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My First Trans-Siberian Adventure

Trans-Siberian railway journeys are always too eventful and challenging to be mere train trips. My first got off to an unforgettable start in Vladivostok when I was attacked by a tag team of snarling dogs. Killing time before the evening departure of the No 1 Rossiya service I had gone for a stroll in the hills surrounding Russia's far eastern port. Inadvertently, I wandered into the garden of a picaresque wooden cottage, only to be greeted by the decidedly unfriendly presence of a ravenous lion-sized mutt and his tiny, but no less aggressive, terrier comrade. Like heat-seeking missiles the dogs zeroed in on me, barking and brandishing fangs and claws. Like any self-respecting travel writer caught in such a predicament, I screamed like a baby.

Such a commotion did not go unmissed by the occupant of the cottage, a babushka from central Soviet casting. She came racing out the door, spade in hand, and started bashing the bigger of the dogs over the head. Sheltering behind the babushka I edged towards the safety of the cottage, shaking off the terrier snapping at my heels. Just inside the doorway, the larger dog made a last-ditch lunge for me, its clawed paw shredding the front of my jacket. Another thwack from his owner saw my attacker off and left the two of us – ridiculous Englishman traveller and stout Russian grandmother – panting and apologizing in the hallway. And all this before I'd even set foot on the train!

In terms of heart-stopping excitement, it was a tough act to follow, but the Trans-Siberian journey itself was certainly no anti-climax. I was on my way back to Europe from Japan and had arranged to travel from Vladivostok to Irkutsk where I would break my journey for a few days to visit Lake Baikal. I found myself sharing a cabin with a young Russian couple, en route to Novosibirsk, and an old lady who snoozed much of the time. The youngsters – a gangling lad and a strapping girl – canoodled, loudly, on the upper bunk. To give them some privacy I made friends with two young Russian sailors and one of their wives, sleeping in the neighbouring cabin. Their English was limited and my Russian even more so, but somehow we got along just fine. They attempted to teach me a complicated Russian card game called 'fool' – maybe it was all the vodka, but by the time we reached Irkutsk, I'd convinced myself I understood the rules!

It was early November, and as we rattled westwards, the temperature plummeted, the trees shed their leaves and snow began to cover the ground. The classic image of Siberia from Dr Zhivago was coming to
life before my eyes. Panoramic vistas unfurled as the tracks relentlessly crossed mighty rivers and murky swamps and ran over mountains, through dense forests and vast steppes. By the time we reached Irkutsk, in the dead of night, all was white and frosty. The next morning I went straight to the local department store and snapped up the latest in Russian winterwear – a brown cotton-padded jacket. "Nice coat" said my guide, "it's what they issue to prisoners." I didn't care – at least I was now snuggly warm as I headed to Lake Baikal where the famous crystal clear waters had frozen an icy
sapphire blue.

In the crisp air at the fishing village of Listvyanka I joined Russians chomping down on smoked omul, the fish that's native to the lake, washing it down with vodka shots. To prove the lake's famous curative powers, one hardy fellow strip to his underpants and splashed quickly in an out of the icy waters. A Russian wedding party turned up – more vodka toasts followed, and before I knew it I was heading back to Irkutsk in their convoy, invited to join in further festivities. Somehow – don’t ask me how – I made it back to my host family.

Nursing a hangover I boarded the Baikal train the next day bound for Moscow, this time sharing a carriage with a fellow Australian traveller. It was a relaxing journey, but the spell of the train had been broken. I had tasted Russian life and hospitality and couldn't wait to get off the Trans-Siberian and sample some more.

Simon Richmond