Rail aficionados, without exception, will tell you that there is only one rail journey that deserves the epithet ‘Greatest’ — the Trans-Siberian Railway. This is the railroad running from Vladivostok on the wild mountain slopes of the Pacific Coast of Asia to cold cosmopolitan Moscow. The journey is 9,289 kilometres, and apart from a few other rail pilgrims, the train is filled with locals.
My nine-year-old son Ishaan and I decided to do this journey by taking Train No 1 — The Rossiya. This is called a firmeny, which is like an express train in India.
We reached the Vlad Rail Station, typical of Russia — quiet, unassuming and efficient — at 5 pm, in anticipation of the scheduled departure at 7.10 pm.
An hour before departure, a diesel loco slowly dragged in the carriages of the Rossiya. One of them even had the map of the route helpfully painted on its side. We walked up to the engine, a red electric loco with a maximum speed of 140 kph. The engine driver poked his head out and introduced himself as Pyotr and we responded in our limited Russian. We were soon housed in Cabin 1 of Coach 7 with two caretakers, called prodsinitsas, in attendance.
At the scheduled time, the train left Vladivostok, which is perched on the mountains, that drop into a beautiful bay. The train took us up into the mountains and there were fewer habitations as we travelled. After a sound sleep we woke up only when the train stopped at Khabarovsk the next morning. Breakfast was caviar and salmon in the dining car. The train soon crossed the Amur, the first of the five great rivers we would cross.
As the day wore on, it wound its way through the eastern part of Russia called Primorsky and at nightfall reached Belogorsk, a military base. There is nothing for hundreds of miles around here. We were the only Indians on the train and enjoyed some spirited conversations on politics and Communism with the Russians.
This is the latest manifestation of the famous Trans-Siberian Express, now an exclusive and elegant first class sleeper train that goes from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.
Morning saw us in empty and bleak Yakutsk. The train thundered past tiny towns separated by miles of howling nothingness. We stopped at Erofey Pavlovich, where the temperature was -8 degrees Celsius and went past more snow-covered hills, with barren trees and nothing else, barring galloping wild horses.
The train reached Amazar in the midst of a blizzard, where we stepped out to take photographs in the freezing – 15 degree cold. This was May and hot Chennai seemed impossibly distant. A local grandmother in a makeshift stall on the platform sold us something that resembled a delicious fish dosa.
The great Russian river Lena was our companion for several hours till it became dark. The ancient town of Ulan Ude greeted us the following morning. Ulan Ude is also a modern-day railway junction. This is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, a part of the Russian Federation. Ishaan and I sampled a samsa here that resembled a large meat puff.
The glassy blue Lake Baikal soon appeared on the horizon, and after navigating the southern shores of the lake for about 250 kilometres, the train reached Irkutsk in the afternoon. Irkutsk is a large station, and it was a hot sunny afternoon with temperatures going as high as 30 degrees Celsius. Those wishing to visit Baikal, get down here.
Everything about the Baikal, like Russia, lends itself to superlatives. Deepest, cleanest, oldest… Created by the Amur Plate subsiding under the Eurasian Plate, the Baikal is fed by several rivers, the largest of which is the Selenga. One river, Angara, flows out.
We learnt that it is also a deeply spiritual place. People believe that Mother Earth came to rest here after Creation. On a map, Baikal does appear to be nestling in the mountain range called the Hamar-Daban, shaped like the palm of God. From the warmth of Irkutsk we headed back into the wilderness and Zima, where it was 3 degrees Celsius.
The third great river the train crossed was the Yenisei. We bought ourselves a pirozhok (stuffed bun) for lunch. By evening, we reached the stern and imposing-looking Novosibirsk station and crossed the river Ob.
Cold and beautiful Mariinsk went by, and as we watched, the scenery gradually changed. The train now raced across the taiga, large tracts of which were cleared for farming.
After a hot chocolate and a coffee the following morning, we got off at Tyumen and looked out for Yekaterinburg, where the train crosses over from Asiatic Russia into European Russia.
It was dinner at Perm and heavy snowfall the following morning, as we crossed the fifth of Russia’s great rivers, the Volga. Amazingly, the train was running on time. The question was would we keep up our punctuality all the way?
We were scheduled to arrive at Moscow at 10.40 am. At 10.37, the Rossiya pulled into the Yaroslavsky Station. The train had covered 9,289 kilometres and it was three minutes early!
Ishaan and I went to the front of the train to meet Pyotr, who was filling up some forms. To him, it was just another day in the office. To us, it was an unforgettable journey.