ON THE TRAIN
The border of Asia and Europe – that would be our first stop on the Trans-Siberian Express train. How long would it take to leave Europe behind and enter Asia at the border formed by the Ural Mountains?
Remember, at the end of Part 1, Kay and I were arriving at the railway station to begin our adventure to Siberia. We were going to board our train at the Yaroslavsky station, located on a big square (everything is big in Moscow!) that has three of Moscow’s nine train stations: the Leningradsky station which goes to St. Petersburg, the Kazansky station which heads to the south of Russia, and of course, the Yaroslavsky.
Luckily, I learned a bit of Russian during my college days; and even though my ability to understand and speak is really minimal, I can read and pronounce everything. I have to be careful because I often don’t know just what I’m reading out loud! But at least I was able to read the big green letters on the train station that spelled out Yaroslavsky. This wouldn’t be the only time that my ability to read Russian came in very handy as we traveled across Siberia into areas that sometimes had very little English.
I couldn’t believe it – one of my long-term dreams was coming true. I’d already been in Russia for a couple of months, and it was almost most more than I could take in – the luxurious palaces in St. Petersburg that were really over the top with gold leaf and fountains – the immense scale of Moscow with its ancient, gold-domed cathedrals mixed in between modern buildings, as well as its metro stations that Stalin had built as museums for the people.
Having grown up in the U.S. in the 50’s when most of us were warned about the dangers of communism, I would never have believed that the Kremlin had three cathedrals inside its walls or that I could ever stand on Red Square. By the way, the name of Red Square has nothing to do with communism – it’s just a coincidence that the ancient Russian word meaning ‘beautiful’ also meant ‘red.’
I’d been in love with Russia for as long as I could remember – the melancholy minor chords of Russian music, the psychological drama of Dostoyevsky, the exotic sound of the Russian accent – I’m sure it was the complete mystery of the country that intrigued me.
In addition to being able to read the sign on the Yaroslavsky train station, I actually already knew which was our train station because my tour groups came into the Leningradsky train station when we traveled to Moscow from St. Petersburg, and our local guide always pointed out the train station next door that went to Siberia. So of course, I always threatened my groups that I wanted to drop some of them at the Siberian train station so they could have a real Russian experience at one of the gulags!
Kay and I boarded the train to Ekaterinburg (sometimes spelled Yekaterinburg) late in the afternoon on Day 1 of our adventure. We had chosen to travel 2nd class which meant that the two of us would be sharing the four-person cabin with two strangers.
The compartment consisted of two single beds on each side – one lower and one upper bunk. In the middle was a table. First-class compartments were the same size and the same configuration, but limited to only two people.
When the train departed Moscow, Kay and I were the only ones in our 2nd-class cabin. We thought we were really lucky to end up with a cabin all to ourselves just like in 1st-class accommodations, but shortly after departing Moscow, we stopped on the outskirts, and a man and his son became our companions. Neither one spoke any English, but we enjoyed some communication with them using my minimal Russian ability as well as lots and lots of gestures. Luckily for us, they were very easy to travel with.
The ride from Moscow to Ekaterinburg was around 27-28 hours, so we spent one night and all of Day 2 on the train. Overall, it was a typical day on a long train ride. Outside the window, we saw a lot of trees and passed lots of small villages. We spent some time in the dining car and just generally lazed around. That was just fine with me since I’d been working non-stop for the previous several weeks leading tours.
We arrived in Ekaterinburg the evening of Day 2 and spent the following two nights in a homestay with Elena, our homestay hostess and a professor of French and English at the University of Ekaterinburg. I don’t know about her French, but her English was great, so communication was a breeze.
At a homestay, the host/hostess is responsible for providing a place to sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner. The guests then find their own lunch and do sightseeing on their own during the day.
For our full day in Ekaterinburg, we had arranged through Monkey Business a couple of excursions: a guided tour of the city and a visit to the Asia/Europe border and the nearby monastery that was built recently in honor of the Romanovs. Ekaterinburg is a very industrial city, but is also famous as the place where the Romanovs were exiled, killed, and then dumped down a mine shaft.
But even more important than our sightseeing was what I was beginning to learn about life in Russia.
One of the important characteristics in Russian cities is that it is common for apartments to be very, very small. Before I arrived in Russia, I’d heard about communal apartments, but thankfully, there are not many left. I suppose I had previously assumed that communal apartments were the result of a diabolical plot by the Soviet government to restrict its people, but it’s interesting to note that communal apartments actually came about because of the government’s attempt to solve the housing shortage in urban areas that resulted from a huge shift in the population from the countryside to the cities. Mansions were taken over by the government and divided up in order to increase the amount of housing for citizens.
Today, apartments are generally described as a 1-room apartment, a 2-room apartment, etc. That description does not include the kitchen or bathroom, so a 1-room apartment has one room plus a kitchen and a bathroom. One-room apartments can house a complete middle class family.
For example, I have friends in Russia (husband, wife, and daughter) who live in a 1-room apartment. Their one room functions as living room, dining room, and bedroom. They have set up one corner with a computer for the husband, one corner for the daughter and her school things, and one corner for the wife and her things . Their kitchen is so small that I can stand in it with my arms spread out and touch the opposite walls.
Since rooms have various functions, you can imagine how important it is for furniture to be versatile. Chairs change into single beds. Sofas change into double beds. And that’s just how it was at our homestay in Ekaterinburg.
In order to be accepted as a homestay, there must be a separate room for guests, so the smallest possible homestay is a 2-room apartment, which is just what our homestay hostess Elena had. So her two rooms consisted of a living room and a separate bedroom, plus a kitchen and bathroom.
Her living room was where Kay and I would sleep. We changed the furniture changed into two beds at night – and then back into sofa and chair in the morning. In addition, Elena’s kitchen was larger than my friend’s kitchen – it was large enough for a small table where we ate breakfast and dinner.
I was just beginning to broaden my understanding of what life in middle class Russia was like – obviously, very different from my middle class upbringing in the U.S. In Part 3, I’ll share more of the surprises that awaited me on the rest of my adventure in Siberia.
About the author:
Kate is a seasoned traveler and tour director who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. Although she continues working as a tour director in many countries of the world, she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her three Dalmatians. You can visit her at KateBenzin, at her blog Traveling Forever, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.