Eating on the Trans-Siberian

There are three ways of eating on the Trans-Siberian.

Firstly, you could bring your own food. Forewarned by me to bring some instant noodles, Mama brought with her the following: six cups instant noodles, one packet serunding, one packet vegetable crackers, one packet candied banana, one box roobois tea, one box Boh Tea, two packets raisins, one packet peanuts, one packet cashewnuts, one packet crystalised ginger and one box powdered milk. All this took up one-third of a bag and lasted approximately three nights.

In Mongolia she did stock up on water, orange juice, bread, tomato sauce and nutella, and that pretty much lasted through Irkutsk and midway towards the Urals, supplemented by the most interesting two lots instant mash potato in a cup (tastes as good as it sounds), a bar of russian chocolate, a packet of cheese, a box of grape juice, four greeny-yellow bananas, oranges, apples and two more bottles of water.

The hot water at the end of the carriage is a godsend, because I have no idea how else we would have gotten the instant noodles up and about, as well as our inexhaustable cups of tea. We finished all our just-add-boiling-water food by the time we reached Taiga, some fifty hours away from Moscow.

In between I had attempted the second way of eating on the Trans-Siberian: The dining car. The dining car on the Trans-Siberian is everything that the guide books claim it to be. I shall suummarise it for you in one word: random. You are given two menus at first, they are in Russian. You are then given a third menu that has English on it. This is less helpful then it seems, because the waitress will immediately point out to you all the things you either can, should or must order, presumably because everything else is out of stock.

The next problem is that the English menu doesn't have prices next to it, and I made the mistake of showing her how much money I had. She took this as a cue to mean "I want to spend all the money I have on me" and proceeded to make up a menu for me that exactly matched the 220 roubles that I showed her. To be fair, she did point at the menu while choosing, but again, it could have just been exaultations of what was available rather than "I will bring you this".

What I got in the end for my 220 roubles (about USD7) was a soup and a main dish. Although this sounds pricey, it's actually on par with restaurants in Moscow, so I don't think I was cheated too badly.

The soup was typical russian, full of sour cream plus olives and onions and lemons. I liked it, because it was sourish, but I burnt my tongue in the process (it's still burnt two days later, if you wanted to know).

The main dish was fried salmon covered in sour cream and vegetables and cheese, served with rice. It was ok, if a little bit small after Galina's efforts, but for the price - the pot noodles were better value for money.

The third option is to get off at the stations and hunt for food there.

For some bizarre reason, we had to travel for the better part of a day before we saw our first railside vendors. What I remember of them best was the strangely-shaped chicken which was dubious enough for me to decide against them, but interesting enough that later I wish I had, just to see if it really was chicken.

The produce sold by vendors seem to vary from station to station, and it's a bit of a pot luck to see what you get. They range from sausages to cucumbers to chicken to fish to ice cream.

The larger stations have their own shops that are basically large windows with a counter built into it.

You walk along the shop-window until something catches your fancy, and then you go up to peer through to the assistant behind the counter and ask for what you want. It is in this way that I have learnt and first used the Russian words for water (akvamineral or voda), bread (khleb), cheese (syr) and Twix (twix), as well as large (bolshoya) and small (malinka). Add "thank you" (sbasiba) and some roubles to this, and you pretty much have all you need for a transaction, despite my lack of Russian (although I have no idea what compelled a shopkeeper to think that I would know what "do you have five rubles for change" was, when I was already struggling with "twix").

Anyway, these shops have provided sustenance in the form of bread, water, cheese, chocolates and - you guessed it - instant pot noodles.
18 May 2003 - On the Trans-Siberian just outside Perm
Life outside the train window

After three days on a train, there really isn't very much outside the window that excites you. Ample evidence of this is given by Mama's enthusiasm that we catch the obelisk that marks the border between Europe and Asia. We spent fifteen minutes and 20 kilometers waiting for the darned thing, and when I snapped a picture of it, a telegraph pole got in the way. Such is life.

The view outside the window depends largely whether you're in the countryside or in the suburbs. The rural portions of the trips are monopolised by trees, either upright or chopped down or as lumber, interupted by the occasional meadow and cow.

As we get closer to towns, the scene changes to either one of idyllic collectives of dachas with a father working on a field while a daughter looks on or lines of rusted goods cars in front of some factory or oil refinery.

Mostly, near the stations, you are greeted by the worst sort of 60's architecture, some of it still under construction. Novobirsk inspired me to tell my mum that I could not do any worse if asked to construct the most dismal examples of inner-city design. Every angle a right angle, with forbidding windows decorated gaily with western-inspired graffitti so thoughtfully put in place by the local teenagers.

Life on a station platform gets a little more interesting. In most stations you see people waiting to get on board trains, some are seeing others off. For some reason, there are a large number of women dragging their weekly shopping behind them, with overstuffed trolley bags. I thought that maybe they were vendors, but the real vendors are a little more alert to potential buyers, their eyes flitting from compartment to compartment waiting for opportunities. Their wares are also a little more obvious.

They compete with the railway-run shops, which are large shopwindows with a little counter set in the middle of it all.

There are other distractions. In Perm, I was witness to three drunks trying to beat up another drunk. It's actually quite funny watching drunks fight, because they're not very good at it and everything moves around in slow motion. Eventually two railway guards, with their butch military-style roll-ups and crewcuts broke it up, mainly by shoving one of them in the back and into a sprawl. Not ten meters away, a railway attendant was blissfully ignoring both the commotion and the trains and was saying hello to a baby in a pram.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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