V for Vladivostock


Lydia Bell recalls an amazing 2001 adventure across the wilds of Russia, with a train full of characters off the rails, on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Trans-Siberian Railway travel

When Jenya took me downtown in his Japanese right-hand drive, which he had driven especially to Vladivostock to buy, dirty money in his hot little hands, we found the train was late. Or maybe we were early, but anyway, he took me to buy some music to kill time.

“You should buy this guy’s music.” Jenya waved three cassettes at me. “He was imprisoned by Stalin for his lyrics.” Obediently, I handed my roubles over to the handsome drunk whose forearms dangled out of the stall – but Jenya wasn’t finished. “You should also buy this.” His index finger rested on another cassette. “It is military music. There are lots of whistles, and shouting of ‘Ya!’”

He looked at me, deadpan. When I said I would pass, he immediately gesticulated at another section of the stall. “You know, I really hate prison music. The people who listen to it are worse than morons.”

Prison music? My attention was distracted by the stall guy… God, he was really shitfaced. As I sifted through the tapes he intermittently popped his head out, shouting random phrases in English like “one hundred per cent bamboo!” I spotted some Pink Floyd tapes, whose covers had been badly made by someone on an old home computer. I handed over more money. The guy seemed barely able to see the notes. “Very good Russian illegal unauthorised copies!” he shouted and gave me the change. Then he mumbled a phrase I didn’t understand, but which ended in “America”, and spat with feeling on the floor.

“This is too disgusting to translate,” Jenya said.

“I am English, actually.”

The stall-owner spat again, repeating the same phrase, but this time it ended in “England”.

We left him slumped lugubriously in his sweaty stall.

We sat on the platform, waiting for the train that still hadn’t arrived. I would be on it for four days, or 88 hours.

“You should go back home,” I said to Jenya.

“I cannot leave in case some bastard tries to speak to you in Russian.”

“Well, that’s a hazard of being in this country.”

“When I have clients, I have no free time. It’s like having a baby.”

“I don’t want to be your baby.” It’s true, however, that before I met Jenya, I had been bumbling around like a child.

“I cannot leave in case some bastard tries to speak to you in Russian.”


“Well, that’s a hazard of being in this country.”

He smiled. “I have had fun with you,” he said. “Seeing places so many times, my sole enjoyment left is a good client. You remind me of the Raleigh expedition I did with a group of British.”

We saw the smudge of a train on the distant track.

“About the train,” he said quickly. “Once I took a train from Almaty to Irkutsk. The Kazakhs are very noisy. You will find you sleep well for two days and not thereafter because oversleeping is worse than overeating. I knew I had arrived in Siberia when someone sidled up to me at a train stop and growled, ‘You wanna buy some pine nuts?’”

Jenya had a ready collection of aphorisms and sayings at his disposal. Only the night before, he had been bemoaning the fact that Russian friends would sometimes turn up unannounced at his flat. He always acted as though he hated socialising. “An unexpected visitor is worse than a Tatar,” he had added.

After walking the length and breadth of the train, I realised that not a soul spoke my language, or any other language I spoke. No jolly Norwegians, or beer-drinking Bavarians to warm my blood. I encountered an attractive young man in the corridor who stopped me and demanded: “Ruski?” I shook my head. “Polski? Deutsch?”

“Français?” I suggested, desperately. He exhaled air sharply through his nose and continued his journey down the carriages.

I found a little family from Khabarovsk in my carriage. Jeanna, her husband Vitalya, and their daughter Lida, a diminutive of Lydia, my name. All three were dusky and squat-looking. They were travelling to Moscow en route to Belarus for their annual trip to visit Vitalya’s parents.

I went for a walk through the carriages and encountered a young man with hooded eyes, who was hunched in a booth. He introduced himself to me as Max, and gestured for me to join him for tea. The waiter looked wary. I sat down, but soon we were joined by his friend Timor, and I regretted my decision. Clearly, by “tea” he had meant “vodka”. Soon, Timor was leaning his well-fed, tattooed form towards me, breathing soft ethanol fumes in my face. “Krasivaya,” he exhaled, wondrously – “beautiful”.

“Later we find you,” he said emphatically, as I got up to leave “You play my guitar.”

I walked swiftly down the carriages. Nestled back with my family, I feel into a deep sleep.

Trans-Siberian Railway

Vintage advertising for the Trans-Siberian Railway

The next morning we arrived in Krasnoyarsk, about a fifth of the way to Moscow. I spent the first half of the day sitting the restaurant car, blowing my nose and sniffing, thinking with deep melancholy of a short affair I had left behind in Mongolia. Boris, the waiter, gave me a remedy for my cold. He placed it carefully in front of me, his eyes chocolate pools of concern.

‘You are alone. No friends. You should be with friends. Ha ha ha!’ He slapped his leg, and raised an imaginary glass to his lips. Then his face fell back into a pantomime expression of concern.

“I am meeting a friend – Podruga – in Moscow.”

Boris, palpably relieved, patted my shoulder.

I had a headache, and only two Paracetemol. I plugged into Pink Floyd to ease the pain, and was still listening to it by the afternoon, watching the taiga shoot by: pines, birches, long grass, bushes, the occasional meadow or wooden-built village. Returning to my carriage that evening, I was informed that Timor and Max had come in search of me twice, and had elicited the unwanted attention of the conductress responsible for my carriage, a woman built like a brick shithouse, with a full set of gold teeth, who issued hot waters and other necessities. She had sent them packing, she said, giving me a fool’s-gold grin.

I was supposed to change carriages at Novosibirsk, but this would not be advisable, she said. Jeanna and Vitalya would shield me from Timor’s advances.

Sunset spread over the interminable forest as I lost consciousness.

Their sartorial style could only be described as Chinese market stall chic, and their hairstyles reminded me of Alfred from the game Guess Who

The next day I lived the previous day all over again, Pink Floyd accompanying me as we hurtled through the blackening tunnel of unchanging taiga. The children continued to play in the corridor outside, and I spent a laborious afternoon learning Russian with Jeanna. We were imprisoned by forest. I pined for the open air.

Outside I watched the trees of identical shade, texture and height and was gripped by ennui. I wondered if this is why the pioneers of the New World cleared the forest. It was not just to farm and live. The forest must have menaced them. I moved my watch slowly forward, not knowing what time it was anywhere, anymore.

At Tyumen, I climbed down to the platform, and bought mouth-watering homemade potatoes, cucumbers, meat patties and chives from a smiling babushka. Though desperate to linger on the platform, I feared I’d miss the train: it never signalled its departure, but would just start to move, imperceptibly, then faster and faster. At Omsk, in the middle of the night, I had been standing on the platform when I saw Boris the waiter waving at me from the restaurant car. I waved back. His face was screwed into concern. This was nothing unusual. Then I saw the train moving, gathering speed. He was gesticulating wildly. I had to run and haul myself into the train, panting. What would I have done in Omsk, with no possessions or sense of orientation and a smattering of feeble Russian? Jenya was right: I was a baby.

At 2.30pm, according to Jeanna, we arrived in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Urals. We were almost in Europe. The fat conductress, smiling gold teeth, played with an ugly Staffordshire terrier and most of the train descended from the train apparently in their underwear, or perhaps wearing shell suit bottoms as a concession.

There was a beautiful woman a few carriages down, who floated down the corridors in a kimono, but our other travelling companions were almost all men, with faces that had seen a hundred mining accidents, mouths that had drunk through a thousand dark nights. Their sartorial style could only be described as Chinese market stall chic, and their hairstyles reminded me of Alfred from the game Guess Who.

Trans-Siberian Railway

Telly Savalas in Horror Express, the Trans-Siberian Express’ kitschest cinematic moment, complete with Rasputin-like mad monk

The beauty was gliding around the platform smoking a cigarette. She smiled, for the first time in two days, showing brown teeth. Families skittered about in the sun, buying ice-creams as if they were on Brighton beach. When it came time to board again, the owner of the Staffordshire terrier had to be pushed back on by her husband, as the train was elevated from ground level. His beefy hand ground into her bottom and she popped into the train. His face had the kind of roughness you only ever saw in nightmares.

Back in the carriage, a party atmosphere had descended. We were joined by friends of Vitalya and Jeanna, a couple bearing food and drink. They offered me vodka and bits of strangely tasteless cheese. Then Vitalya said it wasn’t cheese, and jiggled his belly and his soft underarm flesh with glee. I placed the fat back on the tray, trying not to gag. “An international group!” laughed Vitalya. “Moldovian, Ukrainian, Russian, English! Cheers!”

I woke up the next morning from a vodka-fugged sleep to more birch, pines, pastures, and the occasional wooden dwelling, and the pit of my stomach felt empty. We were to arrive in Moscow at 5pm, and although it was soon, I felt as though I couldn’t stand it on the absurdist train any longer. I went to the restaurant car, and Boris laughed at me. “7am now. Not 9am. You sleep two hours more.” I remembered what Jenya had said about oversleeping being worse than overeating.

I glanced around for Timor and Max as I returned to the carriage. They had come looking for me as I slept the previous night. In my carriage, the children had wrenched the window open and were hanging out, giggling. I joined them, feeling the sun in my hair and the wind in my lungs. Just then, Gold Teeth stalked down the passage and yanked the window up, wagging her finger at me. I looked at the floor, and thought, “It’s not fair.” Every ounce of traffic frustration I had ever had, secreted like mercury in my tissues, came back to haunt me. I wondered if I could spontaneously combust and be nothing but a pile of ashes on the floor on arrival in Moscow. As the train took off, Moscow-bound, with 40 minutes to go, Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” came on the radio. I shared Freddy Mercury’s sentiment, standing between carriages, my impatience jigging with the train.

At 4pm, every woman on the train burst into a flurry of self-beatification. Beauty broke out of her dressing gown and got into teeny shorts and top. The pop of lipsticks opening sputtered down the carriages and the rustle of plastic bags grew ever more noticeable as more and more market-stall fancies emerged. I had not anticipated this, but then again, I had no family reunion to look forward to. Looking at Vitalya, I realised he resembled my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for a year now.

At Moscow, I stepped onto firm ground in bright sunlight and felt as if I had been born again. C


Lydia Bell is a writer who has always had itchy feet. Remembering this journey makes her hanker for the days before mini breaking and press trips, when the months of travel stretched ahead as interminably as the Trans-Siberian’s train tracks. She is a freelance writer and editor and a Harper’s Bazaar contributing editor. Read more at lydiabell.co.uk and follow her @lydialondon