As we write this on day three, it's snowing. Again. Surprisingly, there's more snow as we head west, away from Siberia. We've travelled through quite a blizzard.
Generally the daytime temperatures have sat around -10C. Conversely - almost unbearably - the temperature in the train remains well above mid 20C. Most passengers are obliged to wear shorts to survive the oppressive heat of the train (together with standard issue slippers for those of us in 1st or 2nd class - 3rd class must BYO thongs). This makes for hilarious stops at the stations where many people take the opportunity to get some fresh air (or smoke, clearly it's illegal to be Russian and not smoke) - the platform, plastered with ice and snow, is busy with bodies sporting shorts, singlets and slippers.
Most passengers are men, all bar none unattractive and - with few exceptions - fat and pasty. The older men display an unusually high rate of unsightly growths on their face. Gifts from Chernobyl, perhaps?
Lee even had the pleasure of sharing her compartment with one of these fine thoroughbreds (complete with growth on face), Oleg. "All my dreams have come true!" she declared excitedly when he on-boarded.
Each carriage has two attendants who take shifts to vacuum the carriage, clean the toilets and generally keep things 'train-shape'. At stations, they de-ice the outlets from various downpipes from their nominated carriage and check tickets of on-boarding passengers. Luckily, our attendants have been lovely, unlike the man on the Chinese train or the Hitler-esse on the train from UB.
When Russians get cranky, they really let fly. They know we don't understand a word they say, but you don't need to understand words when body language and tone are used to such effect! Our waitress set a fine example.
Lee has got into trouble a few times: putting paper towel down the loo, pouring tea into the samovar's drain, bringing her own wine into the restaurant carriage. In previous trains, we've got into strife for opening curtains in the hallway, for so much as walking toward the toilet when it's locked at a station.
Out the window we see silver birch trees. Villages of tired, wooden, often miniscule houses, sometimes organised into regular lots, more often higgledy-piggledy, with little evidence of habitation. Not a few of these houses have dropped on their footings and sit at an alarming angle to the ground.
We have seen a fox, a lone dog, a stoat-like creature. Old Ladas. And a curious cleared track running the length of the railway with, only occasionally, a small green truck parked - we can only guess this track's purpose.
Before we left, in the absence of any meaningful references in guide books, we believed it would be supremely difficult to travel about Russia in winter. Surely roads would be closed, public transport limited to the main Trans Siberian line. We have found the reverse is true: most roads are cleared (although locals drive directly up frozen rivers - "much better than the twists and turns and ups and downs of roads"); later in the year when the snows melt there are floods everywhere and many roads are closed; then comes the mosquito season accompanied by an abundance of ticks. Not for a moment have we regretted our choice to cross this region in winter. Properly kitted out in down jackets and weather proof pants we have not had a moment where we have been cold beyond comfort (horse riding in Mongolia being the exception).
A trip to the dining car was both enjoyable and frustrating. The menu might as well have been written in mandarin - an English version turned up on day two but never re-appeared. The busty lacey hostess spoke rapidly in Russian, to be understood by us through hand signals only. And what meals! Unforgettable! Absolutely bloody awful! Here is fish with mashed potatoes and vegetables - can you find the fish?!
On the last night a Russian guy named Edouard tried helping us with the menu. He was larger than life and clearly feeling jaunty. After a chat in broken English he reappeared with juice and chocolates for the kids. A little later again he re-appeared with $90 French champagne and more (fine) chocolates for us adults. And then a tumbler full of vodka - for himself. He liked cuddling Lee and was determined to keep her up late into the night...! He brought a lot of joy to us at the end of a very 'Russian' train trip.
All up, buying tickets directly from train stations at local rates, the train trip from China to Moscow - a little under 10,000km, has cost just $490 per adult (approx 60% for children) for four berth cabins, including four meals.
And there was no discount for the meals!
Shane, Helen, Rosie, Tom, Lee