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Catching the 18:30 train: 7,500 miles to Shanghai

I have never particularly liked trains. At home, they always seem to be overcrowded and expensive. But I do like a challenge, and having escaped the office, I was going to catch a train to China. From Bristol Temple Meads.

Long-distance train travel can be slow and, like being at sea, after too many hours on a train you still feel the motion in your legs. Worse, in travelling so far, we would cross eight time zones, engendering a sort of disconcerting ‘train lag’ where our bodies slowly became increasingly unsure of when to sleep and eat. This discomfort is intensified as the whole Russian railway system runs on Moscow time: although your train may be scheduled for 7 am in Moscow, you must remember to actually catch it at midday in Ulan Ude, five time zones to the East. This means you can never throw yourself into the present, as you would after a long flight.

The plan was to make as many stops as we could on the way. Leaving Bristol, I picked up a friend in London, where we enjoyed a last British beer at the longest bar in the world (which runs the length of St Pancras Station), before boarding a Eurostar train. Two days later, following stops (and beers) in Brussels, Cologne and Warsaw, we boarded a night train to Moscow, travelling right across Belarus.

Little-visited Belarus must be a fascinating country, but Europe’s last dictatorship is not viewed cheaply. Transit visas set us back £80, and it would have cost a further £60 to even set foot off the train. At the border, we were stationary for several hours while the bogeys were changed. The trains of ex-soviet countries run on rails of a different width to the rest of Europe. The whole train, passengers and all, is hoisted into the air and fitted with new wheels the same gauge as the rails in the new country. This process took hours and was completed just after dusk, denying us any chance of even seeing the Belarussian countryside for our visa fee.

Red Square on Victory Day

Red Square on Victory Day

Moscow is truly one of the world’s most interesting cities. Filing past Lenin’s waxy, embalmed body in Red Square is a rite of passage, but the highlight of our stay was seeing a rehearsal for the Victory Day celebrations. This national holiday commemorates the taking of the Reichstag by Soviet forces in 1945, completing the Red Army’s inexorable drive across Eastern Europe. In a war where, by some estimates, as many as 20 million Russians died, this remains a source of fierce national pride and a time for remembrance. We witnessed the modern hardware of the Russian Army rolling through Red Square, in practice for the celebrations later in the week, well aware that only twenty-five years previously we would not have been welcome at such a display.

Later that week, we experienced the actual Victory Day celebrations in Tyumen, a city smack in the middle of Siberia. We arrived mid-afternoon and the party was in full swing. Most people have the day off, and many of them seemed to have chosen to spend it celebrating through the medium of vodka. In a party atmosphere, a few families were driving around with Russian tricolores fluttering from their cars. But as the afternoon wore on, these were replaced by large fleets of cars full of young people speeding around the city.

Just before dusk, a particularly large group of cars flying the blood-red Soviet flag and full of heavy-set men wearing gas masks sped through the streets. There are few times that I have felt threatened, but this was one of them. I later spoke with some Austrians who had been too afraid to be heard speaking German and had been busy pretending to be inoffensively Canadian. As a foreign male, I did not feel safe on the streets, and as we made our way back to the station in order to await our 2am train, we stuck to back streets to avoid the large groups of drunk and angry men congregating on street corners, under the gaze of the police.

Thankfully, we avoided any brushes with the authorities ourselves, although one man did try and shake us down. He caught us jay-walking, and used this as a pretext to demand to see our documents. Luckily his English did not extend beyond this single word, and we played the dum foreigner card and wandered off.

Conversely, on the train out of Moscow, we experienced our first show of incredible Russian hospitality. A young lawyer, armed with an electronic translator, spirited us out of our shared compartment to the dining car for some typically stodgy Russian fare (as my companion quipped, “if you try not to taste it, it’s not that bad”) and some delicious Baltika beer. Someone produced a guitar, and before long we were having a sing along as the booze flowed: Russians can drink.

At one stage, the entire group that had coalesced around us were singing a song from the Afghan war (often described as the USSR’s Vietnam). This was so moving and so controversial, that the Provodnitsa, the formidable lady in charge of each carriage, prevented them from singing it. After consulting his translator, the lawyer advised us that they had been, “censored.”

Perhaps inevitably, it was not long before the guitar was thrust into our hands and an English song demanded. Not being terribly tuneful, we looked at each other uncertainly, before someone suggested awkwardly, “um…does everyone know Tenacious D?” By the time we’d hummed and trilled our way through the whole of comedian Jack Black’s song about shiny demons, ‘Greatest Song in the World’, there was a carriage full of bemused-looking Russians staring blankly at us. At the end of the night, our lawyer friend would not let us pay a penny for any food and drink.

Without speaking the language, it was difficult to meet locals. Sporting such a gruff exterior, they seem to rarely smile, and I have never met people so uninterested in even trying to help a tourist. The moment we approached someone and spoke English, they shook their head and walked off. But it just took the smallest thing, for example a shared railway compartment, to suddenly open up the incredible friendliness bubbling just beneath the surface.

On one train, somewhere east of the Urals, I was stood in the corridor staring out of the window at the rolling steppe. Suddenly, I got a tap on the shoulder and a Russian guy, about my age, thrust a mobile phone into my hand and said what I can only assume was the Russian for, “it’s for you.” He had called his English-speaking friend in order to get an introduction, despite the fact he spoke no English himself. We spent the next few hours covering those universal topics of conversation between men anywhere in the world, with or without a common language: football, girls, football, beer and football.

When we returned to our own compartment hours, and several Baltikas, later, we were sharing it with a new passenger. Again, despite speaking no English, he insisted on giving us all of his food, as well as his rock collection, possibly the last thing we wanted to carry for another 5,000 miles.

The faded grandeur of Tobolsk

Sometimes, we found ourselves attracting a little too much attention from over-friendly locals. In Yekaterinburg we were accosted and compulsorily escorted around the city by a Spetznaz (Russian SAS) soldier. Fresh out of Chechnya, he was getting drunker and drunker as the morning progressed. It is a strange feeling knowing that you are completely at someone’s mercy and that if he took a dislike to you there is nothing you could do about it.

To do the trip flat out would take about eleven days, but we made nine stops across Russia itself. One historian has calculated that the Russian empire expanded at a rate of 50 square miles every day, for 300 years. Like Australia, one method used for colonising the great wilderness was punishment. There are entire towns built by St Petersburg socialites exiled to the Siberian frontier. There, they built all the amenities they had been used to in the capital, including theatres, opera houses and enormous churches using the only building material: wood. One such place is Tobolsk, full of faded grandeur and mouldering wooden houses. It counted among its exiled residents the last Tsar, before his eventual murder by the Bolsheviks. We were shown around by a young student, calling himself Freddie after his musical hero, Freddie Mercury. Apparently, news of his namesake’s sexuality seemed to have failed to reach as far as central Siberia, and our self-appointed guide appeared dismayed by the revelation.

The big draw on the Trans-Siberian is Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. In fact many travellers will jump on a train in Moscow, stopping only in Irkutsk to visit the lake, before pushing on to Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian branchline. These big trains, running the whole length of the line, are popular and have entire carriages full of backpackers and tour groups. However, the moment you make different stops and get off the mainline, you are often the only non-Russian on board. We were adopted by a provodnitsa early on in our journey, and unbelievably, given the thousands of miles of track in Russia, washed up in her carriage again a week later.

On each carriage is a Samovar, or Russian stove, where you have access to boiling water at all times. Getting off the train at stations, you can purchase all manner of foods and drink from hawkers on the platforms. However, in order to know how long each stop will be, you have to conquer the timetable displayed in every carriage, so a knowledge of Cyrillic script (Russian characters) is useful. Russian is written quite phonetically, and you can sometimes sound out certain words that are linked to English. For example, the word that is written ‘PECTOPAH’ in Cyrillic, is pronounced ‘rest-or-ran’, and you can probably guess what it means.

Lake Baikal is an awe-inspiring place: the world’s largest body of fresh water and deepest lake. Many travellers choose to head to Okhon Island, reputedly home to shamans and a mystical energy. With one of our few days not on the Trans-Sib, we chose to take the Circum-Baikal railway, to keep our train-average up. Often described as the Tsar’s jewelled belt, it is the original route of the railway, running right round the south shore of the lake. It is very scenic, and gets its name from the huge number of tunnels and bridges built to accommodate it. Being British, we decided to have a paddle. But to everyone else’s amusement it did not last long as the lake had been frozen solid only a fortnight before, and our feet were numb in seconds.

Irkutsk itself is like a lot of other large cities, but has one particularly surprising oddity, the London Pub. This is a British-themed pub, but with a difference: it used to be a pub in Bradford, England, that burned down in the 1980s. Someone purchased the fittings, brushed the soot off, and shipped it all the way to Siberia, and you can now sit and drink Newcastle Brown Ale upwards of 5,000 miles from Newcastle.

Out of Irkutsk, we headed via Krasnoyarsk, a science city closed to foreigners in Soviet times, to Ulan Ude, where we swapped to the Trans-Mongolian. If you thought there was a whole lot of nothing in Siberia, Mongolia is one step further in wilderness terms. Ulan Bator, its only real city and capital, underlines its association with Ghengis Khan at every opportunity. He is celebrated in the shape of a huge statue in the main square, in the shadow of which old men play chess for small stakes. My travelling companion, a some-time county champion in his youth, challenged a few locals to a game but refused to take their money when he concluded a swift checkmate.

After Baikal, Mongolia is the other popular stop on the Trans-Sib, and Ulan Bator is a good base to plan forays into the wilds. We visited the Gobi Desert, the mountains, and an ancient monastery at Karakoram. Driving out of Ulan Bator, which does not take long, it is common to see single gers, traditional Mongolian tents, dotting the landscape. Herds of horses roam free, but these animals are so social the whole group will often stand in a cluster, every member touching another. Often they choose to do this in the middle of the only road, and it is necessary to pull over and chase them away.

It is fair to say that Mongolians know what they like. We picked up a cassette of Mongolian hip hop music, and someone translated a few songs for us: “this is about a man who has lost his horse…and his one about a man whose girl has left him, but he still has his horse.” In the martial tradition of Ghenghis, they also like to fight. We found ourselves challenged to impromptu wrestling matches by young and old, and there is a national obsession with sumo.

The Mongolian culinary year is divided into three seasons: mutton, goat and horse. We visited in mutton season,and ate all parts of sheep in all manner of guises. However Mongolian food is so fatty, you cannot accompany a meal with a cold drink. Doing so causes the fat to congeal into a solid mass in your stomach triggering terrible indigestion. Instead, you must sweat it out, in 40-degree heat, sucking down scalding Mongolian tea for refreshment.

Our trip finished in China, where we enjoyed a shower, some food that was not mutton, and flew home.

You would not believe just how much nothing there is in Siberia, but it was important for me to find that out for myself. It is an empty but compelling place, full of a desolate beauty, and Mongolia. But what better way to see some of a country as vast as Russia, than on a train as you snake your way across two continents. Despite seeing so much, the abiding memories are of the people we met, usually in a train compartment. After all that time on trains, you might expect me to be sick of them, but if I could have got straight back on a train to travel 7,500 miles home again, I would in a heartbeat: I’m hooked.

More by this author on his very excellent website.

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