To Siberia, slowly

Dervla Murphy finds love, God and strong beer on the coal-fuelled train to Russia's furthest corner

Joyously, affectionately, I approached a very long, olive green train, its engine bright scarlet - BAM's Moscow to Tynda service, which departs from Kazan Station thrice weekly at 1.10pm. In 2002 I had become a BAM junkie, partly because these trains' favourite speed is 20mph. Unlike the Trans-Siberian they tend to be externally shabby though internally their provodniki insist on high standards of cleanliness and tidiness.

The provodniki institution is, I think, unique to Russia's railways and their international tentacles, such as this train. Each long-distance coach has two (male, provodnik; female, provodnitsa), and these multi-talented people serve as conductors, cleaners, clerks, dispensers of bedding, tenders of the communal samovar, keepers of the lavatory key, controllers of the lighting and piped music, auxiliaries to the Railway Police. You don't argue with your provodnitsa (they are usually female) and should you inadvertently break a rule - go barefooted down the corridor, not tidy your table after a meal, become obviously inebriated, light a cigarette - you must humbly accept a tongue-lashing.

With only moments to spare, two young women breathlessly joined me. Olga, going all the way to Tynda, was tall and slender with a prodigious amount of luggage bearing Egyptian Airlines labels. She seemed either unwell or emotionally distressed; at once she silently retired to her upper bunk and remained there for 36 hours, apart from occasional trips to the samovar or the loo.

English-speaking Tanya ("I get degree for marketing tourism") was on a short journey to Murom, a small but heavily industrialised city. Chubby and spotty and voluble, she invited me to view her latest photograph album as Russian rail travellers are wont to do. It portrayed a group of proselytising Midwest evangelists visiting Moscow; Tanya featured in every photograph. "In Russia we have a bad church, they want keeping us in the past. We want going into the future, like Americans. God blesses America because they are demo-cratic."

Tanya handed me a bundle of booklets, one in English, the rest in Russian. I murmured "Thank you", put the booklets on my shelf and opened a bottle of beer - strong beer, Baltika No 9. There was something touching about Tanya's zealous longing to help her contem poraries and if people need the Lord it's not for me to scoff.

On our slow way through Moscow's dismal suburbs the icicles hanging from factory eaves had been three to four feet long. At Gus'-Khrustal'nyy, our first stop, they were five to six feet - and thicker. Beyond the Urals there was a considerable surprise: noticeably less snow than in European Russia. One visualises Siberia as a vastness snow-smothered for most of the year. Not so, however. Snow there is, from October to May or September to June, depending on the latitude, but in many regions it is quite sparse and ice is the most conspicuous feature.

A certain camaraderie soon becomes apparent among long-distance passengers. The shortdistance passengers, on board for a mere eight, 12 or 24 hours, are usually more restless. To the last category belonged those two young women who had replaced Tanya by the time I awoke the next morning.

We were crossing a wide river, smoothly snow-blanketed. Was this the Belaya, the Kama or the Kolva? Such a tangle of rivers wriggles across the map that I failed to identify it. Near a large village, schoolchildren were struggling through thigh-deep snow while their dogs merrily rolled in it. Far beyond this village a solitary woman wearing snowshoes toiled up the steep embankment carrying two lidded buckets. Then a blizzard came, obliterating the landscape.

Towards noon the compartment's newcomers awoke; neither spoke English but their boss did. They belonged to a six-person team commissioned by some dodgy Moscow-based company to promote alternative medicines in western Siberia. Alexei, their extrovert leader, was very tall, sensationally good-looking and clearly pleased to be leading five personable young women into the wilderness. This gregarious group spent the rest of the day squeezed into my compartment, giggling and eating substantial meals linked by not insubstantial snacks.

For my benefit Alexei displayed his wares, guaranteed to cure constipation and diarrhoea, earache and backache - and other more exotic ailments unknown to me. The labels were multilingual - the company hoped to expand its market to the US - and the tonics and lotions had descriptions and directions in, allegedly, Tibetan. Alexei seemed genuinely taken aback when I warned him that whatever this language might be, it most certainly was not Tibetan. It may have been a phoney concoction, like the bottles' contents.

At dusk the reclusive Olga (I had almost forgotten her existence) swung down from her bunk, ignored everybody, carefully made up her face in the door mirror and ate a small supper before settling to contemplate dozens of photographs which soon caused tears to flow. Alexei, looking sympathetic, laid a hand on her forearm - which gesture burst the dam of reserve. At the end of her sob-choked story, Alexei gave me a résumé. Olga and a female friend had won a Moscow women's magazine prize, a week in Egypt. On their second day in Cairo she had fallen in love with an Egyptian of her own age: 20. They were not only body but soul mates. They wanted to marry, but his family would reject him if he married a non-Muslim; her family would reject her if she married a Muslim. Alexei commented, "Her family is right. To marry a Muslim is stupid, stupid! A Russian woman in Egypt would be unhappy, unfree - here women are the same as men."

At Ekaterinburg, two neatly uniformed junior officers, going all the way to Tynda, took over the vacant bunks. They were perfunctorily polite to the babushka, appreciatively attentive to the beautiful Olga. Very soon she had put away her handkerchief.

Extracted from "Silverland: a winter journey beyond the Urals" by Dervla Murphy, to be published on 2 November by John Murray (£20)

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