Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

Russian Around

The next train on our journey would see us crossing another border, out of Mongolia and into the Siberian wilderness in Russia. We were all on a bit of a high after enjoying our time in Mongolia so much, so this two night journey would be a chance to debrief and prepare ourselves for our entry into Russia. Armed with two minute noodles and bottles of red wine, we said our goodbyes to Oko on our final evening in Ulaanbaatar and climbed aboard the train bound for Irkutsk.

***

The order of the cabins had been changed around since last time, and as the tickets were passed around I realised that I wouldn’t be isolated from the rest of the group this time. I was bunking with Tracy and the other British couple, Matt and Jen. The best word I could use to describe Matt and Jen is ‘organised’ – nothing was left spontaneous or unplanned, and they always liked to be two steps ahead of the game. I’m usually more than happy to play things by ear and go with be flow to see how things turn out, so sharing a cabin with the two of them was something of a juxtaposition, although there are definitely shorter straws to draw when it comes to close confines roommates.

Crossing the border to get into Russia from Mongolia was never going to be a fun ordeal – it took approximately four and half hours at the check points in both countries. To do what, I’m not entirely sure – Mongolia and Russia share a common gauge on their railways so there was no need to change the bogies. I know it’s necessary to check paperwork and visas and do the routine check for stowaways in the luggage compartment, which we’d all become very used to, but 10 hours just to cross a border just seems a little excessive. Not that it affected us very much at all – you could still do all the things you usually do on the train, with the exception of using the toilet, which you could use the station for – it just feels a little more frustrating to be sitting at a train station platform rather than watching the rolling hills of the countryside pass you by. I found myself pacing the corridor of our carriage, popping my head into other people’s cabins to say hello and see what they were doing, unable to sit for too long in any one place while the train was stationary, almost as though I was trying to make up for the lack of movement that was going on.

When the train finally did get moving again I joined two of the Australian girls, Rachel and Martina, in their cabin, along with Tim, Kaylah, Alyson, Dan and Claire. Rach and Marti were actually a couple who both work in travel and tourism, and have been travelling around the world together for the past several years. They both had their laptops and hard drives, so we set up a little theatre, cracked open a few bottles of wine, and watched a few episodes of Family Guy,The Amazing Race, and An Idiot Abroad, with the vast landscape of Siberia stretching out and beyond behind the screen. The Amazing Race was fun to watch with a group of travellers, as we speculated how we would fare in the challenges if we were contestants, and the episode of An Idiot Abroad was in China, so we pointed out all the familiar places we had been earlier in the week. Combined with dark chocolate and red wine, it was a fun and effective way of passing the time – after a while we realised we’d been there for about 4 hours. It was almost eight o’clock, yet the sunlight outside was deceptive, and back home the daylight could have passed for three or four in the afternoon. It was something we would all quickly get used to, but this time it had caught all of us by surprise.

***

Our interaction with the train staff was probably the most eventful part of our trip. On the previous trains we’d hardly spoken to the uniformed women who marched up and down the corridor, cleaning and tidying and I suppose helping anyone who needs assistance. The attendants on this train were Russian rather than Mongolian, and on the second day of our trip, before the border crossing, the woman who had been working on our carriage came in with a basket of chocolates, chips and drinks that she was selling. She started speaking in Russian and motioning to her products, but obviously none of us understood.
“No, thank you,” Tracy said slowly, and I shook my head to indicate that we didn’t want anything. Matt and Jen were contemplating some of the chocolate bars, and asked if they could borrow some Russian rubles, as they hadn’t managed to exchange any currency yet.
“One Twix, please”, Jen said, pointing at the Twix bars and holding up one finger. The lady took the 100 ruble note and gave her two bars.
“No, one,” Jen repeated, holding up her index finger to try and communicate the number. The woman said something in Russian, took away one of the Twix bars and replaced it with a Snickers.
“No, I have allergies. Nut allergies,” said Matt. I don’t know if the train attendant understood, but if she did then she certainly didn’t like what she heard. She started rambling again in Russian, pulled the Snickers back and then put three bottles of soft drink of the table in front on us. She placed her hand on each one, each time saying something in Russian, then motioning back to the chocolates, all the while speaking Russian at us.

“We don’t speak any Russian,” Matt said, before turning to find his Lonely Planet book. “Maybe we can get some translation happening.” The Russian woman liked that even less. Her voice got louder, and she picked the book up out of Matt’s hands, and slammed it back onto the table.
“No,” she said, the first word of intelligible English so far, and then pointed at the book, said something that sounded like “your culture”, then motioned back to the chocolates and said “Here in Russia.”
Not only were we a little confused at what was going on, but it was a little annoying to know she had been screaming at us in Russian when she clearly knew some English words – no matter how small they had been, it would have been better than our almost non-existent knowledge of Russian. The drift of the conversation seemed to be that Matt and Jen would not be getting any change from the transaction, so they just settled for taking two Twix’s and letting the grumpy train attendant go on her way.

Later in the afternoon, in a conversation in Rach and Marti’s cabin, I learnt that everyone else had gone through a similar ordeal, with the attendant threatening to cut off our access to the hot water on the train if we refused to buy anything. The hot water was a boiling urn that could be used to make tea, coffee, and two minute noodles, so naturally it was a key ingredient to us surviving these long train treks. Personally, I was just surprised that they had managed to get even that much of a translation, although Marti is originally from Slovakia and does have a bit of a knack for European languages. When I relayed this story to the others in my cabin, Matt said it was just part of a more general bribe that is probably a regular occurrence. Whatever the case, after the train attendant had acquired her fee, she became one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met, even talking to us a couple of times in nearly perfect English. That annoyed my slightly, however, because it meant that her initial tantrum and almost definitely been a complete sham. It was a small amount though, and in the end didn’t come out of my pocket, so it was easy to write it off as just another cultural custom to recognise, familiarise ourselves with, and get used to.

***

Our short ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar felt like nothing after the amount of time it took from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I don’t think the distances are all that different – it was just the time spent at border crossings and the time of our departures that had made the second trip seem longer, given that we’d spent two nights on that train rather than one. It was a sweet, freezing breath of relief as I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Irkutsk, and I tried to not think about the fact that our next train journey would be at least twice at long, both in distance and in time.

All Aboard

So far in my journey, the only train travel I had done was the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani – the rest of South-East Asia had been traversed via bus, boat and plane. When it came time to board our first train of the Trans-Siberian adventure – the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip fro, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – I was quite excited, unsure if it would be similar to my experience in Thailand or something completely different. Snow met us at our hotel at 6:30am, and we piled into a minibus that would take us to the station. After a few security checks and little bit of waiting, she showed us to the platform and talked to the train attendants who took us to our cabins. We would be getting a new guide in every city of the tour, so we said our goodbyes to Snow as we climbed aboard. She had been a peculiar little woman, soft-spoken and shy but very polite, and had been quite helpful during our stay in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

***

As a group, most of our time had been spent sightseeing, wandering around streets and temples and other attractions, and eating together at meals. However, we would be departing Beijing at around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and wouldn’t be arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday. If ever there was going to be a time to properly get to know my fellow travelling companions, it was going to be during the periods of transit where there was not much else to do other than talk to each other. It was interesting to get to know a little more about everyone: where home was, what they did there, where they were going after this tour, how long they had been travelling for, and how long they still had to go in their travels. I also discovered that I was the youngest of our group – the tour was for 18 to 35 year olds, but majority of the group was at or around the 30 mark, with a few in their mid-twenties. Most of them were also seasoned travellers, and listening to their stories made me realise that despite my travels extending right around the globe, there would still so much more of the world left to see once I finally arrived home.

I’d also been wondering who I would be sharing a room with, after having spent my nights in the Beijing hotel alone. Yet as Snow gave us our tickets for the train, she said to me, “I think you will be on your own. Each cabin has 4 people, but there are 13 people. Your name is last on ticket, so you might be with strangers.” She had seemed concerned, but I had assured her that I would be fine. I’d been sleeping in dorms with strangers for most of the past 6 weeks – another night on a train wasn’t going to kill me. The cabin set up was quite differently from the Thai train though – instead of single seats that lined the carriage and transformed into beds, the Chinese train was divided into cabins, each one equipped with two sets of bunks, which served as seats during the day and beds at night. I spent most of my time during the day in the next cabin over, with Kaylah and Alyson, the American girls, and Claire and Dan, a British couple who had been temporarily living in Australia and were returning home to the UK.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

***

While I loved getting to know my tour companions, acquainting myself with the fellow travellers in my cabin was a different matter. When I’d first been shown into my room, I found a couple sitting on the end of my bed. Snow said something to them in Chinese, but they stared back at her with blank, uncomprehending faces. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Snow ventured out and asked “English?” The woman of the pair slowly shook her head and said, “No… not well.” Snow turned to me, a little frustrated.
“They are Mongolian, so I cannot speak with them…” She peered out of the carriage and down the corridor, looking for assistance from the attendants, but I assured her that as long as I had a bed in the cabin, I really wasn’t too concerned with where I slept. After a short while another older man joined us, and placed his things on the bunk above mine. Shortly after departing the station, he climbed up into his bed and settled down, and the couple seemingly disappeared. It was a 13 carriage train with a dining car at the end, so I figured that that’s where they had relocated to.

A few hours later, when I decided to do a little bit of exploring myself, I wandered down to the dining car, where my suspicions were confirmed. The Mongol couple was sitting at one of the tables, with about six or seven cans of beer sitting in front of them. The woman had her back towards me, but her boyfriend must have recognised me and said something, because she whirled around in her seat to face me, her beehive of hair flying all over the place, and shouted “Hi!” in a long, drawn out way that made me sure she was at least extremely tipsy. I said hello and waved back, but I had only come for a quick investigation, and didn’t stick around long enough for any other kind of exchange. It was still fairly early in the afternoon at that point, and we would be crossing the Mongolian border later during the night. I silently hoped that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble for our cabin during the border crossing and customs procedures.

***

Fast forward to about 8:30 that evening, and we had finally reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. I had been moving around freely at that point, but now we were required to return to our cabins to clear Chinese immigration and customs. Gramps and I sat patiently on our side of the cabin. The young Mongol man sat on his bunk, stumbling through a hangover after an afternoon nap and frantically trying to fill in his departure card. The Amy Winehouse look alike was no where to be seen – I would later discover that she was sleeping in the neighbouring cabin, which had thus far remained empty. An austere Chinese man came and collected passports, and we were ordered to stand up so that the under-seat luggage compartments could be checked for stowaways. However, he was speaking in English, which my Mongol companions failed to understand, and he must have started yelling in Chinese after that, because what followed was a lot of exasperated sighs from the border personal as they snatched up passports and shouted orders at the travellers. It must have been more of a nuisance than an actual problem, because they eventually moved on to inspect the rest of the train.

After that ordeal came the time for changing the trains bogies. The railway tracks in Mongolia have a different gauge of thickness to those China. Travellers were given a choice – get off the train and wait for three hours while this happened, or stay on the train for three hours while this happened. Whatever your choice, you had to stick with it, as you couldn’t come and go during the procedure. While most travellers chose to get off the train, everyone in our group decided the stay – there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so far out in the Chinese countryside on a Sunday night, and I was curious to see the bogie changing process. It just involved each carriage being jacked up and sliding out the old ones and slipping in new ones – though some other more interesting things occurred during that time…

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

I had been sitting in one of our other group cabins when I heard Alyson call out to me. “Robert, I think you’re locked out of your cabin.” I stuck my head out into the hallway to see at my cabin door was indeed shut, and they were the kind that could only be opened from the outside with a staff key. At first I thought it had accidentally shut, but after a while we heard noises coming from inside the cabin.
“I think your Mongols are having a bit of couple time, Rob”, Dan said with a slight chuckle that was sympathetic but still quite amused.
“Really? Eww, no they’re not… They can’t be, surely? Right?” I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying. There were a few muffled shrieks, and from inside Alyson, Kaylah, Dan and Clair’s cabin, we heard banging against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” Alyson said, her eyes widening in horror, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, but unable to unhear it now it was happening.”Definitely some serious couple time going on in there.” I was just hoping that Gramps had actually left the train for the bogie changing.
“Oh my God, can’t they just wait?” someone else had said, perhaps Claire. “It’s just one night!”
The entire group, all thirteen of us, stood around in our cabins and the corridor, half laughing and half standing around in a stunned silence. I was almost at a loss of words, but I tried to remain optimistic.
“Well… as long as they’re not on my bed, right?”

***

The Mongol couple hadn’t been on my bed – but it turns out they had been on someone else’s. After the bogies had been changed it was well past midnight, and after we went through the Mongolian side of the border and had our passports collected, most of our group began to fall asleep one by one. In the end it was only Dan and I left in the corridor, watching the hallways as the train acquired more passengers. A train attendant came to my cabin and started having a very heated discussion with the couple, though it was all in Mongolian so I have no idea what was actually said. Then, rather abruptly, they gathered their things and stumbled out of the room. I exchanged a look with Gramps – he obviously knew what going on, but his expression gave nothing away about how he felt about the situation. Like me, he was probably just waiting for everyone to settle down so he could go to bed. But the couple had obviously been in the wrong cabin for the first leg of the journey and had to be shifted, because the space that Amy and her lover had vacated was quickly filled with some new Mongolians.

Our two new roommates were a peculiar duo – I nicknamed them the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar. They had luggage that looked like it weighed about 30kg, or at least sounded like it when they clunked the bags down onto the floor, and they tapped away on their touchscreen smartphones with their flashy acrylic nails while the shiny metallic decorations on their t-shirts caught the light like a disco ball, sending flecks of glare all around the cabin. They exchanged a few words with Gramps – I may as well not have existed to the , so after the official business had been conducted I slipped out of the cabin to rejoin Dan in the hallway. It would appear that the Real Housewives were not the only new passengers in our cabin – Dan and I had to duck out of the hallway and back into our cabins to make room for a group of six men, all of whom were incredibly filthy. You could see the dirt that lined their clothes and caked their faces, but the worst thing was the smell. The pungent aroma of raw fish wafted down the corridor, sending the cabin attendants running down the hallway, shrieking, covering their faces and spraying air deodoriser every time they had to open one of the two cabins which these men occupied. It was quite amusing, but would have been more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that our carriage was now stained with the unpleasant stench.

However, the cabin doors appeared to be fairly airtight, and managed to either block out or, more importantly, contain the smell. So long as the doors to their cabins stayed shut, the smell didn’t bother us too much. I had to chuckle to myself though, as I realised that the Mongolian lovers who had soiled my cabin had been relocated to one of the two rooms occupied by two of the dirty fisherman. To me it was fitting, almost as though the universe had matched and raised them on their attempt to get down and dirty. As I bid my group goodnight and headed back to my cabin, I made another discovery. In the space of about half an hour, the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar had also been relocated – I’m still not sure to where – and in their place was a single Mongolian woman, sitting on the bottom bunk and quietly arranging her things. She looked up as I walked in and gave me a small smile, which I returned before going about setting my bed up. I had laid out the bottom sheet and was about to climb into bed with just the top sheet to cover me, when the woman motioned to the blankets that were piled onto the top bunk above her, which now appeared to be empty.

“It will be very cold,” she said to me as she pointed. Pleasantly surprised to learn to spoke English, I thanked her and pulled one of the blankets down, making sure my actual body came into contact with it as little as possible – I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in this cabin earlier. I laid the blanket down, climbed under the sheet, and waited until the woman was ready for bed. Gramps had already been waiting patiently above me. When she finally moved to turn off the night, she turned to me with a smile and said goodnight.
“Goodnight,” I replied as the lights went out and we were thrown into darkness. After the confusing game of musical chairs that my day in this cabin had been, I was quite happy with how the evening had turned out, and I drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking motions of the train.

***

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

The following day went by rather uneventfully, watching the Gobi desert and the surrounding landscapes pass us by. It had felt like quite a long time, but it was a little daunting to think that the Trans-Mongolian leg of our journey was actually the shortest trip of all, with the exception of the train between Moscow and St Petersburg. Having well and truly left China behind us – other than a bottle of alcohol the shopkeeper had described as “good for health” – we climbed off the train Ulaanbaatar, eager to see what Mongolia had in store for us.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.