You can only appreciate the engineering feat of the Trans-Siberian Railway by riding it in winter, as I just did. They might as well have laid tracks across Antarctica. For hours and hours the shiny red train pushes, through a tumble of falling snow, across that wide and monotonous sash of coniferous forest known as the taiga, a little-known region haunted by mythical spirits and gulag ghosts. Chekhov said that only migratory birds know where the taiga ends. Then, in the middle of the night, a monumental station suddenly looms, carpeted in snow and brightly lit against the black sky, the buildings beyond it leprous with corrosion.
The train follows the day from village to village – first lights, shovelling snow, vans beetling at noon, children walking home from some lonely school, lights going on in disintegrating izbi (Siberian huts) – then hundreds of miles of nothing at all but filigreed larches and beech trees.
One evening, as the sun dropped with its Siberian haste, we stopped at Omsk. The Trans-sib generally halts for half an hour, so you can layer up and crunch along the platform. My carriage companion, the Ekaterniburger and engineer Aliek, bought a table-tennis bat of dried fish from a patrolling baboushka, wiping his hands on the net curtains of the compartment after he had eaten it. And right by the smoking engine, electronic gadgets in boxes changed hands, cash stowed in a plastic bag.
There were two power points in each wagon corridor, close to the (now electric) samovar, but those in my carriage were, mysteriously, permanently in use, electric leads snaking under the carpet and into the next compartment to mine. It took me 24 hours to work out the racket: the occupants of that compartment had brought a bar of multiple sockets to which other passengers could buy access for 200 roubles.