Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

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Cabin Fever

When my friend Iain had suggested the Trans-Siberian railway to me, it had sounded like a pretty cool idea, although in retrospect I think I vastly underestimated the journey. I’d sent out a Facebook post last year when I was in stages of planning my trip, asking for the opinions of my well-travelled friends on things like round the world plane tickets, overland travelling, what was the best, what was most cost effective, and other details like that. Iain is a Scottish friend of mine who now lives in Australia, and he travelled the Trans-Siberian railway from Russia to China and continued his travels further south from there – essentially the reverse of what I would be doing. He recommended the tour he had gone with, a company called Vodkatrain, and the enthusiasm with which he talked about it almost sold it to me straight away. But I did my own investigation, and it turned out that this train route had been exactly the answer to the questions I had been asking.

I was a little taken aback by some of the reactions I got when I told my friends of my plans.
“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” my good friend Blythe had exclaimed. “Wow! Robert, that’s like an ultimate bucket list journey for some people!” Maybe I’d sounded a little nonchalant, I don’t know, but it was almost as if she didn’t believe me.
“Umm… Okay? Is that a bad thing for me?”
“What? No, it’s incredible! I know so many people who would be so jealous of you! You’re going to have such an amazing time, it’s supposed to be an awesome experience.”
I think that was the first time that I realised this journey was going to be quite unlike any kind of holiday I’d had before.

DAY 1

When we arrived back at Irkutsk train station, Kostya handed out the tickets and made sure we all got onto the train without any problems. He wished us luck and bid us farewell, and it all felt very similar to most of our other train journeys. There were a few major differences though. Firstly, the quality of the cabins. There wasn’t anything exactly wrong with them – they were just a bit older, a little rickety. Jen, Matt and Tracy had found rubbish in our cabin – we had to wonder if this train had even been cleaned at all before we got on.The previous trains we’d been on had had carpeted floors and hallways, but this train had a dull linoleum surface that made the soles of your feet a gross black colour if you forgot to wear shoes when you walked around. The trains were adequate, and I guess we’d just had some nicer trains on our previous trips so we had harboured some expectations. “I just think its hilarious,” Tracy had said with a giggle, “that we’ve had the more cushy trains for the short trips and now it’s back to basics for the long haul! I love it, bring it on!” Tracy had worked as a tour guide on bus trips through both South America and the Middle East – no doubt she’d seen far worse living conditions, and part of me suspected that ‘roughing it’ was simply more her style.

But there was another thing that none of us had really planned on. On the previous trains, we’d all been in cabins together, save the one extra person who was on their own – which so far had been myself from Beijing and Dan from Ulaanbaatar. So we were all very confused to find that all that had changed. We had two cabins all together – I was with the same three as last time, and Tim, Don, Marti and Rach were in another. But Claire and Alyson were in a room with two other Russian passengers, as were Kaylah and Jenna, and poor Dan was stuck in a cabin on his own again. It was a puzzling set up, considering pairs that had booked together – like Alyson and Kaylah, and Dan and Claire – weren’t supposed to be split up when it came to sleeping arrangements. In any other scenario, we would have spoken to the carriage attendants and asked them what had happened. As it happens, none of us could speak Russian, so in the end we all just ended up shrugging our shoulders and concluding that the one thing we can learn from the past 10 minutes was that the Russian train system is anything but consistent.

***

After we’d gotten over the slight drama, I was sitting on my bed eating some bread and cheese with salami, carefully managing my portions so as not to eat it all in one go and be left hungry come day four of this journey. As I nibbled away, Tim stuck his head into our cabin.
“Ah, on the vodka already then?” Matt asked, noticing the cup in Tim’s hand.
“Well, they don’t call it the Vodkatrain for nothing!” he laughed. “But yeah, I know it’s still early, but we’re getting the party started in our cabin if anyone wants to join.”
I never really need an excuse to drink, but having one always helps. I grabbed my vodka, Coke, and made my way to the neighbouring cabin. The vodka was flowing freely, and we managed to cram eight people into the bottom bunk seats without too much discomfort. When there are that many people in a confided space drinking alcohol, its inevitable that the drinking games are going to start.
“We’re not playing ‘Never Have I Ever’, not when we have couples present,” Tim said adamantly. “I’ve seen too many awkward fights start over that game.” Both Dan and Claire and Rach and Marti were part of the vodka party. Marti was trying to get us to play card games, but in the end I joined voices with Alyson to champion for a game of ‘Two Truths, One Lie’. Technically not a drinking game, but always better when drinking is involved, I figured it was a happy medium – people can still make those drunken confessions with their truths, instead of drinking to their own statements in Never Have I Ever. and people can still withhold all the secrets they want.

I’m not going to explain drinking game rules, but Two Truths, One Lie was a fun way to learn a few quirky things about my fellow travellers – Alyson played the violin for 14 years, Marti was a maths champion in the 9th grade and has a near photographic memory, and Dan once poured frozen peas down a toilet at a party at Johnny Wilkinson’s house. There was plenty more, and I probably did some lame confession about coming out when I was only 15 – my lack of dinner and the amount of vodka I ended up consuming meant that a lot of the finer details were lost on me. Later reports would inform me that I shakily stood up, announced to the cabin through slurred speech “I really need to go to bed now”, and sauntered my way into the hallway and back into my room. I woke up at some point in the night, face up and back arched over a mound in the middle of my bed that turned out to be both my pillow and my blanket, and only half aware of where I actually was. I crawled out of the uncomfortable position and very quickly slipped back into my drunken slumber.

Vodka Party!

Vodka Party!

DAY 2

The following day was a complete write-off. Luckily, we didn’t exactly have anywhere to be. It wasn’t until midday that I was able to sit up in my bed and eat a few flakes of cereal, some super sweet version of honey coated corn flakes I’d picked up in Irkutsk. It was all I could really stomach, and though I felt absolutely awful, I found a silver lining in the fact that my food might last a little longer now. Kaylah eventually visited me on my top bunk, as I was strumming away clumsily on my ukulele.
“How’re you feeling?” she said with a knowing smile.
“Ugh,” was all I could manage at first, dropping the ukulele on my chest to rub the palms of my hands into my tired eyes. I then picked up the bottle of vodka – which for some reason I had been cradling in my sleep – to show that it only had about a quarter of the bottle remaining. “I shouldn’t drink vodka!”
“Aww, you poor thing,” she said as she rested a hand on my shin, sounding very genuine despite there being a giggle in her voice.
“But what happened to you last night?” I said, only now really realising that Kaylah had been absent from the vodka party.
“I don’t know!” she said. “I think I just started reading my book and… I fell asleep? I don’t know I just woke up and it was morning!” She just laughed it off, and I found myself rolling my eyes and laughing along with her infectious mirth.

I didn’t change out of my pajamas at all that day. Every time I even thought about it, part of my brain kicked in saying, Why? Who are you trying to impress? It was a fair point. Most of us had all seen each other at our various high and low points by now, and as long as I didn’t begin to smell incredibly offensive, I was more than happy to lounge around in my bed, read my book and watch the Siberian scenery pass us by. I was on he top bunk this time, which meant I wasn’t in anyone’s way if I didn’t get out of bed. On one of my toilet breaks I stuck my head in to say hello to Tim, Rach and Marti.
“Ah, he’s alive!” Marti had exclaimed as I appeared at the door. “You were so funny last night Rob, you nearly fell asleep in the corner there.” They recounted my final moments of the previous evening to me, and I asserted that it sounded exactly like something I would do, before dragging myself back up into my bunk and attempted to sleep off what was one of the worst hangovers I’d had in a while. I couldn’t seem to stick with one activity for more than half an hour, whether it was reading, sleeping, plucking at the ukulele or gazing out the window. That much restlessness after the first full day definitely couldn’t be a good sign, and I feared I might be climbing the walls sooner than I’d anticipated.

DAY 3

I woke up on my second morning on the train feeling gross again, but this time it wasn’t a hangover. Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my hygiene routine knows that I’m pretty regular when it comes to showering, usually twice a day, and I always use a fresh pair of underwear. But this wasn’t regular life – this was life on the Trans-Siberian, and showers were a luxury we didn’t have. I’d gotten lazy yesterday, and allowed myself to fester in my filth, but it couldn’t go on like that any longer. When you can’t stand your own BO, things are a stones throw away from getting very ugly, plus I hadn’t even brushed my teeth in at least 24 hours. Long story short: I was a hot mess.

So I had my first of what had been coined ‘Baby Wipe Showers’. They’re pretty self-explanatory – in the absence of a running water shower, you simply mop yourself down with baby wipes, or just a wet corner of your towel with some soap, and trick yourself into feeling just a little bit fresher. I also spritzed a little bit of cologne on my faux-fresh body, to keep the stale, unwashed scent at bay for a little longer. It was a far cry from an actual shower, but when you’re feeling the way I did, a slap of cold water to the face and even the slightest bit of a scrub down made me feel like a new man. About five minutes later, I ran into Marti out in the hallway.
“Hey Rob, were you just in the bathroom?”
I was struck with a moment of intense panic – had I done something wrong, broken the toilet, perhaps? I hadn’t even used the toilet, but I’ve had worse luck before, so who knew? A few of our group conversations on the trains had been about the lack of etiquette in some people when it comes to shared bathrooms. I’d hate to become one of the case studies.
“Ah, yeah I had a baby wipe shower just before,” I said tentatively.
“It just smells so nice in there!” she said with a laugh, and I relaxed a little. “I was expecting it to smell of like, you know, piss or whatever. But I stepped in and was like, ‘Ah, smells really nice in here!’ So thank you!”
“Ah.. Well you’re welcome, I guess?” I said as I laughed along with her. And to think, I nearly didn’t bring my two favourite colognes – out of a collection of seven – because they didn’t seem ‘essential’ enough.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

***

By now, the days had really started to drag on. We watched a movie called TransSiberian that Marti had on her hard drive. It was pretty cool to see the story begin in Beijing, recognising the very same train station hall that we’d sat in about a week ago, and we empathised with the main characters as the train attendants yelled at them in Russian. We had actually been much luckier on this train in that regard – the main train attendant was a much younger woman than the previous train, and while not exactly polite, such was much more mild mannered than the ranting woman on the train from Ulaanbaatar.

But the movie was a thriller about drug smuggling where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and thankfully the rest of it was not quite so relatable. It killed some time though, and time was the one thing we had in complete excess. The entire Trans-Siberian route crosses 7 different time zones, with most of them occurring on this particular trip. Matt and Jen were very clued in to the changes, thanks to their Lonely Planet guide, and would give us the regular updates.
“So at about 12 o’clock it becomes 11 o’clock again”, said Matt as he studied one of the pages, while Jen consulted the timetable to check the next station we’d be passing through.
“Seriously? God, it’s like my lunch is trying to run away from me!”

While the socially dictated times for our meals kept slipping away from us, the food was well within reach, and many of us adopted a ‘Second Breakfast’ attitude. While I had previously feared for my food supplies, I managed to ration it all rather well, and soon enough these multiple meals became our own form of telling the time, creating a new meals through which to structure our day.
“They say it’s 2am somewhere, right? Well I say it’s noon somewhere in the world, so it’s time for lunch!” Tim had asserted.
“Yeah,” Rach had agreed. “We can have our Irkutsk lunch, and then our Moscow lunch later.”
“Mmm yeah, I could smash a second lunch!” added Marti, and we all laughed at what had become her own little catchphrase.
“It’s 3pm in Melbourne – this might as well just be my afternoon snack!” laughed Tim, and the banter continued as we all obsessed over our food. Soon we were laughing at pretty much anything.

Whenever Kaylah dropped by we would all end up in stitches – I can’t really put my finger on it, but her laugh was just so contagious that I can’t keep a straight face when she’s in a good mood. In the evening we tried to have another vodka party. I say tried because firstly, we didn’t have that much vodka left, and secondly, none of us seemed to really be in the mood – I personally just wanted to discard the bottle. However, alcohol goes straight to Kaylah’s head, and she was laughing like a maniac after only one drink. I, on the other hand, was definitely not in the mood for vodka, and only managed about one small drink before volunteering it up to the rest of the cabin. They were more than happy to help me finish it.
“Oh dear,” Tim had said with a sigh, after we’d settled down from a bout of hysterical laughter about something I honestly don’t even remember. “I think cabin fever has well and truly sunk in.”

DAY 4

On our final full day on the train, I woke up with the intention of changing out of my dirty clothes and freshening up like I had the day before – I had been wearing the same pair of underwear since the morning we’d left Lake Baikal, and was feeling pretty rank in general. Though the devil on my shoulder of personal hygiene argued that I only had to stick it out for one more day, and then I could actually have a shower before putting on clean underwear. I have this weird thing about putting clean clothes on a dirty body – I just hate doing it – so in the end I decided to fester in my well-worn clothes for another 24 hours and hold out until Moscow. For anyone who knew me before this train trip – I’m definitely a changed man.

***

The last day was mostly spent doing the same activities – watching episodes of TV shows on laptops, making tea, coffee and two minute noodles, chatting with each other, staring out the window and – something that had become a personal favourite – playing cards. Tim and Alyson taught us how to play a game called ‘Asshole’, where the objective is to get rid of all your cards lest you become the Asshole in the next round, suffering a relative disadvantage. It’s a fun game, but in the heat of cabin fever, when we’ve all been up in each others personal space for the last few days, our investment into the game was close to maniacal.

Though it was over one of these card games that the craziest and most brilliant idea of all was formed.
“You know what I really want?” said Marti as we took turns throwing our cards into the pile in the middle of the table. “I could totally smash a chicken right now. A big juicy chicken with some potatoes! Mmm, that would be the best!”
Having lived predominantly of bread, cheese, cold meat and two minutes noodles, you could almost hear the salivation from everyone in the cabin as soon at Marti mentioned it.
“That would be so amazing!” Tim exclaimed.
“When’s our next longer stop?” asked Rach. The train made short stops at some of the local stations along the way – sometimes they were five minutes, other times they were as long as 45 minutes.”
“There’s a 30 minute stop in about an hour,” Marti said as she checked the schedule, and looked up to grin at us. “What do you think guys – wanna see if we can get some chicken?!”
There were various rounds of agreement from Tim, Rach, Kaylah – I had rationed enough of my food to last me, but the thought of a hot roast chicken was just absolutely mouth watering, so I tagged along in the quest for poultry.

As we rolled into the stop though, our hopes sunk. Some of the stations had been quite big, with people selling all kinds of food on the platforms. However, this station was a tiny town, with a platform that wasn’t even long enough for the train. Marti and Kaylah had to jump down from the train and walk along the unsealed road to get back to the platform, but they did it in their desperate attempt to find chicken. Rach, Tim and I stayed back in the train to hold the fort, but we all agreed that we didn’t like their chances, and so had already really accepted the fact it would be one final night of noodles and bread.

So you can imagine our surprise when the girls burst back into the cabin with two roast chickens.
“Chicken run was a success!” Marti shouted gleefully as she put the birds down on the table in the middle of the cabin. Claire and Dan had also bought a third one, and Kaylah had picked up some instant mash potato that only required the hot water, and so together we all had a final train meal together, a feast for our last night on the Trans-Siberian.
“Smash that chicken!” Marti said with a laugh, and we all literally pulled the carcasses apart, ripped the meat off and sucking the bones clean, leaving no edible scrap to go to waste. We must have looked like starved savages, but the freshly cooked meat was such a welcome change that I don’t think any of us cared in the slightest.

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

When the feast was over and we’d eaten our fill, we all started to prepare for bed. We were due to arrive in Moscow at 4am, and most of us wanted to get some semblance of a decent sleep. As I readied myself for bed, I had a brief chat with Jen:
“I can’t believe it’s almost over – it felt like this train ride was never going to end,” I said with an exhausted laugh as I fell back onto my pillow.
“It’s been rather interesting though. I mean I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d ever do again. Do you know what I mean?”
“Absolutely. I guess there’s a reason why it’s described as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, right?”
“Exactly!” she said with a smile. “Although it would be pretty to see the scenery of Siberia in the winter… but no. I think it’s definitely more than a journey. It’s a challenge, really, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have to consider that question long. “Definitely. Well, I know I found it a little challenging at times. But hey, we did it! We travelled the Trans-Siberian railway!”

***

Despite going to bed relatively early, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that last night. I don’t know if it was the train, the tracks, or some other factor, but it was one of the roughest and bumpiest sections of any of the train journeys we’d been on so far. Loud and rickety creaks continued through the whole night, and several times I felt as though I was about to be thrown out of my bed. Another downfall about these cabins was the the windows didn’t open, and so four sleeping bodies in that tiny space had turned it into somewhat of a mild oven.

Yet I must have slept for a little bit, because I was woken up as we were approaching Moscow station, at some ungodly hour that didn’t agree with any of the multiple body clocks I had been running on for the past few days. When we arrived, we jumped off the train and were greeted by a small woman, who informed us that she wasn’t our guide, but another Vodkatrain employee who would take us to our hostel. “We should also decide on a time to meet you guide”, she had said to the group. “But it’s still quite early, and I’m guessing that most of you would like to have a shower, yes?”

I don’t think I have to tell you what our unanimous group response was.

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.