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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 06:30 GMT
Time out on a Trans-Siberian train

By Alan Quartly
BBC, Moscow

In the crisp cold air of a winter night, the clang of metal on metal pierces the air.

The noise is repeated as the uniformed woman swings her axe again.

She is knocking ice off the couplings of a railway carriage, part of a long passenger train stopped at a Siberian station.

Trans-Siberian railway
The epic journey takes six-and-a-half days
This is part of Marina Korobko's job. She is a conductor on Train Number Two that trundles from Moscow to Vladivostok - over 9,000km (5592 miles) in six-and-a-half days.

On the railways since 1975, Marina looks after the passengers of her sleeping car as they traverse the country. She provides them with tea and biscuits, provides the wake-up call in the morning and de-ices the carriage exterior during stops.

"I became a conductor because I like the romance. I wanted to see all of Russia for myself - not just on television," she says, her breath freezing in the platform air.

"There's so much of it and it's all so beautiful, light and clear."

This is the Trans-Siberian railway - it crosses so many time zones and geographical landmarks that it becomes a world in itself.

Mystery train

It's a journey that lures a particular kind of person. As the train burns up the kilometres, the people working and travelling on board seem to become more and more philosophical.

In carriage number six, the "headquarters carriage", we meet Sergei Bondarenko. He's the chief guard, the man in charge on this weeklong trip.

Sergei Bondarenko
Foreigners just can't take in the huge expanses - I'm only beginning to understand it with my Russian mind
Sergei Bondarenko
chief guard
A native of the Russian Far East, Sergei tells us about his Cossack roots and waxes lyrical about the mystery of the Russian people.

He gazes out of the window as the snow-covered forests speed by and sighs: "What is my homeland? Geographically it's massive... just like a Russian person, with a huge soul. But you have to be a Russian to understand us Russians."

So no hope for us then. And no hope in working out where we are as the hours and days and countryside roll by. But that's no problem for Sergei.

"I can sleep for three days and then wake up, look out the window and say where we are. It's the accumulation of years of experience," he says.

As you run your finger down the timetable with its list of stations the train passes through, you begin to see why some people are bewitched by the Trans-Siberian.

One nation

We rattle over metal bridges spanning rivers with names like Bolshaya Kama, Irtysh, Ob and Yenisei. They begin to look the same as the frozen landscape stretches on.

"I wouldn't say there's a comparable trip to this," says Elizabeth Barchus.

She is an American studying in Russia who has decided to take the trip as a holiday.

Olga and Tatyana Bezyzvestnykh
Mother and daughter joined the railways for better wages
"What gets me is the idea of spending so much time in one country, that it's such a vast country with so many different types of cities. It was a big deal when we crossed from Europe to Asia and we hadn't even left the country," she adds.

In the carriage corridor the lights are dimmed as darkness sets in. Just above the door, at one end, a neon sign flickers.

"Worshipful passengers! We bid you Godspeed!" it reads in English translation. "You are serviced by the personnel of the Carriage Sector of the Eastern Direction."

Servicing the passengers further down the train are a mother and daughter team of conductors, Olga and Tatyana Bezyzvestnykh. It's characteristic for the strange world of the Trans-Siberian that their surname, loosely translated, means "the Unknowns".

Although also attracted by the romance of travel, this mum and daughter reveal a little of the reality of Russian life. Olga worked in a kindergarten for 23 years. But perestroika arrived in the 1980s and Olga found herself in a poorly paid profession as the Soviet welfare state fell apart.

Different world

Now she spends her working days and nights on the trains. She likes the regular salary and the chance to see her daughter more often than ordinary life would otherwise allow.

Under the gaudy lighting of the restaurant car interior, we strain our ears to listen to the words of Alexander Yegorov, the manager. For some reason, a video of My Fair Lady is blaring out from the TV behind him.

Alexander produces a bottle of cheap cognac and tells us about his life.

Vladivostok
En route are places such as Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei and Vladivostok
He's been criss-crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian for over 20 years and had time to reflect on the state of his country and its people's psychology.

"People of my age, the 50-year-olds, we still have inside us a communist upbringing, whether we like it or not," he says.

"But not everything was bad under communism. We had pioneer camps, free education and more. People of my generation, we remember that."

Russian railways are now trying to leave behind them the Soviet era that Alexander and many of his colleagues still recall. The trains have been privatised and top class travel is now practically the same price as air travel.

But for the people on Train Number Two, travelling across Russia in a plane just wouldn't be the same.

It would be a very different kind of world.




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