When temperatures drop well below freezing, Matthew Woodward learns to adapt to life on board the Trans-Siberian. At least the blinis are as good as he remembers...
I meet Sergei in the outer compartment at the end of the carriage as we approach Ishim. Depending on your choice of time zone, it was a bright and sunny start to the day. Or a bright and sunny start to the afternoon.
Sergei can be a man of few words, but his English is excellent. He breaks it down into two words for me today – "Cold, problem". I'm not sure at first of the nature of the problem, but I think it is that the carriage outer door has frozen closed. It's clearly not insurmountable though, as he has a range of heavy metal implements to beat the life out of it until it opens.
My time at Ishim is focused on getting a resupply of water and chocolate, as the stop is only 10 minutes long. Siberian platform shops are a semi-unique phenomenon, and a concept that I think it is safe to say will never catch on with major western retailers. The shop has a window plastered with every item on sale, and a tiny hatch to conduct business though.
A bit of pointing and proffering some Rubles results in a transaction, and the item is passed out to you. Think of it as an outside version of Argos, but without the catalogue. I also bought a freshly cooked doughnut that was stuffed with meat and vegetables. It tasted pretty good, and I conclude that if it is still warm in this climate it must have literally just come out of the oven.
I am nothing but impressed with the restaurant carriage on my train. My understanding is that these are run as a kind of separate business from the rest of the train and they vary considerably in style, albeit with a common menu. The one on this train is modern, well run and the food is excellent. Chef even added some herbs to my eggs at breakfast yesterday. Real herbs!
Today I have one thing on my mind. That is the possibility of caviar and blinis for brunch. Unfortunately, there can be many things on the menu that are not available, but you never know if you don't ask, so I head west two carriages and eight doors to find out.
On this trip I broke my train rule number three and quickly regretted it – never wash your hands before passing between train carriages. Wet hands simply stick to the bare metal handles on the outside ends of each coach. Some of the carriage crossings are quite challenging on this train, requiring a sort of a jump and a pirouette over the sliding and moving metal ramp covered with snow and ice in "no man's land". I must be out of practice. It's all about timing and counterbalancing the rolls and leaps of the train.
Once I reach my objective I see that Valerie, the restaurant manager, is sat in his normal booth counting money and adding things up with an enormous desk calculator. He greets me and asks if I want a beer. Even on local time it's not noon yet, but I have noticed that some of the Russian passengers enjoy a vodka or two for breakfast.
I ask about the blinis and am amazed to discover that they are actually on the menu – so we do have an onboard supply of caviar. This won't last long, as now I know it exists I shall be having this dish at least once a day. I'm also enjoying the Russian-style coffee on this train – its the sort where the grounds get mixed in and sink to the bottom. You might know it as Turkish or Middle Eastern in style. Two cups of this rocket fuel together with my blinis and caviar cost me 500 rubles, about £4.50. This is the bargain of the trip so far.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice that the restaurant manager has assembled a long hose to what looks like an enema bag. He seems to be planning some mad maintenance of some kind. He mutters to me "systemia, systemia" as he wanders off. I'm probably better off not knowing.
After lunch it is very quiet on board and I think most of the train is having a siesta as we arrive into Omsk at 13.37. It's clearly a popular place – for the first time on this trip there are crowds of people on the platforms and I can spot soldiers, sailors and even an ice hockey team preparing to board our train.
It is considerably colder this morning and this has an impact on my judgement of time. The stop is for 16 minutes, but after 5 minutes I'm keen to get back onto my very well heated carriage. I can appreciate why the Russians like them so hot, even though it doesn't agree with me at night time.
Matthew Woodward has completed several amazing long distance rail adventures using the Trans-Siberian railway and onward across Asia. From from his home in Edinburgh he has reached Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and is now headed for Tibet. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures