Trees, trees and more trees

Visiting the former USSR is not cheap but it is a challenge. Here, Martin Varley boards the Trans-Siberian Railway

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway is rather like going to a baseball game. Much of the time is spent languishing in idle contemplation, doing nothing but wait for something to happen. That is until the train pulls into a station, maybe in some remote outpost in the endless treescape which is Siberia. Then, in the same way that ending a baseball innings provokes a frenzy of consumables purchasing, so the whole train seems to dismount from the carriages to buy food. Not so much popcorn, ice-cream, burgers, fries and Pepsi, but an indigenous fare of a more wholesome variety: potatoes, fried fish, bread patties, milk and forest fruits.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is not all trees. Sometimes things happen: maybe the train crosses a river, or speeds through an isolated village. But on the whole your lot is trees, and there are plenty of them.

So what do you do for six days on a train between Vladivostock and Moscow? To begin with options seem endless. There are the initial joys of train travel: the possibility of an unexpected liaison, the exploration of exotic locations, the mental stimulation from unusual sights, even staring out of the window watching the vast taiga go by has an element of romance. However, after a couple of days, stagnant reality sharpens the soft-focus haze and Trans-Siberian lassitude sweeps through the train. Then, as Peter Fleming recalls in Travels in Tartary, "You sit down and read and read and read. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no temptations to get up and do something else; there is nothing else to do. You read like you've never read before."

By the end of the second day a strange thing happens. Your body and your watch tell you that it is time for bed and yet outside the light refuses to give way to night. The train is travelling west and so gains an hour whenever it crosses one of the seven time zones between Vladivostok and Moscow. With the train maintaining Moscow time, the passengers experiencing local time and your body still working in Vladivostok time you begin to feel a disturbing loss of context as time becomes distorted in the emptiness which is Siberia.

You are still time-independent when you wake the next morning. It is hot and you begin to feel the claustrophobia of three days on a train with nowhere to go. With such continued close proximity to personal and cultural strangers you are running out of behavioural tolerance and have to spend the morning staring out of the window watching the taiga, steering clear of people so as not to shout at them. Outside the compartment you can tell the people who got on in Vladivostok. They are the ones who were awake at 7.30am local time thinking that they had had a lie-in because it's 10.30am in Vladivostok.

They also look the roughest. Having boarded the train, they change into shellsuits, a gesture signalling that from then on they intend to make no further effort about personal appearance, but to allow themselves slowly to decay.

Periodically a barking babushka passes you on her morning rounds, selling refreshments from a squeaking trolley. She is a poorer version of her British Rail cousins, but her fare is remarkably familiar: Snickers bars, chocolate, Rich Tea biscuits and for those with roubles to spare and something to celebrate, like perhaps it being only one more stop before you can leave, champagne.

Novosibirsk is an important halt, you are halfway to Moscow. Now the scenery begins to change. There are still trees, this time aspen, birch and willow, but also an invasion of fields and roads. Bridges crisscross the track. Thescene has an English feel to it, reminiscent of Kent. But whereas Kent finishes at Sevenoaks and quietly becomes London, Siberia goes on and on. Five days and you are still there. The idea of the earth being flat must surely have originated here.

On the train lethargy is rife. No longer is there a queue for the window seats, instead, people stay in bed until midday, still in their clothes, then get up in time for a siesta, before having an early night. The exciting crossing of the taiga has left people travel weary. Just as you are almost asleep the train comes to a halt. Naturally it is the stop that everybody else in your compartment is getting off at, and they all get up and turn the lights on and seem to be trying not to wake you up while making as much noise as possible. So you turn over and make noises as if you're asleep so that they don't feel too bad. Then, once they get out and you are about to fall asleep again, the new people arrive in your compartment and they make as much noise trying to be really quiet as the people who just left. What's worse is that the nice quiet family, who you liked so much because they didn't try to talk to you but sat doing crosswords or sleeping, have just left. They are replaced by a much rougher looking trio who smell of smoke and drink, and look capable of cutting you up into small pieces and spending your money on beer. Finally, even they settle down and everything is quiet again. Then, as the train pulls away, you realise it is getting light outside, as if the day is cranking up again just so that you can't get back to sleep.

Eventually the train arrives in Moscow and for the first time you begin to think that perhaps you have not always been on the Trans-Siberian railway. It has been a long game but slowly the spectators pick up their belongings and head out on to the platform. You are ushered from your seat and the wrappers, papers and detritus of six days are swept clean ready for another innings. Outside the platform flows with expectant new travellers, clutching their tickets. For you time is out, but for them another journey is just beginning.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick