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The Greatest Train Journey in the World

The Press

28 Oct 2010

Platform 3, Beijing Railway Station. And there she was - the fabled Trans-Siberian, ready to take me on the longest train journey in the world. A surreal three countries, five time zones and 8300km of steppe, snow and stations lay ahead... but first of all there was Beijing.

Had it not been for this trip I doubt China would have been high on my list. But the Forbidden City, where the last emperor was waited on by eunuchs, and the vast Summer Palace with its myriad of bridges, easily proved me wrong.​

Thankfully I’d made a pact with my alarm to avoid the hordes of flag waving guides and my reward was an aged souvenir map highlighting the Lingering Interest Courtyard and the Realm of the Multitudinous Fragrance. The palace itself was like antiquity on steroids; a make-believe world that was only opened to the public last century. It was hard to comprehend that I had got there via the modern metro built for the 2008 Olympics, at a very cheap 3Yuan flat rate ($0.60c). Of course, while there were the “must sees” for me the best part of Beijing was the unexpected.

Not the Great Wall and the fried silkworms (avoid eating at all costs) but rather the old man singing in the Temple of Heaven, the veiled Chinese belly dancer, and the local in Tiananmen Square who kindly advised that if I kept my daypack on during the flag raising ceremony I risked being “spoken too”. Recent history is never too far away in modern China.

But now it was time to leave all that behind. For the spotter, the correct title of the train I was about to board was the Trans-Mongolian, one of three lines that make up what is generally referred to as the Trans-Siberian Railway. Contrary to popular belief there is no express train per se that goes all the way, but instead a variety of carriages and engines that get shuntered together and pulled apart at different stations along the journey.

Once on board, I met my new roommates in our 4 berth Kupe class cabin: an Aussie, a Belgian and a Colombian. We pooled our goodies – iPod, cards, bad wine, portable DVD, Lonely Planet guides and more cards – before all trying to unpack at the same time. Luckily I had the advice of a previous traveller, “two levels of packing”. I had no idea what that meant until I found my backpack buried under the bottom bunk and my food, toiletries and books keeping my toes warm. Not that they needed to. There must be an edict that says Westerners love heat and at times our carriage was turned up to a stifling 28°. It may sound odd but the clothes I wore the most were t-shirts and shorts – a striking contrast to the frigid view outside.

The haunting emptiness of the Gobi Desert somehow made ‘inhospitable’ an understatement. Mongolia had always sounded like one of those exotic far-away places, and Ulaanbataar, its frozen capital, an answer we should know in Trivial Pursuit. At -13° this was the coldest place I had ever been. To have your gloves solidify moments after taking them off gives you an idea of the chill in the air. Luckily, warmth was only a bar away... or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, we made the mistake of arriving on the 1st of the month which happens to be a date allocated to no selling of alcohol in an effort to cut down on rampant alcoholism.

That little idiosyncrasy was just one of the rules and customs that sets this oft-maligned country apart from its larger neighbours. Knowing I wouldn’t be passing this way again I did what any tourist would do – go see Mongolian throat singers, human contortionists and demon mask dancers. With $1 equalling 1000 Mongolian Togrogs I felt I could afford anything, including venturing to Terelj National Park. Opportunity to hold a giant black hawk? Check. Visit the biggest Chinggis Khan statue in the world? Check. Stay overnight in a traditional Mongolian ger tent? Check.

Mongolia was far from the backwater I expected.Back on the train and the one thing you need on the Trans-Siberian is patience. The border crossings remain, shall we say, tiresome, although thankfully no more so than the first crossing from China into Mongolia. Because both countries have a different gauge - the width between tracks - our carriage literally had to be lifted off its bogies with a clunk and a half, plonked onto new bogies and then set up ready to go.

On top of Customs coming on board, searching belongings, scanning visas, walking off with our passports, coming back on again hours later and handing back passports, the whole episode took over 12 hours. China, Mongolia and Russia all require New Zealanders to get visas and with the Russian one especially there is copious amounts of paperwork. If you say you’re going to be in Russia from a certain date to a certain date – that’s how long your visa will be issued for. In my case, Iceland’s volcanic ash clouds had other ideas so it pays to give yourself some leeway.

Mongolia had always sounded like one of those exotic far-away places, and Ulaanbataar, its frozen capital, an answer we should know in Trivial Pursuit.

Across the border and moving again, this time with carriages joining us from Vladivostok as we moved closer to our next destination: Irkutsk. Everything you’ve heard about Siberia is right. Cold, desolate, isolated, cheerless. And that’s during spring. The main reason I’d disembarked was to visit the small fishing village of Listvyanka, a short bus ride away on the shores of Lake Baikal. This little known lake contains one fifth of the world’s fresh water and, much to the consternation of my fellow traveller from Bruges, is actually bigger then Belgium.

Bruges Boy and I had been set up with a homestay in the village, and despite some initial reservations we knocked on the door. Olga (yes, her real name) greeted us with something close to a bear hug and welcomed us in after stamping the snow in the corridor. She spoke no English and we spoke little Russian but it’s amazing what spasiba (thank you) while rubbing our stomachs can get across. Unlike New Zealand, the kitchen is one of the smallest rooms, with the lounge dominating as the family centre. It was hard to comprehend that our host who was dishing up borsch (a traditional beetroot soup) had lived through Communism, Perestroika and today’s Putin-ish era, yet you got the feeling that nothing had really changed for her.

After lunch Olga pointed down to two jet-skiers on the frozen lake, and thinking we had a good chance of having a ride off we wandered. We waved them down. Negotiations followed. Roubles exchanged hands. More roubles exchanged hands. Before we knew it we were zooming along at 40kms an hour skipping over the deepest lake in the world and speeding down the village’s main street – ‘exhilarating’ doesn’t even come close to describing it! After our little adventure it was sad saying dasvidaniya to Olga, but she gave us some korushka (dried fish) for our next train leg... 50 hours from Irkutsk to Ykaterinburg.

Zima, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tyumen – all mere 10 minute stops as we headed towards the border of Asia and Europe. Enough time to approach the platform babushkas to buy sausage, bread and some odd smelling cheesey things, and then scurry back to our cabin before we got the evils from “she who must be obeyed”: the Provodnista. From what I could gather the Provodnista’s official carriage attendant duties included waking us up, scowling, prodding us when in the way, telling us to pipe down, pointing at the hot water and yelling in Russian, and letting us know how long we had at each stop.

Not that we knew what the real time was anyway; the Trans-Siberian runs on Moscow time no matter where it is in the world. All the while we entertained ourselves and some of the local workers on board by practicing words and sharing their vodka until Na zdorovje (to health) turned into a 50 hour blur. Needless to say, when the train finally pulled into Ykaterinburg there was a near stampede to get off.

The city itself has a long, blood-stained history. It was here that Tsar Nicholas II and his young family were killed by Bolsheviks under orders from Lenin and these days it’s a magnet for those who consider the family Roman Orthodox saints. Until 1990 Ykaterinburg was entirely off limit to westerners due to “sensitivity” i.e. military bases, yet today it’s a bustling university town full of students who want to tell you where they’d like to travel to. Ykaterinburg also takes the prize for “most quirky”.

Wandering the banks of the Plotinka I came across a wedding party on one of the bridges. Not ususual apart from this: the bridge was full of padlocks – heart shaped, square shaped, round-shaped – all locked to the fence. I watched as the bride and groom added a lock of their own to the bridge fence and then kissed the key before throwing it into the river, symbolising the unbreakable union of their marriage. Very far from the dour, unsmiling Russians you read about.

If Ykaterinburg challenged my assumptions, then Moscow well and truly smashed them. To stand outside the Gum department store and look across Red Square to Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Kremlin and Ivan The Terrible’s onion domes of St Basils – nothing comes close to saying “this is Russia”. If you can get beyond the Moscow of fur hats, matryoska dolls and communist icons, I highly recommend taking the Metro just to see the grand socialist sculptures, stained glass windows and stunning chandeliers in the underground stations. The overall impression Moscow left me with was unabated style, and I swear they only let supermodels walk around outside. Even the train was sleek and modern as I left on the final 800km of my journey.

Last stop, imperialist St Petersburg. It was a little sad getting off the train, leaving behind what had ostensibly been my home for the last three weeks. I felt I should have had some sort of official goodbye. After all, who was going to poke me? How was I going to survive normal airconditioning? The rush of the crowd put paid to that idea.

St Petersburg is the most European of all Russian cities, built by Peter the Great in the 1700s to emphasise, well, how great he was. And in the midst of his greatness is now The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. Built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated (it doesn’t pay to be a Romanov), it’s almost Disney-like in its reflection in the Kanal Griboedova. Inside is just as impressive and worth every one of the 250 Roubles ($11) entrance fee. Intricate hand-crafted mosaics cover every inch of the walls and ceiling, each telling one small part of a greater biblical story.

Only the world famous Hermitage museum could top it off, and as luck would have it Russian soldiers were practicing their marching for an upcoming parade to mark the end of World War II. Generally photos of soldiers are frowned upon but a quick smile and a nod and they let me get away with it. I topped off my last afternoon with a canal tour of the city – with guide, snacks and drinks on board I couldn’t think of a better way to see the “Venice of the North”.

​And with that my trip finally came to an end; a trip that was as much about the journey as the destinations throughout. The Trans-Siberian Railway with all its notions of romantic isolation, desolate landscapes and culture clashing cities was indeed a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, against an ever-changing backdrop outside the cabin window.

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