Moscow -- It's snowing heavily at the open-air Yaroslav Station as we wait to board the Rossiya, Russia's premier cross-country train. We'll be disembarking at Irkutsk, 5,155 kilometres and four days' travel from Moscow. The route covers one-third of the globe, all the way to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.
My husband and I have second-class, or kupe, reservations in a four-berth compartment.
Our car is less than 20 per cent occupied, leaving the onboard amenities, the washroom and hot water, free for our undisturbed use. On the much busier Trans-Mongolian line to Beijing, trying to negotiate the slippery floor while someone bangs on the toilet door, I will come to appreciate this luxury.
Vitali, a 45-year-old Moscovite in for the long haul, seven days to Vladivostok, is our companion for the ride. The fourth berth in our compartment remains empty.
He speaks no English, and our Russian is limited to mispronunciations from a phrasebook. By sharing our provisions of kielbasa, chocolate and apples, we learn to communicate across the language barrier.
Vitali insists on keeping the compartment fastidiously clean.
I sleep little the first night.
On day two, we cross the Ural Mountains and officially enter Siberia, leaving behind the relative warmth and population density of Moscow and its environs. A largely flat region with occasional hills and rivers, Siberia is dotted with traditional wooden cabins with colourful window trims and smoking chimneys.
The train stops every few hours, usually only for a few minutes. Even without leaving the train I can feel the cold by looking at the few passengers rushing around the stations, covered in fur from hats to boots, their breath making streams of vapor.
At Omsk, our carriage attendant, or provodnik, pours boiling water on the metal steps to enable passengers to disembark. A few elderly women, or babushka, brave the cold to ply their wares, mostly bread and pirozhki, to the shivering passengers. On the train, vendors pass between the cars selling wool shawls and drinks.
Our journey progresses through nine different time zones. All stations run on Moscow time, but the sun sets to its own rhythm, shining for less than six hours a day. The train snakes through dazzling brightness and deep night at a steady pace. Daytime temperatures never rise above -22¡C, and each morning the inside of our compartment window is frosted over.
Trepidation grows as our scheduled overnight stop at Irkutsk approaches. We'd planned this to break up the six-day journey to Beijing, but now we'd gladly forgo the shower to remain in the warm comfort of the train.
The thought of stepping out into the frigid darkness at a time of year when few tourists visit Siberia makes us uneasy, especially because we don't have a hotel reservation. Our train pulls into Irkutsk Station after an 80-hour journey exactly on time.
We're greeted by a giant Siberian cab driver who drops us at a luxury hotel way beyond our budget, so we walk out into the chilly Siberian dawn in search of shelter. A mother pulls her two red-cheeked, fur-clothed bundles on a sleigh. We find our room on the grounds of a circus. The drumming and roaring of the evening performance make sleep a little challenging, but we're relieved to be warm.
In Irkutsk, we visit the ice palaces in the town square. Several wooden houses formerly occupied by the Decembrists, Irkutsk's most famous exiles, have been turned into museums.
Irkutsk is on the shore of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake, which contains almost as much water as all the Great Lakes combined. No visit to Irkutsk is complete without sampling Lake Baikal's savoury trout in a cheese and mushroom sauce.
Crossing the border from Siberia, bound for warmer climes, I think of the furs, ice palaces and days spent watching thousands of kilometres of frozen land from inside a warm compartment on a Trans-Siberian train.