A North Korean restaurant is not an obvious place for your first meal after a 5,752 mile train journey, particularly a two week jaunt through two continents and 87 stations. However, as reputedly one of the top places to eat in the Russian Far East, it seemed like a sensible choice, and after having every meal served with dill for the past fortnight, it felt difficult to go too far wrong.
The tables of Korean and Japanese businesspeople (which form a decent chunk of Vladivostok’s population) entertaining clients added some credibility to a Lonely Planet review. However, we ate with people from closer to home. They had flown from Prague into Kazakhstan and then raced through various Russian towns along the Trans-Siberian railway to reach Vladivostok for a specific purpose: to fly a rare model of Soviet-made Antonov aircraft that flies between Vladivostok and Seoul. Putting aside my misgivings about riding a train for several thousand kilometres to use a plane – each to their own – they were actually the only foreign tourists we met on our seven and a half day journey.
My initial perception that the Trans-Siberian railway was essentially now a service for foreign tourists from Moscow to Vladivostok (or Beijing and Ulan Ude) and back again (surely not) was hugely misplaced. In hindsight, if your expectations of a railway trip are partly informed by accounts of the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition then you are on pretty shaky foundations from the start – marble-lined bathrooms and porcelain baths this was not. The vast majority of users were actually Russians (and conditions a little more rudimentary).
Our first friend on board was a shop assistant returning to see her family in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third biggest city, which lies around 1,000km east of the Ural Mountains that split European and Asian Russia. This was her annual two week holiday from Milan, which had been home for several years while she worked for one of the United Kingdom’s largest fashion houses. Her arrival into our kupe (a narrow but supremely efficient berth for four) was quickly followed by two men carrying huge boxes emblazoned with ‘Lufthansa’. We were unceremoniously ejected from our seat as said boxes – only referred to as ‘contraband’ – were stashed underneath. The dubious cargo’s owners returned to it at intermittent intervals before disappearing early in the morning at one of the many stations that is the centre point of a Siberian town or village that would probably be non-existent if not for the railway.
These stations are sights in their own right: imposing concrete structures of harsh-lines and right-angles overlooking lines and lines of rails. There is little to differentiate them aside from occasionally varied paint jobs and changing local delicacies (albeit with dill and instant noodles as constants). Probably the most interesting distinction between the stations is the history surrounding them: why was this stop founded and what had happened there? Some are well-known: Yekaterinburg was the Tsar’s death place and Irkutsk was where he exiled the Decembrists.
One lesser-known stop is Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region. It sits by China’s north-eastern tip, and the station’s name is printed in Hebrew and Russian. Russia’s Jewish population was encouraged to resettle here by the Soviet Union from 1928 as its leadership tried to manipulate the country’s demographics after World War One, the civil war and various pogroms against political opponents. The Soviet Union saw the creation of a Jewish city or homeland as a propaganda victory against Western Zionism a good two decades before Israel was formed. It met some enthusiasm in the first decade, with an estimated 43,000 people moving to the region, which included Jews from Palestine. Nowadays most of Birobidzhan’s Jewish population has left as a mixture of violent repression from the 1930s onwards and the arrival of the state of Israel in 1948 caused people to migrate in search of better lives elsewhere.
Anywhere you stop on the Trans-Siberian railway, it is apparent that migration is an integral theme in Siberia’s identity and central to the development of the railway that cuts through it. Whether it was people voluntarily searching for new opportunities, political opponents forced into exile, or exploitation of the region’s natural resources, migration has been central to the region’s history and by extension that of the railway. This remains true for the Russians who continue to use it today, happily under less coercion than some previous travellers. Family, friends and business opportunities are the oft-repeated explanations for why Russians use the route, though most people we spoke with met the idea that you would go the full length on the train with a look of incredulity. However, reflecting on this during our dill-free Korean meal in Vladivostok, the conclusion was the journey was certainly worth doing, but we probably would not rush to do it again.