Catharine Hughes shares her experience of the Trans-Mongolian railway.
We’ve been travelling by train for centuries, but now with the desire to reach one’s destination as quickly as possible, flying is unanimously favoured for long-haul trips. Nevertheless, is there a pleasure in the journey which we ought to recognise and take time to appreciate? The contradiction of being stationary yet in transition as the world tumbles past our windows and the unknown possibility of what you may find out about your fellow passengers — which offered Agatha Christie the perfect setting for her novel Murder on the Orient Express.
On lists of ‘The World’s Greatest Train Journeys’ one name often stands out: the Trans-Siberian railway. I was lucky enough to travel a variant of this journey, the Trans-Mongolian railway, in the summer of 2017. At 9,289km, the Trans-Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world, starting in Moscow and ending in Vladivostok. The Trans-Mongolian railway is an ancient tea-caravan route joining China to Russia via Mongolia, and meeting the Trans-Siberian line in Ulan-Ude in south Siberia. Three weeks spent watching two vast continents rolling past the window made for a fascinating experience, for the goings-on of the interior as much as the exterior.
thousands of miles roll by with little sign of human life
Fresh faced and full of vegetables (the last we’d see for the best part of a month), the journey began in Moscow, Russia’s capital. Moscow in the summer is a world away from the eight month winter which encroaches it from October to May, so if you don’t love the cold plan your visit accordingly. The train leaves from Yaroslavsky Station, one of a cluster of stations to the north-east of the city centre. My own experiences in this corner of the metropolis included a friend being solicited whilst I tried to buy a bottle of water at 7am and was perpetually led back to the beer section by what I like to believe was a shopkeeper with the very best intentions.
the platzkart is where the fun begins
Russian trains are split into three classes: for those willing to spare a pretty penny on privacy the spalny vagon (two-berth cabin) is your luxury suite, a slight downgrade offers you a four-berth cabin, but downgrade again and you reach the platzkart. And this is where the fun begins. Space economy is the keyword when it comes to the platzkart; each carriage fits 50 passengers and in terms of company babushkas are your best bet, and the Russian Army is your worst.
I truly believe there is an unspoken rule in Russia on the necessity of producing the most pungent food possible upon stepping into a box shared with 49 strangers. High contenders in this game include the couple who ingested multiple boxes of sausages, and the old lady who skinned a fish. We quickly realised that the key to survival here was to adopt an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude; we promptly proceeded to procure, slice and reassemble a loaf of bread with green cheese and fish inserted into every available slot. The first stop was Kazan, the largest city and capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, approximately 12 hours from Moscow.
In 2006, regarding the Trans-Siberian Express, Simon Calder wrote for the Guardian, “if you demand super scenery as well as interesting company, you are in the wrong country”. It is true that the landscape across Russia is, for the most part, unwavering, and many travellers become frustrated by this. However, there is something incredibly awakening and extrospective about watching thousands of miles roll by with little sign of human life, untouched and unspoilt by man.
Three days, 4,327km, five hundred million birch trees and countless conversations about the price of bread in garbled Russian later, we arrived in Irkutsk — ‘the heart of Siberia’. No one really talks about summer in Siberia. The word alone is enough to plunge you mentally into the icy depths of winter — but Lord, it was hot. The main attraction for tourists in Irkutsk is Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. From Irkutsk for 90 roubles (currently about £1.15) you can get a marshrutka (think school minibus) for an hour to Listvinyanka, Baikal’s primary seaside town.
There’s a dystopian feel in Listvinyanka; the main (only) street is scattered with weathered pastel coloured buildings, and tourist attractions include a tank of seals which have been lifted roughly 20 meters from their natural habitat. However, it turns out there’s nothing a smoked omul can’t fix, a fish native only to Lake Baikal and available every 15 meters. Despite my untimely realisation that Siberia is hot in summer, the same cannot be said for the lake. Frozen until May, the water remained icy to the touch and I didn’t get more than three toes in. It’s the taking part that counts.
The march of time stops whilst you’re a passenger
On the next leg of the journey our train configuration changed. The Trans-Siberian line is the most popular means of transport for Russians in their vast country, but once the route begins to cross borders the number of passengers travelling for pragmatic reasons thins dramatically. At this point the train company decided to up the ante and collect all the clueless tourists in one ‘authentic’ carriage.
We spent two days in the heat of that carriage, eight hours of which we were locked in our cabin at border control. Quirks of this included the trauma of being locked out of the toilets for the entire duration (not ideal), but my discomfort was insignificant compared to the nicotine deprived Spanish family on the verge of a collective breakdown. We were awoken at 4am arriving into Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, by a stern train guard who appeared to be pointing at us and shouting profanities. Turns out she was just asking for our sheets.
We had heard a lot of half-baked unenthusiastic opinions about Ulaanbaatar as a city, but lo and behold, these poor souls had quite obviously missed out on the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs. Mongolia’s main religion is Buddhism which can be seen through the plethora of temples and monasteries and also felt in the peaceful atmosphere. Traveling from the West it is worth being aware that the swastika is an ancient symbol in Mongolia, prevalent on buses and head tattoos, so don’t be alarmed. A bus ride out of the city takes you into Mongolia’s national parks in which an estimated 40% of Mongolians live nomadically.
Getting the train to China was like a capsule into the future: air conditioning, flushable toilets and a hot water urn. The train guards were considerably less doting than those in Russia and Mongolia and chain-smoked throughout the 40 hours of meandering through the Gobi Desert. Crossing the Mongolia-China border involves a bogie (train jargon for wheels) change due to the differences in gauges. (Vicious rumours circulated throughout the carriage that this was because China was paranoid of invasion via passenger train, but I’m not confident how much credence can be found in this claim.)
The excellent news was that this border control included toilets and a melodic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ repeatedly diffused across the platform. Had I been searching for that epiphanic moment; this would have been it. This journey across a quarter of the world’s surface gains its indisputable and unique reputation for not only its stops, but also the time spent in transition. The march of time stops while you’re a passenger, you are given the auspicious gift of being an observer of your fellow travellers, customs and cultures of unknown towns and villages, and above all the vast stretches of uncharted land.
Nowadays we’re all in such a hurry to get from A to B, but I would strongly encourage you to take a moment (or a week) to sit down and appreciate the journey and the world as a spectator. You might discover something within yourself, or you might see an old Russian woman skin a fish.