My husband and I spent most of 2009 traveling extensively with our 18-month-old son – Isaac, weaving our way through 23 countries on an overland journey that started in Turkey and ended in Singapore. In the summer of 2009, about halfway through our journey, we arrived in Russia, a country that had held our fascination for decades and will continue to hold a special place in our wanderlust hearts.
Long before we embarked on our 7 months of travel, we had our hearts set on riding the Trans-Siberian, the longest continuous rail service in the world. If we rode it non-stop, this eastbound route from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia spanning approxmaitely 9200 kms would take about 5 days. We chose to take our time, breaking up our month in Russia with 9 pit-stops and bite-sized overnight rides on the Trans Siberian.
Along the way we absorbed the languages and landscapes, visiting cities that owed their existence to the Trans-Siberian railroad. Our journey started with a cultural stop at St. Petersburg, followed by Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude before heading south to Ulan Bator, Mangolia.
We quickly learnt the ropes of settling in and making the most of the 12-18 hour train rides. Every train car was fitted with a samovar – an electric water boiler that was the undisputed lifeline, used for everything from warming milk to making instant noodles and porridge. We discerned that that the Providnista or carriage attendant was the first friend we needed to make. She was fiercely protective of her carriage, kept it spotlessly clean and possessed valuable bits of information such as the wait time at each stop which allowed for quick runs into the station to buy essentials. Although there were restaurant cars, we chose to bring our own food supplies - buying piroshkies, bread, and dried fruits and nuts from the platform vendors. It was also completely appropriate to open up a bottle of Vodka and drink your way through the entire journey – no surprises there! Isaac came to be endearingly called ‘malinki malchik’ or little boy as he swapped toys with Russian kids his age, popping in and out of the neighboring ‘kupes’ and running the length of the train car.
Exploring Moscow with Isaac, who loved the wide open squares.
The first stop on our Trans-Siberian route was Kazan, capital of Tatarstan an autonomous republic, and a city with a multicultural mix of Tatar Muslims, ethnic Russians and immigrants from former Soviet states. From Kazan, we crossed over the Ural Mountains to Yekaterinburg, situated on the border of Europe and Asia. The compromise, we learnt, about traveling with a young child to cities that were undoubtedly ‘culture-heavy’, was to interject church and museum visits with trips to parks and pop-up fairs that seemed to be everywhere in the summer months.
Isaac with our Olga, our gracious host in Omsk.
In Omsk and the remaining cities on our itinerary, we had arranged homestays through a cultural exchange agency. Olga, an English language teacher at the Omsk law school was the first of many local English-speaking families who graciously welcomed us into their homes and helped us understand the Russian psyche shaped over years of Soviet policies. Olga’s tiny apartment and each one we stayed at thereafter, were all part of the housing construction boom funded by the Soviet government from the 1950s through to the 1980s. On the outside, these ‘Khrushchev-era’ building complexes were stark and decrepit, but inside, these homes preserved the stories of families who lived through the austerity of communism.
In her small kitchen, between making blinis for Isaac and bowls of Broscht, Olga recounted the hardships her generation had endured. Her grandfather had been executed shortly after the 1918 revolution and Olga had grown up sharing a cramped apartment with her parents and grandmother who had little choice but to work at state owned factories. Olga’s concerns extended to the current state of affairs, yet despite all of the uncertainties, she was hopeful for better days.
Isaac throwing pebbles at Lake Baikal
From Novosibirsk we headed to Krasnoyarsk, a city of 900,000 people in the center of Siberia and then onto Irkutsk to dip our feet into the icy clear waters of Lake Baikal. The last stop on our Trans-Siberian train journey was Ulan–Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic. Unlike other cites we had visited in Russia, Ulan-Ude had a distinctly Buddhist history and the Buryatis’ oriental features reminded us of the spectrum of ethnic groups we had seen in this diverse country.
Isaac’s presence always helped break up the initial awkwardness, and conversation flowed ‘easily’ even if most of it was in basic Russian and English. We met generous locals who were always happy to show off their city, like the time the church caretaker at Omsk cathedral offered to take us up to the bell tower to see the gleaming onion domes up close, and the museum manager at Novosibirsk’s railway museum, who swayed by Isaac’s charm, opened up the museum although it was closed for the day.
Our month in Russia undoubtedly altered our pre-conceptions of family travel. Completing the Trans Siberian may have been what spurred on us initially, but at the end of the journey we realized that it had made us into the fearless traveling parents we had always wanted to be.
- Aquin Dennison-Mathew