Travelling across Siberia on a Sardine-packed Train

I read a novel by Anton Chekhov titled “Across Siberia” when I was a high school student. Although I cannot recall the content of the book any longer, I was crazy about Russian literature at that point in my life.

It probably started with Ivan Turgenev and I read all his work. In those days, I was craving for books and read novels as if the sand absorbed water. Once I started a book, I did not care about classes at school or anything and stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. to read in a dormitory reading room.

After Turgenev came Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Gorky, Sholokhov and others. Among them, the most remarkable was how Tolstoy described spring in Siberia at the time of melting snow in his work “Resurrection.”

What comes to my mind when I think of Siberia is the desolate barren wilderness. I previously heard that it would take a whole week to travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow by an express train. Its extraordinary vastness was even beyond my imagination. I certainly had never imagined that one day I would be put on a freight train to be transferred across the vast land of Siberia to the west. How would I?

The tent life at Kraskino came to an end in November and we were packed on a freight train around 4th or 5th of December. By that time, the Soviet Army no longer deceived us by saying, “Domoy Tokyo.” They fooled us in North Korea probably because they were afraid that we could run away. I now wonder myself why we did not attempt to escape while we were in North Korea. If we had considered the possibility of being transferred through North Korea to the territory of Soviet, I am quite positive that we all had attempted escapes.

The Soviet probably felt safe by the time they deceived us and took us to their territory. It would have been impossible for us to run away, nor did we have the courage to do so.

While we were not told where we were heading when they put us on the freight train, nobody thought we could be possibly sent back to Japan. Even when some of the Soviet soldiers asked us, “Domoy Tokyo da?!”, I simply felt annoyed and thought, “You, liars!” I managed to have a fake smile on my face, saying “Da da (meaning yes in Russian), but my eyes were not smiling at all. I could tell my face was turning stiff.

The freight train of the Trans-Siberian Railway had more than 100 train cars and two or three huge locomotive engines pulled them. It really was a grand sight. Some seemed to pull more than 200 train cars. These locomotives were mostly made in Chicago, the United States. They were probably a part of American supplies for the Soviet during the war.

This Trans-Siberian Railway was originally constructed for Russia to advance to the Far East. With a length of 9,297 kilometers (5,776 miles), it connected Moscow with Vladivostok thoroughly in 1916. I once read that they used a mixture of foreign made rails to construct the railway and more than a hundred and some dozens of different brand products could be found. I carefully looked at the rails when the train stopped and various kinds of brand marks could be actually spotted. I also heard that these rails even weighed differently.

In terms of the United States’ logistical support for the Soviet during the war, their relief supplies were said to be enormous in quantity as well as extensive in kinds. It is no exaggeration to say that what actually supported the Soviet’s war against Germany over the country’s prestige was in fact the amount of American supplies.

Locomotives were not the only American supplies at all. From airplanes, trucks, weapons to food, American products were found everywhere. While we spent more than 23 days on the train, distributed food came obviously from American supplies as they contained flour and meat from Chicago, sugar from Cuba and so forth.

We were jam packed in the freight car. A wooden rack was hanged from the front and back of the car to make it look like a double deck and we slept as we were packed in like sushi. The real sushi rolls packed in a box are even better as they are placed right next to each other but not on top of each other. In this freight car, we could not fit if we all stretched our body to lie down. We folded our body in half instead and slept on top of each other in opposite direction, feet to head and head to feet, literally like sardines in a tin.

A pot belly stove was placed at the center of the car and its stovepipe was extended to the outside of the car. The coal was distributed but it was not sufficient at all. The shortage of the fuel was fatal for us. We had to stand the severe cold of midwinter and a cold wind relentlessly blew inside as the train went along.

On the other hand, as there is a saying that says “Necessity is the mother of invention”, a way can be found even under these circumstances. When the train stopped at the station, we jumped off one after another to run to the coal shed for the locomotive, carrying a bucket. It was no big deal even if we shoveled one or two scoops from the coal piled up mountain high. The Soviet Convoy troops (guarding soldiers) not only overlooked these act but even urged us to do so. Under this situation, we did not have much shortage of coal later on.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, in fact, ran just like how a continent-crossing train should run. Most of the time, they stopped after running for 2 or 3 hours, but sometimes they did not stop at all for the entire half day. When they continued running like this, we could not get off the train to get the coal.