Here and there we hear a crack under our feet. We walk further away from the shore bit by bit. Once in a while we look frightened at each other when we hear a crack again. At a far distance we see a small ‘something’ on the ice. We have esteem for the fact that somebody took the courage to go on the ice so far from the shore. After ten minutes we are dazed to see that this “something” appears to be a big truck.. The ice seems to be strong enough to serve as a road for truck and cars in wintertime. From that moment on we have more trust in walking on the ice safely, despite of the heavy cracks we hear once in a while around us.

All kind of small activities are going on, on and around the lake. On the central square of Listvyanka, local villagers are trying to sell fish. The fish is catched by fishermen, fishing through a small hole in the ice. The boats that are used when the lake is ice-free are now on the shore for maintenance activities. Local people have no problems spending a whole day in the open air. For us as non-Siberians, two hours in the open air is the absolute maximum. After these two hours we need at least an hour inside a warm building to heat up again.

After the visit to Lake Baikal, we take the train for the remaining stretch to Vladivostok. We are impressed again to see that the train is exactly on time, despite the extreme weather conditions. By the way, it is important to know that all train schedules are in Moscow time. For these reason you have to make a correction for the local time zone to calculate the local departure time. A second watch that you keep on Moscow time is handy. A couple of days later and after a total journey of more than 9200 kilometres we finally arrive in Vladivostok. Vladivostok is a nine-hour domestic flight from Moscow. The distance is really huge. The Trans Siberia Express is an ingenious wonder of the world and an absolute “must-do” for everybody who has the peace and patience to sit in a small compartment for more than a week.

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