Distance: 6,210 miles in total
Date: Non-continuously from 30th June to 17th July
I know you’ve been waiting for this one. Don’t worry, the photos are pretty.
The Trans-Siberian proper runs from Moscow all the way across to Vladivostok. The train I got is properly called the Trans-Mongolian and this leaves the main line at Irkutsk dropping south into Mongolia and ends its journey in Beijing.
Now, I’ve already detailed the places that I stopped off in Russia, and Mongolia and China are still to come, so this post will solely cover the train journey.
At 6210 miles, it is one of the longest continuous train journeys in the world (the longest without changing trains runs from Moscow to Pyongyang in North Korea, and clocks in at 6,346 miles), and it takes 155 hours to travel it in one go.
I didn’t do that, obviously. My longest continuous journey was only 42 hours, between Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. I had three sections at roughly the same length, and I was lucky enough to have either a cabin shared with an English-speaking European, or I’d made friends with some before the train left and I could go hang out with them, so it was a fairly sociable journey.
The section between St Petersburg and Moscow was taken at night, and with a young family, so I’ll skip over telling you about that.
Leaving Moscow, I met Niek, a Dutchman, on the platform. He was taking it straight to Beijing, with no stops, quite an adventurous trip spanning six time zones. We were offered some beers from a seller on the platform, who eventually relented and gave us some free. His name was Mickey, as far as I was able to understand, and he was from Kazakhstan (“Place of Tamerlane!”, we were told repeatedly). Joined by Sacha and Boris (not his real name, because I forgot it), we drank and exchanged pleasantries. I’m sure I’ve remarked on it before, but it’s surprising how far you can go with hand shakes, cheersing, and such universal statements as “Beer: good!”, “Russia: cool!”, and “Hitler: bad!”.
Anyway, there was a problem with Niek’s cabin, so the cabin attendants (I think based on the fact that we were chatting in English on the platform) put him in my cabin, which I was quite grateful for.
The cabins themselves were four berth, with two beds that served as benches during the day, and two beds that folded out above. In this journey I was on the top bunk, but this was the only time. The bottom bunks were taken by a couple of young Russian guys (who were cool; they shared their booze), who left about mid-day the next day. This left myself and Niek the cabin to ourselves for the most part.
Thus far, the train had been passing through dense forest, punctuated by the odd river, and accompanying settlement. I didn’t get too many photos of this section, but a selection is shown below. The forest was vast. The kind of primordial forest that hides wolves, bears and boars, and what’s more, looks like it always has and always will.
Niek and I spent most of the day just gazing out the window, and chatting, so we saw quite a bit that didn’t end up getting photographed. This included:
- Whole towns out swimming in the local river
- A couple doing rather more than swimming
- A moose turning and retreating back into the forest
- What was either a tank graveyard or depot (it was hard to tell which)
- The kind of sunset you only in a Turner
- Villages full of broken down and ramshackle houses crowded around the most beautifully ornate and gold clad churches
Getting food on the Trans-Siberian is easy. There are four real options. You can bring your own, but I was always too disorganized and apathetic to do this. You can use the restaurant car, but I heard it was rather overpriced, and didn’t try this. You can buy instant noodles or other snacks from the provodnitsas (cabin attendants). I had to resort to this a couple of times, and it was great in a pinch. My outstanding favorite method though was to get out at one of the many stops en route and buy something there. They almost all had shops on the platform, but a few have a sort of proto-market of disorganized peddlers selling everything from beer and crisps to fresh strawberries and home-made pastries.
It was at one of these in Balezino (which despite its very Italian looking name has seemingly nothing else European about it), that I met a strange Russian man. He had two teeth in his top jaw, and large sores on his hands (which I think means meth?). I was about to avoid him as a crazy junky who wanted cash, when he started speaking to me in the best English I’ve heard from any Russian in Siberia. Apparently he liked Ivanhoe and Conan Doyle, and wanted to practice some English. I guess you never can tell. He told me a couple of jokes which went:
“Do you think Charles will ever be king?”
– “I don’t know”
– “Er, ha ha?”
“Do you know why?”
“Because Queen Elizabeth will live longer than him! Ha ha ha!”
– “polite chuckle”
He described a picture of George Bush Sr. and Jr. standing together.
“The caption below is ‘dumb and dumber’. Ha ha ha!”
– “polite chuckle”
Maybe he is funnier in Russian?
Niek is writing a book on his experiences traversing the continent, but I doubt our joke telling friend will be included. In the course of our travels he told me an extraordinary story he had come across back in Moscow.
He met a man, whose name escapes me. Lets call him Chris. Now, Chris was a rich man. He had stacks of money in the bank, and a 25% share in Virgin. It seems that he got in trouble with some dangerous men, over drugs. They had access to some seriously powerful mind-control drugs, which I’m sure the CIA would be extremely interested in. Using these, Chris was drugged, and drained of his money. He was also forced to rape and nearly kill his wife who was now understandably estranged. This fall from grace had left him living out of hostels and trying to get back on his feet. The shadowy assailants had dogged him for the past three months, trying to get Chris to sign away his identity in an attempt to take the shares in Virgin.
Now, I wasn’t there, and Niek seemed to believe it, so I have to take his word for it, but I have my doubts as to the veracity of this tale. Firstly, it was told to him in a hostel at 2 AM. Secondly, Niek bought some handmade jewellery from him. And lastly, it’s properly batshit insane. But hey, who knows.
I left Niek at Ekaterinburg, and got back on the train that evening. The two overnight trips between my day trips in Siberia were nothing really interesting, and largely involved passing out.
At the platform in Novosibirsk I met Yves and Jim, a pair of
Luxembergers, Luxembourgians, guys from Luxembourg, who were to be my travelling partners until Irkutsk.
They were in a separate car however, and I shared my cabin with a Russian army corporal, who spoke no English. He did share his lunch though: sausage, hard-boiled eggs, cucumber and bread. And tea: sugar but no milk. Tea in Russian is confusingly called Chai, and it’s never drunk with milk. Not too bad though.
After lunch, I joined Yves and Jim in the restaurant car, where we spent much of the day playing cards and discussing our respective plans. They were intending to hike around part of Baikal before heading on to Mongolia. The lake is one of many places I’ve passed through that I really didn’t dedicate enough time to, so I’m quite jealous of them for it.
The other side of Irkutsk, these gave way in turn to the steppes, the land of the nomads, and of Genghis Khan. The steppes are beautiful, but in that barren and expansive way that makes you glad you’re safely in the comfort of the train. You could easily travel for weeks without finding any human habitation.
My travelling companion heading into Mongolia was Sandra, a pretty French anthropology student who was heading down to study the nomadic way of life. She was particularly interested in the way animals are treated in different ways by society, so we ended up having a long discussion on fox hunting. She didn’t want to pass judgment on any traditional society for the way they treated animals, preferring to keep a sense of scientific distance. A bit hypocritical considering she had no qualms about condemning inethical behavior in modern society such as battery farming and circus shows. But that’s a whole big can of worms, and is worth a blog post in its own right, so I don’t think I’ll go into it further here. Maybe I’ll write more later, but based on how behind I am on the main stuff, probably not.
The border crossing was a pain. Hours of waiting around for them to check passports, a very basic search of the cabins, and very little to do. Then a few hours in no-mans-land while the train was reordered and carriages of timber were added. Then everything all over again on the Mongolian side. At least we could get off in the middle and take a walk.
The journey out of Mongolia was the last stage of this epic train journey. It passed through some of the more interesting environments, leaving the steppes and heading south through the Gobi Desert. Unlike African deserts, there is very little sand in the Gobi, with only about 10% covered by dunes. The rest is rocky and barren; a truly unforgiving landscape. There were very few signs of life, but we did pass a caravan of camels. I saw no sign of anyone nearby, so I’m going to go ahead and assume they were wild, because its more interesting and romantic that way.
The border crossing was much the same, with the added fun that it was at night, and the bogies had to be changed to run on the thinner Chinese rails. This was done while we were on board, but after taking a slightly blurry photo I slept through most of it.
And then I was in China.
The landscape when I woke up was unlike anything else I’d been through so far, with huge cliffs dropping precipitously into wide rivers, and mountains that were both rolling and sheer in turns. It was hopelessly difficult to get photos though, as every time an interesting vista opened up, it would be only a few seconds before columns, tunnels or telegraph poles blocked the view. Usually just as the shutter clicked.
It wasn’t too long before this gave way to plains and villages and all of a sudden, the end of the line. Beijing. Thousands of miles, six time zones and seventeen days, and I’d arrived.
You’ll have to wait to hear about that though. I have three Mongolian posts to tell you about beforehand, and one last one on Russia in general.