The Trans-Siberian journey is considered to be the ‘longest travel one can take on a train’.
I am not a train enthusiast but was drawn towards this journey when I read about it in a magazine a few years ago. I was determined to experience this ‘jewel in the crown’ of train travel despite its administrative complexity (the multiplicity of visa requirements which are really complicated for a Pakistani passport holder).
The longest route of the Trans-Siberian Railways runs from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia, a total of 9,289 kilometre. I, however, decided to take the most scenic route on this journey, known as Trans-Mongolian, which follows an ancient tea-caravan route from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia.
The total journey is 7,621 kilometre long over six days and six nights. I also decided to stop in Irkutsk (Siberia) and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) — the former to experience life in what is generally considered to be the coldest part of the world, and the latter to feel the magic of a nomadic population living in yurts in the wild countryside.
I did not know what to expect. The last time I travelled on a train was as a teenager, going from Rawalpindi to Lahore to visit family.
Following advice from blogs of previous travellers, I stocked up on instant noodles, wet wipes (given there is no shower facility on most trains), whole-wheat cereal (one box only due to baggage issues), and Earl Grey and Chamomile tea (my oxygen) and cereal bars and biscuits.
I boarded my first train at 11:45pm from Yaroslavsky railway station, Moscow, on July 16 last year, which would take me to Irkutsk (Siberia) — a distance of almost 5,000 kilometre to be covered in four nights. This was a Russian train run by a Russian crew. The initial impression once you board the train is that it is clean but rather narrow. When I stepped inside the first-class compartment, it felt tiny and I wondered if I had made the right decision. “How was I going to last four nights in this?” I thought as the train began the 7,600 kilometre journey.
The first night was rather difficult. Not used to the noise and wobble of the train I kept waking up and finally gave up on sleep at 5am. Daytime on the train on the other hand was pure magic, as cities give way to forests of fir, pine, and birch. You sit still, while the journey passes you by.
The Trans-Siberian journey is a great introduction to the immensity of the world’s largest country — Russia. Between Moscow and Irkutsk, we crossed five time zones — incredible!
The Trans-Siberian train is also a great place to socialise. Gradually, you start talking to your fellow travellers. My compartment was full of tourists mostly from the UK and Europe (German and Swedish). No train buffs from South Asia were there — except for me and my friend.
There are approximately 20 stops between Moscow and Irkutsk, indicated on a schedule pasted inside each carriage but written only in Russian/Chinese. Interestingly, the schedule follows Moscow time despite the changing time zones. This gets a bit confusing towards the end of the journey, as you change your watch to local time but the train continues to follow Moscow time.
Stops were a great opportunity to step outside, breathe fresh air, and to stretch one’s legs. The platforms were dotted with vendors selling dry fish, boiled potato, fish bread, and boiled eggs. These seemed like great add-ons to our menu of instant noodles. Food at every station was fresh, and despite not knowing the language, transactions were made quickly to allow others the opportunity to buy. At one station, when a vendor failed to understand my request for boiled eggs, I ended up making chicken sounds. Everyone chuckled, and one smiling passenger even stepped in to translate.
On July 20, 7:30am (local time) or 2:30am (Moscow time), we reached Irkutsk and headed to a small village almost 40 kilometres away called Listvyanka — on the world famous Lake Baikal. We stayed in a local B&B run by a Russian family. The experience included a home-cooked traditional dinner, breakfast as well as an experience of a Russian banya (Russian sauna) which involves jumping in ice-cold water after a hot sauna session. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted!
Lake Baikal is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It contains one-fifth of the earth’s fresh water (more than all the North American Great Lakes combined), and is the world’s oldest and deepest lake as well as the clearest with a transparency index of 45 per cent. It is home to almost 1,700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world.
Many people in the areas around Lake Baikal follow the religious-cultural practices of shamanism, which involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness to perceive and interact with a spiritual world, and channel transcendental energies into this world.
On July 23, at 8:15am, I boarded the train for Mongolia from Irkutsk. Now we were on a Mongolian train run by Mongolian crew. The distance between Irkutsk and Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar) is around 1,000 kilometres or 24 hours by train. The landscape changes dramatically from Russian pine and fir forests to that of the modestly high Ural Mountains.
This time around coming back to the tiny train cabin was easier. The routine was now set, conversation flowed easily among travellers and time became irrelevant.
I arrived at Ulaanbataar on July 24, 7:50am and headed for a Ger camp in the Terelj National Park, which was two hours away. The 2000kilometre long Terelj National park is considered the most scenic national park in Mongolia. It stuns you with its vast empty landscape sprinkled with tiny white gers (or traditional yurts) stretching to the horizon while magical light plays across the valleys.
A traditional ger structure comprises a latticework of wood, a doorframe, ribs and a wheel. Gers are simple to look at from outside but beautifully decorated from inside, and each one has a central stove (run by coal or firewood).
The day we spent at the ger camp was magical. It was like nothing I had experienced before. An unblemished vast landscape as far as the eye can see, the sound of blowing wind, with chirp of grasshoppers the only music being played in the background. From higher ground, the views are epic: endless acres of rolling green, punctuated every so often by little pixels of white felt. Wild strawberries grow in clumps on the hillside, and occasionally a marmot pops his head out of a burrow. The air is sparklingly clear, and life is good.
Next day was spent in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia where half the country’s population lives. Mongolia gained its independence from Russia only in 1990, and the city shows a lot of Russian as well as Chinese influence. It is undergoing what Jan Wigsten, co-owner of Nomadic Journeys in Mongolia, calls an “overdrive of transition”.
The city is full of offices, and high-rise condominiums. The skyline is loaded with construction cranes. Hummers, Lexuses and Priuses throng the main roads.
On July 28, I departed from Ulaanbaatar for Beijing. It was the last 1,000 kilometre of my journey and the last day on the train and the most scenic. The greenness of the steppe slowly became brown then yellow as the train crossed Mongolia via the Gobi desert to reach China’s border town of Erlian. The next four and a half hours were spent witnessing the most technically complex maneuvers of changing of train tracks.
Mongolia and China use two different rail gauges. Mongolia’s 1,520 millimeter broad gauge dates back the Soviet-era while China uses the slightly smaller 1,435 millimeter standard gauge. Thus, the whole train (with passengers seated inside) is taken into a huge shed, the coaches uncoupled with massive hydraulic lifting bars inserted under them, and in unison the entire train is lifted several metres above the ground while bogies are changed underneath. After this, the train is shunted back and forth for an hour or so to ensure a proper fit. During this time, toilets were locked, air-conditioners turned off – making it perhaps the most difficult time to endure on train.
At 11:40am on July 29, we arrived at the Beijing North railway station. Parting from the Trans-Mongolian train was difficult. One gets a jolt of reality as one steps outside and is engulfed by the sea of people at the Beijing railway station. But every journey has a beginning and an end.
This is how the 7,600-km-long journey ended — as instantly as it began; but nonetheless, an awe-inspiring experience that will stay with me for years to come.