In my last two nights at the hostel, the room was full. There was a young Chinese couple, and two other Russian men. I didn’t interact with anyone other than Dasha except for formal greetings. Because of the hostel’s curfew rules, everyone was quiet after 11pm so I got enough sleep – after all my exertions each day I could have probably fallen asleep on a roller-coaster!
On Monday I was due to get the Trans-Siberian Express to Birobidzhan at 7pm, so I did not plan any adventures for earlier in the day. I had a lie in, a long breakfast (using up my food!), packed everything away, and made sure my tablet was fully charged. I had to clear my bed-space so they could get it ready for the next set of guests, so I just lounged in what passed for the lounge area, listening to music until around 1 or 2pm, then decided to make a move.
Every time I walked towards downtown from the hostel, I had spotted between buildings, an American flag hanging from a flagpole protruding out from one building. But I had never walked directly past that building. Intrigued I went to investigate. It turned out to be the United States Consulate. Thinking this would be a good photo op, I went up to the door and took out my camera. Outside the front there was a little watch-hut, and a uniformed Russian man came out and told me “No pictures.” I was confused. It was just a building with a flag, for all he knew I could have been an American citizen with every right to enter the building. But he was very insistent. I asked if I could take a picture of him (as he was now a story for my blog). He wasn’t keen on that idea either. He indicated I should be on my way, so I left. At a certain safe distance, I turned around and took my picture!
The previous day there had been a news story about Russia retaliating against American sanctions by ordering 700 officials to leave so that there were the same number of American officials in Russia as there were Russians in America. This included staff at the Vladivostok Consulate. So perhaps tensions were high and the Russian guards were under instructions to minimise any potential negative publicity. Even so, it seemed a bit jobsworth to me.
I wandered down Svetlanskaya street again and came to the mall with my Indian restaurant. After a big breakfast I wasn’t quite hungry enough for another curry but when I looked at the menu, the picture and description of the tomato soup seemed very appealing, so I ordered that. I think it was the best tomato soup I have ever tasted! Warm and spicy and full of flavour, not too thick or thin, delicious croutons floating on top. Just what I needed! I then wanted something to drink, something nice, so I went to another cafe in the same mall which served home-made lemonade. The cafe was called Cobra Robra, and again, it was possibly the best lemonade I have ever tasted, served in a plastic cup with a lid but full of ice and pieces of lemon. Even after I finished the lemonade, as the ice melted I could take sips of a cool lemony drink over the next couple of hours!
It was another hot day, I took a final look at my favourite beach, checked out Yul Brynner again and then went to wait at the station. For some reason I had two seperate people ask me (in Russian) where they could get tickets, I just drew their attention to the “Kassir” sign pointing down one of the corridors. I may not know much about Russian culture, but I can call myself a seasoned traveller and navigating stations and airports is a universally applicable talent.
I still had a couple of hours so knowing I had a long journey ahead I went to find something to eat – I chose the fast food place again so that I could use the refill-option to top up my plastic cup now containing only pieces of lemon with more ice and cola! I also made sure I had plenty of snacks for the journey. Unlike with an airport, there was no limit to what I could carry onto the train so I was well provisioned.
I returned to the station and waited until the call for my train then headed for my platform. Intriguingly there was a sign there commemorating Ho Chi Minh – apparently he travelled through this station many times on state visits during the 20’s and 30’s. The plaque also mentions UNESCO, I should get it properly translated!
My train was waiting and it was very long! Some of the carriages were numbered, I knew I was on carriage number 2 so I had to walk right to the end of the train. I found my carriage but the door was shut, other people were also waiting. Eventually it opened and a man in the railway uniform started checking people’s tickets. There was quite a gap between the platform level and the train door, which made it quite difficult for people with lots of luggage. For me it was easy. The conductor scanned my ticket and told me my cabin number, and I hopped onto the train. The cabins were clearly numbered so I found it easily – two cushioned benches, hinged with storage room underneath, with two bed-racks above them.
Almost immediately I was joined by my cabin-mates – a family of three, husband and wife younger than me, and young girl of 7 or 8. They were polite but they didn’t speak any English. They made themselves at home in the cabin, as I was travelling light I just kept out of their way and stood in the corridor watching as the train pulled out of Vladivostok station.
We made our way up the peninsula past many beaches and parks and eventually began winding around the big bay at the top of the peninsula. My photos from the train window were not that great…
I returned to the cabin and sat down. The family were preparing dinner – basically packet noodles, with the hot water provided from the machine at the end of the railway carriage. In times past this used to be an actual samovar – a pot of boiling water used to make tea, but now it’s just a water-boiler.
The conductor came around and threw some bedsheets at us, one set each, bagged in plastic. There were already bedrolls sitting on the racks above us. Once they had finished dinner, the family set to work on the beds. They laid out sheets, put cases on the pillows, and the man pulled out a soft cage contraption which he attached to the bench and the rack above to form an enclosed section, presumably so his daughter couldn’t roll off the bench onto the floor.
I followed their lead – according to the place numbers, my bed was the rack above me, so I put down the sheet, pillow and blanket, and (with only a little difficulty) climbed up. There was storage space above the corridor and a hook to attach my bag. I couldn’t really see out of the window from my spot, but by now the sun had set and we were heading inland so there wasn’t so much to see.
I was happy just lying there listening to music – it wasn’t uncomfortable and the gentle motion of the train was strangely relaxing. The father climbed up onto the bunk opposite, the mother and daughter cuddled together in their little soft cage, and soon it was dark and we were all asleep. And that was how I spent most of the 15-hour journey.
By the time we woke up the train was approaching Khabarovsk, the second largest city in the East of Russia. This was where the family were getting off, so they packed everything away as industriously as they had set it up. I just stayed up on my bunk keeping out of their way. After they had gone to make their way to the door before the train stopped, it occurred to me there might be more people coming into the cabin, so I had better clear my own bedding away. Fortunately it didn’t take long.
We pulled into Khabarovsk. Indeed, I was joined by new cabin mates, this time a family of four. The father was a large man, probably a little older than me, and whatever age his wife was she dressed much younger. They had a teenage daughter, and another 7-year old. Unlike the previous family, the father had no hesitation in throwing the little girl onto the top bunk without any kind of safety net! The teenager took the seat next to me.
The mother spoke a little bit of English and through her the father asked if I could change cabins (he clearly had been assigned another cabin). I reassured them I was getting off at Birobidzhan which was more or less the next stop in a couple of hours. The father seemed happy with this and shortly afterwards disappeared, I never saw him again.
The teenager settled down with an ipod and disappeared under her hair. The younger girl and her mother were both napping. I decided to explore. There were people walking up and down the corridors so I latched on behind one group and went to see where they were going. You could move between carriages (though the doors were heavy and you didn’t feel very safe stepping through the little tunnels), and I walked up the train – almost all the cabin doors were open and a wide variety of people of all ages were sitting doing what people do to pass the time on long train journeys – talking, listening to music, reading books, eating, crossword puzzles, playing with toys, looking out the window…
Eventually I reached the restaurant car. I had a quick look at the food on offer, not really my kind of thing, and I wasn’t all that hungry. I’m not sure whether that was the front of the train or whether I could have squeezed past and walked a bit further up but I started worrying that the train would arrive at Birobidzhan and I’d be several carriages away from my bags. So I made my way back.
As it happened I had plenty of time, and the conductor came round to give us warnings when we were approaching our respective stations. The station at Birobidzhan barely even had what you would call a platform, I got off onto a piece of flat ground in the middle of the railway lines. But I could see the main station building and headed towards it, ready for my next adventure.