Trans-Sib to Taiwan: Part 3: Moscow


Time was required in Moscow in order to collect the ticket for Beijing. As the weekly train did not leave until 23.45 we allowed an extra day (in case of delay).

Recent travellers in Russia will attest that there is now no country on the Continent where foreigners are more free from the vexatious proceedings of custom-house and police-officers. The passport-system of Russia, once so strictly enforced, at present only demands that the traveller should be provided with a national passport bearing the visa that will be readily given by any Russian diplomatic or consular authority; and even during his residence and his travels within the empire the stranger is subject to no further police regulations than the exhibition of his passport at the hotel or house where he resides. He may converse on politics as freely as in his own country, and study

The social condition of the empire in all its interesting phases of transition without let or hindrance, and without any fear of the liabilities described by writers on Russia ten years ago

The introduction of railways is among the most important changes that the traveller will find in Russia.

We had planned for our hotel to be central – but until the taxi descended towards the Moscow river had not realised how central – we were by the Kremlin (which means ‘fortress within the city’. The Moscow Kremlin is one of many ‘kremlins’ of ‘citadels’)

Immediately opposite the hotel were the imposing buildings that house the Russian State Library with a statue of Dostoyevsky outside.

A similar style of architecture was used for communist era buildings inside the Kremlin which retains internally the embedded symbols of the old regime (which might seem strange until due consideration is given to the way in which in UK, for example, we retain, without any great awareness, many images associated with colonialism)

The buildings in central Moscow have a formalised grandeur but the same limited architectural style does not produce such a positive impact when applied to the less easily managed domestic architecture. The imposed limits of such an approach to development simply become dreary (even when new)

….though adding colour (in the street and on building facade) can improve matters and break the repetitive nature of a street scene.

Harsh winters require plants to be covered – as here in the Alexander Gardens below the Kremlin

On the other side of the Kremlin is Red Square and the historic ‘Gum’ store. Now a form of shopping Mall, during that latter years of communism it was famous for being one of the very few places that did not seem too suffer from paucity of supply of consumer goods.

Red Square itself, with other areas around the Kremlin, was operating as a form of ‘winter wonderland’

In the three cities where we saw Christmas markets (Köln, Poznań & Moscow) there were aspects of local tradition that featured in the otherwise commercial melange that the Christmas festival has become. Moscow produced the most specific examples – though we did not understand the references in the way locals would, the presence of strange animals (shown in the last picture below) contains parallels with the winter ‘guising’ traditions that occur in various forms, especially in winter, across Europe

Imported snow


Certain activities seem to have almost become something of a ‘folk art’.

The desire for ‘posed pictures’ was expressed in a wide variety of ways:

There was the ‘processional’ (first picture, photographer requiring couple to walk together), detailed (second picture – the photographer is focusing not on person but her stylish boots!) or simply ‘fun’ (the others)…. and a final moment of excess!

The glitzy nature of the Christmas fair may not be entirely to everyone’s taste – but there are, as a part of the historic situation, some interesting precedents –

one in particular:

Nothing seen in the square can compare to that which forms part of the historic ensemble…. even down to the golden drapes hanging from the grooves.

Humanity has always struggled to find balance between excesses – including the simple issue of pleasuring of the senses and managing a society.

Looking out and beyond the significant and influential spaces associated with the Kremlin, the impact of what was from 1917 until the late C20th the ‘new order’. They provide a considerable contrast with the colours surrounding the ‘citadel’.

Whatever the jolly mood of the present, or the glorious expression of the past, the Kremlin also provides a stimulating extra.

Placed in a central position along the wall of the Kremlin is a building containing a reminder of what such struggles sometimes create – and that society that ignores appropriate levels of social justice to its peril.

The resident of the above building is also remembered elsewhere:

In this case he oversees passers-by who join or leave what seemed to be the Escalator of Eternity

The visit to Moscow was concentrated on a very limited area – but it provided a range of images & encounters.

Some were completely inexplicable, but guesswork added sharp poignancy to the the visit




Others provided a range of memorable & stimulating images & encounters.

Later in the day we  dined near our hotel – reasonably smart and definitely expensive.  The advice we read did not completely accord with what we experienced:

With reference to wines and drinks, it is indispensable, for the sake of harmony and comparison, to order nothing but what is produced on Russian soil. The sherry of the Crimea is a very tolerable brown sherry; the imitations of Bordeaux and Champagne are better than many inferior marks of the genuine article. Prince Woronzoffs wines are highly recommended. The wine of the Caucasus comes in very appropriately as a Burgundy. Be sure to ask for Kahdtinskoe, a very sound and pure wine. The ladies will be pleased with Gumbrinskoe’, a pleasant sweet wine grown in the Gumbri district of the Caucasus. The champagne of the Don, Donskod Champanskoe’, very often appears on Russian tables disguised as Clicquot, and is really a very potable wine; all the sparkling wines of the Crimea have a slight taste of apples, and the others have the gout du terroir.

Having finished dinner, the visitor to Moscow should proceed to inspect the rooms devoted to tea-drinking. A seat close to the barrel-organ is the best point of observation……

….. Events of a more festive character are celebrated at establishments where the bottle and the glass replace the more steady teapot, especially since the price of Vodka has been made very low. Those establishments need not be inspected ; their effect will be painfully seen in the tottering moujik and the oblivious woman jolting home in a drojky, or waiting to be picked up from the gutter.

(valuable though the above maybe it is somewhat dated – Murray’s guide 1865)


Its somewhat curious to find places such as the Moscow Kremlin & Red Square having such endearing personable natures.

This is an interesting reflection on the way in which we are all influenced by the social attitudes that surround us. Previously I’ve only ever known them through media presentations – and for much of my life, somewhat negatively presented.

An example of this occurred whilst I was in Moscow – an email from a friend who knew I was by the Kremlin had a jokingly cautious tone:

‘As long as you are only “by the Kremlin”!!!’

one line imbued with a host of cultural misinterpretation & misunderstanding


‘Red Square’ was smaller than I imagined & was not the fearsome formal space of military processions – but was a Christmas playground in front of a major shopping arcade (‘Gum’) and against a beautifully made red wall, which neatly sets-off the mausoleum containing Lenin.

Was it always so relaxed?


Between Church Stretton and Beijing we used 8 separate trains. To reach Moscow, which was comparatively close to our starting point, we used 7, from then on, for 7826 kms, only one.

It began at 23.45 on Tuesday and finished on the following Monday afternoon. Moscow has a 3 hour time difference from UK (expressed in 2 changes – one of 2 hours). We added a further 5 time zones – and if China had followed international patterns (it only has one time zone for the whole country) we would have had 6.

During the journey thus far we had managed to keep a reasonable account of progress – and managed to load information. This seemed a reasonable way of satisfying the varied requests for photos and information regarding our travels.

I was wrong.

The moving train, made uploading information (text as well as photos – but especially photos) extremely difficult. Similar learning occurred with photography – the conversional & better picture quality camera was simply not able to focus as quickly as the iPhone camera – many images were lost.

With good quality on-train wi-fi (poor on the Strizh from Poznan to Moscow and non-existent on our elderly Chinese sleeper train to Beijing) and appropriate camera, something could be achieved.

The Beijing train departs from Moscow Yaroslavsky station which, being in a process of reconstruction,, had us wandering around following signs leading nowhere – until we eventually found the train – almost by accident, parked well outside the main station.

It was obviously our train (being the only Chinese train) but where were the passengers? Apart from a small group of staff standing by the Russian restaurant car, there was nobody.

At each carriage door is a Chinese ‘provodnik’ (conductor). The Chinese train only had the male variety – on Russian trains (such as the Strizh) they are usually female
Our train has a somewhat careworn appearance
An empty platform – but ready to leave.



We were onboard! Down the corridor and into the compartment that would be our living space for the next 6 days.

We were ‘Deluxe, Soft Class’. This provided 2 beds – one above the other. A piece of what seemed like carpet was provided to place on the hard surface and some sheeting was haded over by the carriage attendant. Opposite the 2 bunk beds was a seat facing the table.

Researching the journey produced a wide variety of tales – often mildly horrific stories related to food, sanitation, other passengers & the provodnitsa.

Almost every negative we encountered when researching the train was incorrect. Maybe such negative stories are the product of people who have little experience of international travel & expectations that, given the context of the railway, are simply ridiculous.

One site outlines the likely passenger composition:

“Quite wealthy families, they usually manage to get a compartment for all of them together, and they eat all day, play games in the evening, comment on the route, get bored.
Students native of eastern Russian cities, who study in Moscow and come back home for the summer.
Army guys, younger or older, who cross the Russian continent to go back to their families, or who go to fight in Chechnya or to work in South countries. They travel for free, so they usually choose to be in Second class, as it is mre comfortable than the third class communal wagons.
You might also meet Western tourists who don’t know what to answer to the invitations of Russian army guys to drink Vodka.
In the 1st class you meet businessmen, and wealthier people enjoying the privacy of two people compartments.
In the third class communal “platzcart” wagons you will meet groups of children, and middle class-not so wealthy people travel in communal wagons.”

But there we are – in the only occupied compartment – and on wandering along the platform to examine more, seemingly on a train without, part from staff, any other passengers:

 I had noticed a young chap with rucksack drifting around the platform – but he faded away as we shuffled along the platform looking for our carriage (Number 9).

There was no ‘platzcart’ on our train – only first and second class coaches. Maybe the Chinese train is too foreign for the ‘local’ to consider using (there are many other trains on the route) – maybe its simply the time of year (and too early for any student ‘Christmas’ movement – Christmas being ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Old Style’ (Julian calendar) on January 6th/7th).

Whatever the reason, I’m delighted – we have no desire to engage in social life, merely wanting to quietly trundle across the vastness of Russia en route to Taiwan .

So – undisturbed by anyone we take delivery of our bedding – and attempt to understand how to create a mattress and use the sheets provided.

Bed prepared:


Once again – we have examined texts in order to have made the best of all preparations

Travellers in winter should… take no notice of such variations, but continue to wear their fur clothing. Any change of dress in winter is sure to produce a violent cold. Cloaks of the racoon (Shuba) are mostly worn. They may be purchased in Germany for about 100 thalers, but their quality will be found inferior to those of Russia. A walking coat thickly wadded, and with a fur collar, will be found very useful. Ladies wear cloaks or jackets wadded with eiderdown or lined with fox-skins. A sable collar and muff, and a small round hat of sable, complete the winter costume of a lady. These furs should be purchased at St. Petersburg (at Efimofs, Gostinnoi Dvor), where they will be found much cheaper and far better than in England or in Germany.

(Murray 1865)


Jacqui had an eiderdown wadded jacket and ‘small round hat’ of sheepskin. My preparations included ‘a walking coat thickly wadded’ Kirgiz/Mongolian style.






Thus, properly prepared we settle, ready for the journey across Siberia:

“OK Train”

“We are Ready to Roll”

The account continues at



%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close