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Taking the Trans-Siberian

Most people I know that I spoke to about spending six days on an epic train journey thought I was stark-raving crazy to have wanted to do such a thing. Maybe I was a little crazy, but considering I had spent the last 13 months teaching in northern China, I figured I had justifiable reason to being a little off-center. Having come to the conclusion I needed to escape the madhouse for a while, I decided that a train trip would be an ideal way to get home and a do a spot of traveling in between. Siberia in winter sounded magical to me. 

Most people thoughts tended to be along the lines that it would be six days of eternal boredom, and surely it would be far more convenient to take a plane. Indeed it would be far more convenient to catch a flight, but would it more rewarding one has to ask in these situations. In the back of my mind I did harbor the thought that perhaps they were correct, that actually I might actually get a little bored on the way, but I quickly dismissed this negative thought and got on with the job of planning a trip that I had contemplated from the first idea of coming to China.

To me, a train journey covering 7,662 kilometers, about a third of the Earth is something not to be missed; indeed you should be deemed a fool for not wanting to do this I believe. The train departs from Beijing, a place where the bicycle is king, then proceeds across northern China, a dusty place and a place where coal is king. Following a quick change of wheels it darts straight through Mongolia and it’s grasslands offering solitude and scenery to die for. Nudging into Russia it hugs the side of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world and then drifts across the vast expanse of Siberia with its trees and snow. Finally it completes the longest railway journey in the world and ambles into Moscow, famed for being a snarling, unfriendly capital city.
An ideal opportunity to meet interesting characters, colourful characters and loony-bins along the way, stare out of the window at the scenery for hours on end, stop at some obscure train stations to purchase exotic goods from scary looking people and generally relax, cutting myself off to the world outside of the train.

I found a small company located in Beijing specializing in organizing all the things that I needed organizing. A company ideally suited to lazy people like myself. The company was amusingly called ‘Monkeyshrine’, which was in itself a little off-putting, but they did a great job in organizing the train tickets, visas, hotels and plane tickets that I would require. Incidentally, they kindly provided me with a CD to listen too, full of great songs about monkeys or trains, a nice touch I thought, as you can never tire of listening to monkey songs I figure.

An early start was required and I headed off in a taxi to the train station as the sun was considering getting up for the day, all the while concerned I would be late for the train, or worse still to go to the wrong train station in Beijing and miss it completely. The main station in Beijing is aesthetically pleasing and at the time of day was not too busy and so I soon got myself settled into a well-hidden waiting room with around 200 loud, spitting Chinese and the same number of luggage-laden Mongolians, which is always a pleasure for someone seeking some morning tranquility.

I manage to board the train with no problems when it slowly creeps onto the platform. Actually, that is a lie because I had to fight and push along with all the other people to get past all the porters carrying the goods/ packages all the Mongolian people were carrying. All in all, boarding the train was a bit of a drama with all the pushing and shoving, screaming and shouting going on, a very hectic beginning to an otherwise tranquil journey. I got the obligatory touristy photo shot of the train and myself, I hate doing things like that as I feel all too self-conscious at the time, but I did it anyway.

7.40am on the dot and the train eases out of the station and I begin to settle down amongst the chaos of bags and packages, all the while getting introduced to my fellow cabin friends, one Chinese lady and two Mongolian men. We communicate well through my broken Chinese and their crude attempts at English, and also the selection of dictionaries/phrase books we all have with us. Throughout these early exchanges we learn that the Chinese lady, named Ma, is a bit of a trader/ dealer/ smuggler on this train specializing in cigarettes and alcohol, and the two Mongolian men are doctors returning home from a conference in Beijing. All three are it seems to me a little strange, and I presume they thought this of me too. And of course me, well I am an English teacher going home to England for Christmas with my family, turkey dinner and the Queen’s speech and all that. I am taking the scenic route of course.

After only an hour on the train I get the pleasant surprise of viewing the great wall as we meander up and around the hills to the northwest of Beijing, time for a celebratory cup of coffee for me, although everyone it seems is already on their umpteenth refill of tea already. For me though the great wall may well be considered as a great wall, but at the end of the day it is just a wall. Lunchtime comes around all too quickly so I wander down the length of the train to get to the dining car, and it I now I realize just how darn long this train is. Unfortunately when I arrived at the dining car it was being occupied completely by a tour group of Australians, possibly my worst nightmare, so I get my food to take-away and scamper back with scalding hot food to my cabin. Chicken, rice and two vegetables it turned out to be as I opened my little food box, and it turned out to be not too bad at all, about as good as it could get I figured from a train dining car. And it is better than the overpriced, unhealthy sorry excuses of a sandwich you get on the trains in the UK.

Zhangjiahou is the first stop, I have no knowledge this place exists and when I have a look from the deserted platform I learn that I never want to know anything about this place either. Datong is the next stop a few hours down the line, a horrible large mining town it seems, bustling with activity and seriously health damaging pollution. Outside of these towns however the rugged landscape is compelling to stare at, leading you to believe that life in these parts of the world is harsh and unforgiving. This part of China is far removed from the bright lights of Shanghai, and well out of the public glare that is all but concentrating upon the upcoming Beijing Olympic games.

I pass the afternoon reading, listening to music and watching Ma stashing her illegal stashes of things elaborately about the whole carriage, quite expertly I thought, a true professional smuggler. Soon it is time for dinner again, and although I am not hungry in the slightest, I chose to again venture on down to the dining car for a change of scenery, but same story again with the Australian tour group, so I again get the take-away option and settle down for dinner in my cabin with this time a beef, rice and two vegetables box of treats. Have a couple of beers I brought along with me and chat to Ma, learning about her family history and her fascination with the country of Romania, expressing many times that I really should go there for a look. Meanwhile the two Mongolian men seem content with sleeping away the entire journey night and day, but at least they have the courtesy to not snore. Stop once more in Jinqing in the early evening, but by this time the outside temperature has dropped considerably, enforcing my decision to stay in the warmth of the cabin. Next stop is the border, which I am sure will be all fun and games.

At the small border town of Erlian we have the opportunity to get off the train and do a spot of shopping for a couple of hours as the wheels/bogeys on the entire train has to be changed. The thought did occur to me that why we just didn’t change train completely rather than the elaborate procedure of changing the bogeys on every carriage. I quickly discarded that thought as unimportant and consoled myself that this just the way it is done around these parts, and will continue to be done for some time yet.

So, I wrapped up warm figuring I may be some time more than the two hours I was informed, disembarked from the train and followed the masses to wherever they were going. I ended up in a minivan that drove me to a train station, also serving as what seems like a mini market inside the waiting hall, a real hive of activity in things seemingly legal and illegal, I couldn’t really tell. Most people were stocking up on large amounts of either alcohol or fruit that they could then sell when they arrived in Mongolia, making a nice little profit I learned owing to the difference in market prices. I however, bought myself a couple of beers and an apple to see me through the next few hours. Here I met a charming Mongolian girl on a jewelry purchasing business trip, and another Mongolian man returning home from Israel of all places. I wait around for a while, and just as my spirits are starting to fade finally the train reappears and we all happily fight and push to get on board in the typical chaotic way one does! Now, yet more packages have to find a space somewhere on the train. At this point a real packing, repacking and organizing job gets underway, all orchestrated by the women it seems, and it provides a little humor along the way too.

Chinese officials eventually board the train to check passports and check for smuggling also, luckily it seems that everyone has their passports in order, and also that bribery seems the best way to get the customs officials to not look too hard in your cabin. We slowly then crawl through what seems like no-mans land to me, a strange area of nothing but snow covered barren landscape with no form of life whatsoever. A Mongolian train station appears, as do the barking custom officials, all of them are non-too friendly and distinctly overweight, it seems crime does pay then in some parts of the world. Finally I am allowed to sleep at three in the morning. 

I wake up in Choyr, a deserted train station in the middle of nowhere, a place that seems like it shouldn’t really be there, but it is. And this is Mongolia too. I have my first pot of noodles for the trip and settle down as the train begins its journey once more, now time for some gazing. I soon am aware that Mongolia and specifically it’s countryside is beautiful in it’s simplicity, with blanketed-white snow covered sloping valleys and hills, a few craggy mountains popping up here and there for dramatic effect, grazing animals wandering around doing what they do, small communities built of wooden huts or traditional canvass ‘Gers’, and all this under the blazing clear blue sky of winter. Everyone on the train is having a good look out of the window today and admiring the view, locking it away in your head for safekeeping. I’d like to return to these parts to have a look in the summer months I ponder to myself, maybe just maybe.

As the train approaches Ulanbatter, a layer of smog can be seen hanging in the valley where UB has settled and grown into the capital city, not a pleasant site to hold. No doubt, that here as in China, coal is the primary fuel source for industry power and heating of homes, hence the smog, but at this point in the countries development it is either burn coal of freeze, economically and literally. It is a busy platform station as many passengers are alighting from the train here, and there is much business to be done, in terms of porters, vendors and traders. I note the Australian tour group has left the train here, which makes me happy as I can now safely wander down to the dining cart in the knowledge I won’t have to speak to them. I go for a walk, take some photos and generally linger around the platform for as long as I can, observing trading and the bartering circus that accompanies this.

I realize I missed out on lunch today, what with al the excitement of looking out of the window, and as such I break into another pot of noodles. It seems that it is not only those ever-complaining students that eat instant noodles, they do serve other purposes in life! Ma also seems very pleased with herself having acquired a couple of bulky looking leather coats for a couple of cartons of cigarettes. There is now much more room in my cabin owing to the two sleeping Mongolian doctors getting off the train, which is good for relaxation purposes. One of the Mongolian men left me a book about Mongolia as a gift, and it turned out to be a good little read, well I say read, but I really mean look at the photos because it is all in Mongolian.

After such a day, I feel a beer is in order down in the dining car, a Mongolian beer at that, just hope they accept Chinese Yuan or American dollars because I have no Mongolian Turks on me today. The dining car is a delightful surprise, well decorated and rather elegant really, especially compared to the Chinese dining car of yesterday. Here, I share some conversation with a couple of Brits and polish off three large cans of Mongolian beer, all in all a good end to a good day. At least I thought it was the end, but I had forgotten we had another customs checkpoint later tonight.

This turned out to be another nightmare, just taking ages to get through. More bribery occurs, many questions and much checking of documents from fat and unfriendly custom officials. I know they are just doing their job, but they could do it a little quicker and put a smile on their faces I reckon. It is again about three o’clock in the morning when I am finally allowed to get to sleep.

After the second wonderful border crossing I woke up in Russia this time, day three and the third country, and something different scenery yet again to stare aimlessly at. I wake up late, well I think it is late until I realize we have passed a couple of time zones now, and so I need to wind my watch back a couple of hours, which in reality means I am going to be on this train for that much longer, great. I pull the curtains aside and gaze at what is now a snow and tree packed landscape on this side of the train, until Ma shouts at me to have a look out the other side of the train at the ‘big lake’. It turns out to be we are following the shoreline of lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, holding approximately one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. And it does indeed look pretty darn big, so big I cannot see the other end as it disappears from the horizon, it is really difficult to fully comprehend it’s size, but it is brought home when I see the small fishing boats bobbing around. On the far side I can see the snow-capped mountains, rolls of mist swirl across the lake as the sun starts to beat down upon it, the shore line is littered with large ice-covered rocks and just inland are scattered small communities of wooden huts hidden within the dense forest. All in all, it is a tranquil setting, a picture postcard type of scenery, the kind of view that makes the journey what it is. Take a few more photos from inside the train, more in hope than realization that they will be able to be developed, and it seems like the remaining passengers are doing the same. Treat myself to a large bowl of instant noodles and a sausage for my breakfast, followed by a coffee and then a good time standing gazing out the window, alternating from a standing position to the sitting position keeps up the exercise in my new world.

Eventually stop at a lakeside town for around thirty minutes or so, a lengthy stop compared to others, where I decided to take my first stroll on Russian soil, in the bitingly cold air I may add! Frustratingly I realize I have no Russian rubbles, so cannot buy anything on sale here, which is a shame because there appeared some great cooked fish on sale that every other individual was quickly purchasing from the rather plumpish but not so jolly Russian women on the platform. So, I took in the activity of watching people buy things as something to do, until it was time to board the train and take off again.

In the afternoon the train meanders around the lake some more, before waving goodbye to the lake as it climbs up the valleys of the mountains, presenting yet another change of scenery.

I am now seeing a lot of trees, more trees than you really would want to see. In this time, I get chatting to the two carriage conductors/ servicemen who now seem much happier than the first two days, I attribute this to the train being much quieter now and they’ve moved from the cramped up cabin one of the passenger cabins to sleep, eat, cook, drink tea, play cards, smoke and gamble, all in much more comfort now. Their main job it seems is keeping the coal fired water boiler fully stoked with coal to keep the carriage nice and warm, and the water boiling hot so as to be used for tea, coffee, noodles and anything else that can be thought of I suppose. Thus, the carriage is always toasty warm and there is always a supply of hot water available, outstanding service I think, albeit it results in the carriage have a constant smoky smell to it. Also, these two kind men don’t let me wander off too far away from the train and order me back on board when we depart a station, this is good as I really don’t want to be stuck here in the middle of nowhere for a while without any belongings.

Arrive to Irtsk station in the early evening, a traditional old Russian station, where I am capable of purchasing some bread and some beer owing to Ma kindly exchanging some money for me from her stash of cash. Observe the engines changing yet again, platform vendors selling anything and everything, re-stocking up on coal and people generally stretching their legs. Irtsk doesn’t feel to cold and so I spend a good amount of time available to me out on the platform where I watch numerous trains pass loaded with logs, it seems that logging is big business around thee parts. I meet a Welsh guy and we swap books, we have a chat and I learn he is traveling overland from Melbourne, Australia back to a small village near Cardiff in time for Christmas with his family and friends.

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