Russia 1986

The timetable was accurate and we emphasised this to the passengers: if the timetable said the train was going to be twelve minutes on the platform then it wouldn’t be a second longer. One of my responsibilities as a carriage guard was to look after the passengers: I tidied and cleaned, I kept the water in the samovar boiling and I checked them when they got off to stretch legs on platforms.

It’s a 132 hour journey from Beijing to Moscow (7872 km) on the Trans-Siberian train. On this train there were a number of foreigners from Sweden, Germany, UK and elsewhere; lots of Chinese, including the violinist and the shouting madman in the pyjamas; and Russians of course, led by the guy who was so drunk all the time I don’t know how he still had enough alcohol to sell to the others….

Many of them got off to stretch whenever the train stopped. They paced the platform in Ulaan Baatar for the full half hour while we attached another carriage. They failed to find stamps and a post box in Irkustsk. They bought rye bread (16 kopeck) at a stall somewhere. They knew about the special sour milk you could get from upstairs in the station at Novosibirsk. They found the chocolate eclairs famously sold on the platform in Sverdlovsk.


When we pulled into Nizhneudinsk, eight of them jumped out. It was minus 40 degrees, and the stranger’s beard froze instantly. They were at least one coach-length away when the train started. I saw the panic in their eyes but it’s a long train and it starts slowly. They ran across the ice-bound platform; one grabbed the rail by the door; the others formed a human chain across the platform. I pulled the first one in; the others ran on panting and one by one pulled and pushed themselves aboard, just before the speed really built up.

It was my fault: the train had arrived five minutes late so would only stay seven minutes and not the full twelve.