Russia By Rail

Russia By Rail: Setting Off From Moscow

Seven time zones, nearly 6,000 miles, and a lot of tea and borscht. That only begins to describe the long journey by David Greene, NPR's Moscow correspondent. He's been in Russia for just over two years and for his last reporting trip, he's riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok.

While crossing the world's largest country and bridging two continents, he'll make stops to capture the mood and the culture of Russia at an important milestone, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

  • Passengers rush past the "0" marker signifying the start of the Trans-Siberian railroad on the loading platform at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in downtown Moscow. The Trans-Siberian rail line starts at this station and snakes its way across Russia through the country's major cities, ending at the Pacific Ocean.
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    Passengers rush past the "0" marker signifying the start of the Trans-Siberian railroad on the loading platform at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in downtown Moscow. The Trans-Siberian rail line starts at this station and snakes its way across Russia through the country's major cities, ending at the Pacific Ocean.
    All photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Passengers wait on a train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.
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    Passengers wait on a train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Railroad tracks criss-cross away from Yarolslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.
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    Railroad tracks criss-cross away from Yarolslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.
  • Passengers walk past the departing train announcement board at the start of the Trans-Siberian railroad next to the loading platform at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal. It is the longest rail line and arguably the most famous, stretching over 9,000 kilometers and spanning 7 time zones.
    Hide caption
    Passengers walk past the departing train announcement board at the start of the Trans-Siberian railroad next to the loading platform at the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal. It is the longest rail line and arguably the most famous, stretching over 9,000 kilometers and spanning 7 time zones.
  • A passenger looks out the window of Train #350 along the Trans-Siberian route.
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    A passenger looks out the window of Train #350 along the Trans-Siberian route.
  • Trains pass each other along the rail line.
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    Trains pass each other along the rail line.
  • A woman waits for a local train at a small station along the Trans-Siberian railroad.
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    A woman waits for a local train at a small station along the Trans-Siberian railroad.
  • Passengers wait for a local train at a small station.
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    Passengers wait for a local train at a small station.

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The Trans-Siberian has played a significant role in Russian history, life and culture, encompassing both the good and bad.

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NPR takes an epic trip — riding the Trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Since they were built at the dawn of the 20th century, the Trans-Siberian railways have attracted factories along their path. As communities grew up along the railroad, the Trans-Siberian became the spine of Soviet industry.

But the railroad is also a symbol of horror – carrying people eastward to exile or to their death in the gulags.

Today the Trans-Siberian remains the backbone of Russia, both for transit and trade. And taking a trip along the length of the rail line provides an excellent way to grasp the country at a pivotal moment — 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991.

The train itself is a story. During those long hours on board, Russian travelers often make new friends, talking politics and sharing food (and, yes, sometimes vodka). In a country with low salaries, visiting family in distant places often means going by train, as air travel simply costs too much.

Standing at the "0 Kilometer" marker at Yaroslavsky station in Moscow, passengers board trains bound for the eastern reaches of the country. One trans-Siberian veteran, Sergei Trakhov, a geology professor, served up some advice.

Sergei Tarkhov, a geology professor and Trans-Siberian veteran, stands near the zero kilometer mark at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow. i i

Sergei Tarkhov, a geology professor and Trans-Siberian veteran, stands near the zero kilometer mark at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Sergei Tarkhov, a geology professor and Trans-Siberian veteran, stands near the zero kilometer mark at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.

Sergei Tarkhov, a geology professor and Trans-Siberian veteran, stands near the zero kilometer mark at Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow.

David Gilkey/NPR

"These trains have a lot of stops," he says. "Along the platforms there [are] a lot of local sellers – you can catch local food." He suggested eating dumplings in the Ural mountains, Mongolian and Chinese as the train pushes deep into Asia, and sampling the Pacific seafood in Vladivostok. His menu is just one sign of how many cultures the train passes through.

No one captures the essence of the trans-Siberian better than 69-year-old Tamara Ostrovskaya. Wrapped in furs and surrounded by overstuffed parcels, she was waiting for her train to Krasnoyarsk – a three-day journey to the east.

The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock. i i

The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock. Alyson Hurt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alyson Hurt/NPR
The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock.

The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock.

Alyson Hurt/NPR

But she wasn't dreading the trip.

"Good nature and good people," she said through an interpreter. "Nice people in the cabins, so we have good time during our long journey."

As for those overstuffed bags?

"Here, I have rug, a small rug, my clothes and something to eat and over there I have some presents for my family," she explained.

Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow. i i

Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow.

Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow.

David Gilkey/NPR

So here, on a frozen train platform stood two Russian babushkas, Tamara and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya. Tamara rode the rails to Moscow to keep Albina company – she lost her husband a decade ago at age 49.

It's one of the realities of Russian culture — the male life expectancy is barely over 60 due in part to hard work and alcoholism — and women often live their later years alone. It's a hard place and a hard life for many people — one of the many realities of this place, and this culture, that David and his team will be exploring over the course of the two-week trip.

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