Trans-Siberian Railway Parts III & IV: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg to Suzdal

The great thing about these two sections from our Trans-Siberian Railway journey is that we can laugh about them now that they’re over and done with.  Laughter was one of the last things on our mind during the four day long haul across Siberia, though.  Here’s why:

  • In a money-saving effort, we decided to book tickets in a platzkart carriage.  More details on this below.
  • Compounding the effects of the afore-mentioned decision to ride platzkart, we also decided to take the older, cheaper, slower train: Train 099.  More details on this below.
  • As a direct result of both of the above decisions, both Anna and I were battling varying levels of nausea and general queasiness the entire time.  By ‘entire time’, I mean roughly 80 hours.  Oof!

So, as I mentioned above, we were in a platzkart carriage.  Here’s what you need to know about platzkart.  It’s 3rd class.  It’s basically a carriage with 54 bunk beds crammed into it, each made for a person approximately 5’10” tall.  The bottom bunks have a nice view out the windows with space to sit up, whereas the top bunks really have neither, although you can catch a glimpse out the window if you really contort your body around.  On the old carriages, which we had for the 53 hours from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, there’s one bathroom for everybody, and there’s really no ventilation at all except when the train stops at a longer stop, which is just a few times every day.  And since we’re in Russia, everyone smokes for some reason.  All the time.  Now, the icing on this delicious Russian cake is that for some inexplicable reason, it is unreasonably hot all the time.  Despite the fact that it’s well below freezing outside.  This was a true 3rd class experience.

Our train left Irkutsk at 03:00, so we went to the train station around midnight and waited, psyching ourselves up for the unknowns we thought we were prepared to encounter.  Here are a few of the things we just didn’t anticipate:

  • The shirtless men curled up and sleeping in each of our berths (bunks) after we located them.  Thankfully the cranky provodnitsa (train attendant) woke them up and got them out of there.
  • The only other berths available in the area having everyone’s belongings all over them, including but not limited to assorted pots and pans, bags of food, and general luggage.
  • The number of travelers who were apparently bringing all their worldly belongings with them.
  • The incompatible cultural norms regarding personal space and general courteousness of the diverse train riders.

After the first night’s sauna session sleep, I decided to make some new friends, so I plopped myself down on some of the bottom bunks around me and made some feeble attempts at polite conversation with the help of the “Useful Russian” and “Useful Chinese” sections in the back of our guidebook.  It turns out people are plenty willing to try to get to know you and share things about themselves in ‘Angrusky‘ and ‘Mandarlish‘ if you show them a map of the rail system and some pictures from your travels.  I had a nice time getting to know a lady named Svetlana, a high school science teacher of 36 years, and her grandson Pavel.  Svetlana used her grandmotherly ways to convince me to wake up in the middle of the second night to help them move their belongings off the train at their stop.

I also got to know the large Chinese group on the train pretty well.  This process unofficially started when we got on the train; the two guys sleeping in our berths were part of this group.  However, this process officially started when someone in their group noticed me drinking some tea from my new mug, bought duty free at the China-Mongolia border.  They must have noticed the Chinese writing on the mug, because all of a sudden I looked up due to the sudden silence and noticed what seemed like 14 or 15 Chinese faces just staring at me.  Eventually, I was showing them pictures from my computer and trading coins with them, as well as showing them our arsenal of ramen noodle packets.

The views out the windows were actually very scenic and attractive.  Much of Siberia is exactly like what you’d picture it to be: a huge continent’s worth of beautiful taiga and grassland, or steppe as they call it here.  Like a huge, never-ending “Up North” for any of you midwesterners who happen to have read this far.  Beautiful stuff.

After 53 hours, including three nights and two days, we got off the train in Yekaterinburg feeling surprisingly exhausted.  This is the town where the Romanov family met their demise, so we checked out the memorial and cathedral built on the site where they were executed.  Mostly, though, we found places to eat some better food than we had been eating for a few days and to use some Internet.  Those places?  McDonalds and Sbarro.  Yes, we actually ate better food there than we had on the train.

Later in the afternoon we got back on a different train, this one much newer, for the remainder of our trip to Vladimir, where we took the bus to Suzdal.  This carriage had two bathrooms that seemed to be clean (score!), and a very friendly provodnik who enjoyed chatting with us, as well as a much better ventilation system.  The clientele was vastly different, as this train traveled between the university town of Tomsk and Moscow, so we were finally in the conditions we had expected the previous train to provide us.  Finally!

When we got to Suzdal, we spent a few days just calmly walking around this country village and taking in the sights, as well as getting our laundry washed.  We did a homestay with a lovely family who rents out their extra rooms.  Suzdal was an important city from the Golden Ring era of Russian history, and it has a very religious background.  Apparently at one point in the village’s history there was one church for every 12 of its citizens!  Many of them still exist today and they make for some amazing panoramic views of the village.  This was the perfect place to rest and recuperate from our Trans-Siberian journey.

Here are some pictures from this part of our trip.


Bonus content below from our time in Moscow as well.  We enjoyed Russia, but we are excited about our next phase of the trip.  Details to follow soon.  Here are some Moscow pictures.

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