Sickness forces cyclists to use Trans-Siberian

Posted July 10, 2009, at 11:39 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

My ears ring from the shrill cry of a 2-year-old girl screaming next to my bunk bed. Outside my window, the world whirls by in a dreary haze. Dark rain clouds obscure the sky and drench the earth below. On a day like this, I’m grateful to be under cover, not outside on my bicycle.

I am sitting in the upper bunk of a cramped sleeper car on the Trans-Siberian railroad. After successfully completing the first 2,200 miles of our trip, the last week has been filled with delays. First, a rare summer snow hindered our progress for several days. Next, we had to return to the nearby city of Chita two times to repair our bikes.

The worst was yet to come. My cycling partner Ellery has become very sick for the second time during this trip. We believe he has a severe case of food poisoning, but he is so sick, we believe it may be something more serious and have decided to travel by train to Chita and visit a hospital.

When Ellery became too ill to continue, we pulled off the Russian Federal Highway into a small town called Bada, dominated by a huge sawmill which employs the villagers. Locals directed me to the mill where we were able to rent a room in a small cabin on the premises.

After two days with little improvement in Ellery’s health, I went to the mill’s central office to ask directions to the train station. There, I met the owner of the mill, Sergey and his wife. The presence of a foreigner, especially one in need, almost invariably excites the curiosities, and sympathies, of the denizens of small Siberian towns. Serge’s wife served us hot tea, and explained how the couple moved to Siberia from European Russia to invest in the vast timberland in the area.

“Drive these boys to the train station!” Sergey ordered a coworker.

In small Siberian towns, one can catch a train to nearby cities only several times each day. The trains that stop in small villages are often large passenger trains coming from Moscow. Each train stops in a different village. In small towns like Bada, these trains are one of the only links to the outside world.

Outside the train station in Bada, an old goat sits on the stairs. Inside an wizened old woman sits behind the ticket counter. She says there is just one more train to Chita that afternoon, and the only spaces left are expensive first-class tickets. Not wanting to waste time, we purchase the last two tickets without thinking twice.

Buying train tickets in Siberia can be stressful because all train schedules are listed on Moscow time regardless of what part of Russia you are in. The experience can be baffling while traveling in the Asian part of Russia; Bada is in the same time zone as Indonesia, six hours ahead of Moscow in Europe. Here, you must count ahead six hours to know what time your train leaves.

On this day, we are taking the 4 p.m. train to Chita, but the woman at the ticket counter tells me that it leaves at 10 a.m. Traveling is hard enough without having to operate on a train schedule synchronized with a time zone thousands of miles away on a different continent.

When our train arrives, I scurry through the rain and step up the steep stairs into the eighth passenger car. A woman in a blue uniform takes my ticket and leads me inside. The train is divided into two sections: a long hallway leads down the right side of the train, and the left side is filled with small sleeper cars. Most of the cars on the Trans-Siberian are sleepers because the distances which people travel often last several days or more.

The woman hands me a package of blankets and opens the door for me. Inside, a Russian man rests fast asleep above a mother, grandmother, a 2-year-old girl, and an infant boy who share the bottom bunks. There is no ladder to the upper bunk, so I take advantage of my height and hoist myself up. The train soon moves forward and I stare out the window at the passing countryside.

This is my first ride aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad yet I feel like it has been part of my life for months now. Before starting this trip, I studied Russian for a month at a small university in Vladivostok, Russia, on the Pacific coast. Each night, I would listen as the trains roared past my dormitory, clanking along the tracks and rounding the city’s icy horseshoe bay. The famous train traverses nearly 6,000 miles from Moscow to its ending point in Vladivostok.

By train the trip lasts a grueling 10 days; by bicycle it will take us nearly five months.

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was begun in 1891 and completed in 1913. Before the railroad’s existence, the inhabitants of Siberia chiefly transported goods by rivers. Waterways were frozen for half of the year, allowing horse-drawn sleds to be pulled over the ice from village to village. The completion of the railroad allowed Europeans to settle this remote part of Asia in great numbers and spawned the creation of businesses, like the sawmill in Bada, in this remote part of the planet.

Today, the well-known railroad has captured the imaginations of travelers all over the world. The train allows one to travel by rail from Moscow to Beijing. The Trans-Siberian is one of the only overland links connecting the old world of Europe with the distant mystery of inner Asia.

The majority of the Federal Highway we cycle across Russia runs parallel to the railroad. For months, the resounding rhythms of boxcars rolling over the tracks have lulled me to sleep in my tent at night. Conductors often wave at us as the trains roll by. I have been following the railroad for so long I sometimes wonder if any of them recognize me.

On my bike, I pass the time by imagining who the distant figures in the train are and where they are going. Now, sitting in a cramped sleeper car with two screaming children, I’m not so curious anymore.

In Chita, we pass several days waiting to see a doctor who prescribes Ellery with more antibiotics and new medication for his stomach. When he feels better, we take the train back to Bada. The day we leave it is a sweltering 82 degrees. The trains are designed to keep passengers warm during freezing winters. I break into a sweat as I enter the car.

On the return voyage, we have purchased cheaper second-class seats. I am once again in an upper bunk. This one is smaller; there is not enough room for me to stretch out my legs and I must lay with my feet tucked in so they do not stick out into the aisle. It is so hot that I must lay completely motionless; if I move at all, the heat becomes unbearable.

Six hours later, the train pulls into Bada and I am happy to get off, to hop back on my bicycle in the open breeze the next day.

“Do you work here?” A woman who works on the train asks. She must assume I am in the Peace Corps.

“Just traveling,” I answer.

The train comes to the halt and the door swings open. I step out of the car onto the platform below. My brief experience of how most people travel in Russia has come to an end. From here we continue on bicycle.

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