Lost in Siberia!

A first-hand experience by one of our readers, Archie Fraser*

The Trans-Siberian Railway goes from Moscow to Beijing

Follow the stressful and often hilarious adventures of a senior traveller who misses his train in Siberia, when buying a mug at a station stop, on his way from Moscow to Beijing. And to make matters worse, his wife was still on the train!

It all started with the “Bucket List”.

A train buff now in my seventies, I’d always wanted to travel on the  Monglian Express from Moscow to Beijing. Imagine my delight when my son provided tickets for my wife and I to fly to Moscow for a week’s tour. Then, to join the Mongolian Express, followed by a week in Beijing.

We had a great week touring Moscow. We then joined the train just after midnight.

We were booked 1st class, however, the 2-berth cabin was basic and dusty, due to the open coal-fired boiler at the end of the corridor. There was a shared shower and hand basin in the next compartment, which was quite grotty.

The Chinese carriage attendant provided grey looking sheets and two pillows, spoke no English and was fairly disinterested in both us and the other Europeans who were in the same carriage.

However, it was exciting to be underway and the negatives were soon forgotten. The next morning we went to the restaurant car. We were greeted by a surly individual who told us to wait. Eventually, we were given a Menu which had two Breakfast Options, we chose Option 2, to be advised only Option 1 was available – a form of porridge with melted butter.

The Omsk railway station in Siberia

We decided to buy some soup and noodles at the next train stop and were able to laugh off all the dramas and enjoy the scenery flowing past. We made a few short stops on the first day. The following day we did have the 2 Options for breakfast and ordered scrambled eggs, which tasted as if made from powdered eggs. I vowed to organise supplies at our next stop which was to be Omsk, Siberia.

The grumpy carriage attendant said we would be stopping “for fifty” minutes. I queried his statement which was difficult to understand and asked did you say 50 minutes?? I held up ‘five fingers’. The attendant nodded and walked away.

Omsk Station was a large, white, attractive looking domed structure. However, my wife decided to stay on the train. I told her I would take some photos of the engine and trains at the other platforms. Several people left the train and walked towards the station terminal. I walked the other way to the end of the platform to photograph the various Engines, including a really old Russian steam engine on display.

I walked back to the station terminal to buy some snacks and a couple of porcelain mugs for our ‘do it yourself ‘ dining. At the other end of the platform, which allowed an underground passage to the main station building, stood a security guard. I indicated that I would like to go to the main station building and he waved me on.

On entering the station, I discovered lots of small shops which I explored and eventually found some mugs. These I purchased. I checked the time and saw that I had been away for 20 minutes, “how the time fly’s when you are having fun”, I thought. I then set off through the underground passage back to the Mongolian Expresses’ platform.

Oh My Goodness! No no no NOOOO! The platform was empty!! Maybe it has moved to another platform I thought, then the reality struck home, the train has left without me. (I found out later that the scheduled stop at Omsk was 15 minutes not fifty).

All I had on my person was my wallet and (thank goodness) my passport. I also had a tablet with which I had been taking photographs. All of my other possessions were on the train with my wife. I stood stunned for a while and then slowly and sheepishly returned to the main station terminal. I had no phone and no train ticket.

First, I went to the information desk in the foyer and asked for help. “Nyet” was the response, then I was waved away. Next to the ticket counter. Also waved away. I wandered around the building asking if anyone spoke English. Nobody wanted to speak with me. No one spoke English!!

I eventually returned to the row of windows in the ticketing hall and just stood there refusing to leave before they could wave me away. What to do?? Should I start crying??

After about 30 minutes, a young lady suddenly appeared alongside and said in English “Can I Help You”. I was speechless, she was not wearing a name tag nor any kind of uniform. Who was she?

I explained my predicament and said I needed to get to Beijing. (I realised by then there was no way of catching up with the Mongolian Express.) She could not understand and assumed I wanted to return to Moscow.

By accident, I realised she knew of Peking but not Beijing. Eventually, things fell into place.

I asked her name, ‘Alina’ she said. Being an old geyser from the West, I was still a little dubious about her motives, especially when she asked if I had Russian money. However, she had a lovely smile and I had no alternative means of assistance. What could I lose?

After conferring with a supervisor in the ticket office, Alina took me to another part of the station building, where there were two female Siberian Airways representatives. They were most amused after talking to Alina and viewed me with interest. Through Alina, they explained that I could catch a plane from Krasnoyarsk to Beijing. I asked can I fly from here i.e. Omsk. The answer was Nyet!

The ticketing hall at Omsk station - photo Корчик Александр

I tried to pay for the air ticket by Visa, the card was not accepted by their machine.

“How much Russian money do you have?” they asked. I had about 26,000 Roubles. They took 17,000 Roubles and printed out my ticket. How do I get to Krasnoyarsk? I asked.

Alina took my arm and guided me back to the train ticketing area to meet another supervisor who listened to Alina as she explained my predicament.

Then after searching train timetables with the supervisor, Alina advised that I could catch a train from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk. When? I asked. Tomorrow afternoon she replied. The supervisor prepared the ticket and advised the cost as R.6,000. I explained that I had little local currency so she reluctantly accepted my Visa card.

I had visions of sitting on the platform for 18 hours. Alina laughed and took me by the arm to another part of the station, up several flights of stairs and down corridors, eventually arriving at a small reception area. She explained that I could get a room for the night. The receptionist would point me in the right direction the next afternoon for the train to Krasnoyarsk.

They had no single rooms but said I could have a double for 1200 Roubles.

By this time, I was emotionally drained and physically bushed. I took the key and was escorted by Alina, back downstairs and along corridors, via a dimly lighted environment, until we reached my room.

Alina smiled, wished me “happy dreams”, and waved goodbye. (I never saw Alina again.) I had a shower and then tried to contact my son using my tablet. The battery was low and I had no charger. All of my regular contacts were on my mobile (still with my wife on the train together with my medicines and Russian phrasebook.) The only email address I had on my tablet was my daughter- in- law based in London.

After several attempts, I got a message off saying I had missed the train at Omsk, asking her to get a message to my wife, saying I would meet her in Beijing.

A message came back. “Are you Joking??”

I tried to explore the station for a restaurant or café but was hampered by numerous locked doors and dead-end corridors. In the end, I found a stall and bought a large bottle of water and some pretzels.

The other problem I faced was that I could not read the information on either my train or airline tickets. (I still cannot read Cyrillic – i.e. Russian alphabet). This was worrying but the only solution I had was to fall into bed and wait for tomorrow.

The next morning was equally stressful as the hotel receptionist did not understand nor speak any English. I eventually discovered a snack bar in the station and bought a coffee and a kind of Russian sausage-roll.

It took me another forty minutes to find my way back to my room. Then, the long wait. Will the receptionist contact me when it is time to leave? Will she point out which platform the train leaves from? I decided to go back to reception a bit earlier, just-in-case. Maybe Alina would be there? When I arrived at the reception, clutching my bottle of water, pretzels and two mugs it was – oh no! – a different receptionist. She also spoke no English and nonchalantly waved me to sit down in the hotel’s foyer.

I was on tenterhooks for the next ninety minutes and the receptionist completely ignored me. I thought the train was to leave early afternoon. Oh my, what now?

Suddenly, just after 1 pm, an official-looking lady swept in and gestured for me to follow. She led me through the station and across to a platform, where a train was standing. She marched me up the platform to a carriage attendant, whose name badge said Alexandria.

She smiled and took the ticket I was holding. She then walked me into the carriage and showed me into a 4-berth sleeping compartment and left.

I chose a lower bunk and sat against the window. Shortly after a trim looking fellow came into the compartment smiled, and started taking off his clothes. He changed into some casual PJ’s and sat down. A few minutes later another man arrived and also started stripping off, leaving on his ‘shorts and singlet’. They both had luggage and baskets of food. (I subsequently found out that the train trip from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk would take at least 20 hours.!)

The Trans-Siberian train in Omsk station

Alexandria, the carriage attendant, soon returned with whiter than white, pristine bedsheets, pillowcases, and showed us how to access our mattresses from beneath our seats. Being a senior, the two Russians, who spoke little English, allowed me to have the lower bunk. Alexandria returned shortly with piping hot tea and coffee.

The Russians, watching me eating pretzels and drinking water for dinner, decided to offer me some of their food. We were able to use a bit of sign language and sounds and writing, the result of which was that I learnt their names Vadimk and Alexander and that they would be travelling on the train for 3-4 days to Irkutsk.
They knew of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee and shared their food: biscuits, ham, eggs and cheese etc for the rest of my journey. Alexandria, the carriage attendant, kept the tea and coffee flowing and also vacuumed the compartment after each meal.

The two Russians could not understand my predicament. I tried to explain that my wife was up ahead on the Trans-Mongolian and that I had missed the train at Omsk. They seemed happy to accept that I was travelling to Beijing/Peking with no luggage and no food! We talked about Putin and they thought he was no worse than previous Presidents/Dictators

My biggest anxiety was that I could not read any of the station names as we passed through and found it difficult to pronounce Krasnoyarsk let alone read it in Cyrillic.

I kept pointing to my Airline ticket (Alexandria the carriage attendant kept my train ticket) and pointing to my watch at every station at which we stopped. There were lots of “Nyet, Nyet.”

Then after approximately twenty hours, my Russian companions indicated that the next stop was Krasnoyarsk. Hurray! My next challenge was how to get to the airport. Just before we arrived at my stop, Alexandria appeared with a handheld digital translator. The screen message said, “do you know where to go?”

I shook my head and said “Nyet.” She returned my train ticket and when the train stopped she took my arm and led me out onto the platform, with Vadimk and Alexander following.

Alexandria spoke into a ‘walkie-talkie’. What now? I thought. Within minutes six policemen in full gear arrived. (Groan.)

Alexandria seemed to be arguing with them, eventually, she turned to me and said “Teksi”. The senior police officer pointed to one of his men. The nominated rather obese policeman gestured for me to follow. With some trepidation, I waved goodbye to Alexandria, Alexander and Vadimk. The surly policeman led me out of the station, through a marketplace and across two roads and pointed to a waiting taxi. Ah! “Teksi”. I thought

The policemen muttered something to the taxi driver who held up an R1000 and an R500 note. I nodded my head and jumped into the front seat. (I hoped that the taxi driver knew that I wanted the airport.) As we sped off, I decided to check my wallet where I had several notes including an R1000 and an R500. Imagine my dismay when I checked and found that my R1000 was, in fact, an R100 note!! What to do??

I gestured to the driver and gingerly held up my Visa card. He immediately swerved to the right and pointed for me to get out. My heart sank.

As I reluctantly got out, I saw the driver was gesticulating to a square concrete structure ahead on the footpath. It turned out to be a space housing a vending machine and an ATM. I tried without success to access the ATM: lots of confusing messages and pictures appeared on the screen. I was mindful that the taxi might just take off, leaving me stranded once more. Fortunately, a kindly lady entered and helped me navigate the machine, and I was able to withdraw R3000.

Joy of joys my taxi was still waiting. We headed off at great speed (at a guess close to 120 KPH). Hopefully towards the Airport. Who could tell? It was thirty to forty minutes before I recognised some airport signs on the side of the road. We eventually arrived at two small single-story buildings with no signage. The driver pointed to the far building and waved goodbye. I walked to the entrance and was pleased to see uniformed ladies alongside a security screening device.

I entered without any comment and headed for what looked like comfortable seating. But this is Russia. The seats were as hard as a park bench. Nevertheless, I was so pleased to make it this far. Just a flight away from Beijing.

The scenery from the train is forever changing - photo: xue siyang (df45086)

When we landed, we were not allowed to leave the plane and waited on board for three hours. With a new aircrew onboard, we once more set off for Beijing an estimated two hour flight. On arrival, I saw my name held high on a sign. I was met by representatives from my Beijing Hotel, who had been briefed by my son – who’d monitored the Siberian Airlines flight from Krasnoyarsk online. They helped me through security and having no luggage, quickly had me in a car back to the hotel.

At the hotel, I was met by half a dozen staff who welcomed me and escorted me to my room for a bath and rest. Unbeknown to me my daughter had arranged for the concierge to buy shorts, shirts and underwear which were waiting in my room. Good girl.

I had arrived at long last.

After bathing I returned to reception to formally register and adjourned to the lounge for a club sandwich and a cold beer. Heaven!

After a rest, I explored the local shopping area and purchased an electric razor. On return to the hotel, I shaved, and showered (what a luxury!) before falling into a fabulously soft bed.

The next morning, I had breakfast in my room and wrote up a journal of my adventures, the one you are now reading. Before collecting my wife the next day from Beijing Rail Station, I decided to laze around and soak up the atmosphere. Imagine my surprise when I received a telephone call from my daughter in Australia, advising that my wife had already arrived in Beijing with all of our luggage and no local currency. I had the wrong date.

She was reportedly “as mad as a cut snake” and would be arriving at our hotel shortly.

I sheepishly went down to reception where my wife was arguing with a taxi driver about payment. I was able to pay him and help my wife register

It took a couple of days to mend fences but we ended up having a fun week together in Beijing.

*About the story teller: Archie Fraser is a retiree who loves to travel on trains – especially to different and unusual places. His new year’s resolution is to do more train travel but – to stay on the train for the entire journey – wherever possible! His wife is very pleased with that.

 

FAST FACTS 1
Tour Packages for Beijing to Moscow by train, start from around $A4,000. Do some research on the net for the best deal. We found Intrepid Travel offer an interesting deal. See:
www.intrepidtravel.com/au/russia/beijing-moscow-125468

FAST FACTS 2
Intrepid Travel asks the following question: Is this trip right for you?
Be prepared for some very long travel days on this trip (both on and off the train) – you are crossing the largest country on Earth after all! Settle into the rhythm and enjoy the scenery, your book, or chatting with your fellow travellers or the locals.
Conditions are simple but comfortable – an authentic experience and a great way to meet, and travel like, the locals. There is a toilet/bathroom and compartments with bunks/berths. Please note that it’s travel 2nd class on all overnight trains (4 people per compartment). While groups stay together, there may be times where due to ticket availability your tour group will be staying in different compartments and carriages.
Some of the accommodation along the way is basic, staying in ger camps, local guesthouses and homestays with limited facilities. Some facilities are shared and some accommodation has only cold water. Be prepared for three vastly different countries and experience all the cultural differences they have to offer, both from your home country and from each other.