I have been busy doing some planning for the Trans-Manchurian part of my next adventure. It’s an excuse to not be writing my book. In fact almost everything is an excuse not to be writing my book at the moment!
If you have read about my past journeys you will know about the issue of what constitutes the right time on board the train. I have been thinking about this quite a lot lately – both from a philosophical and a practical point of view, as I have also been writing an article on the history of “train time”.
Today in the Russian Federation there are no less than 11 time zones taking into account some daylight saving zones. No other country in the world has this expanse of logitude set to just a single train time, in this case GMT +3 hours.
This then is the very practical problem that faces the Trans-Siberian traveller. If you think, for example, that your train is going to arrive into Vladivostok at 13.10 on a sunny Tuesday afternoon (after all that is what it says in the timetable) you are in for a surprise, as it will in fact not arrive until 20.10 in the evening local time (Vladivostok is GMT +10).
So how do you cope with this? Unless your brain can manage instantaneous time zone re-calculation, you need a good watch with a second time zone, or alternatively a second watch. You can be assured of one thing, and that is that the train will always operate to Moscow time and the train will not wait for you on the platform if you happen to accidentally be in the wrong time zone. So Moscow time needs to always be your first point of reference. I now have a small table clock in my compartment, so I can quickly decode the RZD timetable – really useful when planning stops that might only last a few minutes and you need to get off straight away to search for provisions. (It also has a thermometer, but I wonder if this is a good idea, as there are times when I would perhaps rather not know the real temperature!)
Almost as important on the train is the operation of the restaurant carriage. There seem to be no firm laws here, but they will generally work the hours of the local time zone. It is worth checking this each time you visit, to see what time they have on their own watches.. Late evenings enjoying a beer with fellow travellers can fast become someone else’s breakfast, depending on your outlook on time.
Train staff also tend to work on Moscow time, although I have found that on the Chinese Trans-Mongolian train (003/004) there tend to be two guards, always one on duty and one off duty, possibly working around Chinese time. On Russian trains there may only be one person, and they may share duties at stops with the person on duty in the next carriage. This means that they may want to inspect your compartment at a strange time of the day, or be getting some well earned rest when you are up and about and wanting someone to help you fix the samovar.
My suggested technique for coping with all this is to create a “third time zone”, as it is not possible to automatically detect and set the correct local time along the way (even if you had a GPS, there is no signal much of the time). Instead of the concept of local time, simply add an extra hour a day from leaving Moscow. I do this first thing in the morning every day, or at least until I am up to my destination time zone. It will be close to, if not exactly, local time.
This is perfect for the route from Moscow to Vladivostok, as it takes seven days and you arrive seven time zones later. It gets even more confusing though if you are headed for Mongolia or China. When you look at the timetable and see a border crossing that looks unusually long, this will often be as the train is switching from Moscow time as it leaves Russia, and switching to local time. Both Mongolia and China operate at GMT +8, although the reintroduction of daylight saving time for some months of the year in Mongolia can now make this more confusing at some times of the year..
In terms of the best watch to use, that’s very much down to personal preference. I favour a conventional watch with big easy to read hands (one that glows well in the dark) and I also carry a lucky Russian Railways (RZD) pocket watch to show “train time”. I’m a big fan of Christopher Ward watches, and their Trident model is ideal for my Trans-Siberian adventures. If you had a GMT type watch, (one with two independent hour hands) you could just use this as a single device.As for digital watches, of course they have their place. But they can be fiddly, especially upside down in the dark when you can’t find the light button.. I enjoy manually advancing my watch to the new time zone each day. It’s a sign of progress. I also like to think that my watch looks professional, but not to “bling” in certain situations – especially when dealing with officials and crossing borders. I have noticed that in some countries (especially in parts of Asia) your watch can be an unwritten and important indicator of assumed status by others. Amazingly it can actually have an influence on the way you get treated – not in isolation, but in conjunction with your appearance and behaviour.
I have yet to decide which watch to take on my next adventure, but think it may be time to switch to a GMT designed time piece to cope with the confusion of Trans-Siberian time travel. Once you have the concept of “time travel” sorted, you can focus on other aspects of the adventure without the panic that you might get stranded on an icy platform in the middle of absolutely nowhere.