This train journey, one of the longest in the world in fact, is the perfect trip for those who are avid believers that getting there is all part of the adventure, I chose to ride the train instead of flying due to the high costs of long haul flights in December back home to New Zealand, and because I am one of those believers that the journey there is all part of the excitement. It’s the best way to see rugged parts of Siberia and Mongolia while you traverse almost 1/3 of the way around the globe.
The Trans-Siberian train takes three different routes, and I chose the 6,000+ km journey that starts in Moscow, crosses Siberia, into Mongolia and ends in Beijing 6 days later. This route is known as the Trans-Mongolian, and follows the path of the Trans-Siberian up until Ulan – Ude, 5,622km along, where the original Trans-Siberian continues on to Vladivostok, Russia for more than another 3,000km. The 3rd route goes through China rather than Mongolia and still ends in Beijing – this one is called the Trans-Manchurian.
I started my journey with two days in Moscow, the main reason being to acclimatise to the temperature. On arrival it was -10 degrees Celsius during the day, and dropped down to as low as -21 degrees at night as we ventured further into Siberia. It was so cold, it hurt to breathe. As well as acclimatising, it was also a good opportunity to explore the Russian city which has lots of beautiful, historical buildings, like St Basils Cathedral and delicious rich, hearty food like beef stews and potato dumplings. Moscow used to be an expensive city, but the Rouble took a dive in the depression and especially up against the British pound, visiting is now extremely affordable. On the other end, I took two days to readjust as well, and spent two nights in the Dong Cheng region of Beijing. It is surprisingly not as cheap as I thought it would be, and spent more here than in Russia, but I still managed to enjoy a lot of Chinese beers, sample the local delicacies like starfish and scorpions, and made a trip to the Great Wall. David from Railtourguide, who booked my ticket, said I was brave to be completing the whole trip in winter. I disagreed. On the brave scale, I was far closer to the stupid end I thought. It was still a great trip though.
At the beginning, I must admit, I booked the trip without a lot of consideration and research. When I did a bit of research, it worried me what I may have got myself in for. During my research I discovered I needed visas for Russia and China. Most nationalities will need them, and some will need them for Mongolia as well. It usually takes a few weeks to get them both sorted, unless you choose express services. The costs can range from £40 – £100 per visa depending on your passport. After I sorted all that I wondered about the actual trip itself. What if I shared my cabin with 3 burly Russian men? How would I survive a week without WiFi and proper showers? How would I react to the restricted space? How would I cope in such extreme weather?
All my worries were brushed aside when I met my 25 year old British male bunk mate. We got along straight away and broke the ice (excuse the winter pun), by making our cabin into a blanket fort, once we realised we had all 4 beds to ourselves. Our carriage was full of Americans, Brits, Germans, French and Swedes. It was a great bunch, and we all got along really well, especially after some vodka. The lack of WiFi and showers transported us back to a much simpler time. We read, we played cards together, drank together and actually had proper conversations. Everyone had a story, each as interesting as the last. No one was doing the same trip, some were going across to India, and others around South East Asia, some straight back home once they got to Beijing.
The advantage of travelling in winter is that the tickets are cheaper, ranging from £400-£650 for a second class, 4 berth cabin depending on who you book them through, and then upwards of £750 for a first class 2 berth cabin. The cabins are less crowded, and the sight of Siberia covered in a blanket of snow, while you watch from your heated cabin, is surreal. The sunsets are an angry red, and the landscape is so vast. It seems like you’re being let in on something secret, it’s so profoundly beautiful and untouched. The amount of people that actually see this part of Siberia is so small compared to the mainstream tourist sites in the world, so it’s perfect for those who like to get away from the beaten track.
I chose to complete my journey all in one go, and stay on the train all the way from Moscow to Beijing and then carry on through south east Asia on my way home to NZ. Others on the train stopped off in Lake Baikal in Russia or Ulan Bator in Mongolia for a few days. If I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t stupidly cold outside, this might be something I would consider. The train does stop quite frequently though and it’s possible to get out and stretch your legs. The stops range from 2 minutes, up to 6 hours at the border crossing. The border crossing from Mongolia to China is pretty noteworthy as they change the wheels on the carriages to work on the Chinese railways. You can’t see much from the cabins, but the train shakes like an earthquake for about one and a half hours, and it goes back and forth like a yo-yo. Our cabin attendant told us we couldn’t get off at the station, but pretty much everyone else did. I would recommend if you get motion sickness, to insist on getting off.
We all looked forward to the stops, as it broke up the monotony of being on board and prevented any kind of cabin fever or claustrophobia. It wasn’t as bad as I make out, but without the stops I imagine it would be pretty intense. We kicked about in the snow; the chill woke us up and refreshed us from the constant slumber state we’d been in. It’s very easy to lie in bed, wake up and realise you have nothing to do but stay in your cabin all day. It’s a great, lazy feeling, but eventually you need to move around.
We bought food from the vendors on the station. Up until the discovery that the food they were selling was actually good when the locals let us try some, we had been living off pot noodles and bread and honey. There was a little cylinder at the end of each cabin which supplied constant boiling water which was perfect for the noodles, coffee or even boiling an egg if you were feeling fancy.
In the Mongolian stations they sold little dumplings at the station filled with gamy, red meat and onions. They were the best dumplings I have ever had. They had sausages covered in doughy bread as well that at any given time would have tasted great, but in this case tasted like heaven on earth. I gave the woman 5000 Mongolian Tughrik and I got 10 large dumplings and a sausage. At first I was a bit indignant as I thought I’d been ripped off and should have gotten more, but I saw my bank statement afterwards and it equated to £1.78
In the Russian stations they had an array of hot potato dishes, boiled, smashed into a rough pancake, and in dumplings, they had all sorts of whole fish, dried, salted, and hanging from hooks on the vendors shoulders. They had delicious red cabbage and beetroot mixed together as well. It was simple, home cooking but it really hit the spot. Surprisingly what they didn’t sell a lot of was vodka. It was quite hard to come by, and the one instance that I did manage to find some, I’m pretty sure it was on the sly. I was whispered to about vodka by a man at the station, and then taken round the back of a food cart on the station and handed a large bottle of vodka, covered in a black bag, in exchange for 400 Roubles – about £6. Everyone told me it would make me blind, so I gave some to my bunk mates first to test it. We all have our eyesight, so it can’t have been too bad. We felt god awful the next day though.
Also a few of the others had the guidebooks, and others, like me, were winging it. The guidebooks were somewhat useful, and good to read when you had nothing else to do, but more often than not the information was out of date, or not relevant in winter. For example, one stop close to the border of Mongolia was meant to have swarms of people there that would change your Roubles for you, according to one book. The platform was deserted; ice tumble weed would have flown across if that were a thing.
The wet wipes come in handy for wet wipe showers. The only showers on the train are for the guards. If you have a nice guard you can sweet talk him in to using it, but it’s very much just a hose above a toilet. I had one during the week, and it felt like cheating. My bunk mate and a few others soldiered through and did the whole trip shower free. They stank to high heavens. You also gather a fine layer of soot as you go along from all the coal that they burn. Once you shower that first time after the trip, it’s like you’re a whole new person.
Our train windows were our TVs, changing channels before our eyes. We spent hours looking out, and it seemed to pass like minutes. Snow filled flats of Siberia changed to the dry Gobi desert which grew into rolling hills, towering above frozen rivers in China.Time disappeared. We found ourselves wide awake at 3am, yelling and screaming as card games got competitive. It was more dark than light, due to winter close to the north pole. We found ourselves sound asleep at 4pm, waking at 6pm to have vodka and noodles and then fall back into a confused slumber. It didn’t help that we crossed 4 time zones. The trains’ timetable ran on Moscow time in Russia, which was actually 3-5 hours behind local time. It then changed to Mongolian time and Chinese time as we crossed the borders. In this way the week passed so much quicker than expected. Suddenly we were all standing on the platform like lost puppies institutionalised to the trains rhythm and constant direction.
If I could give you the best possible advice, if you’re thinking of doing this trip, it would be to buy some vodka before you get on the train in Moscow, make sure you have a good pack of playing cards and plenty of Roubles on hand for the 100 Rouble (about £1.30) beers that the guards sell from their compartments. These three things will ensure that you make friends. Other than that, take plenty of wet wipes. You will need them!!
The journey is emotionally and mentally challenging, and as such it is so rewarding stepping off the train in Beijing. It feels amazingly free, but a part of you will want to run straight back on to that train, hide in your teeny tiny bunk and ride that train forever!
Katy Hinchliffe , NZ