The Rossiya is a firmeny class of train, which makes it the top quality, luxury end of Trans-Siberian/Mongolian train travel – although my definition of luxury is pretty wide. In this case, it means a 4-berth cabin, which we shared with Igor the Driller from Tyumen, decorated in grey plastic and royal blue polyester. Feline flinging opportunities were limited.
We immediately filled our cups at the samovar at the end of the carriage so we could mix up our hot chocolate (tastes of artificial sweetener and isn’t a patch on instant Horlicks). Igor bought tea and a cup from the provodnitsa who maintained the samovar, carriage cleanliness and a huge purple hairdo with equal vigour. His ornate glass and metal cup showed up our cheap plastic mugs and was the first hint that we were not bringing enough glamour to the journey.
The next morning we had tangerines and tea for breakfast. A rare show of restraint that was never to be repeated. Within a few hours we were tearing through our Rub800 (£17) picnic that we’d picked up in a swish Moscow supermarket, where boxes of Whittards tea were sold for £12.
We’d bought bread rolls, a salami called Little Jesus, slices of mild, Swiss-style cheese and a jar of cornichons. With that we made the best train sandwiches in the world ever and Leonard discovered a deep love for pickled vegetables. Pudding was spicy Russian biscuits that tasted of ginger and cinnamon.
That afternoon our cabin was invaded by Constantin the Russian Fighter Pilot and his friend Dimitri the ‘Metal Transport Expert’. Constantin was cadaverous and drunk enough to fancy his chances in spite of his limited English and obvious wedding band. Dimitri was stodgy and so drunk that his chances drooled out of his gaping mouth and pooled around his equally obvious wedding ring.
To sweeten us up (I say us, Constantin had fallen for Leonard and Dimitri gazed at DJ. I am hatchet-faced and terrifying, even to plastered Russian fighter pilots), they bought cans of Baltika lager from the dining car. If women’s shower gel was nice to drink and contained booze, it would taste like Baltika. Light, floral and aromatic, it was our go to beer in Russia.
Four hours later Constantin was still trying to convince Leonard that his wife in Vladivostok was no bar to them getting married. We had to escape. A campaign of determined Scrabble playing paid off AN HOUR later when, bored of English word games, the Russian boys went for a cigarette. The time was now and we made our break to the dining car, receiving one final wedding proposal when Leonard emerged from the toilet en route.
The dining car was an explosion of faux-luxury. Dark wood veneer, gold curtains, dark green leatherette and satiny red tablecloths topped with plastic sheeting printed with pictures of elaborate cocktails, it was a bold attempt to mix nostalgic sophistication with lurid showbiz glamour on a Changing Rooms budget.
Mains were around Rub600-800 and all seemed to consist of your choice of meat beaten flat, breadcrumbed and fried with a side of chips and salad. Leonard and I opted to share a plate of salami and cheese (why have it for one meal when you can have it for every meal?) and DJ had a bowl of solyanka.
Unexpectedly, the cheese and salami was excellent. Expectedly, the bread was awful. Someone had fooled the baker into accepting sawdust for flour and taking a bite was a quick route to dehydration.
The solyanka was harder to place on the excellence scale. It was made with meat of an indiscernible source and the top of the soup was a greasy film through DJ’s spoon plunged to swirl the vegetables and mysterious chunky bits. It was also salty to an almost Sbarro level. And yet, it was warming and once you started spooning the soup to your mouth you had the urge to keep on doing it. I’d best describe it as salty soup crack and it’s good for society that it’s kept a secret on the train.
The next day we breakfasted on cheesy buns we’d bought from a Siberian babushka for Rub15 each (30p – cheap food at last!). Our first train ride was coming to an end in Omsk, a Siberian city of no interest to anyone else on the Rossiya, and we had feasted our way there.