When we decided to book tickets for the Trans-Siberian I really had no idea of what life would be like on the trains. The first train from Moscow would take three days to reach Irkutsk and I wondered if there would be enough to divert us.
We boarded the train in Moscow close to midnight so our first few hours were spent sleeping. On our first day, we became friends with our neighbour Sam who was traveling to Perm for the upcoming 1st May holiday celebrations. He spoke excellent English and introduced us to the elderly gentleman sharing his compartment who was returning from Moldova where his daughter lived. He lamented the desperate state of life in Moldova and also Georgia where he said unemployment was high and job opportunities scarce. He told us how he drove trains on the Trans-Siberian route during World War Two and was now able to travel by train and in first class at no cost.
By 7.30pm the train had reached Perm and we said farewell to Sam, sad that he wasn’t traveling to Siberia. Besides being an excellent translator, we learnt a lot about Russia from him and his roommate and they had kept us entertained that day with their stories and wonderful senses of humour.
While the second and third days were quieter for us, we managed to fill the time with reading, journal updates, eating, drinking tea and jumping out at various station stops to snap photos and get a breath of icy cold air. It was good to step outside although we always stayed close to our carriage, even at the longer stops. At every stop you hear the melodic clinking of metal against metal as station workers tap critical connections up and down the train to ensure that nothing has come loose since the last station.
We tried to follow significant landmarks indicated at certain kilometer markers in our guidebook but sadly it seemed that we passed the majority of them, including the Europe-Asia Border Obelisk at kilometer 1777, in the dead of the night. I began to wonder if doing the journey in reverse and starting in Beijing would have allowed us to see more of the major sights during the day.
We relied on two books for our journey: Bryn Thomas’ “Trans-Siberian Handbook” and the Lonely Planet’s “Trans-Siberian Railway”. I would have to say that Thomas’ book was the more detailed and accurate of the two but it was also the most recently published. In addition to reading up on the scheduled stops for the day, we also brought along some fiction. “War and Peace” is apparently a popular Trans-Siberian literary companion but we opted for two more manageable but equally fitting novels: “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz and “Peking to Paris: Prince Borghese’s Journey across two Continents in 1907” by Luigi Barzini. Both are fascinating reads. The first is about a prisoner of war who made the impossible journey on foot from Siberia through Mongolia, China and Tibet to India. The second records a race that follows almost the same route as the present day Trans-Mongolian and Siberian railways but one in which the competitors traveled all the way from Peking, through Mongolia and Siberia to Paris completely by car. Incredibly, Prince Borghese and his three-man team completed the race in the space of two months.
Looking out of the window of our peaceful first class train cabin, it was hard to comprehend how anyone could survive being out in the Siberian wilderness for very long. Even now, towns and homes are few and far between and the environment looked bleak. On the morning of our second day, we began to see patches of snow, which grew in size the closer we got to Irkutsk. We also couldn’t help but notice that the landscape remained fairly unchanged for a long time. It wasn’t until the final day that the lines of birch trees stuck in the hard mud gave way to a flatter, greener and snowier terrain. There was also one very depressing and unnatural feature, which I doubt would have been apparent in Rawicz and Barzini’s time. From Moscow to Irkutsk, there was a constant stream of litter dumped out by the tracks, which seemed to reinforce what I’ve read about Russia’s appalling environmental record. I have to say that if one thing destroyed my idea of the Trans-Siberian being a romantic epic journey, the discarded plastic bags and other rubbish was it.
Another aspect of traveling along this route which surprised me was the lack of station vendors. So many accounts tell of persistent sellers offering cheap souvenirs, coveted handicrafts or local delicacies. I don’t know if it was just because they didn’t hang around our carriage (as obviously the train is quite long) but we saw very few hawkers. The only place where they seemed to be in abundance was at Lake Baikal where I bought the Omul, otherwise they were very restrained. This fact seemed particularly unusual at the Russian-Mongolian border where we were stuck for hours in the middle of the day. There were a couple of people displaying their wares on a bench but the main station shop was closed for lunch! I don’t know how often trains pass through here but I was amazed that they wouldn’t be taking full advantage of a bunch of trapped foreigners with time to kill and rubles to discard.
The border crossings into Mongolia and China would have been fairly painless had we not had to wait around for 5-9 hours at each stop. At the Russian-Mongolian border it took 7 hours before the train even crossed into Mongolia. Our carriage with its guardian provodnitsa was left alone, detached from any engine for hours and we couldn’t wander too far as homeless children begged for empty glass bottles and offered to exchange rubles for Mongolian Tögrög. With our visas all in order, an onward ticket in hand and only two backpacks, customs and immigration was no problem for us although interestingly when entering Mongolia we had to declare if we had SARS or not.
For some unknown reason, the crossing into China took almost half the time as the crossing into Mongolia. This is hard to understand when you consider that in addition to clearing customs and immigration, you also have to wait while all the bogeys on the train are changed out for the narrower standard gauge used in probably every country in the world except those that fell within the former U.S.S.R. In our guidebooks it indicated that passengers had the option of leaving the train before it moves to the bogey-changing shed but if that opportunity presented itself, no one in our carriage noticed. We all stayed on board (with crossed legs as the toilets are closed for the duration) as our carriage was shunted to and fro and eventually elevated so the wheels could be changed out beneath us. It’s an unusual sight watching the wheels of your carriage roll away into the dark of night. At 1.15am the toilets finally re-opened and everyone scrambled to be first in line after what was certainly a very unique border crossing experience.
The trackside littering had cleared up once we reached Ulan Baatar, but then it would take an incredibly resilient race of people to dump out their rubbish across the Gobi Desert. Through Mongolia the views are fairly consistent. Sand, sand dunes and the odd cluster of gers are all you really see on this route but it is in some ways more dynamic than the Russian taiga as it’s not every day you can take a train through a desert. Once we crossed into China the landscape changed again and almost immediately you become aware of the population increase. Fields everywhere are neatly ploughed and even the smallest green spaces have been cultivated. People ride bikes along dirt trails beside rice fields. The flat plains give way to misty forests, which eventually reveal glimpses of the Great Wall of China. Not long after, the trees are replaced by towering blocks of offices and flats and the air becomes soupy with a smog that welcomes you into Beijing.