The steppes in style

Mes­meris­ing land­scapes on the world’s long­est train jour­ney

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - MICHAEL KERR

Siberia comes as a shock. Read­ing and dream­ing has pre­pared me for a land in keep­ing with prison and political ex­ile; for cold and wind and per­mafrost. What I don’t ex­pect at the end of Au­gust is to be peel­ing off lay­ers and putting on a hat; to be walk­ing sta­tion plat­forms where petu­nias nod in a breeze; to be look­ing out a train win­dow over fields of sun­flow­ers.

In Irkutsk, which Chekhov thought “the Paris of Siberia”, we meet a cor­re­spond­ing warmth in the peo­ple. We stop just af­ter 6am at a plat­form for tourist trains by the An­gara River, and take a coach into town to snap wed­ding cou­ples by the boat-shaped Church of Our Saviour. We are re­turn­ing to the coach when the mother of one bride pulls half a dozen of us into her party. She puts tum­blers in our hands, nudges an em­bar­rassed best man to­wards us with a bot­tle of bub­bly, and bids us join in a toast to the bride and groom. Then she has them toast us.

The only place in Siberia where there is a real nip in the air is in my train com­part­ment, and that is only be­cause An­ton, the fresh-faced at­ten­dant, turns on the air­con­di­tion­ing full blast ev­ery time I step out­side. I’m sure he is try­ing to be help­ful. An­ton, as is true of all train staff, is noth­ing like the at­ten­dants Eric Newby en­coun­tered while writ­ing The Big Red Train Ride in 1977; those were at­ten­dants who, he found, re­buffed all re­quests as if they had been “trained to beat off packs of wolves”. And my train is noth­ing like Newby’s. He trav­elled the 9342km from Moscow to Vladi­vos­tok on ser­vice trains.

I am on the Golden Ea­gle Trans-Siberian Ex­press, a pri­vate train run by a Bri­tish com­pany that be­gan op­er­at­ing in Rus­sia in 1991, just be­fore the Soviet flag ceased fly­ing over the Krem­lin. With Golden Ea­gle you spin out the jour­ney to 12 nights, sight­see­ing at half a dozen places en route. Ev­ery com­part­ment has its own bath­room with shower, as well as air-con­di­tion­ing and a DVD player.

This year marks the cen­te­nary of the open­ing of a route run­ning wholly through Rus­sia (it orig­i­nally went through Manchuria as well). Most of my fel­low pas­sen­gers have cho­sen Golden Ea­gle be­cause they are of an age (late 60s on av­er­age) and in­come that makes them dis­in­clined to join queues for a loo or a shower or spend the small hours down­ing vodka toasts with Rus­sian squad­dies. One Bri­tish cou­ple, a re­tired se­nior po­lice offi- cer (who does en­joy his vodka) and a mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor, have paid for a fab­u­lously ex­pen­sive Im­pe­rial Suite, which gives them a king­size bed and pri­vate guide and tour­ing car.

Among the 70-plus pas­sen­gers are two size­able groups — one from Bri­tain, the other from Brazil — plus half a dozen Amer­i­cans, a fam­ily of Is­raelis, two Ar­gen­tini­ans and five Aus­tralians. Maria (65) and Zuly (75), the jolly Ar­gen­tini­ans, step off in run­ning kits and do laps of the plat­forms.

Our proper tour­ing stops are at Kazan, Yeka­ter­in­burg, Novosi­birsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan-Ude and, on a day’s di­ver­sion to Mon­go­lia, Ulaan­baatar, a city with yurts in the shadow of sky­scrapers. An hour from UlanUde, cap­i­tal of the Buryat au­ton­o­mous re­pub­lic, we visit a town es­tab­lished by the Old Be­liev­ers, a splin­ter group of the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church whose mem­bers were per­se­cuted in the 17th cen­tury by a re­formist pa­tri­arch (for con­tin­u­ing to bless them­selves with two fin­gers rather than three) and last cen­tury by the Bol­she­viks (for be­liev­ing in a god other than Marx).

The head of their com­mu­nity cen­tre, stout in both senses, puts our own jour­ney in per­spec­tive by telling us her an­ces­tors had walked for a year to get there.

Other stops be­come blurred in my mind, like the land­scape I look at through the train win­dow, which is not so much mem­o­rable as mes­meris­ing: the ranks of sil­ver birch, the steppes, run­ning away from the line as if they might go on for­ever. Who says we live in a shrink­ing world? The Trans-Siberian tells you oth­er­wise.

From Novosi­birsk we travel by coach 32km to Akadem­gorodok, a city of sci­en­tists in the Golden Val­ley of the River Ob. Olga, a ge­ol­o­gist as bub­bly as her blonde perm, lec­tures us on the re­gion’s min­eral wealth, a size­able mea­sure of which is in the rings on her fin­gers and the pen­dant around her neck. Could we guess what name had been given to Siberia’s largest di­a­mond, which weighed 342.5 carats? No we could not. The di­a­mond was called “Twenty-Sixth Congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union”.

Some of Olga’s coun­ter­parts on our ex­cur­sions make sim­i­lar jokes about the way things used to be. One, hav­ing re­minded us what hap­pened un­der Stalin, goes on to

Golden Ea­gle Tran­sSiberian Ex­press at Lake Baikal, a steam­driven sec­tion of the jour­ney, top; the bar lounge car and pre­par­ing meals for pas­sen­gers, above; the town of Irkutsk, below

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