TRAVEL
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When you ride the Trans-Siberian Railway, you get a window into Russia's soul

Beyond Irkutsk, a city along the Trans-Siberian Railway, my neighbor plunked a sausage and a bottle of Cognac on the table. I dug a Route 66 shot glass from my stash of small gifts for such occasions and presented it to him.

“Ah, kulturny obmen [cultural exchange],” said Sergey, a thirtysomething machinist who resembled an NFL linebacker.

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FOR THE RECORD
May 3, 1 p.m.:
This article previously included photos of Lake Baikal and of people socializing in a train compartment that were incorrectly credited to Mary Ellen Monahan. The photos were from Flickr.
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“To Russian-American friendship,” we said as we toasted from our second-class cabin that looked out on a vast, snowy steppe.

We talked about life in our countries, Hollywood, war and the dire state of the world. (More Cognac was poured.) His shirt featured a Sochi 2014 Olympics logo. When I mentioned how much I enjoyed that event, he gave me the shirt.

The world’s longest railway, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, offers a window on the Russian people, whom some find as forbidding as a Siberian winter but whom I found disarming, warm and funny.

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All aboard

My journey began in Vladivostok, took a full week and crossed seven time zones and nearly 6,000 miles to reach Moscow, the railway’s western end point.

It followed the path of exiles, Mongols and the Romanovs as it wound through forests, villages and snowcapped mountains. The highlight was Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake and home to exotic species such as the nerpa, a small seal.

I first traveled this route two years ago, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Now I was doing it in reverse. Friends worried. Russia’s economy was in crisis, and relations with the U.S. were strained. Had I gone mad?

Although anti-American sentiment pervades the Russian media (mirroring the American media’s attitude toward Russia), I experienced no animosity, only candor, kindness and curiosity about the U.S. and our perceptions of Russia’s people.

Foreign tourists don’t often travel the entire length of the railway, most choosing to veer off toward Beijing. A middle-aged American woman traveling alone on the train was as rare as the Amur tiger. Everyone wondered why I was here.

I grew up during the Cold War and was taught to fear and pray for Russians, who were godless communists. Yet the Evil Empire beguiled with its enchanting music, landscapes and ballerinas.

Stops included Baikal, Krasnoyarsk and Perm, which inspired Boris Pasternak’s novel “Doctor Zhivago” and was the childhood home of Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.

My autumn visit coincided with clear blue skies and birches covered with brilliant orange leaves. The first snow soon followed.

Freight trains carrying oil, coal, and logs blasted their horns as they passed the other way.

The carriages were comfortable, but I asked Sergey, “Why not fly?”

“Flying is faster but expensive,” he said. “Anyway, nobody talks. Here you can meet people, socialize and relax.”

On the train

At station stops, loved ones waved their goodbyes while passengers stepped out to buy food, stretch or smoke.

Local vendors sold piroshkis (fried turnovers with filling) or smoked omul, a fish native to Baikal whose pleasant scent happily replaced that of passengers’ feet. Most travelers brought food because the dining car was pricey.

In platskartny (third class, like an open-air dormitory), blank faces and the occasional bare belly greeted new arrivals, who began storing bags, making beds, changing clothes and ordering tea. My neighbors were mostly ordinary Russians and some Chinese and Mongolian traders.

As I was waiting to reboard after a stopover in Omsk, the train screeched in carrying waving schoolchildren. On board, the mood was exuberant. A giddy girl repeatedly sang in Russian, “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.”

A pack of teenagers approached me. “Inostranka?” (Foreigner?) They asked, excited to meet an American. 

“What do you think of Russia? Our food? Putin? Obama? What is America like? Do you prefer Russia or America?” (The last questioner was elbowed, “Silly! Of course, she prefers home!”) A train attendant eventually shooed them away.

These employees (most of them women) keep carriages clean and samovars (water boilers) full, sell snacks, check tickets and sniff out nonsense.

A stern attendant stopped me one day when I was wandering. “Where are you going?” she asked. “What’s your carriage number?” The upside of such attention was a feeling of safety.

Outside, streams and rivers meandered through golden marshes, past patches of pines, firs and birches. The occasional rusting rail yard or decrepit factory broke the spell.

I later chatted with Nadya, a buoyant economist. She said, “Americans are fat. They showed it on television. They say it’s from fast food.”

She told me the economy is a koshmar (nightmare): “But what can we do?” she asked.

Like many, she showed concern about my well-being: “Where will you stay? How will you get there?” Others found my shoes inadequate: “You’re obviously not Russian!” When I ate my entrée before my borscht, I was teased: “No Russian does that!”

Boredom lurked on such a long journey. Books, music and the passing scenery provided entertainment. As did the theater of the mundane.

A pensioner with a doleful face was captivated as I made my bed one evening.

“It’s backward,” Alla said from her upper bunk.

“It’s all right,” I said, and began feeling around for my eyeglasses.

“You’re about to sit on them,” she said. I was suddenly thankful for busybodies.

Another day, two babushkas watched people navigate an icy platform. “Bozhe!” (God!) one said as a woman slipped and nearly fell.

When I reboarded in Perm, the mood was gloomy. My immediate neighbors scowled, apparently consumed by an existential funk worthy of exiled novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.

A pair of hipsters (“heepstery”) sauntered in wearing expensive headphones and eating McDonald’s French fries. They paid for their tickets with small coins.

The next morning, my neighbors lay sprawled across the lower bunks, leaving me nowhere to sit (upper bunks are less desirable). I joined Natalya, a retired railway engineer, in the compartment next door for tea and biscuits.

She said, “Siberian cities resemble each other: There’s a train station, a circus, a theater, a monument to [Soviet Union founder] Vladimir Lenin. But the natural setting differs.” There was also an endless parade of beautiful young women clattering along in high heels, she added.

Natalya said that pensions had shrunk and that times were tough. “At least under the Soviets, people were more equal,” she said. I heard this frequently among older Russians.

Millennials sympathized but told me they didn’t wish to return to a system they knew only through history books or older relatives.

“Maybe they’re nostalgic because they were young then,” one said. Although everyone hoped life would improve, growing inequality and a turbulent history had taught them to expect the worst.

Village visit

“We’re off!” chirped a small boy delighted by everything, including a bedraggled village apparently unchanged since writer Anton Chekhov crossed Siberia more than a century ago.

Some wooden homes were fancifully trimmed in blue, yellow, white or green. Others leaned and sank into the permafrost. Signs of wealth from Russia’s oil boom were
 scarce.

Today’s Siberians descend from fur trappers, freed peasants and nomadic native tribes. Beginning in the 19th century, criminals and political foes were banished here, including the Decembrists — idealistic young officers whose 1825 coup against the czar failed miserably. By the 1930s, millions of such prisoners were building Siberian factories and roads.

Czar Alexander III launched the railway project in 1886 to defend borders and tap natural resources. Many workers froze to death or died of disease. Delays and derailments plagued early journeys, but the project was finally completed in 1916.

When at last we arrived in glitzy downtown Moscow, I felt excitement mixed with culture shock.

I suggested to Vitaly, a handsome, silver-haired Siberian, that perhaps life was about the journey, not the destination.

“You have a Russian soul,” he said, and then passed out drunk on my neighbor’s bunk.

travel@latimes.com 

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO MOSCOW

From LAX, Aeroflot offers nonstop service to Moscow, and Lufthansa, Scandinavian, KLM, Air France, Swiss, British, Alitalia and Turkish offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $972, including taxes and fees. Aeroflot also offers nonstop service from LAX to Vladivostok, and Cathay Pacific, Korean, Aeroflot and Asiana offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,598, including taxes and fees.

All visitors to Russia require a tourist visa. Agencies such as Travisa (www.travisa.com, [415] 837-0771) simplify the process.

RAIL EXCURSIONS

Vodka Train, www.vodkatrain.com, offers 21-day Trans-Mongolian/Siberian tours for travelers ages 18 to 35. From $2,820 per person on a “share” basis.

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com or www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com, operates high-end tours on a private train (15 days from $18,695 per person, double occupancy. 

Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) offers 16-day train tours from Beijing to Moscow, from $3,845 per person.

INDEPENDENT TRAVEL

Reservations are required for all trains.

The cheapest way to buy tickets is through Russian Railways at eng.rzd.ru. A one-way Moscow-Vladivostok second- or tourist-class ticket from $260; third class from $104; first-class from $760. 

These companies arrange visas, train and hotel bookings, and itineraries: Real Russia, www.realrussia.co.uk; Way to Russia, www.waytorussia.net; Go to Russia, www.gotorussia.net; Ost West, www.ostwest.com 

TO LEARN MORE

Way to Russia, waytorussia.net

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