Train 031 Vladivostok to Irkutsk July 22-25 2008

Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway is really traveling the Trans-Siberian railway. Lots of traveling and not much doing. This fits rather fine with me since I fall into the category of a person who enjoys the traveling aspect of new countries. I enjoy seeing and doing things as well, but I can quite happily stare out the window of a moving plane, train or automobile for hours and hours without developing a detrimental and serious case of boredom.

Prior to entering Russia I did a fair amount of internet reconnaissance work regarding the Trans-Siberian ticket purchasing process. There are a number of agencies specializing in pre-arranged tickets including direct tickets to and from Moscow, Beijing and Vladivostok as well as ticket packages which involve stopovers at a variety of cities according to the client’s preference. I was worried about tickets given my time-frame as well as the fact that summer in Russia is a busy season for the train network and that the information available indicated that ticket acquisition during this time could be difficult. I wasn’t keen on prolonged hotel stays in locations I wasn’t particularly interested in. However, I am not a traveler who appreciates being controlled by ticket dates. Traveling can be very unpredictable at times and my travel style prefers…actually demands flexibility in dates and timetables. Forced to be in a certain locale to meet a train or plane severely limits possibilities and options.

Agency prices though were considerably high and after browsing the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree looking for other travelers experiences I became more convinced that buying directly at stations was the more appropriate and smart approach to take. While there may be only several Vladivostok-Moscow trains (and these do require advance bookings) hoping from major locations doesn’t seem to be a problem as numerous trains are operating. Upon arrival in Vladivostok I easily obtained a ticket on the 031 Vladivostok-Irkutsk line and even as I’m writing this now compartment (about half way to Irkutsk) the train remains relatively empty. Aside from my self and another German (who has his own compartment!) there are only 3 other passengers in the entire car – with one of them managing to land in my compartment (which was private for about 13 hours). The railway apparently over-hires summer students and there are 3 good looking Irkutsk university engineering students minding each car (even though my car only has 5 passengers!). They are fun to banter and play chess with although language skills are very limited.

Thomas (the German passenger) is good company as he engages a slightly more out-going traveling style than myself which creates good opportunities for us to engage with our car care-takers. I would say that I am a more passive, observation based traveler although I do dig into conversation, flirting and engage the locales as I see fit.

I believe that I have just passed into Siberia from the Russian Far East – a fact that I’m rather ashamed of because I wasn’t aware that the “Russian Far East” was actually a geographical entity. I had previously assumed that Siberia encompassed most of what is Eastern Russia (essentially that big mass of land with few cities on the map) and that “The Russian Far East” was a term used during imperial times. Apparently it is used though and the Far East begins in the area just a little to the northwest of Harbin, China.

The Trans-Siberian skirts the southern reaches of both the Far East and Siberia – as close as 10km from China in some areas. It is, as expected, rather sparsely populated but I am surprised by the apparent amount of decay being experienced by the area. The cities I’ve passed through so far seem to be in decent, although retaining their Soviet styles and layout, shape and several (but not numerous) cranes indicate healthy development. The rural environment in-between urban areas are a different story. Abandoned and crumbling factories, warehouses and other industrial material seem to be the norm. It Is hard to gauge when exactly these industries went under, but many seem to have been abandoned long ago and nature is clearly taking back the land and the remains are not so much an eyesore (as many industrial ruins are) but rather an interesting historical addition to an otherwise monotonous plain-forest landscape. It is probably safe to assume that many of these factories were constructed following the time-honored communist tradition of placing manufacturing and production facilities in illogical locations. Using instead their presence as a political control force rather than a production force. Russia is experience a general population decline at the moment and rural settlements are suffering badly, especially in this area. I believe that many of these Far Eastern and Siberian settlements were established as a way of maintaining control over these vast lands. Some of them being military, some industrial and some even gulag

The Far-East areas transected by the Trans-Siberian are similar to areas found west of Prince George, British Columbia Canada. Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake etc. although on a much larger scale with the agricultural opening being massive. Despite that scale I didn’t observe much agricultural activity, with efforts seemingly limited to family garden plots around dacha communities and one or two cow herds. Forest cover is primarily deciduous in nature with numerous birches and poplars and scattered pines.

Lonely Planet classifies the landscape around the Siberian portion of the railway as taiga…which I disagree with completely. Taiga is found much farther north and what I am seeing right in this early section of Siberia is similar to the Cariboo Region of British Columbia, Canada. Very dry, pine dominated forest of average height with similar densities (rather well-spaced timber with limited under growth). Also very similar to the forest systems I saw in Mongolia in 2006. Quite a lot of forest fire evidence as well. It wouldn’t even say it is boreal, although I will most likely see this later when the railway turns north again after Irkutsk.

There is another railway called the BAM that runs parallel to the Trans-Siberian but much farther north that apparently passes through far more rugged, industrial and damaged environments including numerous operating factories, oil rigs and open-pit mine operations.

The trains operate on Moscow time which creates a very ambiguous time situation as one never really knows exactly what time it is.

Tasty perogies and other Russian snacks can be purchased when the train stops at various desolate stations at various odd times. In fact, we just stopped now and I’ve returned with a bag of perogies and a bag of sour blueberries but blueberries nonetheless. I’ve also been just informed that train 031 is rarely gets any sort of foreign passengers.

The air also smells suspiciously similar to Canada.

Currently skirting the Mongolian border with about 15 hours to Irkutsk and I’ve managed to pickup another eye infection is kicking my ass at the moment. I don’t know why I keep getting these this trip. I haven’t changed any habits or developed any new ones that would contribute to this ongoing problem. Very uncomfortable. The strange thing about these infections is that I want to sleep because logically it is the best approach but it seems like the best thing to do is keep the eye open which is tough because it is giving me a headache. Bright lights are also an annoyance…something which the open landscapes have plenty of.

After about 12 hours and some sleep they eye and I feel much better. I still don’t know what time it really is but it is getting dark so I’ve decided to retreat to my compartment and fire up the notebook for some entries and perhaps a game of Starcraft…maybe a warm beer too…we’ll see.

Pushing into day three is brining more heavily forested landscapes as well as more water sources. The environment of this area is less akin to the Mongolian steppe environment preceding it than it is to landscapes found near the Crooked River region of British Columbia. Although the mountains are smaller and the vistas much, much larger. The similarities between Canada and Siberia are uncanny – while as I just mentioned, the vistas and wide views are significantly larger here. Travelling through Siberia I get the feeling that this is what Canada looked like about 100 years ago. Settlements are scattered and usually Dacha in nature and industrial activity along this stretch of rail is very limited. Forestry activity appears limited as well, although I know heavy harvesting is occurring somewhere as large timber trains and equally large log yards are presented along the line.

The Trans-Siberian is a very busy railway, with trans passing often, sometimes within five minutes of one another. My roommate has been replaced by a Russian business man who is equally as un-talkative – although I’m not much of a conversationalist either. The ice was broken though when he asked to use my laptop’s USB ports as a charging station for his mobile phone. He has his nose buried in a book. My impression of younger Russians is good though. They are very curious regarding foreigner travelers and eager to engage in conversation – even though I get the felling that many wish they had more opportunity to study English. Victor, one of the attendants and I swapped some MP3’s and I gave him my last remaining Canadian penny.

I should be arriving in Irkutsk in the morning and I am looking forward to showing and getting some laundry done (which I haven’t done since leaving China).

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