Riding the virtual Trans-Siberian
The decor of the Trans-Siberian is sometimes comfortingly kitsch. (Martin Moos/LPI)
Not doing anything for six days? How about taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok for free? That is what a Google/Russian Railways project has begun offering — a real-time video project, where you can watch Russia click by to the tune of (simulated) train tracks, Russian radio or a (Russian) reading of War and Peace. Click on the interactive map and jump ahead to see Lake Baikal or the arrival at Vladivostok, 9,288km (about 5,700 miles) and seven times zones east.
It is quite a project; the crew spent 30 days filming all of Russia with a fixed camera looking out the window's north side.
But, for me, they miss the real highlight of the non-virtual version.
Having updated Lonely Planet's Trans-Siberian Railway guide a couple times, and clocked something like 15 to 20 days of Russian rail time in my life, my first remembrances of the Trans-Siberian rarely consider what is out the window. But what is found onboard.
Nowhere is it easier to meet Russians than on a train. Some of the same people who treat passerby in the street indifferently, welcome cabin-mates as if in their own home. Like the 60-something couple I met on an overnight train to Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East, who insisted on readying my bed, giving me whole tomatoes from their garden to eat like apples, and then having "just a bit" of their vodka, amazingly still in a frosted bottle. Or the woman who looked like Joe Pesci who pulled me from the cabin to admire a passing dam. Or the failed Olympian gymnast who vaulted into his top bunk with finesse. Or the 50-something Novosibirsk professor whose family had been shipped to a Gulag-built town, after WWII, who sadly confessed that, though he tried, he could not stomach heavy metal. "Maybe it's only for young men?," he asked hopefully.
I enjoyed the scenery, but I was inspired by the people.
Some visitors go straight on the Trans-Siberian, without stopping, which I consider a missed opportunity. The scenery, mostly taiga forest, can be monotonous, and there is a handful of worthy stops like the unreal Lake Baikal to break the trip - and to take a real shower.
It takes nearly seven days to go from Moscow to Vladivostok. The longest I was onboard was 40 hours. I would fill them reading, talking, studying Russian phrases, eating in the dining car, making tea or instant Chinese noodle dishes from the hallway samovar, debating a makeshift "shower" (with attached rubber hose to bathroom sink), or lifting my feet once daily as the provodnitsa (the carriage attendant, usually women) came in to vacuum.
Watching some of the new Google videos, I could not help but miss a few of the timeless Siberian towns I have stopped at, and the snow-capped mountains or that steady stream of forest out the window. But more often I think about what is going behind their cameras.