Published On: Wed, Aug 22nd, 2018

The Great Train Journey – part one

Hilbert Haar - foto Milton PietersBy Hilbert Haar

This is how it began on a Sunday morning in Moscow. We took a taxi to the Kazanskaia station; that was already quite a little trip through town, but it only set us back 300 roubles, roughly $4.50.

While I am sitting on a little wall, waiting for our train to Irkutsk to arrive, three big guys come near me. One of them has an awkward body position. He leans completely backward, most likely to compensate for the huge bulk he is carrying in front – one of the size that makes Toontje Buncamper look like Twiggy, the now 68-year old British model who made the anorexia-look popular in the late sixties.

Then he asks me to move a bit so that he can sit on the wall too. I oblige and the next thing I know, the fat guy plonks down and immediately topples over backwards; guess he had the wrong idea about his own tipping point. Thankfully he did not bang his huge head on the concrete, thus sparing me the experience of a Russian dying in front of my eyes.

That’s about the most exciting event at the start of our train journey to Irkutsk, a distance of 5,196 kilometers that will take us several days.

We share a cabin on board with an elderly Russian lady called Larissa, who travels to Omsk to take care of her bedridden sister and a young woman called Victoria who soon gets lost in her smart phone and never says a word again until she gets off the train somewhere down the road. We all have a bunk bed in the cabin and a small table in front of the window. It’s tight, but after organizing our stuff, and working up a sweat in the process, it is actually quite okay.

A stewardess brings everyone a set of sheets and then we glide out of Moscow.

If staring at a gazillion birch trees is your idea of fun, you should definitely book this train trip. But the real experience is not outside, it is inside the train, though later on we get a view of rivers, endless fields and villages and small towns that seem to have been dropped at random in the middle of nowhere.

Each train wagon has a tiny toilet equipped with an evenly tiny wash basin and a mirror. That’s all we were going to get for our basic hygienic needs. It’s not only cramped, at times it’s pretty dirty too.

In the evening we head for the carriage that holds the restaurant on wheels. We cross several other wagons and quickly realize that some people travel in more comfort than others. Two carriages – popularly known as the cattle train – hold passengers who have nothing more than a bunk bed at their disposal. Rows after rows; it’s hot in there, it stinks and most passengers look pretty miserable. It’s like crossing field hospital crammed with wounded soldiers.

In the diner we come across Ivan, a young Russian with an apparent excessive love for beer. He tells us that he lives in Omsk and that he works in Moscow. He travels to Moscow to work for 30 days, and then returns home for 15 days. And so on. A lot of fun for the 30,000 roubles (around $450) he makes per month.

Beer-loving Ivan from Omsk on the train - 20180817 HH

I don’t know how many hours he has to work, but the stores in Moscow open at 9 and close at midnight. Most staff work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. We meet an accountant who works for Deloitte where his starting salary as an intern was 1,100 euros. Now, after four promotions, he earns 900 euros per month. At a rate of 1.15 to the dollar, that translates into $956.50 and $782.60 respectively; and that for a guy who travels all over Russia, and at times abroad, to visit his company’s clients.

Lemme think about this for a bit. The minimum wage in St. Maarten is, if I remember correctly, 8.83 guilders per hour – that’s about $4.90. So a 40-hour work week earns you $196 per week, or $849.33 per month. And mind you, that is the minimum wage.

Russian fries - 20180817 HH

The best part of the food available on the train is the beer. For vegetarians the choices are limited to practically zero. Myriam orders potatoes with mushrooms; I go for the fried potatoes. Myriam finds three mushrooms in her dish. My potatoes – the Russian variety of French fries – is greasy; if I weren’t so hungry, it would have been funny.

The railway service provides each passenger with a mattress, a pillow and a set of sheets. All with good intentions, I’m sure, but during the night I quickly find out that that mattress sucks. I turn and twist and it takes hours before I finally drift off, only to wake up when the train stops in the middle of the night at the next station. Between Moscow and Irkutsk there are around fifty train stations.

Two cheese sandwiches - 20180817 HH

The next morning we go for breakfast; also a peculiar experience. When we order two sandwiches with butter and cheese – about the only choice for us vegetarians – the waitress arrives with a small plate that holds one slice of white bread, cut diagonally in two pieces; on each half of the bread are two tiny pieces of (lovely) cheese. In between are two lumps of fresh butter. When Myriam points out that we ordered two sandwiches, the waitress said that this are two sandwiches; nothing else to do than placing a second order. I guess we won’t gain a lot of weight during this trip.

To be continued…

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Photo caption: With beer-loving Ivan from Omsk on the train. Ivan seems to enjoy this the most. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Fried potatoes Russian style – greasy but filling. Photo Hilbert Haar.

Photo caption: Yep, that’s actually TWO cheese sandwiches according to the Russian railway services. Photo Hilbert Haar.

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The great train journey – part two
Homeless by choice