Saturday, 1 September 2012

Shanghai to London Part 8

Irkutsk- Tyumen (Ural Mountains)

The day before our departure from Irkutsk  a 3PIP and TEM18D are seen at
Irkutsk station in beautiful sunshine. There had been some overnight snowfall
(apparently unusual for the time of year) presenting a wonderful Siberian railway image.

Train No.1 the 'Rossiya' part way
through it's 7 day journey from
Vladivostock to Moscow 
We arrive at Irkutsk station with plenty of time to spare for our train to Moscow. As we wait I am pleased to see a freight train approaching- there is an avoiding line around Irkutsk so the amount of freight which can be seen from the station is limited. The train turns out to be hauled by a triple electric, it’s cargo is a long line of tank wagons. This distraction aside it is time to board our train, No.1, The ‘Rossiya’. On an adjacent platform is another slower train to Moscow which will depart in front of us.
A triple VL80 formation heads a long freight through Irkutsk

The ‘Roissya’ is one of the most prestigious trains on the Russian network (Higher quality trains have lower numbers) and as such is classed as a ‘firemany’ train. As soon as we step on board it is obvious that this train is of a slightly higher quality than those we have ridden previously. For starters the coaches are newer and feature electric operated doors between them. Inside our compartment there are individual reading lights and sockets for a music system. We even have a power socket and a television- all the channels are in Russian of course! The beds are better too- quite the most comfortable we have seen yet with a mattress which folds down on top of the seats.

We are once again travelling ‘Kupe’ in a 4 bed compartment and it is not long before we meet our cabin mates who will accompany us to Moscow. Andre, from Russia is already on board the train and Oleg, a Ukrainian joins at the next stop. We finally seem to have escaped the tourists and have gained some more local company.

EP1 140 will haul the Rossiya away from Irkutsk.
Note the many parcel vans at the front of the train.
Some stereotypes are true- and we quickly discover that the Russians drinking Vodka is one of these. It only takes one look at my friend Simon’s beer for the ‘superior’ drink to be produced. It would be rude to refuse the Vodka, which is drunk straight, so we oblige and the tone for the evening is set. While the shots are not small the Russians are quick to make sure that the Vodka is not sent down to an empty stomach- after each round some food is offered around the table, be it bread, meat, cheese or frankly anything else from our food bags.

The Vodka drinking has begun and Simon has relinquished
his Manchester United football shirt!
The drinking is interrupted by dinner, which is most welcome. Given the length of this journey (3 days and 3 nights) we have paid for meals on the train, although exactly what this entitles us to is unclear. Plastic food containers arrive at the door and we enjoy our basic rice and soup which is pleasant enough. After dinner the drinking continues, although we are joined by the Australians who shared our cabin on the previous train (this time they are staying in a private 2 bed cabin).

Several bottles of Vodka later and we are still struggling with the language barrier, but Simon has successfully managed to swap his Manchester United football shirt with Olag who has sacrificed his much larger corporate polo shirt in exchange!

Endless Birch woodland- a view I would get used to!
We are woken earlier than I would choose the following morning- though the exact time is difficult to know due to the constantly changing time zones. The trains runs to Moscow time, which was 5 hours ahead when we boarded in Irkutsk, but now nobody [who speaks English at least] seems to know what the local time is. The Russians put our reluctance to get out of bed down to the Vodka- the fact that I have not had an awful lot of sleep overnight due to being on a train seems lost on them. Either way the morning is greeted with- yes, you guessed it- more Vodka. Having done my morning shot it is time to brush my teeth!

Our Russian friends have truly come prepared. In addition to the numerous bottles of Vodka they carry the also put out a decent spread for breakfast including bread, cheese, hard boiled eggs and pickled gherkins- for those who are that way inclined.

EPIP- 044 takes charge of the train at Krasnoyask.
There is plenty going on around the station. A single
unit VL60 is seen shunting from the  stabling point.
The morning passes slowly and the landscape has become less interesting. The endless Birch woodland is occasionally broken up by small villages and a steady flow of freight trains in the opposite direction. For something to do I start to count the number of wagons on the passing trains, regularly getting into the high sixties. These are long trains and the use of double, sometimes even triple, locos certainly seems justified. Around lunchtime we come to our first major stop (though there were some overnight) at Krasnoyask. The opportunity to stretch our legs is welcome and I am also able to get some photos during our 25 minute stop. Traction on our train changed overnight and now a blue EPIP loco is in charge of the train. The station is a hive of activity with several locos pottering around as well as another plinthed steam locomotive. There is also just time to head into the station to acquire some food- this process is complicated by the fact that all the vending kiosks require the customer to ask for the product which the attendant will then deliver through a small window. Very simple when you speak Russian, very difficult when you don’t!
The sun has finally stopped following us by Marinsk
where a new  locomotive in the form of EP2K-092
takes over the train.

Back on the train lunch is delivered to our compartment- once again in plastic trays- I have also decided that it is about time to reduce my Vodka intake, so I begin to dismiss every other round- this appears to be acceptable. With lunch over the weather begins to deteriate and with nothing better to do all agree it is time for an afternoon nap. We awake before our second stop of the day at Marinsk. In the dull weather our locomotive is changed once again, this time to a large red EP2K electric.

Later on as evening begins it is time to get social again, which does, of course, produce another bottle of Vodka from the seemingly endless supply. Unlike the previous night we actually have a reason to celebrate (and to drink) today- it is Simon’s Birthday and nobody is about to allow the evening to pass without it being memorable! Our drinking friends decide it will be a good idea to make a list of the Vodka we have drunk, so this is began in the back of my notebook- as the evening wears on the list would worryingly expand! We are not served an evening meal on the train, but between our party we have a wide assortment of snacks, including a Swiss Roll which will have to make do as a Birthday cake. The snacks area important as they will be our ‘Zakuska’, the food which we shall eat between our Vodka shots. This is very important as it will hopefully keep us sitting upright and also today it will be our dinner. Olag explains the all important chain of events- ‘Vodka, Zakuska, Vodka, Zakuska...’ and so on. We are soon joined by our Australian friends- Gavin and Catherine and the party really gets going. Before we know it the laptops have come out, the music is playing and everyone joins in a colourful debate on the quality of Russian pop music. We eventually settle into some Bon Jovi- ‘It’s my life’ Oleg tells us while gesturing to the Vodka bottle.
Sunset on the Trans Siberian.
We get something of a lie-in the following morning and deserved it is too- it must have been well gone midnight when we eventually went to bed and the Vodka list reveals that the past 36 hours have seen a total of 11 bottles consumed, largely between the four of us in our compartment. It is no surprise that Simon is nursing a sore head- though I appear to have survived in a somewhat better condition. Maybe the Vodka likes me- or maybe I just drank less!?
A TEM18DM shunts at Tyumen station while Skoda built
electric CHS2 awaits departure with a parcels train.

The morning passes without much event and we managed to survive until lunch before half a glass of Vodka manifests itself next to our plastic encased meal. The train pauses at Ishin in the morning and later on at Tyumen- at which point we officially exit Siberia and enter the Urals. This set of hill is not described favourably in the guide books- apparently they are not very high, not very interesting and a general disappointment! Certainly the landscape changes very little for the time being.

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