One Train, Two Worlds: The Trans Siberian Railway
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards that we have received so far. This account of The Genghis Khan is written by Vicki Fletcher and you can read more about her 2011 journey on her blog ‘L’ Espirit d’Escalier‘.
‘One Train, Two Worlds: The Trans Siberian Railway’ by Vicki Fletcher
After two full days of chugging along dead ahead, the turning sensation of the train suddenly rouses the dormant occupants of cabin 4. The thick forests either side of the track peel away to reveal open fields dotted with tiny timber cottages. As the train slows down to pass through the isolated village, some locals stand by to wave as we pass- their sole connection to both the east and the west.
As train number 6 makes it’s way from Red Square, Moscow towards Tiananmen Square, Beijing, I think about what we’re leaving behind in the west and what lies ahead in the east. But what about what lies in between? This expanse of approximately 6000 km covered with forests, plains and mountain ranges. We were five strangers, carrying about 15 bags filled to the brims with our lives, some of us on our way home, some just starting the adventure. Five people, five days, one train, no shower: welcome to the Trans Siberian Railway.
Our journey started off with a bit of drama to say the least. We jumped on the train to find a Mongolian woman, small in stature, big in personality, filling our cabin to the rafters with goods to sell on the journey back home. Or perhaps this train is her home? She unloaded our cabin and moved her precious source of income to the cabin next door only to have to remove it yet again as another family arrived to set up camp. In our sweaty state, a hurried boarding of the train and a lost backpack, we bid farewell to Moscow and before we knew it, we were underway towards the Ural Mountains and the Asian continent beyond.
The trains along this route are numbered from one to twenty four according to level of comfort: the lower, the better you’ll get.Number six provided us with clean sheets, pillows that moulded you into one and only one position all night long, a bathroom that doubled as an all in one washroom and lukewarm water to cook our noodles in. Minimal personal space and maximum travelling company don’t spare a great deal of time to read that good book in your bag. Not to mention the local kids, who were always up for a game of football, or to take photographs on our disposable cameras.
Sleeping in four berth cabins, our sole male companion, Ross, was bumped next door, in a room filled with one Mongolian man who had an uncanny resemblance to Buddha; about 250 raincoats, that were somehow stuffed inside the mattress coverings of the beds in preparation for the border crossing; and numerous other trading items depending on the stage of the trip. Travelling between stops there were constantly men and women rushing past with crates of clothing, shoes, sheets, glassware and Christmas decorations. Where they were going, I’ve no idea, but you name it, it was on this train. At each station we stopped, these traders would jump out to sell their dusty denim and the locals would crowd around eagerly snapping up the fashion finds rare in this corner of the world. That is, unless of course they were themselves selling out-of-date noodles, beer, water and crisps from oversized wheelbarrows. At a couple of stops there were police there preventing the gypsies from getting off the train, so they hung out the windows and continued to do a fine trade. Apparently some of these traders have been working this route for the past twenty years. There’s no stopping a good businessman, so it would seem.
By our third day on board we had drunk a fair amount of beer, done quite a bit of story sharing and it was too hot to continue making human pyramid creations. So we spent most of the day sleeping and reading. That was until we ventured down to the dining car, partly for a change of scenery, and partly for some dinner. We got both of those, plus some very friendly Russians who run the place. Olga and Serge, who run the dining car from Moscow to Irkusk and back couldn’t speak much English. They did, however manage to show us a poster of all of Russia’s leaders from the very first Tsar (King) right up to President Putin. Each time Olga didn’t know how to say something in English, she would yell over to Serge who stayed safely behind the bar. The response was usually no more than a grunt that I can only assume meant something like I don’t know woman.
Day four we rose after about 4 hours of broken sleep and a night that led us to ban vodka from the so called Vodkatrain. Out the window, however, were the beautiful blue waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest fresh water lake at 1637m down. It contains nearly one-fifth of the worlds’ fresh, unfrozen water, though its temperature never rises above 15 degrees. If you are brave enough to take the plunge, beware though, swimmers risk vertigo, as it is possible to see up to forty metres down. Formed by ever parting tectonic plates, the lake is shaped like a banana and stretches 636km from north to south, but only 60km across. Eventually, scientists predict it will split the Asian continent to become the world’s fifth ocean. 80% of its’ natural flora and fauna are found nowhere else in the world, including fresh water seals. Unfortunately we didn’t spot any along the southern shoreline.
Then came the border crossing. After six hours, three stops, two cabin searches and a heard of cattle on the platform, we were in Mongolia. Sunrise revealed rolling hills dotted with herds of wild horses and cattle and finally the sweeping valley in which sits the industrial capital of Ulaanbaatar.
So we survived. And we had only travelled just over one third of the way across Siberia. It’s another 4000km to Vladivostok. But it doesn’t end there.
After a few days standstill in Ulaanbaatar, we were back on the tracks for round two. Only this time, it was only 32 hours rather than 5 days. The traders had also been replaced by tourists, and the conductors were charming Chinese men rather than petite Mongolian mums.
The border crossing took us just over 5 hours this time. Not so bad considering the bolsters had to be changed on each carriage. Russia and Mongolia work with train tracks 1.5m wide, whereas the rest of the world’s are a little narrower. Thus we were moved back and forth with a lot of jolting until we were in a giant shed and each carriage was lifted for the change.
Something tells me that Russia is proud of causing this inconvenience, even just a little bit. The final leg took us right through the Gobi desert into fertile mountains and down to the plains of Beijing. One hour passing wild camels grazing the sandy plains, the next scores of workers harvesting green crops: Beijing was nearing and we were finally ready to see Tiananmen Square.
Two weeks crossing from Europe to Asia, and to think this is just one of the many routes spanning the two continents. Crossing time zones, connecting two opposite worlds, seeing is believing when it comes to life on these tracks. Finally welcomed under a blanket of dust in downtown Beijing, the supersized buildings of the Moscow skyline felt a world away. But then again that’s because they are.