Taking the long Trans-Siberian road to Japan

by Mads Olrik Berthelsen

Special To The Japan Times

In the late summer of 2009, while standing hung over on a pier at Fushiki Port in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, one of those little-visited industrial cities on the west coast of Honshu, I suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of a tiger. This came as no surprise: It seemed a quite proper way to end our journey, first by the Trans-Siberian Railway, 9,300 km from Moscow to Vladivostok, and then another 1,160 km with the ferry across the Sea of Japan. The weirdnesses of that journey, in fact, seemed perfectly in keeping with a giant cat roaring at me in the middle of a windswept, monochrome harbor.

I took a solemn oath that day: Never again would I set foot in an airplane. I would also shy away from highways, subways, elevators or any other sort of high-speed transportation, because they are all, as anthropologists will tell you, “nonplaces.” They call them that because we are never really there — we just rush through them on our way to something else. In contrast, taking the long road from Europe to Japan had showed me you need not rush; travel as slowly as you can, and good things will happen.

That said, we had left Moscow in a hurry. The ferry from Vladivostok to Japan departs only once a week, and since we were already late we decided to take the whole 9,300-km Trans-Siberian rail odyssey in one gulp, rather than availing ourselves of the one stopover a single ticket allows.

We didn’t mind leaving the Russian capital. It’s four-lane highways were no places for tourists, Lenin’s tomb was closed at the time for refurbishment and we were still digesting our experience of a cheap circus where ferrets did arm walks and children cheered as monkeys in shackles recreated a Jewish wedding. Replacing all that with mythic stretches of Siberian lowlands was a real thought to conjure with.

If you’re like me, the first thing you’d do on boarding a Trans-Siberian train at its Yaroslavsky station terminus and entering a second-class cabin would be well-nigh hyperventilate. A pair of regular-issue Scandinavian shoulders barely fit in the gap between the pairs of bunk beds, one above the other, on either side of the compartment — and the length of the mattress dictates you’ll be sleeping in the fetal position.

Down the hall, meanwhile, is a single toilet in gray steel to be shared by the 30 or so travelers in your car. The only other furnishing is a samovar — a boiler from where you can get hot water for your noodles or instant soup (always soup).

Then, before you’ve time for any more exploration, the train pulls away from the platform and plunges into the deep, bright forests of European Russia. Other than short stops at small towns becalmed in that ocean of trees, and occasional glimpses of tiny villages, that unbroken taiga landscape of coniferous pines, spruces and larches is all you see for the next two days until the huge diesel locomotives start laboring up the flanks of the Ural Mountains that stretch 2,500 km roughly north-south from the Arctic Ocean to the Ural River and the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan.

For a long time on the ascent you get accustomed to the screech of the train’s wheels edging around sharp corners. Then, quite suddenly, that stops and you know you have entered Asia when you feel the train start rolling down the eastern slopes of this continental divide and into Siberia.

Siberia is a nonplace all to itself, it seems; everything I have ever read about this enormous region stretching from the icebound North down to the Gobi Desert, and from the Urals’ 1,800-meter peaks to the frigid North Pacific, has been written by people who traveled through it and returned with tales of “the land of white death” populated by Amur tigers (the biggest cats in the world) and escaped convicts — and where extreme cold rules several months of every year.

At the same time, this huge swath of northern Asia is the backyard of Russia. Stalin relocated much of the USSR’s heavy industry here behind the Urals to keep it safe from German bombers during World War II; while, since the 1700s, first the Tsars and then the Soviets have used its remote expanses to store away prisoners, artists and other undesirables, locking them in fierce nature.

But Siberia’s inhospitable side doesn’t matter when you see it from inside a train. Instead, the gigantic land mass becomes another way to experience time.

Other than brief halts when we could barter with platform hawkers for local fruits, sweets, pies or cigarettes, the train made longer stops, but never for more than 30 minutes, at cities such as Perm, 1,450 km out, and Yekaterinburg 320 km further on — a place formerly known as Sverdlovsk, and before that, when Tsar Nicholas II and many of his family were murdered there by Bolsheviks in 1918, as Ekaterinburg.

After a few days, we found ourselves leaning into the rhythm of our little world that moved constantly at around 55 kph. The “kachink-kachink” of the train on its unending road of sleepers, echoing the beat of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” was one thing, but we could feel the Trans-Siberian further down, in our circadian rhythms. Sitting over two bowls of thin soup (always soup) in the restaurant car, my friend and I did the math: In the seven days it takes to travel the entire route between Moscow and Vladivostok, you pass through seven time zones, which means you set your clocks one hour ahead once a day. Effectively, this means that the days do not have 24 hours, but 23.

In the vacuum of our cabin, we could feel time becoming a different kind of beast. One day we got up at 5 in the morning, the next we slept in until a steward woke us at lunchtime with freshly made pirogs. The days were magically shorter, but moments stretched out: We lay on our top bunks staring out the smudgy window for 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time as matchstick-thin trees gave way to flat, green plains.

For our fellow passengers, time had a different meaning altogether, a more imminent one. On the bunk below mine sat Dmitri, a 58-year-old steelworker on his way to Novosibirsk for open-heart surgery. In the other bottom bunk was Sergei, a lanky teenager. Like us, he was on his way to Vladivostok; but while we were going there en route to adventures in Japan, when he disembarked it would be to serve five years in the Russian Navy, thousands of miles away from home. We did everything in our power to make him laugh and stuffed a Playboy magazine down his duffle bag. He shared his mother’s cookies in return.

For a good 800 km the train followed a river, the Ob I’d warrant, bending with it toward a short stopover some 3,335 km from Moscow at the improbably large and seemingly vibrant city of Novosibirsk. To our right were hills clothed in smooth green grass in a panorama that changed so slowly it was almost imperceptible.

Often, to confirm we were moving ahead at all, we just stared ahead at the locomotive curving somnolently left and right. Then, all of a sudden, a human silhouette would show up in the distance. It could be a lone motorcycle bumping across a gravel road, or a couple of kids next to a waterhole, drying their thin bodies in the sun. Unstoppable, we rushed slowly past them, disappearing round a bend to be suddenly alone again in our cubicle world so very far apart from theirs.

Just over halfway, after almost 5,500 km, we saw something they would almost certainly never see: The horizon rose and fell as the train curved around a mountain by dusk, and behind the constantly changing landscape the sun set and then reappeared three times. This train was not a normal place.

Lake Baikal, 600-odd km long and blue in the dusk, passed us by, slowly, leaving us to wonder at its superlatives: the most unfrozen fresh water on the planet (20 percent of the total); the world’s deepest lake (1,642 meters); and likely its oldest (25 million years). The next stop, at Ulan Ude, is where most travelers turn off, picking up the Trans-Mongolian Railway south over the steppes to Ulan Bator and across the Gobi Desert all the way to Beijing.

We, though, stayed on as our tracks headed north. Alex, a crew member we dubbed The Captain because of his attire, rewarded us with a private concert in the deserted restaurant car. He pulled out his guitar and danced his bulging fingers over the 12 strings for a slow polka. As he struggled to stand upright, under his loose shirt you could see his pale belly slopping over the waistband of his pants like a pie’s crust over the side of its dish. Nonetheless, with his white captain’s cap wrinkled, and greasy hair sticking out from under it, he delightedly delivered a stream of rusty lyrics through his gold teeth.

Outside, the trees suddenly gave way and a green valley came into view, with nothing but distant firs in sight. How long did we sit in that restaurant cart? Maybe days.

We were six hours from Vladivostok, going southward through wet, green swamps, when madness struck. We started to hurl everything we could find out the window — our instant noodles (we’d always made soup), a jar of Nutella, apples, rolls of toilet paper. Poor Sergei, our soldier friend, sat silently alone with his thoughts as we roamed around the train, drunk on the surplus of time. We stuck our heads out the window and screamed at oncoming trains, and only when we could smell the ocean did we calm down. We craved normality.

After seven 23-hour days set to that constant rhythm in our tiny cubicle, we just wanted a break, but Vladivostok gave us no respite.

When the train pulled into the station at the eastern terminus of a line, the ocean fog above us was lit by green and red fireworks, the air reeked of gunpowder and salt — and the whole city was intoxicated.

Beneath us, too, the ground wobbled as we walked through the city. But worse, the “kachink-kachink” was still stuck in our bodies when we boarded the ship that would take us to Japan.

Walking onto the ferry was like entering the Soviet Union. Our cabin was draped in 1970s-style orange, a color matched by the rust on the hull. Romantic paintings of lush forests hung by the stairs; in the music room the chairs were stacked to the side and, except for sounds of the engine churning, the whole vessel felt as though in slumber. Out back was a square pool, painted blue; left empty. Understanding the translation of the escape plan proved impossible and we pondered the fact that in case of shipwreck we would probably float ashore in North Korea. Later, this bizarre prospect gained another dimension thanks to the tigers and bears sleeping a few decks below — fellow passengers we weren’t yet aware of.

The good news was that in case of an emergency there would be plenty of lifeboats to go around, as the ferry was barely a quarter full. For years it had profited from a gaping hole in the Russian tax code that allowed the unrestricted import of Japanese cars, which filled it with businessmen. Incidentally, of course, as Russia drives on the right and Japan on the left, that meant many of Vladivostok’s drivers had not only been well-oiled but sitting on the wrong side of their cars to boot. However, that tax hole had been closed, and now only a few disgruntled used-car salesmen carrying CDs with topless women on the cover took the two-day trip from Vladivostok to Takaoka.

Along with a young British art student, Olivier, we squeezed in between the disgruntled ones at the restaurant’s long table and fought over the cabbage and soup (always soup). Further down sat a group of families on their way to Tokyo Disneyland who had chosen the ferry for fear of flying. We joined them for an impromptu origami class in Russian. And then, of course, there was Anastasia and Max — circus people, as it turned out.

Max, with buzzcut hair and shorts, had majored in psychology but now made a living doing handstands. Anastasia, a smiling girl with a broad headband, had studied economics, but for years she had been a bear handler, helping her father with his act in which he balances a very long pole on his chin while a bear stands on its front paws on top of it. We asked her to draw it to make sure we’d understood her right.

The bears were sleeping down below next to the tigers, she told us — all tranquilized for the trip. They were part of the Moscow State Circus heading off for a summer tour in Japan. In the evening we were invited to a cabin on one of the lowest decks, where the troupe of acrobats shared a few bottles of booze with cyrillic letters on the labels and we all drank without concern. On their portable television a detective was trying to solve the murder of a businessman who had been killed by flowers growing up through his body.

Everything started to get hazy as we went down below to the dim car deck. We passed a giant pile of dark red meat and our eyes tried to get used to the low light. And there they were: a long row of cages filled with bears and tigers, whose heavy breathing you could barely hear over the engine. Russian cognac in hand, we poked the animals with our eyes and laughed so hard at the absurdity of our situation that Anastasia was afraid we’d wake them.

Back up on deck, we found the pool was suddenly, magically, filled with salty water straight from the Sea of Japan. Along with the princes and princesses of the circus, we stripped and jumped in as the water sloshed violently from side to side in time with the ship. Standing on the bottom you could feel the engine pounding right below you. It was pitch black, but then we started to make out three little lights in the distance. It was Japan, we were getting close. We celebrated with Crimean champagne until our memory was pitch black, too.

The next thing we knew, there was a call over the ship’s intercom. Then another, followed by a fast knocking on our door. But we didn’t wake until a stewardess barged into our cabin and started to remove the bedding without worrying that we were still sleeping on it. Behind her entered three tiny men in plastic jumpsuits with black hair sticking out at the top. They wanted to see passports. We had arrived.

The baggage was fine, so were our visas. Only when they asked to check our cameras for indecent material did we realize how meticulously we had documented the night’s shenanigans.

Slowly piecing together fragments of memory, it dawned on us what the Japanese customs officers would soon find: a grinning man with an eagle tattooed on his naked back, stuffing a 1,000-rouble note into my pants. We had pictures of that. Climbing the watchtower and waving our shirts in the wind. We had pictures of that, too. Stumbling around unsupervised in the engine room; throwing cocktail glasses in the pool; breaking an escape door and disposing of the evidence over the railing. Yes, there were even videos.

One of the jumpsuits lowered the camera and glanced at us before he flashed a huge smile. “Moscow!” he said, turning the camera to show us the screen. He had stopped at our pictures from the Red Square, just short of the evidence of the night’s havoc.

Clothes stuck out everywhere from our backpacks as we stumbled down the gangway to the dock. The animals had awoken. a little pallet truck buzzed around with the cages and we waved to the tigers as they drove by, striding around in their box that was about half the size of our compartment on the Trans-Siberian. We gazed at them, and an epiphany struck us such as can only strike the young and hung over: This is how to travel. Slowly, on the ground. no other way. Of course, we would break our solemn no-fly vow that very summer. Time and reality caught up with us a month later, in Seoul, and we boarded a plane back to Europe. But right there on the quayside I was sure that I would never again miss an adventure by flying over it.

We went over to the bus that would take the circus around Japan, hugged Anastasia and Max goodbye and looked around. Low mountains lay like a rumpled carpet around the horizon. After crossing Russia, and then crossing the Sea of Japan Russian-style, everything seemed so clean and delicate, like we were the first guests of the season to enter an amusement park. A drawing of a cute green frog waved at us from a road fence: “Welcome to Japan,” it seemed to say. Now what?

Readers interested in emulating the author’s journey should note that the Vladivostok-Takaoka ferry was recently discontinued. Another service, DBS Cruise Ferry, now links Vladivostok with Sakaiminato, Tottori Pref.

  • Johnny T

    The Vladivostok-Fushiki boat no longer operates, last I looked they had something going from Vlad to Tottori Prefecture. A shame you didn’t stop anywhere, Irkutsk for example near Lake Baikal is a fantastic city.

  • KTA

    Very fascinating read.

  • Mads Olrik Berthelsen

    Hi Johnny T. Thanks for your comment. Yeah, my editor spotted that the ferry doesn’t run anymore. Too bad, it was a wonderful place! We would have loved to stop a few places on the Trans-Siberian, but taking the whole journey in one gulp was also a highly recommendable experience.