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Transsiberian Railway

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Tales of the Transsiberian

Ewan Kingston

13th July, 2009

In bunks 28-32, two poets, a phone salesman, a student, a German, and a Kiwi philosophise as they wend their way across the largest country on Earth...

I'm on a train that travels most of the way across the largest country on Earth. The romantically named 349/350 is taking me to Irkutsk, although if I stayed onboard it would go all the way to Blagoveshchensk, in far-Eastern Siberia. I'm in plastkartny -  3rd class, which is something like a dormitory on wheels. In this carriage, 51 other humans - families, couples, students - sit in open sections, allowing free movement around the train. Russian life unfolds around me like a foreign movie without subtitles.

After some hours I find my second home at section 29-32, containing  Alexei and Vossa, two poets, Tatya, a phone salesperson, Irina, an ecology student and Tobi, a German with wanderlust. They welcome me with Russian folk songs, jokes, smiles, and beer. The four days ahead on this train don't loom like confinement; I'm already ruing the fact that I'll have to get off.

With my trip recently entering a relatively CO2-heavy phase, and a bunk where I can lie and think at any time of day, I'm reflecting a little on the nature of this journey, on how I see travel. At the moment, I feel that even if a hyper-efficient jet that made air travel comparable to overland in terms of emissions were to appear, I would do it this way again. I feel like I've learnt and experienced so much already, getting under the skin of countries I wouldn't otherwise visit, and I've only travelled four thousand kilometres.

Here, crossing the Urals, I watch rolling hills of mixed pine and birch forests marked by dirt roads and cabins of rough-hewn wood, weather-stained black. I think I see a wild boar. Alexei and Vossa start up a particularly good tune, harmonising in thirds.

Longer stops at cities like Yaroslavl and Yekaterinburg give me time to explore Russian train stations, perhaps dash to see a nearby statue or Soviet mural. At the smaller stations, one can buy every sort of local produce available, dumplings, dill potatoes... The sellers are the swarms of babushkas, who come to meet us on the platform.

As night falls passing through Perm Oblast, Irina gains confidence with her English and starts talking green.

'In Germany people worry about the environment' she says. 'It's not like that here.' I recounted that Moscow, though a hospitable and exciting city, astounded me with its car-culture (seven-lane highways in the centre) and no civic recycling scheme.

'It's not just Moscow – everywhere in Russia is the same' she sighs. Indeed, Russia's per capita emissions are higher than the UK's, even though the country is less industrialised.  There are signs though that the green agenda is, like this train, slowly gaining momentum. The Russian government set targets for renewable energy production this January. To boot, people like Alexei don't think twice about spending 4 days to get home.

CO2 Emissions - Moscow to Irkutsk

Once again, Defra's emission factors will have to do, in lieu of better data on Russian trains. Relatively clean gas and hydropower largely created the electricity powering the train, but then I travelled by sleeper train, with less passengers per carriage than your average British train.

5385km electric train, via Yaroslavl x 54g per p / km= 302  kg

Equivalent emissions if I had flown direct:

4119km + 9% x  x 297g ppkm (long haul)                 =  1333 kg 


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