Stink robs Siberian express of its magic

World's longest ride is no joke when raw fish are on board, writes Phil Reeves

It is hot, and getting hotter. The air is as thick and clinging as the snug in a crowded British pub on a Sunday lunchtime. And it smells.

The four of us in this tiny compartment know why. Nikolai, one of our company, has a supply of raw fish wrapped in newspaper under his bed.

Half an hour ago, not for the first time, he dug out a couple, gutted them on a cloth on his bed and, with the air of a cordon bleu chef preparing a particularly special dish, chopped them up for us to eat.

He is a genial, middle-aged man, with the fixed smile of a cat and a shiny blue shell suit that would stand out on the Strip in Las Vegas. For the last two days, as our train sidled slowly across the contours of Russia's stomach, he has regaled us with stories about his life as a factory official in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia. But the fish is a problem.

We have heard about how he once shot, and ate, a bear in the forest, and later went hunting for wild boar. He has described fishing through the ice that each winter covers nearby Lake Baikal to such depths that, during the 1904 war with Japan, the Russians laid a railway across its frozen girth and shunted equipment back and forth.

The track hooks around its southern shores, so several days ago we saw the lake for ourselves, a vast grey-blue sheen, the size of Belgium. The guide book overflowed with statistics: it's 400 miles long (large enough to have storms which never reach its shores), 50 million years old (ancient enough for 1,500 endemic species), more than a mile deep, repository of a fifth of the world's fresh water supply and its own species of seal, the nerpa.

But these figures, and the lake's hazy beauty, have been jogged to the back drawers of the memory by the slow lollop of the last 1,400 miles. Only one detail looms large: it was there, during a brief stop in a small settlement on the lake's shore, that Nikolai bought his food supplies. Baikal is the only place on the planet where you can find the golomyanka fish, which dissolves into an oily blob when brought to the surface. Unfortunately, Nikolai bought "omul". They have remained intact.

There is no point in complaining about the stench to Marina, the bored-looking peroxide-haired carriage attendant. The windows of our German-made carriage cannot be opened, as it is supposedly air- conditioned. Her principal task seems to be to hoover the carriage every 24 hours or so, usually when we are nodding off. Nor is there much evidence that she is on the ball; she has been spotted wandering the corridors in a long crimson dressing gown, well after day-break, with her locks in curlers.

But, then, no-one on the train seems to know the time. Small knots of people gather in the corridor to study a timetable on the wall, trying to relocate themselves in the surreal vacuum that has evolved since the train set off.

There is a clock showing Moscow time, but it doesn't help much; we are running late, and most of the passengers have started from a different point on the seven time zones through which the train passes on its 5778- mile journey from Moscow, across the Urals and Siberia, to Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan - the longest continuous rail journey in the world. Very few people seem to be travelling the whole way. For most, the calculations become too complicated to be worth the bother.

Outside, the "taiga", the endless forests of silver firs, cedars, birches and pines, has given way to the softer, flatter landscape of the far, Far East. Every now and then we pass a clutter of wooden bungalows, their mud lanes littered with the detritus of Soviet farming equipment.

It looks as old as the railway we are riding, which was inaugurated in 1891, under Tsar Alexander III. The faces of the few residents grower wider, testimony to the proximity of Mongolia and China. But neither these, nor the grey sky overhead, offer many clues. Nikolai is convinced it is Tuesday; I know it is Wednesday.

As we argue, Nikolai pours from a vodka bottle on the table. When I boarded in Irkutsk two days ago, I believed this warm, acidy liquid to be the real thing, until I discovered him topping it up from an unmarked plastic container in his luggage. "Medical spirit," he explained. "Now, I have got this neighbour, who loves hunting ..."

There is, of course, a great deal of drinking. The other day a group of Russian army officers, their bellies awash with booze, held a press- up contest with a young British civil servant during a station stop. The Briton, a tourist en route to Japan, later told me he had "lost" two days of the seven and a half day journey from Moscow.

But in an environment in which everyone shares everything, drinks are as hard to refuse as food. In the hope of avoiding another meal of fish (or sausage, of which Nikolai has an equally large, equally pungent, stock), I have produced a pot of Skippy peanut butter. Neither Nikolai, nor the two young female students who share our space, seem enthusiastic, but they sample it politely.

Russians, long used to cramped apartments, are good at this kind of collective living. Our four-berth second class compartment is only six feet wide and seven feet deep. But my companions move easily among themselves as if they were somewhere four times as large. When one of us is making up a bed, or changing clothes, the others automatically slip into the corridor, without exchanging a word. I am the only clumsy one. A couple of hours ago, a large pepperoni sausage fell from my bunk onto the head of one of the women.

Yet there are few places to which to escape these kinds of embarrassments. You can perch on the small, fold-down plastic seat in the corridor, although not without feeling foolish. You can also retreat to the restaurant car, although very few of the mostly Russian passengers on this train go there, not least because, for many, a plate of sinewy chicken and a beer costs the equivalent of a day's pay.

One visit was enough to discover that serving food was not high among the staff's priorities, although they were keen to sell the gas masks which they claimed to have been issued in the (unlikely) event of a gas attack by Chechen terrorists. The rate was six dollars, a strikingly better bargain than the $20 that one carriage attendant wanted to charge a tourist for his metal tea-cup holder, or the $10 he wanted for attaching a shower nozzle to the tap in the grubby wagon lavatory.

The restaurant car is the fiefdom of Mikhail and Sasha who, when they are not selling huge quantities of liquor to villagers at each station, wait for foreigners like me to wander in to relieve the boredom.

"Are you English?" demanded Mikhail. "What happened to your football team?" he said, before, somewhat contradictorily, reenacting Gazza's goal against Scotland in the space between the empty tables.

"Why is England good at nothing these days? You haven't got a number- one skier, tennis player, skater, ice-hockey player, boxer. Name one!"

There was a pause, and his mind turned anew to business. "Would you like me to find you a woman?" As the Russians say, "Para iti": time to get back to Nikolai's fish.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star