Travel: Long Haul: Track in the USSR

This weekend the Trans-Siberian Railway is 100 years old. Margaret Campbell celebrates the big red train ride
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The Independent Culture
It's the moment every woman is meant to dream of: the tall, dark (and gold-toothed) man on his knees, asking for her hand in marriage. The fact that we had met barely 30 minutes before, as he wandered along the carriage, was no obstacle to his vodka-fuelled declarations of love. My persistent refusals were a slight on his honour and that of his family - and ultimately on his country. Of course, he would probably not have recognised me the next morning if I had been prepared to take up his suggestion to try our luck vmeste (together).

Whether you are going for the full 6,000-mile, seven day experience, or a a short hop fo just a day or two, the key to a good rail-trip in Russia is to be prepared for hours of monotony overlaid with surprisingly personal conversations and enormous curiosity about every detail of your life from fellow passazhiry. As in Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata, there is to these encounters an intense and even confessional aspect: how strange to take advantage of the anonymity of travel, how easy to reveal more about yourself than you might do elsewhere.

This week's economic turmoil is just the latest post-USSR trauma for the long suffering people. With fares continuing to rise and salaries failing to cover the basic necessities, travel has become a luxury for increasing numbers of Russians, many of whom have relatives in distant parts of the former Soviet empire. But the Trans-Siberian remains the lifeline that connects the disparate communities of the world's largest country, and rail travel is still a momentous event.

It is at its most atmospheric early on a winter's morning, when the Moscow train leaves Novosibirsk, the city bang in the middle of the Russian rail network. It is an absurdly vivid lime-green station, a vast Clapham Junction at the heart of a huge train set. As the express prepares to draw out, the train doors slam shut and slow ceremonial music is piped over the public address system, adding pathos to the farewells of families and friends, shivering in temperatures of minus 30C.

Living in Novosibirsk, where I spent two years, does strange things to your perception. From thinking of Inverness- to-London as a long journey, my notion of distance has stretched to the horizon and beyond. While my sister was visiting, we thought nothing of the 30-hour haul to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. But you can get too cavalier; during a 25-minute stop in Kutulik, my sister and I crossed the tracks to photograph a newly restored Orthodox church. On returning to the train, our travelling companions Svetlana and Katya, warned that we could have been trapped on the other side. Mile-long freight trains often trundled slowly through stations, prevented passengers reaching the platform in time.

We sweltered through the trip in the second half of June. There was nothing you could do about the humidity except lie on the bunk and wait for the day to pass, or at least for a stop where you could buy ice-cream or other refreshments from the old women pressing their goods on us in each station.

Meanwhile, Svetlana was trying to keep us entertained, and making sure my sister learnt as much as possible during her short visit, telling stories, pointing out landmarks and explaining how her grandfather had been deported from the Volga region in the late Twenties. Later, she sang bitter-sweet folk songs. We felt the carriage settle down to listen.

As may be expected, alcohol plays its part in long journeys, easing communication between strangers and fuelling anekdoty, humorous stories told to while away the hours. These become increasingly complicated and provoke most mirth in proportion to how much the speaker has drunk. Russians joke about almost everything, from politicians to foreigners, by way of the Chukchi (an indigenous group who are the butt of many a Siberian joke). Apart from my would-be fiance, drunken singing and being woken up once by the noise of crashing glasses and empty bottles, the darker side of alcohol consumption was fortunately not apparent.

Night-time could go one of two ways, depending on the age of travellers and, the length of the trip. On longer journeys, a code of etiquette sends men out to the corridors for a smoke while the women change, and then everyone settles down for the night. On shorter trips, things can be livelier. The marriage proposal came during an overnight trip on the Red Arrow, which runs on the Moscow-to-St-Petersburg route.

En route from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk, I met Tatyana, a 47-year-old former civil servant whose conversation alternated between a desire to impress and a staunchly defensive view of pre-perestroika days, when "life was less of a constant struggle".Tatyana had become a chelnok, travelling to Moscow, Ukraine and even Turkey to buy cheap goods (mostly clothes), which she transported in striped hessian bags and then resold in Krasnoyarsk. She was proud to tell me about her city, and how important it was to visit the stolby, human-shaped rocks on the banks of the Yenisey river. Krasnoyarsk had been closed to Westerners for many years, and we enjoyed discussing the ramifications of all the huge changes that were taking place there.

For many years, train travel was considerably more expensive for foreigners, but a couple of friends had a plan for a jaunt to the West (well, to Belarus, at least): I would travel on a third-class Russian ticket, as the quiet sister in a family group. I began to have doubts in Minsk, as, heart in mouth, I had to see off a conductor by rummaging through my bags as though searching for my passport, while my "brother" and "sister-in-law" tried to stay calm.

Eventually, the conductor checking our tickets, did get tired of waiting and he let us all board. Just as well, or I'd have been explaining the absence of a Belorussian visa. The relief was short-lived, however: third class was very hot, very smelly, and very noisy. Next time we spent the extra money.

If you're new to this vast country, there are a few top tips you should know. Try to learn a few Russian words and phrases before you go. At the very least master the Cyrillic alphabet, so you don't get off at Omsk when your destination is Tomsk. When it comes to vital equipment, pack ear plugs - the trains are noisy places. And bring a strong stomach for the toilets, together with your own toilet paper and soap.

Plan ahead for food. Dried noodles or soup are ideal for quick meals, and boiling water is always available at the end of the carriage. Be wary of the sausages and chicken sold on the platforms. Tomatoes and cucumber - which you should wash - and bread are a better bet.

Dress code is extremely casual: Russians don't travel in smart clothes (track suits for the men, simple shift dresses for women). But be prepared for extremes of temperature. When it comes to sleeping arrangements, be prepared to pay for bed linen (a sheet sleeping bag, pillow case and towel), rented out by the carriage minder shortly after the train leaves. Solo female travellers may feel safer booking a bunk in a four-bedded rather than a two-bedded compartment - safety in numbers.

My strongest memories of Russian trains are of juxtapositions. Snow and dark landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see; graveyards marked by blue fences, birch forests mixed with darker conifers; three army officers who quizzed me about property prices in the UK, yet were all politely reluctant to discuss any aspect of their own lives.

One minute I'm sitting alone in a compartment, proudly working my way through a Russian classic or - let's be honest - watching the telegraph poles flying past in a never-ending line that dissects and connects this vast land; the next I'm fending off questions from a middle-aged couple who simply cannot understand why I would want to come and work in their country, but are nonetheless more than happy to share their boiled eggs and black tea with me.

The train goes over a level crossing where a woman waves us past with a red-and-white stick, then goes back to sweeping the track. I lean out of the window to watch the rest of the train snaking along behind, and wonder when I'll have the good fortune to enjoy this particular slice of Russian life again.

THE EASIEST way to tackle the Trans-Siberian is to consult a specialist such as Interchange Travel (0181-681 3612), Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) or The Russia Experience (0181-566 8846). They will fix everything, from connection flights or trains to Moscow to en-route accommodation and visas.

Expect to pay around pounds 500 for the Moscow-Vladivostok haul, though you may be able to take advantage of a ripple in pricing by buying a Moscow- Vladivostok-Harbin (China) ticket for a couple of hundred pounds less, but not taking the last part of the journey.

The current exchange rate is a precise 10 roubles to pounds 1; although President Yeltsin yesterday vowed to not to devalue, you probably shouldn't change too much at once. Automatic teller machines, accepting UK bank cards, are pleasingly common.

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