December 28, 2015

The Restaurant at the End of the Trans-Manchurian Express

I woke this morning without any real expectations of the day ahead and have been rewarded with an amazing few hours staring out over Lake Baikal whilst drinking reasonable coffee in the restaurant. I chat to Valerie whilst Mrs Chef organises my blinis.

This is my favourite place on the train. I feel very welcome here. Something between a Russian version of “Fawlty Towers” and “Robin’s Nest”. There are not too many customers today, just a thick set Russian chap eating a bowl of Solyanka accompanied with a small carafe of vodka. A range of officials and paramilitary pass by, and I wonder about their occupations on the train. For example last night a chap in a No 2 dress uniform with a leather briefcase showed up in the restaurant and produced some paperwork for completion. His badges were definitely military. Sometimes I see our train police force on patrol – made up of three officers, two men and a woman. Then there are the RZD employees, the provodnitsas, the engineers, and the “fix it” men. This train really is its own self administered community on the move.

Last night I broke train rule No 4 – never to look inside the kitchen of a train restaurant (I did this once and it put me off eating for a bit. The food tasted good, but I was just not prepared to see the bacterial load that was coming with it). But on this train the kitchen is amazing. It is as big as the restaurant and has several huge commercial fridges in sparkling stainless steel. I caught sight of a set of chopping boards, neatly stacked and labelled.

The reason for my visit to the kitchen was to catch a glimpse of the cellar, in the hope of discovering a rare parcel of fine wine. It can happen. Not many Russian train passengers drink wine, and I have found wines from France to Azerbaijan on board some RZD restaurant carriages. You need to get in amongst it yourself as the wine you want isn’t the sort they think you are looking for. The outcome of my investigations today was a little dissapointing. I have just purchased 100% of the red wine on board the train, which consists of a single half bottle of Russian labelled wine from an undisclosed region and vintage. There is some champanski though, and I have purchased a bottle of this – I shall lay it down in my compartment and drink it over Christmas.
This morning we stopped at Irkutsk at about 07.30 local time, and it looks like most people have got off the train. After Ulan Ude tonight we will be heading off to Manchuria, and I don’t think its going to be busy. There was a family group from New Zealand in my carriage, but they have got off and Sergei tells me that I’m now the only passenger. I assume he means in his carriage, not the train. He seems a lot more chilled out today. Maybe he has forgiven me for my window opening routine. He has even put some slightly odd music on in his compartment. Something like Russian techno new age disco..

I consulted the map and was surprised at how little ground we will be covering today. It looks about a third of the normal daily distance. The reason is quickly obvious though. We are having to twist and turn through the valleys on the edge of Lake Baikal and the line is busy with freight trains carrying oil, logs and coal. The freight trains are massive – over 50 wagons long and they make the ground rumble and shake with the size of their load.
I spend much of the day feeling pretty tired straddling the growing gap between time zones. We reach Ulan Ude just before sunset. A big group of soldiers get off and unload all their camping gear onto the platform – rather them than me. Back inside carriage No 4 the place smells of Sergei and Rimma’s home cooking. I am getting confused about the timetable, but I think we shall reach the Chinese border later tomorrow. This makes today my last proper Russian dinner then.

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