The journey from Moscow to Irkutsk (which we did on the No. 20 Moscow-Beijing train) covers 5153km in three days. Even on the second-longest day of the year it is dark when the train arrives at Platform one of Yaroslavl station in Moscow. As it pulls in, lights blinding, the tour group that will help create the soundtrack of our journey flocks onto the platform. This group, primarily German pensioners, will laugh, joke and snore throughout the 5153km, and will shape the experience even though we keep our distance and observe them from our compartment a few doors down.
We get on the train after the tourist group, and are followed by our cabin mate as well as four Russian soldiers. Once we find our bunks, we put our bags in the under-bed storage and then leave for a while, hovering around the toilet to give our cabin mate space to get organised. When she returns to the platform to say some goodbyes, we try to sort ourselves out.
The train is niftily designed. Under the bottom bunk there are two compartments for larger bags, then the seat folds down to hide everything. The headrests hide two shelves and a rail (for the hand-towel and similarly sized items) and then the beds, that make the back rest while in ‘seat mode’ fold down to reveal a mattress. Everything (somewhat) organised, we have our first conversation with Irina, our cabin-mate. She is from Chita, a few stops further along from Irkutsk, was formerly a teacher and is now a business woman, visiting her family in Moscow. The train lurches and begins its long journey. We store our kindles and journals which are still on the table and wait for the toilet queue to diminish, before quickly heading to bed. It’s nearly one a.m. and I am out like a light.
In the following days we settle into a quiet, fairly repetitive life. We sleep in, read, listen to podcasts, eat instant noodles, get off at stops to march around and take photographs of the train signs and old Russian locomotives. We watch the world go by, trees, bluebells, cottages, farms, trees, fields, trees, lake, trees. Midway through the day the train lulls us back into a sleep, and we nap for hours. When our room mate (who gets up around noon) is awake, we have conversations about our travels, about Europe and even Putin and politics. Usually, though, we stick to the less controversial topics like family, and I get to tell her how Luke and I met, so on and so forth.
Special excitement is reserved for the moments when we see cows, or when I spot a fox, and when, on our third day, we finally see some massive hills, rather than perpetual flatness. Stops on the platform are a welcome breath of fresh air, but the heat is oppressive, especially after the luxury of the air-conditioned train. It is surprisingly relaxing- the process of listening, sleeping, watching, and sitting as the world goes by. Cut off from to do lists and deadlines I relax for the first time in a long time. The only thing on my to-do list is repack my bag… and that deadline is days away…