Trans-siberian trip, or how to find your own peace

Sur le quai du transsibérien, à Omsk

Despite a bus driver a bit grumpy having to load two bikes as heavy, the fifteen hours of travel from Astana to Omsk, Russia, run smoothly.
We have six hours of stops during which we have to pedal the twelve kilometers that separate us from the station where we will take our first train. Easy, it’s only minus twelve degrees, after the minus thirty-seven of Astana, it feels like summer!

At the station, we have to buy the extra-ticket that will allow us to travel with our bikes. At the sight of our bikes, the ladies of the box try to make us a few miseries … it does not last long, they quickly realize our desperate mine and everything went fine. They accompany us on the platform and deal with the part that we always fear: the negotiation with the head of the wagon. Who, by the way this time, is a very smiling lady who lets us put comfortably and very delicately our bikes in a space between two wagons. We booked the cheapest berths of the third class, two bunk high in the corridor. On these beds, we can not sit, we have to ask other passengers to leave us a corner of theirs during the day. But we make friends and we have room. In short, we are sailing in a cloud of happiness, the train runs full force, that’s mean fifty kilometers per hour, through Siberia. The landscape has nothing to do with the Kazakh steppes. It is certainly snowy, but we cross mountains and forests, big cities and villages.We are probably in a new train, everything is clean, even the air of the toilet seems breathable!

At the unpronounceable city of Irkutsk, we grant ourselves a short break. As cyclo-tourists, we are accommodated free of charge at Grigoriy’s Youth Hostel. We arrive at the beginning of the afternoon and leave the next day at dawn. No time to visit the Baikal lake, we just have a long walk in town.

Russian little house

But damn, we realize, quite late, that we have a technical issue. We had booked and paid our train tickets with bike supplement on the company website, but the bike supplement was never sent to us. We spend a stressful night trying to solve the problem, in vain. We finally go to bed at four in the morning, the alarm rings an hour later, and we rush to the station.

We have an hour and a half early on the arrival of the train, it remains after thirty minutes dock. I watch the bikes and Elsa go negotiate our tickets by Google Translation and small drawings. An hour later, still no tickets. The stress and fatigue of the previous day does not help, I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown when I decide to join Elsa. I find her fulminant, in front of a lady from the box that makes phone calls to the entire planet to try to solve our problem that obviously depends on higher authority. If nothing moves we will have to go out the big game, make a scene, explain that our visas do not allow us to miss this train … Time passes, the tickets do not arrive and finally the train enters the station. The platform is quite far, I decide to meet our wagon driver with my bike and e-tickets, Elsa will join me as soon as she gets the tickets for the bikes. I usually can not carry my bike up the stairs, this time I go down and climb the three stairs that separate me from the train.

Car sixteen, at the other end of the platform, of course. Our wagon master is a bit of a bumbler, he tells me to drive to twelve cars. Drift, skid, turn around on the icy pier. I see Elsa coming, lots of paperwork in her hands. Car twelve, the chief tells us to go to car sixteen. Ha! Russian humor! Ok sir, but you come with us to solve the problem with your colleague! He accompanies us, and the two men review our passports, our tickets, our bicycle tickets and the little handwritten word that the lady of the ticket office gave to Elsa. Lady of the wicket landing on the dock elsewhere. We do not understand what they say but we understand that they are not very happy. This is not really surprising, according to the rules, we should have disassembled our bikes and put them in bags or a cardboard box … Finally, we are told to come aboard. As usual in this kind of train, we hold our bikes between two cars and we settle down.

Giraffe has the tip of the nose that freezes, but they are comfortably installed!

We are the object of the attention of all the passengers who followed our small adventures by the window. A group of guys in the square next to ours stares at us. Our wagon manager goes to check that everyone is in his place. He takes the opportunity to announce to everyone that we are tourists, with two bikes and we go to Vladivostok. General laughter, we do not understand well, still Russian humor?
When a lady who sells donuts passes in the wagon, the chef beckons us to eat, it will make us have bigger breasts! The man speaks only Russian, but he knows very well how to get understood when it comes to explaining this kind of things. So here, free tip, no more botox girls, the secret is the donuts cabbage! Obviously, re-burst of general laughter, we came across the king of the joke, it’ll be one man show in the wagon!

Anyway, we breathe, we relax and we try to stay awake to see the Baikal lake through the window. It ends up appearing, big, frozen and covered with snow … it looks like the Kazakh steppe, impression of deja vu? A little disappointed, too tired to try to see more, we fall asleep.

Kazakh steppe ? Nope ! Baikal lake !

In each wagon there are two chiefs, one for the day, the other for the night. Our head waiter is replaced for the day by his colleague, a blonde pit bull, obviously constantly in a state of total nervousness. She comes to wake me up and brings me a long monologue in Russian. After three months in Central Asia, we can catch a few words, so she is convinced that we understand very well … and so I’m mocking her when I say that I do not understand her request. She gets angry, screams louder and louder. One of her colleagues comes to the rescue, and via some signs, simply explains to me that we must dismount the wheels of the bikes. We run. But little problem, the front wheel of one of the bikes is impossible to remove, the bolt is too tight and even with the help of big arms we twist the key more than we move the bolt. I go back to the head of the wagon to show her the problem. She continues to believe that I make fun of her and that I pretend not to understand Russian. With each word that I understand or that I manage to articulate she points at me by shouting a triumphant ‘AHA’, persuaded to have caught me in the act of knowledge of the language. Ha, if she thinks she’ll be flattering me! To conclude, she threatens me with a fine and explains that the police will come. “Can the police help us loosen the bolt?” I try, hopeful, via Google Translate. Sensitive to my humor, and certainly to make me aware of the mores and customs of the local police, she says “Polizia?” then starts a very explicit imitation of a sexual act … It’s going to be a long journey !

In economy class, there is 54 bunk beds in a wagon. There are no closed compartments, it’s a gigantic dormitory bunk beds.

Our wagon

At one end, there is the cabin of the wagon chiefs, the toilets and the samovar. The samovar is a big water heater that distributes boiling water to make tea, coffee or noodles. As there is no drinking water on the train, we drink tea all day long. At the other end, near the so-called worst berths of the train, that we took because they were cheaper, a door overlooks other toilets and the inter-wagon where are stored our bicycles under the supervision of illegal smokers. As smoking is forbidden on the train, they inhale their cigarette in three big breaths before returning to their bunk.

Most of the other passengers go down before us, others go up. Only a few of them, including the bad guys group and the Vladimir Putin look-alike, will make the trip with us to the end. On the second day we make a trip to the wagon restaurant. We cross the second and first classes to get to the car-bar. With literally, a bar, music and waitresses who are visibly annoyed by a group of four or five men completely drunk. One of the waitresses leaves crying. Men calm down a little. We settle at a table and inevitably, they come to discuss with us a little. “Haaa devotchka Fransuzki! Velosipeit!” It’s not possible ! Even they are aware that there are two French with bikes on this train ?? They are not very naughty and too drunk to really bother us, we get rid of them easily.

After three nights we finally arrive in Vladivostok! We put our stuff in the train half empty now. Too happy to have finally arrived, we forget to stress for possible cops who would wait for us at the exit of the train … and fortunatly, no one is waiting for us. We reassemble quietly our bikes on the platform, now completely empty, in front of the “End point of the Trans-siberian railway”.

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