The world’s greatest railway! From Moscow to Beijing; from Europe to Asia; from on end of the world to another.
I recently read a travel blogger’s description of taking the Trans-Mongolian railway and couldn’t help smiling. She was writing about the lack of amenities, but she had WiFi and food. She had heard stories, seen pictures and read descriptions before going. That’s the luxury of today’s travellers. Don’t get me wrong, I like the luxury of accessibility. In fact, I don’t know how on earth, I had the nerves to get on that train 20 years ago without knowing more than the iconic status and what Deutsche Bahn told me. But I did.
And it’s the most boring-exciting adventure of a lifetime.
It’s 1999 and I’m 19. I’m taking the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian train from Moscow to Beijing. Ahead of my friend and me are 6 days of endless forest of birch trees and desolate houses before travelling through the Gobi desert and finally passing the Great Wall and entering China.
In the end, I will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime trip. My wanderlust definitely began, when I got lost in time on that old train.
(And then there was the time, when I went naked into some Russian’s compartment…)
LOST IN TIME
The long green train with the yellow stripe is waiting for us at the station. It’s the longest train, I’ve ever seen. A very Russian-looking lady in a green uniform checks our tickets. Everything smells like diesel and old wool. My friend and I find our compartment. All tourists are gathered in one wagon. Maybe so the locals can easily avoid us.
It’s the Russian train. Apparently the Chinese train has better food. Our only has beer.
But it’s fitting. It was Tsar Alexander III, who instructed his son to start the building of the railroad through Siberia “in order to unite the rich yields of Siberian nature with the network of Russian railways”. 12 years later: done!
The train sets off and slowly leaves Moscow behind. The tall grey building blocks transients into lower grey houses until they become more and more scarce. We are leaving Europe and heading for Asia. It’s far. Russia is the largest country in the world. Ahead of us is 7867 kilometres.
The slow rolling movement of the train. The monotone grey-yellow landscape floating by – sometimes you can see old people attending their gardens next to small wooden houses – otherwise it’s just birch trees and more birch trees. I actually like birch trees, probably since I’m 1/3 Finnish. This type of forest of birch, larch and pine is called or Taiga, and the largest areas are in Russia and Canada.
We pass the oldest lake in the world and the largest freshwater lake in Asia: Bajkal. It’s around 25 mio. years old, hence surpassing other lakes by 24,99 mio. years, I read in my analogue and heavy Lonely Planet. I try to stare as hard as I can and take in the scenery as much as possible, because I know this is a special part of Russia here and important for its Russian neighbours. And I also know, it’s drying out.
The train keeps moving, and I read a lot. Sometimes, I just stare out the window for hours, and at other times, I chat with the guy sleeping in the bunker below. He’s British and named Ed. Thanks Ed – for being a good roomy. My friend is in the other upper bunk, and Ed’s friend in the other lower. 4 travellers – 6 days.
There’s plenty of time to spend with your own thoughts. I think about the upcoming journey. I’m 19, and this is my first long trip and first one outside Europe. Taking the train wasn’t really part of the plan, but the travel agency suggested it. I’m glad they did, for this turns out to be kind of boring and monotone and exhausting, while we are on the road, but unforgettable and wanderlust-infusing for the rest of my life.
More birch tress go buy, and we stop shortly on a small station in the middle of Siberia. I go out to buy some snacks. She has nothing at all to sell except water. I buy some (mostly to support her), even though it’s the only thing I already have access to on the train. “Doesn’t it smell funny?”, I ask one of our travel companions. “It’s fine”, he says, when he tests it for me. A huge drink later, and I’m almost throwing up. The water was rotten. I didn’t know water could do that. He laughs, but not in a mean way. From here on, I only drink tea.
As an apology, he let’s me use his shower. I haven’t showered for 4 days. They are not staying in the 2. class tourist wagon with the rest of us, but in 1. class with only 2 beds and shared bath & shower. I of course can’t open the door with wet hands, and I have to knock on the bathroom door opening into the other compartment and naked explaining a surprised (but not in a happy way) older Russian couple of my dilemma. They quickly understand, get my fellow traveller, who has to access their compartment, squeeze past me (still naked) and open the door to his room and my towel. Everyone on the train knows 10 minutes later. But the couple and the poor guy are way more embarrassed than I.
After a few days, I can’t really tell time. The train covers 6-7 different times zones, so everyday the time is off. We pass small coal mining towns and other industrial cities. I’m getting tired of cup noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I will never eat cup noodles again after this, I swear. 20 years later, I still haven’t.
Okay, maybe plan is saying too much. My friend and I got drunk one evening and deiced to spend 3 months in China. I had only been to southern Europe – she hadn’t really travelled. We don’t really know, what we are going to do, when we get there. But who cares! We’re young, intelligent women full of the youth’s fearlessness, and I’m sure, we will be fine. At least, that’s what I told my concerned parents. I’m not to convinced myself, when I really think about, what we are venturing into.
Along the way, the green snake stops in several stations. Including Ulan-Ude, founded in 1666, the capital of the Buryat Autonomous Republic, which in the 1200-1600’s was part of the vast Mongolian Empire. From here, the Trans-Siberian continues eastwards to the remote Vladivostok, while the Trans-Mongolian starts here and heads south. The part going through the Gobi desert to China was first built in 1940-1956.
We leave Russia behind and head to Mongolia. Is that a camel? Sand, sand, sand! The Mongolian desert. A ger in the distance is the only thing I see for hours, but it’s exciting. Everything is new and unknown. And Mongolia means, we are getting closer to China. The view is yellow. It’s the first time, I see a desert, but not my last time. Yes, it was a camel.
The trains stop in Ulan Bataar around 400 km from the border. This is the capital of Mongolia, which was founded in 1639. There’s a sand storm – it’s October. Some kids are standing and watching us. I wonder, how different there lives are compared to mine. Some of our fellow travellers get off the train here to explore Mongolia. I’m a little envious. I’ll come back, I think. 20 years later, I haven’t.
By now, we’re well on our way. The Trans-Mongolian railway follows an ancient caravan route from China to Russia – not for silk, but for tea. And both Russians and Chinese love their tea. So do I. Tea-drinking is a culture, that binds the world together.
In the middle of the night, someone wake us up. “Everybody out!”, I guess they’re saying, but I don’t understand Russian or Mandarin. We are in a huge hangar somewhere near Ulan-Ude more than 3 days and almost 5600 km from Moscow. It’s dark, and I’m really tired. The entire train and all its wagons are lifted up and on to another set of wheels. Ah, different tracks in China than in Mongolia and Russia, they say. It takes around 4 hours ice cold hours before we move on. Stupid! But I’m very impressed by the machinery. And just happy something different is happening than the same old tree watching. Back to bed. Goodnight.
The Great Wall! I gasp and sigh at the same time. Brick on brick on brick built upon dead bodies. You can see it from space. I’m completely taken back over the fact, that the trains runs through a part of the wall. Twice! We are only 400 km from Beijing now. The wall is lower than I expected. But maybe, it’s just this part of the ancient wonder.
China is dressed in autumn colours, and the sun is shining. It feels warmer and more welcoming than the barren grey Russia or the yellow and desolated Mongolia. With only a few hundreds kilometers to go, we begin to wake up from our timelessness. What day is it, and what time is it?
We pack our bags. It’s weird, since this bunk bed of 2×1 meters has been my home for 6 days. All of us foreigners in the alien wagon say goodbye. “Let’s meet up tonight”, a French woman says. “Okay.” Nice to have some kind of stronghold on the first day. Dirty, tired and with our giant backpacks, my friend and I leave the station heading for a shining 5 star hotel included in the train trip. Now, I feel out of place. I miss the simple life on the train.
TICKETS BEFORE THE INTERNET
You won’t find any timetables or tips on buying tickets here., since I went from Moscow to Beijing in 1999. Back then, it was not possible to buy a ticket on your own, unless you just showed up in Moscow and hoped for the best. Since we were 19 years old and on our first trip outside Europe AND THERE WAS NO INTERNET – we did not do that. (For more on that: Travel was NOT better before the internet! A tourist in Moscow, Russia in ´’99)
Instead, we went to a Danish travel agency for young people Kilroy, that got in touch with Deutsche Bahn – the German train system and got us tickets. They also bought us a plane ticket to Moscow and a room in a crappy grey-concrete-communistic hotel way outside center. Since this was back in the dark ages, a guided tour of Moscow was also included in the train ticket. So weird.
But I’m sure, it’s another matter today.
Planes are getting smaller and security lines worse. Not to forget the environmental concerns. So it’s no wonder train travels are on the rise, and in Europa countries are finally trying to run faster transnational trains again.
But the nostalgic feeling going on that you are more in touch with the landscape and you really meet people is only a half truth. But nonetheless, as someone who gets airsick, seasick and any other motions sickness, trains are definitely a favourite. It might even be an enjoyable part of your travel.
I’ve been sleeping, eating, drinking, playing cards and listened to music on trains in Thailand, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, Greece and Russia, Mongolia and China of course. And tooting the horn on a small steam train from Trinidad, Cuba. We were advised against taking the train in Zimbabwe.
Can’t wait until next time.
Do you like taking the train?
A greatly enjoyable description of your journey. I imagine the same trip today would have far better catering, but maybe not as much fun as your trip. Beijing must have been eye opening after days in the empty landscapes of Russia and Mongolia!
Thank you. Well, fun is maybe an exaggeration. But definitely different and probably less lost in time. Yes, China was overwhelming in many ways, but even more so coming from the monotone and quiet desert.