09 July 2014 by Jazz
Throughout our months of relatively unplanned traveling, the one thing that had always been set in stone was our trip on the Trans-Mongolian train. All those hours seemingly wasted on visa forms and consulate buildings were now paying off. With our passports and shiny Mongolian and Russian visas ready, we bid farewell to Moses and set off on an early morning trek to Beijing Train Station.
Learning from our past mistakes, we made sure to arrive with plenty of time and used these spare moments to peruse the station’s other patrons. Which of these people would be joining us on the six-day journey from Beijing to Moscow? Had we passed our cabin-mates unknowingly already? Would we be cursed with a pair of old Chinese men with a fondness for spitting in the carpet? Only time would tell. Our departure time drew near and upon reaching the platform we saw it – this quaint old sleeper train, its cars reminiscent of the Hogwarts Express. Along the side of each train car was written our three major stops in Russian, Mongolian and Chinese – Beijing to Ulaan Baatar to Moscow. With mounting excitement, we climbed aboard our train, eagerly searching for our cabin.
The third-class cabins are small and quaint – four thin beds arranged in two bunks with a little table in between. The higher bunks fold into the wall, allowing more living space on the two beds below that double as benches. Upon entering Cabin Number 3, as stamped on our tickets, we found a wide-eyed little Japanese man perched upon one of these benches. Friendly introductions were made and we soon learned this eager traveler was, firstly, named Yoshida, and secondly, our new cabin-mate. Yoshida (who quickly became known affectionately as Yoshi) was also making the full trip, all the way through to Moscow, and when asked what his travel trajectory was he told us this was the beginning of a round-the-world trip. At 58, Yoshi had been forced into retirement and – with evident childlike wonder – decided to fly to China, take a six-day train to Moscow and then spend the next three months traveling Europe and seeing what’s there. After that he might go to Africa. After that, South America. Then maybe Australia. Then he’ll see how he feels. We were marveling at the future adventures of this polite, unassuming little man, when we felt the train lurch forward slightly and saw the train station begin to slip away outside our window. This was it, the beginning of a 7621km journey to the Russian Federation capital.
After a few months of constant active travel, it was refreshing to take a completely passive role in getting from A to B, and so we lazily spent our time lounging around the cabin, reading, talking, making tea and eating the mooncakes I’d purchased at the train station that morning. Snippets of conversation with Yoshi and the two American boys in the cabin next door were interspersed with long hours of silence – each of us content just to enjoy the Chinese cityscapes and, eventually, landscapes that flashed past our window. Mid-afternoon our cabin gained it’s fourth member – a young Mongolian girl on her way back to her home town for the summer holidays. After introducing herself by an unpronounceable name, she spent several hours telling us how excited she was to go back to Mongolia. Her excitement rubbed off and the rest of the afternoon was spent eagerly awaiting our midnight border crossing.
Unfortunately, when the train pulled up to Erlian, Mongolia’s border town, we were all groggily forcing ourselves awake (sometimes unsuccessfully). We’d crossed a couple of timezones by that time and were struggling to keep our eyes open in anticipation of the Mongolian border guards. Eventually, our passports were collected (with a suspicious look from the border control officer at our hand-written visas) and we were officially allowed into the country, at which point we promptly fell asleep. However, remaining asleep was apparently not on the cards. Perhaps an hour later I was awoken by a sound that can only be described as soul-wrenching. I was convinced someone was starting a rusted old lawnmower underwater. Searching dazedly for the submarine garden equipment I realised instead that I had been awoken by Yoshi’s snoring. In that instant all my affection for this sweet little old man drained and was replaced with barely bridled rage. Sticking my head under my pillow and willing the noise to stop, I eventually went back to sleep. I was not keen for another five days of this. The next morning however, I greeted Yoshi cheerfully, and meant it. His demonic snoring really is his only fault and I chatted with him happily, almost forgetting the torturous sleep-deprivation of the night before. Almost.
Nevertheless, the morning ushered in some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen. Our crossing into Mongolia brought with it perfect rolling green hills, blue skies, fluffy clouds, colourful wildflowers, crystal clear mountain streams – all of which had been hidden under cover of darkness during the night. Now, with the summer sun shining I felt we were in Paradise. We cursed ourselves for not stopping off in this wonderful country and vowed to return to what a friend would later call “the land of the Windows desktop background”.
We spent most of that day just staring out the window, taking in the breathtaking scenery. As the train rolled by scene after scene of nomadic tribes herding sheep, cattle, goats and horses, our Mongolian friend told us they move constantly, picking up their yurts and travelling to a different spot every few months. In the winter they migrate south to escape the worst of the cold which, in her hometown, can reach as low as minus 50 degrees. When I asked whose land they’re camping on it took her a while to understand the question. But eventually she realised what I was asking and answered, as though it was obvious – “Oh, it’s Mongolian land, it belongs to the people.” That is a notion I could definitely get behind and a month-long Mongolian camping trip is no doubt on the cards for the future.
After a few more hours of chatting, enjoying the view and witnessing the growing excitement of our Mongolian room-mate, we arrived at Ulaan-Baatar and bid farewell to our new friend. It became apparent, as car after car emptied out, that we were bidding farewell to most of the other passengers too. Yoshi, Adrian and I were left alone in our carriage, every other room now empty. I saw my chance. While Yoshi and Adrian enjoyed a cup of tea and a chat, I sneaked off to find the most friendly-looking Chinese train guard I could and managed to mime (complete with sound effects) my desire to switch to an empty room and escape Yoshi’s snoring. With a comprehending look and a laugh at my expense the guard promptly said no and walked off to some other section of the near-abandoned train car. Blast. However, later that night, after some more chuckling at my plight, he finally took pity on me and officially moved Adrian and I not only to a different room, but to a different car altogether. Sorry Yoshi.
With just a slight tinge of guilt I watched the last of the beautiful scenery slip into darkness as the sun crept over the horizon. This was the last I would see of Mongolia on this trip – tonight we crossed the border into Russia. The border crossing was hours away though and to pass the time we decided to open up our bottle of Baiju. Baiju is China’s answer to vodka (though perhaps an ill-informed one) and we’d been advised to pack some in preparation for the Trans-Mongolian trip. Partly because we’re enormous cheapskates and partly to see how bad it could possibly be, we purchased the cheapest bottle of Baiju we could find – 750ml at 40% alcohol for the equivalent of $5. How bad it actually was became evident in two ways – first, the baiju itself tasted something like armpit-marinated ethanol and second, because upon offering some to the group of young Chinese travelers in the room next door they all yelled, in unison “No no no!” while physically reeling. It looked as though we’d have to consume the entire bottle ourselves, until we somehow convinced a separate group of Chinese girls to join us in a drink. Mixing it with orange juice helped some (though not quite enough to make it anything better than drinkable) and we spent the evening talking and sipping gingerly on our you’re-totally-screwed-drivers.
Around 11pm our new carriage guard (affectionately referred to as Fushu by the girls) came and told us not to drink too much before the Russian border crossing. Perturbed slightly by his nervousness, we soon packed up our bottle of rocket fuel and, once again, waited sleepily until midnight for the border guards to make their rounds. We were excited and nervous as the staunch female border guard demanded our passports (in a delightfully terrifying Russian accent). Then came the cabin checks, then the enormous German shepherd sniffer dogs. Finally, after much ado, the train breached the border and we were in Mother Russia at last. Too much excitement and too many drinks knocked us out quickly though and it wasn’t until the next morning that we saw the country properly. I woke up to Adrian excitedly telling me to come to the window and glimpse the view of Lake Baikal. This lake is the largest freshwater lake in the world by depth and is thought to be the oldest. We’d been anticipating this sight for days and I rushed out of bed to make sure I didn’t miss it. Clear and still, the enormous lake appeared more as an ocean, the other side invisible from so far away. We watched out the windows and felt the cool, crisp air rush past us as Lake Baikal did the same. I was glad I hadn’t missed it. As it turns out though, it would have been hard to. Six hours later we were still passing Lake Baikal, though by then the other side of the lake was just visible in the distance.
Growing restless, I decided to visit the restaurant car at the end of the train. Within every country was attached a new restaurant car – first of Chinese cuisine and decor, then Mongolian, and now Russian. Each car also had its own staff and I was interested in meeting some Russians and perhaps picking up a few words and phrases before disembarking in Moscow. Adrian and I had both learned the Cyrillic alphabet in the preceding days, and I was eager to practice. So off to the restaurant I wandered. I was greeted by an enormous Russian woman named Gileena and her husband, Vladimir, who implored me to buy some meat and bread or borsch or solyanka. Having left my money in the cabin, I promised I’d be back later but ended up chatting with them both for quite a while and picking up, through broken English, a few useful words for Russia. I was even offered some free cow tongue from Gileena’s personal lunch, though I didn’t know what it was until I had already started eating it (and even then it was only explained to me by Gileena sticking out her tongue and pointing at it, then saying ‘Moo!’ and repeating several times). Judging from just these interactions I could tell Russia was going to be interesting and left the restaurant car with an amused smile.
Outside, the Russian scenery changed abruptly again from that of Mongolia’s, as though the political borders were more than just imaginary lines, but tangible, natural ones. After passing Lake Baikal we were left with three days of silver birch trees, wildflowers, little towns and towering pines. It was magical. While the landscapes sped by outside our window, Adrian and I passed the time by reading, drawing, eating and occasionally venturing some more Baiju. We socialised with the two groups of Chinese travelers in our cabin, shared tea and snacks with Yoshi and befriended Fushu. One night, growing homesick, we spent hours listening to Aussie Hip Hop and watching the midnight sky barely grow dark, so far north were we. At 2am, as the sky quickly began to lighten again, we turned off the Hilltop Hoods mix and tucked ourselves into our bunk beds, falling asleep to the bouncing rhythm of the train.
Our little cabin began to feel homely – it was the most stable place we’d had for months (figuratively, not literally) and the first place since we’d left Australia we were able to prepare our own meals. The train was equipped with coal-heated urns in each car and so, with an unlimited supply of boiling water, we lived mostly off two-minute noodles embellished occasionally with vacuum-packed smoked chicken drumsticks and tomatoes donated by Fushu. Three or four times a day the train would make a short stop at a local station and we’d have ten or fifteen minutes to visit the local stores and buy supplies. We supplemented our instant noodle diet with bread, salami and eggs and splashed out on a meal in the restaurant car. The thought of leaving our little sanctuary in a couple of days was a sad one.
Two days before our journey came to an end, we met a young American couple who had been hidden away in a distant first-class carriage by themselves since Ulaan-Baatar. After inviting them to our cabin for a drink (beer this time, we’d abandoned the baiju), we quickly bonded over making rash decisions to leave everything behind and move to a distant country for no good reason. Josh and Ashley told us about their experiences living in China as teachers in an international school and we told them about our complete lack of planning for our impending arrival in Germany. We shared stories about our respective governments (“Tony Abbott is like your Mitt Romney, except he won.”), and tales of public spitting, urination and defecation we’d each experienced in China (their stories were invariably much more harrowing than ours). It was thoroughly enjoyable and we repeated the ritual the following day in their cabin, this time with a plate of coal-cooked Chinese dumplings provided by their cabin guard. The Chinese girls and Yoshi were lovely company but there’s nothing like bitching about ‘The System’ with fellow English-speakers and we were sad we hadn’t met Josh and Ashley earlier.
All too soon, though, that day rolled around and although we secretly wished we had another week on the train, we knew we’d be approaching Moscow in a matter of hours. Our journey through Russia so far had been an interesting one. Starting in the east, our first glimpses of the country had been somewhat intimidating. Each station we stopped at, whether or not we’d had any direct dealings with the locals, had an overwhelming air of oppression. The first day or two we passed through towns where every citizen, whether young or old (though most were old), was a broken and crooked caricature – still visibly crushed by the weight of the Soviet era. But gradually, as we traveled west, things became less dire and by the time we reached Moscow things were looking positively cheerful in comparison. People even smiled occasionally.
And so, 7621km and six days after leaving Beijing, we were further North than we’d ever been, having crossed seventy-nine degrees of longitude on a train – nearly a quarter of the way around the globe at this latitude. Rolling into the station we ruefully bid farewell to our beloved train, wished our fellow travelers good luck on their onward journeys and finally set off into the crazy city that is Moscow.