Estación Retiro is a particularly pleasant place to embark on any journey. Its century-old shed is evocative of an era of steam locomotives and grandiose rail travel. It’s a different matter though that only commuter trains originate from here today, and I’m headed out on one of them, merely 30-km north of the city. While the station has remained largely unchanged, the trains themselves have been upgraded considerably since I was in BA last, and mine is made up of Chinese-built carriages, offering an exceptionally smooth ride.
Gallup is the most populous town between Flagstaff and Albuquerque in the state of New Mexico. But that’s not saying much at all. The town itself is unremarkable and highly unlikely to feature on any itinerary through this part of the country. Regardless of all that, the four of us have made our way here, having left Albuquerque at the crack of dawn, to receive a posse of equally rail-obsessed individuals, due to arrive from the somewhat far away state of California, on board the Southwest Chief, the only passenger train to call on Gallup!
It’s quite foggy and fairly nippy by the time we reach the Azimut Hotel, and we’re heralded in the right direction (the hotel’s older wing is being renovated) by a young Chinese couple, who also happen to be staying there. In the lobby, Asians outnumber locals, and barring a group of very young Russian gymnasts, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Beijing or Harbin, as the case may be.
The hotel, a short 10-min walk from Vladivostok’s main train station, is located in a residential area, built into the side of a bluff overlooking Amursky Bay. A good choice for anyone arriving in the city by rail, sea or air, at $125 a night for a double room, it is also excellent value for money. That rate includes a huge spread for breakfast and some of the fastest free WiFi I have ever used!
From our bay-facing balcony, we watch as another great day comes to an end. The hotel’s own restaurant is well appointed and reasonable too, and the combination of a chilled Asahi and Beef Stroganoff couldn’t taste any better.
We awake, all groggy-eyed and hungover, as the Rossiya trundles across a long bridge. Beneath us flows the River Amur, and the rail bridge, no less than 2.6-km of it, is the longest one in Russia. It carries a roadway above it too, and features prominently on the 5000 RUB note!
A couple of hours before we awoke this morning, we had stopped at a place called Mogocha. A town inhabited by 12,000 hardy souls, who endure one of the harshest winters on the planet. Think -62C (-80F)! While the very thought of living in that climate sickens us, we turn our attention on Yerofei Pavlovich, our first stop on day 6, and one that marks our entry into the Amurskaya region of the Russian Far East. Even though we’ve officially exited Siberia, the forest is still dominated by Taiga, and this morning it’s set to the backdrop of low lying hills. The Rossiya, meanwhile, is now running 2 hours late, delayed further by ongoing track work.
Having set our alarms for 22:50 Moscow time, we awake just as we’re pulling into Ulan Ude. It is just shy of 4 in the morning local time and Igor, the Provodnik who’s taken over the night shift from Olga, is baffled to see us up and about. But this isn’t just another station on the Trans-Siberian – it is the junction for the storied Trans-Mongolian route, and we have stepped off the Rossiya to pay our respect. Our efforts pay off almost immediately! Across the platform from our carriage stands a steam locomotive – not another plinthed one this time, but one that’s actually in steam – bookended by a diesel on one end and an electric on the other! What more could we possibly ask for?
As we slept, our train would have crossed the Yenisei, the largest of the rivers that flows into the Arctic Ocean, and one that marks the border between western and eastern Siberia. Ilyanska is our first stop in the latter, and although not as cold as Omsk, it still has an old world feel to it. Indigenous people can be seen in larger numbers on its platforms, and the women in particular look markedly different. The offerings amongst the platform vendors has increased too, with smoked fish from nearby Lake Baikal being one of the more prominent additions.
I am awakened by the slow rumble of our train passing over a fairly lengthy bridge. Lifting the window blind only a little, so as not to awake the remaining occupants of our cabin, I discern through the condensation that we are rolling into Omsk, our first stop on day 3. The river we just crossed was the Irtysh, the chief tributary of the Ob. Outside, it’s a chilly 6C and the station clock resolutely reads 03:15 AM. The smell of burning coal fills the air. In the distance stands a steam locomotive, plinthed. It’s a bit of a time warp here at Omsk, and also a gentle reminder that we are now well and truly in Siberia.
The massive bridge over the River Kama, one of the longest tributaries of the Volga, marks our entry into the industrial city of Perm. We’ve gained 2 hours over Moscow and traveled over 1400-km already. During WWII, a lot of military factories were set up in Perm, and it started being referred to as Molotov, after the Russian minister of Molotov Cocktail fame!
We bid dasvidaniya to Lena and Sergei at Perm, and will now have the cabin to ourselves till our next halt, Yekaterinburg. We stock up on breakfast supplies and then return to our private space moments before departure.
For all the planning its taken us to journey on the Rossiya, it ends up being a mad scramble at Yaroslavskiy station – last minute ATM runs, food supplies and such, only to be met by a stern-faced Olga, our carriage attendant or Provodnista, who, as expected, doesn’t speak a word of anglesky!