The Tran-Siberian Railway is the ultimate rail journey: the longest in the world – possibly the coldest if you go at the wrong time of year. A journey of almost mythical proportions that spans two continents while staying in a single country; without leaving your seat you clatter your way along almost a third of the globe.
There are three routes that travellers can take to explore the Siberian expanse: The Moscow-to-Vladivostok route at over 6000 miles, and two routes from Moscow to Beijing: one through Mongolia, taking six days and almost 5000 miles or one which takes almost a week to complete and travels via Manchuria.
My journey started on a Tuesday night at Yaroslav Station in Moscow. Platform Three was packed with traders loading up the train with rugs, stereos, clothes, underwear and a host of other goods that I assumed were being transported to other cities. I expected to see many world-wise travellers on the platform, waiting to take this epic journey, but I saw none. I appeared to be the only person who had not brought half a market as part of my luggage.
I pushed my way past bags of what smelt like horse blankets to find my carriage. There were about eight compartments to a carriage. Each consisted of a small table next to the window and two beds on either side. A further two beds hung from the sides but were stowed upright to give the illusion of space.
It was about the size of the bathroom in the apartment I had just left.
There was no one else in the carriage as I went through my ritual of taking off my hat, gloves, coat and the several other layers I was wearing to keep out the Russian winter. It was early January and below minus twenty outside.
Wondering what to do next, I went into the corridor and looked out the window. Until I reached Ulan Bator in five days time, this was going to be the way I would see the world. The remaining passengers were loading wares; a few waited patiently on the platform while others rushed; at first bags and boxes were stacked in the corridors, but as time pushed on, they were thrown into the vestibules at the end of each carriage. Passengers running late would have to tackle this final obstacle before boarding the train.
There was no whistle, no ‘all aboard’ announcement. I did not even notice the collective bang of closing doors to herald our departure; the train simply began to move slowly away from the platform – an uneventful start, I thought.
Behind me, a few people had walked into the compartment and were discussing who belonged in which bed. I had already staked mine out, but began to see the issue as six people laid claim to just three beds. There had been an obvious error; everyone’s ticket appeared to show identical seat numbers. Someone went to search for a train staff member to help.
‘Where are you from?’ I pose the clichéd backpacker conversation starter to the woman on the opposite bed, finally having a chance to practice my Russian in a ‘real situation.’
‘Moskva’ comes the reply, followed by much more that I didn’t quite catch, except the word, ‘universitet’
‘You study what?’
‘You want to be a teacher?’
I realised that two years of Russian was not nearly enough; I didn’t know what else to ask. The others in the carriage, all men, had walked to the end of the carriage for a cigarette. We sat in silence, occasionally making eye contact and exchanging embarrassed smiles.
The uncomfortable silence did not last long before the train guard appeared. He gestured to me and I followed: down the hall, across into the other carriage, stepping over various bags and boxes that still blocked the corridors. We passed between several cars, with icy drafts of wind hitting us as we stepped between the doors. I caught several glimpses into other compartments as their occupants tried to find space for their goods.
It was a few minutes walk before we stopped and I was gestured into another sleeping compartment; similar to the one I had just left, but with only two beds, and no other occupants.
‘Good’ said the man, as more of a statement than a question before he returned the way we had come.
‘It’s better isn’t it?’ said the girl back at my original compartment, but I had no chance to reply as my bags disappeared down the corridor, dragged by the guard.
‘So long’ came shots in Russian as I passed the men smoking at the end of the carriage. ‘Leaving already?’ I’m sure one said, but my dictionary wasn’t on hand to check the vocab.
I spent the evening alone in my room, sipping strong tea from the samovar at the end of the carriage. Outside, the high-rise flats of Moscow turned into countryside dotted with towns. Many appeared to be little more than a few shacks in a clearing. Orthodox churches appeared in almost every town, lit up against the surrounding hills, covered by snow. The yellow tinge of streetlights highlighted only a few features before they disappeared into the dense forest. Then, only the silhouette of a few trees was visible against the black sky. There was not enough time to appreciate the beauty before it passed by and something else would appear to spark my interest. It was how I spent much of the journey.
I was disappointed not to be surrounded by Russians with whom I could practice my language. However, my thoughts quickly turned to the journey and the train itself; mainly why the train, weighing several tonnes (if not more) riding on just two smooth tracks, can move around as much as it did. Sitting with my back against the wall, I was rocking quite alarmingly, spilling my tea as I did so.
Each carriage had its own attendant, a provodnitsa; as stern as anyone I’d met, she was not interested in making conversation, answering questions with a harsh da (yes) or nyet (no). She would clean neurotically, which included checking the small toilet at the end of the carriage – unlocking the door and walking in regardless of whether it was in use. She eyed me suspiciously every time I used the samovar – lest I spill a drop of water on her recently cleaned floor – and spent a great deal of time shouting at passengers if they had trudged snow into the carriage, dirtied the windows, left food in the corridor or opened the windows. The train was very hot and I spent much of the journey trying to vent the compartment with fresh air; I was never successful and the window was quickly slammed shut, with a stern look to boot.
The train makes frequent stops to pick up new passengers and let others alight. Ekaterinberg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude, near Lake Baikal are just some of the great cities on the Trans-Siberian route. With the train stopping for only an hour or so, there is little time to sightsee. If you miss the departure it can be a week before another is able to take you to Mongolia; finding your luggage, I’m sure, would take much longer. However, the architecture of the buildings surrounding the stations was worth settling for.
People would approach the train with local goods: decorated glasses and crystal, paintings, fur hats or carvings were offered through the small windows, or pushed through the busy doorways, to whomever was interested. Once taken though it was difficult to hand the item back: hard cash was more readily accepted than a returned gift. Local workers, often paid in part with the goods they produce, find the passing trains a good source of ‘real’ income.
Old women, many stooping with age, stood close to the tracks in the subzero temperatures offering hot meals of chicken and vegetables or meat and potatoes, as well as soup and biscuits. I often enjoyed a three-course meal from the window of my compartment and while the floury potatoes and grey meat did not look very appetising, in the cold Siberian air the meal was as welcome as any. Every day brought a new version of meat and potatoes, carrots and pies and a different broth or sweet pastry. I tasted a variety of drinks, snack and meals, ranging from regional specialities to European imports; some were truly delicious, others not so much.
The freeze-dried meals I’d brought from the UK – instead of nourishment – provided entertainment with many of those that I dined with. Laughs would erupt as I poured boiling water into the foil packages of dehydrated dust, creating shepherd’s pie, meat stew or pasta sauce – whatever I pulled out of my bag that day. I preferred the local meals and passed round the dry mix for others to enjoy (or not, if their faces were anything to go by).
It was at the end of the second day that someone joined me in the room. Elenor was a young mother from Perm, her striking Kazakh features were off set by a delicately embroidered blouse and hand knit shawl. She spoke terrible English, and I terrible Russian; we got a long well. We spent the day talking about her children and our journeys. She was on her way to visit her sick mother in Ulan Ude and was amazed anyone would take the train ‘just for fun’. She showed me a picture of her 16-year-old daughter (who shared her striking features but had unusually fair hair), asking for my address so she could practice English. I promised to hand it over before we parted.
As I lay on my bed that night, Elenor wrapped her shawl around me and began to sing; if she was singing me to sleep, or just to herself I couldn’t tell, but quickly fell asleep in the rhythm of train; pushing its way deeper into the winter landscape. In the morning, I awoke to a warm tea by my bed and a breakfast of Russian biscuits. I could not have asked for better company.
Elenor had a supply of shopping bags that she was selling to pay for her journey. As the train pulled into a station we would both lean out of the windows waving the colourful bags, yelling ‘sumki sumki’ (‘bags bags’). I never knew what price to charge, but everyone on the platform seemed to know exactly what to pay; I took whatever someone offered.
The small amount of roubles I made my first time on the job thrilled Elenor, but after that, I never sold many. My quick delve into Russian consumerism gave the opportunity to participate in the frenzied atmosphere at the stations – which appeared to continue regardless of the time or weather. I often woke up in the night to calls of ‘Kobra, Kobra’: the family in the next compartment trying to sell some kind of perfume. Thankfully, Elenor left her trading to the daylight hours only.
I began to join in with my own goods but not wanting to take money, I swapped them for provisions. A pair of warm socks got me a huge bag of berries that I could enjoy for the rest of the journey and my book: 2001, A Space Odyssey got me a new pair of gloves.
A lady walked into our compartment and without hesitating took a seat on Eleanor’s bed. As an old hand at Russian train travel, Elenor welcomed her and accepted the small gift of chocolates she was offered. The woman talked in slow, heavily accented Russian, difficult to understand. After making some tea for us I removed myself from the conversation, not having the concentration.
The train was a moving version of student dorms, long corridors with people moving between rooms for a change of company or scenery. There were vestibules at the end of each carriage where the smokers would congregate and the dining car served as the communal gathering place where many would meet before a night on the town, which consisted of vodka in someone’s compartment. My favourite place was the corridor, where windows stretched the length of the carriage, giving stunning views over the Siberian wilderness.
Like in any Russian household, visitors are warmly welcomed on trains and I was quick to catch on as various people popped by. If we did not want to receive guests we simply closed the sliding door on the compartment and were never disturbed. It was a few days before I had the courage to move to other compartments. Merely poking my head around the door, I met with open arms and an invitation to food or drink. This welcome was often repeated a second time once I had sat down and introduced myself as being from Britain. I took along my bag of berries as a guest offering and received with a brief ‘spasibo’ before everyone delved in.
Accepting gifts is often a demonstration in nonchalance. Before leaving the UK, I had spent hours selecting and choosing in gifts for the family I was to stay with in Moscow. Preserves and biscuits, books, pictures and handicrafts had all been carefully chosen to reflect the area where I lived and were presented in individual baskets and bags for each member of the family. On presentation, rather than studying each item with (perhaps mock) enthusiasm, after a brief look they were set down with only a simple ‘thank you.’ Far from being rude, the family explained to me later (perhaps due to my fallen looks after the event) gifts are part of Russian custom and are gratefully accepted, but without fuss. ‘You would not thank someone very much for taking off their shoes before they entered your house in England. You expect them to, so say nothing’. It was of no surprise that my offerings were accepted in a similar manner on the train.
The days passed quickly, too quickly, and the boredom that I had feared never set in. Every morning I would open the curtains, wondering what kind of scenery would greet me as the train moved from the Urals into snow-covered forest to steppe and large expanses of snowy nothingness. It was hard to get bored of the view and the anticipation of another beautiful sunset; knowing you’ve travelled almost a thousand miles, and another time zone, since the night before.
I had been waiting eagerly to see Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, which we passed early one morning. This huge lake covered in crystal white ice stretched to the mountains on the horizon but was visible for only a few minutes before the train turned a corner and headed back into the forest.
‘You were sleeping so well, I didn’t wake you earlier’ Elenor said as I explained how excited I was to see something so beautiful.
‘There was more?’
‘Much more. I am sorry’
‘That’s fine. Now I have an excuse to come back’
Shortly after, we arrived in Ulan Ude, Elenor’s stop. She left me a shopping bag to remember her by and as we said goodbye I promised to write, but after she had gone I realised we never swapped addresses.
Sara, the only female doctor in Mongolia (if I understood correctly) now occupied the other bed in my compartment. Sara was perhaps 30, but given her harsh Mongolian features it was hard to tell, she was just as welcoming and friendly as Elenor, but we didn’t find much to talk about after the initial pleasantries. She asked if I would help with her English.
Having swapped my books for various meals the only English text I had was Lonely Planet: China and Sara spent the day reading passages on various sights. I would often get lost in the descriptions of the countryside and cities, the culture that I was eager to experience. Alone in my thoughts, I would leave Sara stuck on a word, needing a nudge before correcting her.
A man from Lake Baikal, Valery, joined us, wondering about the ‘two English people’ (with which Sara beamed with delight). He carried a healthy glow in his cheek, which many in this region seem to have, perhaps due to the cold, but Sara suggested that vodka was responsible.
Valery was animated and cheerful as he spoke and I became engrossed in his descriptions of the region, his dacha, and how he copes with winter temperatures below negative 40C. He talked passionately about Lake Baikal and how ‘you can catch fish with just your arms,’ jumping onto the floor, wrestling an imaginary fish before presenting it to Sara. We tucked into some food he’d caught earlier: caviar, black bread, cured fish, biscuits and other delights appeared out of his bag, and with every mouthful Valery described the small house that produced the biscuits, how the fish was cured or why the caviar is so expensive. We ate until full, and then finished off the leftovers swapping tales of home as we did so. After almost five days, I was able to join in with barely a thought to conjugation or vocabulary. Although, I’m sure the vodka helped.
Some time that evening, after lengthy customs and immigrations checks at the Mongolian border, I fell into a deep sleep that I didn’t wake from until we reached Ulan Bator the next morning. I was hoping to enjoy a last breakfast and have the chance to say goodbye to those I had met, but there was just enough time to gather up my belongings and rush off the train.
While the Trans-Mongolian route of the railway continued for another 1000 miles to Beijing, I would not join it for another four days, after spending time in the Mongolian capital. I would then join another train and spend a final day reaching my final stop in China; completing one of the longest journeys on the planet.
Stepping onto the platform, this station had a very different feel. There was not the usual slush of muddy snow on the ground, barely a piece of ice was visible – being so far inland precipitation is limited – but the air was noticeably colder and my cheeks quickly felt tender. A number of bodies wondered around the train, several dressed in traditional dils – a long colorful robe, accompanied by a pointed hat – some sold wares or food, others waited to board. There were still many Russian words to be heard but Mongolian prevailed.
Sara had been following close behind as I walked away from the train, but as the crowds thinned I realized she was nowhere to be seen. I scanned for her fur hat, but everyone modelled a similar design; even Valery had disappeared into the melee.
Passengers were quickly scattering through the exits, and it seemed like just minutes before the platform was practically empty, leaving behind the traders and a handful of people – like myself on a previous day – who were waiting for the train to depart. I took a moment to look at the paper Sara had given me just before we left the train, it bore an address with a short message in English: ‘Please visit me.’