Katie: Life on the train was good. There was a plentiful supply of hot water even if it dribbles out of the tap; I’ve developed the patience of a saint whilst washing my hair. I wish we had brought enough food with us as food hawkers along the platform can get expensive and we were short of Russian Roubles. I’m sick of eating cup noodles and crisps for breakfast, lunch and dinner – think I’m going to turn into a noodling potato.
We paid a visit to the Russian restaurant carriage last night and on first impressions…hmm it smelt of stale pickled cabbage, it needed a revamp but it was clean. The fact that we were the only ones there at 7pm wasn’t a great sign but we were desperate for some proper food.
The Russian waiter was still drunk, smelt like he hadn’t showered for days, grubby hands with cuts all over, and didn’t speak a word of English. We soldiered on with our orders and agreed to pay in US dollars because we had spent all our Russian Roubles. We worked out that it would cost $15 for our meal, and he said $20 so we agreed on $17.
After 40 minutes later, he slapped the menu back on our table and asked what we wanted to order…ookaaay it’s either he’s wery wery drunk or suffers from acute memory loss. Anyway with straight faces we ordered again and he demanded $34. At that point we knew this could turn nasty so we legged it out of the carriage chanting ‘Spa-see-ba! Spa-see-ba!’ (thank you in Russian). Oh well cup noodles again.
There were only 4 other people on our carriage; an Australian couple Terry and Debs who have been so lovely to us and treated us to snacks, and a German couple who are judges in the Berlin Film Festival – what a great job! We also met Melanie from Germany whilst we were boarding the Trans-Siberian train. She plans to travel solo for 4 months which I think is so brave. She is also carrying 2 huge rucksacks (she packed a hairdryer and I wasn’t even allowed a mini bottle of nail varnish huff huff!) so I need to man-up about carrying my piddly rucksack.
We paid a visit to Melanie’s carriage and she told us that her sister called to check on her since she saw riots in Moscow on the news. Funny that, because we were all in Moscow at the time and didn’t come across anything like it, just shows how the news is so manipulated.
We played charades with the train attendant called Zhang Wei for a while because my Mandarin is truly awful. Our conversations were pieced together from a bit of Cantonese, English and Mandarin. I managed to decipher that he has worked on this route for four years, has a little ginger dog and lives in Beijing. He asked whether we wanted to try some Chinese spirits and so the whisky came out and neighbouring travellers brought along Russian vodka.
Apparently the train attendants cannot really socialise with guests nor partake in any photos, so it was a privilege to have Zhang Wei’s company. He also sneaked us a homemade Baozi (meat bun) which was the first meat dish we have had in the last 5 days. We did a quiet celebratory dance in our room as it was so delicious!
We briefly met Musha’s dad at the stop in Suhbaatar where he kindly brought us some chocolates and juice, made a quick call to Musha in London and departed. He reappeared 15 minutes later with trays full of hot Mongolian food (Lamb with onions, fried potato slices, pickled salad and bread) which we were so grateful for! What a way to celebrate our last night on the train before arriving into Ulan Bator.
I have really enjoyed the journey on the Trans-Siberian train. The scenery was amazing; from the sun rising over Lake Baikal (world’s oldest lake), to the sun setting over the vast Siberian plains. What was most surprising was how much we got to know the friends we have made on the train in just 5 days; there was a real sense of sharing and looking out for one another. It was sad to say to goodbye to them (as they were continuing on the train to Beijing) and Melanie had even woken up at 6am to see us off on the freezing platform. We will definitely keep in touch.
Would I do the Trans-Siberian journey again? No I wouldn’t because I had a really good time and I would like to remember it that way.
Phil: After a pretty good night sleep we woke to find ourselves trundling over the frozen tundra of Russia towards Serbia at an average speed of about 50km/h.
The room was fantastic and on seeing the 2nd class/ 4 berth rooms I’m glad we went for this one which was a couple of hundred pounds more expensive but well worth it. The room was clad in wood panelling with royal blue Fleur De Lis embroidered carpet, and in addition to the 2 bunks we had an arm chair and a small shower room with an endless dribble of hot water. Lots of storage space meant that we could store our things and give ourselves plenty of room to get our washing done and have something to eat. No matter what the guide books say there are plugs in the sink and there are electric sockets in the rooms – in 1st anyway.
Our room was near the Fuwuyuen’s den where the samovar (water boiler) is kept bubbling 24/7 so we could stock up on hot water for tea and noodles without hiking to the restaurant car.
Our carriage wasn’t full, there were 9 berths in total and only 3 were occupied; one Australian couple – Terry and Debs, one German couple – Christoph and Ancke, who were both judges for the Berlin Film Festival and soon the Hong Kong Film Festival, and us.
Phil: Speaking of the restaurant car we decided to go there on the second evening and try the Russian cuisine. We got in there and as the only patrons chose our table. The waiter came with the menu and we asked if he would take USD as our Roubles were running low. ‘Da’ was the answer so we perused the menu which was like a novel but we were told that the only things that were available were the items written in pencil – about 4. So we ordered Ham & Eggs and Pork Escalope and worked out the USD rate to be about $15 for the two meals; pretty expensive by Russian standards. The waiter – I’ll call him Igor Grubby Fingers, returned with a slip of paper with $20 written on it, we haggled and he left, and then returned with $17 which we agreed on. Some Russians came into the car and squabbled over which table to sit at then began dealing cards amongst the group. A bunch of gap year students loped in and crammed 6 of them to a tiny table for 4. From what I could hear they were German and toiled over which beer to have. They settled on one brand and shared one bottle between the 6; I think they must have got about a mouthful each. That’s cheapness on a whole new level!
Igor Grubby Fingers came over again, dropped 2 menus on our table and I gestured with shrugged shoulders that I didn’t understand. I then repeated the price we had agreed on, $17 to try and jog his memory so he went off to consult his boss. Waving another scrap of paper he sat down next to us and pointed to some numbers that indicated he wanted us to pay $17 per dish! Now if we were having surf n’ turf in a trendy joint in Soho I wouldn’t have minded but this guy couldn’t even clean his fingers let alone the dining car so we spaseeba’d our way out of the restaurant car and had instant noodles for dinner. I’m getting so hungry that I occasionally look at inedible objects and think ‘I wonder what that would taste like?’, like wet wipes for instance.
We huddled up in front of the laptop and watched a movie before bunking down for the night.
Phil: Last night I fully closed the blinds so the room was in complete darkness when I woke, making me think it was still night time so I went back to sleep only to wake up at almost lunchtime. I opened the blind to be blinded by the intense sunlight that had filled the day. We’d been fortunate to have such beautiful sunshine this far on the trip and although it was bitterly cold outside the train inside was a steady 23 oC.
We got up, showered and packed our bunks away then sorted out some tea. Going to the samovar was a bit of a highlight as it was the ‘office water fountain’ of the train, where people do their meeting and chatting. I met Terry, the Australian, and we chatted about politics, the landscape, Russia and our respective trips. We then arrived at Barabinsk for 20 mins so it was on with the down jacket, boots and hat and outside to see what hawkers had pitched up. Not one. The place was empty bar one kiosk with a little window so I went to investigate what they had while Katie took some photographs of the train and station.
I ended up with 5 packets of instant noodles to add to our collection and a couple of slightly stale sugary bread buns. If there is one very important piece of advice I can give, for anyone contemplating a trip on the Trans Sib that would be – No matter how much baggage you have you must, must, must take some food. Whole salami’s are good, cheese keeps well, chocolate is always useful to barter with, some of your favourite spirit for sharing and porridge – not rolled or whole oats but the instant Ready Brek kind – I miss porridge, some dried fruits and nuts.
Spending such an amount of time on a train gets you into routines. We would get up around 11am, Moscow time, which was about 3pm local time, and have a mug of tea before showering and clearing away our bunks then we’d sort out our stuff that had been taken out so that it resembled some sort of organised mess. From then it was a combination of visiting friends, exploring the train, watching the scenery change and the villages pass by or practising some of the various languages spoken on the train.
We had given our carriage attendant, Zhang Wei, a bar of chocolate in the afternoon as he seemed like he was making the effort to be nice; something that the other attendants loathed to do. In the evening; once his boss had gone off-shift and to bed Zhang Wei popped his head round our door and said, in the only English I’ve heard him speak ‘Chinese wine?’ so some glasses were brought out and a squat emerald green bottle of clear ‘wine’ with some happy Chinese businessman printed on the label appeared. He poured shot measures into the glass which I thought a little odd as it was wine – maybe he was letting us taste it to see if it was corked? But, I learned that ‘wine’ isn’t wine in China, it is rice wine which is a spirit, and bloody potent stuff. ‘Ganbei’ was shouted and we all took a swig. I’d liken it to a fruity sambucca and it wasn’t unpleasant. Needless to say I had to let him try some whiskey so I uncovered my stash and eased the cork off. He said he liked it but I think he found it a little strong.
The Germans, Christoph and Ancke came by to see what the joviality was about and joined in as did Melanie so we all squeezed into the little room and drunkenly tried out new languages until it was time for Zhang Wei to return to his duties.
Phil: I’d woken up a couple of times during the night as we had made a few stops. First there is the bumping of the carriages as the train slows then there’s the tannoy woman at every station. I’m sure it’s the same woman who just races ahead of the train to make her announcements over the tinny system. I could feel the train pulling into a station so I jumped out of my bunk, got my boots and jacket on to get out and see what the hawkers were selling.
With the last of our Roubles I managed to get a fried doughnut type of thing which would be our breakfast. When I returned with the spoils Melanie was in our room and had invited us for some lunch in her room so we took the doughnut to share. She’d managed to get some potatoes and muffins with chocolate in the middle. The potatoes had been cooked in vegetable broth so had quite a nice taste and the doughnut had mashed potato in the middle. Don’t ask me why, I think they have more potatoes than they know what to do with. And so, because of the lack of food my stomach had shrunk and I only managed 2 potatoes and a piece of doughnut and I was full. Pathetic! Ah well, noodles for dinner, yippee!
About halfway through the afternoon the scenery outside started to change. We were snaking our way up a gradual slope and into the Eastern Sayan Mountains which form a natural divide between Siberia and Mongolia and the halfway point between Moscow and Vladivostok – the eastern most city on the Russian land mass.
Nizhneudinsk was the main stop of the afternoon and is known for the numerous timber yards and saw mills. Each house we passed was made of timber and of a different design which brought an eclectic interest to the towns and in each yard was a pile of logs almost the same size as the homes themselves. With the Taiga covering most of Siberia, wood is in abundance, as is coal. We passed a 20 odd wagon train every 10 minutes or so; most of which were carrying coal or oil or cars across from the East.
Interestingly, in 1908 near this area of Russia was the world’s largest, non-atomic, explosion. Christened the Tunguska Event 2000 sq km of forest was instantly obliterated and the blast was heard over 350 km away while the seismic waves were felt all over the world and the light from the blast was clearly seen throughout Europe.
Speculations of covert Russian military tests and little green men were all over the news, unsurprisingly but scientists concluded it was, most likely, part of Encke’s Comet which entered our atmosphere and broke up.
We were meant to go to the dining car with Melanie for Borstch but we had decided to switch to local time; Moscow +5hrs which meant that it was 11pm so we thought it best to head to bed and get up at a decent time as tomorrow evening we would be hitting the border of Mongolia and meeting Musha’s dad.
Phil: After a particularly rough night sleep we woke with the alarm at 8am (still on Moscow time) thinking we were late for work. The Germans had left the train at Novobirsk so it was just us and the Australians, Terry and Debs. We were first up and it was well worth the early start as the train hugged the coast of Lake Baikal – the oldest and largest body of fresh water in the world. We had also climbed into the gorgeous Primorsky Mountains.
And so the sun slowly appeared from behind the mountains on the right of the train while the completely frozen Lake Baikal rotated on our left.
Every so often we spotted people walking out onto the ice, going to dig holes in it to fish for Omul fish which you only find in this lake. We were supposed to be stopping at Slyudyanka but due to the local paper mill dumping exceedingly toxic amounts of chemical waste into the river, the train company said that they won’t be bringing tourists to the area and right enough too, it’s unbelievably beautiful in Winter so why, for the sake of getting rid of your waste easily, would you want to spoil it?
We eventually stopped at a station called Ulan Ude in order to take on some coal, change the engine and hack the ice off the bogies. There were no hawkers here and so it was back on the train and out through the disgusting city. Litter was strewn everywhere; in gardens, on pavements, tumbled down embankments and frozen into puddles. There were even packs of dogs rooting through piles of it and in the background huge chimney stacks spewed out thick dense smoke.
By mid-afternoon we had made our way past the Khamar-Daban Mountains which were a range of extinct volcanoes. Some spectacular rock formations appeared overhead and we rolled under some impressive overhangs. The plains opened up and small villages dotted the landscape, all the while the mountains were there in the background.
I felt a bit lethargic today; I think it’s a combination of the time shifts and the lack of proper food. Terry came round to offer some instant noodles that had bigger chunks of vegetables so you could fool your body into thinking that it was getting a proper meal. I declined as we still had some instant noodles left and didn’t want to do Terry out of his lunch.
Later on in the day we trundled into Naushki for our 3 hour inspection. The faces had changed; from the hard, chiselled cheekbones of male Muscovites and slim, pointed features of the women to more rounded faces with slightly rose-tinged cheeks. They boarded the train and demanded passports. Most of the officials were women; thin, surprisingly tall and very pretty. The LP guide warned not to get off the train until your passport was returned but we hopped off for a big of fresh air and exercise with no drama. The attendants on the train are pretty good at giving you a whistle in plenty time for the train leaving.
A little warning about the Lonely Planet Guides, they are good but I think their times and some information was a bit off the mark, however, they have been handy. It’s always best to get the right times from the attendant. If you happen to be on train #4 Moscow – Beijing there will be a schedule on the wall of times etc (remember that it reads bottom to top!) also I would heartily recommend a Mandarin phrasebook and dictionary to get to know your attendant – his friendship can be the difference between an average train journey and a great one!
We get back on the train while a Russian/Mongolian G.I Jane lookalike searched the carriages. She was very thorough and no-nonsense. Then a sniffer dog and handler came aboard to check everything out, they must have gone round our carriage about 5 times – thankfully Katie’s powdered milk in little sealing bags weren’t mistaken for anything else.
Our Mongolian friend in London, Musha, had organised her dad to meet us at the border with some hot, home cooked Mongolian food. He looked like he meant business as he ran across the platform and jumped into the train but was all smiles and very friendly. Decked out in a thin jumper, fur coat and the typical Mongolian riding boots, he didn’t look at all prepared for the cold weather. He must be very used to it by now.
Our attempts to speak Mongolian were, thankfully, met with a phone call from Musha to translate. We passed him the cigars Musha bought for him and he gave us the long awaited food parcel. He made his thank-yous, as did we then we checked what we got; instant coffee, orange juice and chocolates. Oh dear! Looks like that home cooked meal is a little further away.
We set aside the chocolates to share with the attendant and took the other goodies to share with our neighbours who had been so good to us along the journey. As we were all tucking into some hazelnut and chocolate wafer Musha’s dad reappeared with 2 tv dinner/prison/thali trays and chopsticks – You beauty! Apparently Musha had given her dad into trouble because she had promised us the hot food. Hot stir-fried lamb with onions and gravy, potato slices with onions and tomato, a carrot salad and some bread; now that’s what we were waiting for. You wouldn’t believe just how good that meal was. We shared it around as our stomachs had shrunk and we were full after a few mouthfuls but everyone loved it.
We were leaving our home for the last 5 days and our friends. According to the LP guide we were arriving into Ulan Bator at 0805, according to the Chinese attendants chart it was 0600 so we set an alarm for 0500.
Phil: We arrived into UB station to a not-so-balmy -20 oC. Terry had woken up to see us off as did Melanie. We stood about on the platform to wave to them as the train departed and Zhang Wei gave me a rather big hug as we left. Katie swore there was a tear in his eye. We were both sad to be leaving our friends and the train as they continued on to Beijing.
Our trip was naturally going to bring us along similar paths to others and we will make friendships along the way. Those paths will eventually separate, it’s part of travelling and we’ve had our first experience of that. The departure was tainted with a little sadness as we would have loved to spend some more time with the occupants of carriage 9, train number 4 but Mongolia beckons and my nose was frozen solid on the inside.