Art & Photography

A Month on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Photographer Giulia Mangione reflects on a month travelling over 9000 kilometres and across 10 time zones, on one of the most famous stretches of track in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway

This summer I travelled on the Transsibirskaya Zheleznodoroznaya Magistral, better known as Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs for 9000 kilometres across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Having chosen to travel in the platscart, the third class carriage – where I talked to soldiers on leave, families on their way back from holidays which can not afford to travel by plane, and students travelling home for the summer holidays – I photographed the trip and the people I met along the way.

A girl on the train from Chita to Birobidzhan. On the whole Moscow-Vladivostok line during summertime, it is very common to see students going home for the summer break, or boys and girls travelling to reach their holiday destinations with their families.

If one never gets off the train, the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok lasts 6 days. The train’s speed is on average 90 km/h, about the speed of a regional train. It makes multiple stops and at the stations, waiting on the platforms, all kinds of things are sold. Usually the sellers are women and they sell scarves or waffles filled with condensed milk and blueberries. Some of them carry a metal hanger of smoked fish, hung by the eye socket.

Each carriage is managed by a key figure, in most cases a woman, called provodnitsa.  She is responsible for maintaining the order on the train, checking tickets and passports, and handing out bed sheets, and she is also the person that wakes you up 30 minutes before you need to get off the train.

A young provodnitsa in her special student uniform. During summer, students who want to work in the hospitality sector at national railway can have an internship where they can sample life as a provodnitsa.

Third class carriage. Immediately after checking passports and tickets, the provodnitsa provides each passenger with a bag containing fresh bed-sheets and a small towel. Thirty minutes before getting off the train each passenger is requested to roll back the mattress and hand the used bed sheets back to the provodnitsa.

A group of Russian men on their way to their holiday resort. They are going to camp outdoors, fish and cook handmade pelmeni, Russian dumplings.

I decided to get off the train multiple times, so my trip lasted a month. The first stop was Ekaterinburg, a city located close to the Ural Mountains, which separate eastern and western Russia. Here begins Siberia, an immense region extending to the Pacific Ocean. After Ekaterinburg, I got back on the train and then stopped in Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk. I then stayed for five days on Olkhon Island, on Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world.

During an unexpected stop in the middle of the countryside people get off the train to get some fresh air. An old lady picks flowers and herbs while her granddaughters play on the tracks. 

I then went back to Irkutsk, where I caught a train to Ulan Ude. After Irkutsk the landscape and the people started to change, their features beginning to look more and more Mongolian. The only thing that still makes you feel you are in Russia is the language. Around Ulan Ude Buddhist temples can be found, and a strong tradition of shamanism too.

A village in the Ivolginsky region in the Republic of Buryatia (a federal republic of Russia), 23 km outside of Ulan Ude, its capital city. This region is famous for its Buddhist temples (datsan), which has been the only Buddhist spiritual centre of the USSR since 1945. In the datsan many spiritual activities are carried out daily, such as temple rites, medical practice and traditional Buddhist education.

After Ulan Ude I went to Chita, Birobidzhan, the capital of a Jewish autonomous region, Khabarovsk. Finally at dawn, I arrived in the Far East, in Vladivostok.

Behind the station is the Golden Horn Bay, a sheltered horn-shaped bay of the Sea of Japan. The bay shares the name of the Turkish bay, due to its similarity.

Photography Giulia Mangione