Across Siberia, on a train

There was nothing but infinite space interspersed with trees as far as the eye could see. In one’s mind’s eye, one could even see beyond, as far as the arctic.  It was a surreal sight, one not to be forgotten.

(Daily Times, 24 July 2014)

Irkutsk is situated approximately in the middle of Siberia, between the Ural Mountains (to the west of which is Europe, including Moscow) and Khabarovsk (in the Russian Far East), beyond which is the Bering Sea and Alaska. While the trans-Siberian railway has existed for over a century, the trans-Siberian highway was completed only in the last few years.

Departing Irkutsk at 4 pm (11 am Moscow time), our train to Moscow would take us through Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tyumen, Ekaterinburg, Perm, Kirov, Gorky and Vladimir.

The railway traverses through the southern rim of Siberia, which spreads roughly 2,000 km to the north, where it meets the Arctic Circle. The larger, southern section of this vast expanse is the taiga, characterized by coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches. Fur-bearing animals, such as mink, silver fox, squirrel, as well as large herbivorous mammals, such as moose and reindeer live here.

Further to the north is the tundra, a stark, virtually treeless landscape. What scant vegetation there is in this very windy region, are dwarf shrubs, sedges and grasses, mosses, and lichens. Larger animals, such as polar bear and walrus, as well as reindeer, are found in the tundra.

We were lucky to be travelling east to west, so that our windows faced north and our view was not obstructed by the procession of long passenger and goods trains coming from the opposite direction, which kept to the tracks on the south side.

This being September, this part of Siberia was mostly green and blue and many hues in between, with the occasional cluster of houses, but hardly a soul around.  There was nothing but infinite space interspersed with trees as far as the eye could see. In one’s mind’s eye, one could even see beyond, as far as the arctic.  It was a surreal sight, one not to be forgotten.

We passed Krasnoyarsk early next morning and Novosibirsk about 12 hours later. Krasnoyarsk is the third largest city in Siberia after Novosibirsk and Omsk, with a population of about a million. It is an important junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The famous Russian author Anton Chekhov believed Krasnoyarsk to be the most beautiful city in Siberia for its natural surroundings, located as it is on the banks of the Yenisei River.

In 1983-84, Kransnoyarsk was at the centre of American allegations that Moscow was in violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972 by constructing a huge radar station there. The Soviet Government forcefully denied that they had any such thing in Krasnoyarsk, until Foreign Minister Eduard Shevernadze came clean in 1989, admitting that his government was both cheating and lying and that the Americans were right after all.

If Irkutsk is the jewel of Siberia, Novosibirskis its unofficial capital. With 1.5 million inhabitants, it is the largest in Asian Russia the third most populous city in the country after Moscow and St Petersburg. Like all cities in Siberia, it is situated on the banks of a large river, in this case the Ob River.

Founded in 1893 at the future site of a Trans-Siberian Railway bridge over the river Ob, it was named Novonikolayevsk, in honor of the reigning Tsar Nicholas II. The completion of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway from here in the early 20th century connected Moscow with Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.

Next our train stopped at Omsk, originally built as a fortress.  It became the military headquarters of the Cossack regiments of Siberia as well as a place of exile. The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote “Buried Alive: Or, Ten Years Penal Servitude in Siberia” based on his exile here from 1849 to 1853.

Located at the junction of the Om and Irtysh rivers, Omsk was the centre of anti-Bolshevik struggles in Siberia and the headquarters of Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s White Guards for a number of years after the Communist revolution of 1917. Omsk transformed into a large industrial region after World War II, when Joseph Stalin decided to strategically shift heavy industry east of the Ural Mountains, so as to put them out of reach of a future invasion from the west.

The border of Kazakhstan is just over a hundred kilometres south of Omsk.  Now an independent country, Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the 14 constituent republics that became independent of Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. It is the world’s ninth largest country by size. Even without Kazakhstan, Russian remains the world’s largest country by far.

When our train arrived at Tyumen, Russia’s oil capital on the banks of the Tura River early the second morning, we were still 2,500 km from Moscow. Russia is one of the largest producers of both oil and gas in the world, and most of the reserves are in Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains.

We had been locked out of the train toilets earlier than the stipulated 15 minutes before the train arrived at Tyumen station. This being early morning, and a sufficiently long stop, most of us availed of the toilet facilities at the station as a matter of urgency.

But one gentleman from another tourist group (along with his tour guide), who had been on the same trains with us since we left Beijing, either didn’t plan his stop well or had to heed to a late call of nature. When the train was ready to go and the train attendant was preparing to shut the door, the missing man’s wife who was in the train raised the alarm about her husband’s absence.

Heeding the cry for help, a male fellow traveler from their group held the door open, physically preventing the female attendant from shutting it and thus not letting the train leave. For a minute or two, the two exchanged sharp words, while the wife sobbed and wailed hysterically like someone who had lost her husband forever.

Normalcy returned when the two gentlemen ran in to everyone’s relief. The train left without much delay or any injury or damage, nothing more than the bruised prestige of the two foreigners who had been caught with their pants down at a Siberian railway station!

(To be continued) 

By Razi Azmi

This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Across Siberia, on a train

  1. Arif Hassan says:

    Dear Razi Bhai
    As always fascinating story. Love reading the details not only about the forest, rivers and the toilet guard on the train but also about the history and geopolitics of the region. Wonder if you had taken some pictures that you would like to add to the narrative.
    Kuala Lumpur

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *