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August 16, 2018, Siberia

Journey into the Sleeping Land

Life slows down on the Trans-Siberian Railway, John S. Hamalian discovers

John S. Hamalian

SIBERIA. The mere utterance conjures up adventure, mystery and wonder. I imagine boundless hinterlands, wide open and serene.

This Sleeping Land, as the indigenous people called it, is one of the last great wildernesses on Earth.

The best way to experience the region is on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The over 100-year-old line covers 9,289km across Russia and spans eight time zones. The full Moscow-Vladivostok route takes around seven days to complete with no stopovers.

Our trip began in Vladivostok. We would be travelling 4,104km westward to Irkutsk.

Old-world charm

The minute we boarded the train, I felt teleported into a world of movies featuring vintage trains: the Harry Potter series, Murder On The Orient Express, or the James Bond feature From Russia With Love.

The carriages are newer, but the style is classic and quaint, with chrome accents, dainty curtains and an antique feel.

Our first-class compartment had two beds and a small table in between.

The steadfastly dependable provodnitsa (part conductor, part server and part housekeeper) assists with any needs you may have. These stalwarts of the train act as “security”, tidy up, provide hot light meals such as pirozhki (local stuffed buns) and even prepare tea upon request.

The dining car is modest and charming – with bright trim, red adornments and simple cushions, it looks and feels like an old 1950s diner. After exploring the whole train, we tucked into our modest bunks, slowly lulled to sleep by the rhythmic clinking of wheels against track. With one final “toot” of the old-fashioned horn, we were fast asleep.

Pleasant sojourn on the Amur

We woke up anxious to explore Khabarovsk, a city 766km from Vladivostok with well over half a million people.

“Welcome to Siberia!” our guide Igor bellowed out to us in a raspy voice when we met him at the classically designed Khabarovsk Train Station.

First up was a scrumptious Russian-style breakfast at a local eatery of kasha, or traditional rice milk porridge, and blini, crêpe-like wheat pancakes topped with sour cream or curd cheese.

Afterwards, we took a pleasant boat trip up the picturesque Amur River to Khabarovsk Bridge, an impressive double-decker design.

On a gentle bank overlooking the Amur, we beheld the brilliance of spring sunlight reflecting off the five massive golden onion domes capping the Transfiguration Cathedral, the third-largest Eastern Orthodox church in the world.

No visit to Khabarovsk would be complete without a relaxing stroll around Lenin Square, the second biggest plaza in Russia after Moscow’s Red Square.

Igor treated us to some kvass, a traditional fermented beverage made from rye bread, then said farewell with an old Soviet coin gift and a big Russian bear hug.

Life on board

In our carriage, the atmosphere was neighbourly, each cabin a gateway to folks from all walks of life. There was a Canadian lady, a retired assistant warden of a prison, who was travelling with her friend. We also met a Korean professor of Internet security, who was fulfilling a lifelong dream to ride the railway.

Around dinnertime, the otherwise quiet dining car transformed into a bustle of communal fun, and we were soon joined by a peppy soldier with non-European features on his smiling, tough-weathered face.

“Gombojab!” he exclaimed, pointing to his broad chest, covered in rumpled olive green fatigues. “Buryat!” he continued, but we understood nothing.

Finally, Gombojab drew us a map on a napkin. We figured out he was from Russia’s Buryatia Republic, whose people have their own culture and speak a Mongolic language; some still practise shamanism.

Although we could not comprehend one word between us, we still connected. Before he left, Gombojab pointed to his heart, then to mine, and grasped my hands with both of his, nodding at me sincerely. He was tough yet warm — a hardy, proud person who values trust and relationships.

I would come to realise that these are common traits among Russians.

Slowing down

Later, the car lay quiet again, and we had time to just sit and gaze. The glass between you and the vast wilderness outside is like a window into the mysteries of nature.

Here, the sun streams down, brilliantly reflecting off rivers, as brooks wind their way through forests, trees dance across the countryside, birds glide freely, and cloud puffs hover silently overhead, floating gently above the lush woodlands below.

In the settled areas, quaint towns emerge from the desolate terrain. Traditional Siberian wooden homes dot the countryside, skirted by brown wooden picket fences neatly arranged to form living yards of hay and feed.

Cows quietly graze in green pastures as horses water at sparkling streams. The houses are charming and cottage-like, right out of a child’s storybook of dreams, with soft plumes of smoke gently rising from their little red-brick chimneys.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is in no particular hurry, content with a slow, easy pace.

Distances between stations can be as much as 300km. During the longer stops, the train comes to a halt but life somehow gets re-energised. The stairs come down, workers do maintenance, staff have a smoke, lovers embrace and families reunite.

Babushkas (old ladies) sell street food outside: homemade dumplings, giant meat patties and pirozhki. Kiosks sell chak-chak — deep-fried dough balls drenched with hot honey — out of small holes in their plexiglass windows.

Time pauses, just for a few moments, then suddenly the odyssey continues once again.

Enchanting lake

After three more nights on board, we left the train at Irkutsk and headed to Lake Baikal, one of the highlights of Siberia.

Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake on Earth, holding 20 per cent of the planet’s fresh water. We took a boat ride along its placid waters, passing by the famous Shaman Mountain, which looks like a small rock but is actually the tip of a gigantic underground mountain below.

Such was the allure of Baikal, we decided to stay overnight. Our hotel in Listvyanka was a resort style wooden dwelling set in a quiet dale overlooking the lake.

Facing us was a wondrous scene out of a fairy tale.

Puffs of smoke performed a waltz in the gentle wind, as they seeped out of chimneys set atop cottages, while pine trees blanketed gentle slopes of the hills surrounding the valley. The air is clean and crisp, cool but not cold.

With invigorating air, silent tranquillity and the alpine waters of Lake Baikal, coming here is like resetting your metabolism, refreshing your outlook, restarting your life.

On our balcony, sitting in very comfortable armchairs, we rested peacefully amid the sweet, simple bliss of nature.

GUIDELINES

■ We flew on Singapore Airlines (SIA) to Seoul, then Siberian Air to Vladivostok. On the way back, we flew from Irkutsk to Bangkok on Siberian Air, then to Singapore on SIA.

■ The Trans-Siberian Railway takes seven days in its entirety, with no stopovers. There are three classes of travel: First has two beds per cabin, Second has four beds per cabin, and Third offers bunks in an open carriage.

■ Visas are required in advance for Singaporeans. It is best to go through a tour agent to arrange for the Visa Support Letter required to obtain the visa, but this can also be provided by a licensed hotel.

■ It is advisable to buy your roubles prior to entry into Russia.

■ Pack a few small carry-ons rather than one large suitcase for easier transiting on and off the train.

■ Learn some basic Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet, to be able to read signage.

■ Safe, boiled water is plentiful via the train’s samovar (bring a ceramic cup or thermos and your favourite drink mix) but bring plenty of snacks for the ride.

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