As it turned out, the days flew by and we had a great time. We barely accomplished any of the planned reading or language practice and we slept less than expected, but we did eat most of the food. We had hoped for "authentic" Russian or Chinese people to share our compartment with (four bunks per compartment), but we were very pleased to spend the whole trip with a guy from Australia and a lady from New Zealand, each taking the slow way home. It turned out that "locals" in other cars would often fill their compartment with large bags, smoke filthy cigarettes, try to involve you in their smuggling operations and generally disregard hygiene.
We chatted, played "Settlers of Catan - Travel Edition," wandered the train taking photos and generally just took it easy. We developed the concept of "segments of time." Rolling up the bedroll was one segment, breakfast was one segment, a "shower" in the cramped toilets would be a segment, and discussions ranging from vaccinations to politics to the Simpsons could range from 1-5 segments. The important thing was never to attempt too many things in one segment of time - just take things slowly and you'd be surprised how little you can accomplish in a day.
In each car of the train (there were 14, carrying 400 people), there were two attendants - "provodnistas" in Russian. They were a constant source of aggravation, as they locked the doors to the toilets way before any of the stops, yelled at us for simple requests, and tried to be of as little help as possible. Still, many segments of time were spent complaining about them, and comparing the levels of apathy and incompetence between cars.
Oh, and we got to see Siberia too. It was cold, rainy, sometimes snowy, and as uninhabitable as you would imagine. It felt great to sit in the warmth of our compartment, sipping tea and looking out on a bleak landscape. We also got to see the real level of poverty in Russia (state pensions are less than 100$ a month) which was not obvious in St. Petes or Moscow. Many elderly women have to supplement their income by growing their own food in small plots beside their sparse wooden shacks, and by selling home-cooked food to passengers on the passing trains.
The sun came out (and the people got friendlier) the instant we crossed over into China (a ten-hour border crossing) - but we'll write more about this wonderful country later.