I was reflecting the other day on the fact that being in lockdown is somewhat reminiscent of being on the Trans Siberian Railway. I wish this was because I could see the Siberian wilderness outside my bedroom window, instead of my neighbours brick wall, but no. There is something in the forced stillness and need to be present just where I am that brings me back to the journey I took last September. So, it seems like the perfect time to finally write and reflect upon that beautiful time where I could be so close to people and also, through forced stillness, become closer to myself.
It would be fitting then to start with this snippet I found in my journal from the time, a few days into my journey.
“I find myself now with nothing to do, except look out the window and admire the view.
The land speeds by as we stay still, just being in peace with no tasks to fulfil.”
I can’t say exactly when it was that I’d first learnt about the Trans Siberian Railway, but I know I was very young and that the wonder and intrigue it sparked in me was akin almost to the idea of a journey to the moon. My experience of train journeys up to that point had been that of piling into a crowded train of football fans with my brother and grandma, travelling in to watch Collingwood play at Victoria Park. The notion then of embarking on a journey in a rickety train across Siberia was almost too much for my tiny imagination to grasp. So, 30 years on, when my brother and his fiancé told us that their wedding was to be in Greece, a little seed of an idea started to form in my mind. Maybe, just maybe I could grab the opportunity to get up to Russia and take that train. Mongolia was another place I had always wanted to go to as well, plus, working as a tour guide, I was meeting more and more people from China and becoming very curious to see their homeland.
I’ll spare the details of the tedious visa process (you have to send your passport away three times to attain a visa for all three countries- slightly stressful and expensive!). I opted to join a Gadventures tour, rather than book all of the train tickets myself. I’m so happy I did as it was lovely having someone who knew the system really well and could speak Russian, plus lovely having a beautiful community of 16 people from around the world to share the journey with. If I was to do the train journey again, I think I would feel comfortable now to save money and just book my own way through.
I could write so much about St Petersburg and Moscow, I fell so deeply in love with those cities, vastly underestimating just how much they would take my heart. St Petersburg was like the lovechild of Berlin and Prague, while Moscow was like nowhere I’d been, an almost dystopian world of giant, stark, stalinist buildings; underground metro station-come-art galleries and big gardens with modern art and the most dazzling flea market I have ever seen.
I was very aware that I didn’t want to build up the experience too highly in my mind, before the journey. For one thing, I knew it wasn’t going to be super comfortable or necessarily incredibly dramatic landscape. In fact, I was actually somewhat looking forward to this idea of being uncomfortable, dealing with the cramped spaces and lack of food options etc. There’s something refreshing when your options are limited and creativity/ acceptance has a chance to flourish.
Before we embarked on the train journey in Moscow, our guide had told us that it was a bit of a roulette in terms of what sort of train we would get on. Some trains are new and flashy with personal power points at each bed and proper flushing toilets. Other trains were older, more traditional rustic trains that had been in operation for decades. We were likely to experience a few different types of these trains, as we were disembarking for a couple of short stays along the way before China.
To my relief, our first train (and train we would spend the most time on), was old. It was as I imagined the Trans Siberian to be all those years ago- so rickety with furnaces and toilets that flushed out directly onto the tracks.
The first 90 hours of the tour, once getting on at Moscow, were spent on the train. That’s four days of non stop train, occasionally getting off to stretch our legs for 10 mins at various rural stations along the way. There was a list on the wall each day with the times that the train would stop, where it would do so and for how long. Each time, I would excitedly put on my shoes and down jacket and get ready for the breath of oh-so-fresh air and the chance to see local Russian people selling their wares.
The options were broad and also sadly often far too heavy for a backpacker. Smoked fish, extensive fancy tea kits, porcelain vases and my personal favourite, taxidermy ferrets and owls. I wonder how many people have walked back into their carriage after a stop with a new stuffed ferret to their name.
In those 90 hours we travelled the equivalent distance of Perth to Melbourne and crossed five time zones. It took us just over halfway across Russia – Russia is big, did you know? We had second class tickets for the whole way through. The second class carriages were comprised of multiple four person berths. A rather intimate space with two bunks and a tiny table. There was no room to be precious about the amount of space available and thankfully all the people in my tour were incredibly lovely to be around. There was a perfect flow in terms of time spent playing cards and interacting versus time spent in solitude, each of us respecting one’s need for both along the way.
The landscape for the first few days of the journey as we travelled through the outskirts of Russia was gritty and interesting with many abandoned buildings and factories. So many stories to be told of all those little towns.
One of the most exciting things though for me in those first days was the walk up to the dining cart, at the top end of the train.
The dining car in this train was incredibly charming. I squealed the first time I ventured in. I had stepped back into the 1950s. I was in heaven. Contrary to what I had originally imagined, I didn’t end up drinking much vodka at all. Beer was cheaper and even then I only had a few here and there.
Being a vegetarian, there was only a minimal amount of options on the menu and I’d already planned on saving money and bringing my own food. I couldn’t go past the borscht however every now and then. Beer and borscht and cards and laughter really made for a lovely end to the day.
To get to the dining cart we had to walk through three third class carriages. Each time you opened the door of one of these carriages, it was like stepping into a new world.
Instead of the private berths in second and first class, the third class carriages were all open with as many bunks as could fit up the length of it. It felt almost intrusive walking up through these train dormitories, there were bodies everywhere. Sleeping people with limbs dangling off the top bunks, small children playing Uno, older ladies working through crossword books and all sorts of smells coming from people’s instant meals.
There was one particular older gentleman named Meder that I met on my journey through these realms. We smiled at each other on my first passing through, and then each time afterwards the greeting became more enthusiastic. He had a huge smile, punctuated by a couple of missing teeth and impossibly deep dimples. His sparkling eyes betrayed his childlike spirit and his joy for life was just so infectious. Meder’s english was as non existent as my Russian but we somehow managed to share tiny bits of information about ourselves. I was the first Australian he had met and he the first person of Kyrgyzstani origin for me. Meder left at one of the tiny stations in the middle of darkness on the third evening of the journey. He gave me a small chocolate when he disembarked and I cursed myself for not having any gifts on me to share with him and his family. While he waved goodbye from that night-drenched platform as my train crawled off though I realised, it didn’t matter I didn’t have a gift; the gift for each of us was that short, joyful connection we had shared. Two lives colliding for a brief time, both so different yet somehow alike, in our humanity and enthusiasm for connection. I wonder how he is doing now.
To my utmost excitement, on the fourth morning as I opened up the window shade, I was greeted by a new world.
“I have my mind and heart pulled out the window as we now cross into
Siberia and into the vibrant autumnal colours, birch trees, hills and
open rolling landscape.
Auburn, yellow, green the leaves
Brown and white branches of the trees.”
I really had so much to keep myself occupied on the train- reading, cards, journal writing, drawing etc. At this point however, all I found myself wanting to do was just sit and look out the window; with a peaceful mind and a full heart. I could never get sick of the rhythm of the train- the clicking over tracks and the constant, gentle sway. I have a lot of energy so being forced into a situation where I just had to sit and be, this was something fairly new for me. I really, really loved it. I listened to music and watched the landscape shift; the houses began to look more like something out of a fairy tale. All wooden with colourful doors and fences, smoke coming out of the chimneys indicating life and warmth. Lakes and bridges, endless forests and the occasional abandoned factory.
After four nights on the train, we arrived in Irkutsk. Here we were to stop for a couple of nights by lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake by volume in the world. (Apparently it has the combined volume of all five great lakes of the United States!) It was so exciting getting off the train and arriving at our cosy accommodation. Our sleep in that real bed that first night there was pure heaven. After two days though exploring the markets, local hills, sauna and lake we were all rather excited about the prospect of getting back on the train. We had gotten used to that life.
The second train that scooped us up on its way through was much more modern. It was lovely to experience the difference, but I did miss the rickety nature of the first!
From the lake we travelled south, making our way into Mongolia. The landscape became more and more sparse as we travelled down and across into the steppes.
We disembarked the train and stayed for a number of days, both in Ulaanbaatar and in the hills at a ger camp. It was magic.
Again, my prior knowledge of Mongolia was very limited. A highlight was visiting the 70 meter tall, oh-so-kitsch stainless steal covered statue of Genghis Khan in the middle of the vast and empty undulating hills of the steppes. I became fascinated with Genghis during my time in Mongolia. It’s hard not to, with the country revering him with such deep pride. There is an estimated 16 million male descendents of Genghis living today, so they assume he must have fathered hundreds, if not thousands of children. Busy bee.
In our journey out of Mongolia, it started to snow. It was the end of September so still two months off winter. It was perfect. Seeing so many houses with gers in the backyard with drifts of smoke coming out their chimneys made my imagination sparkle. What were these people’s stories? How did they spend their time? There is an estimated 25%-40% of Mongolians still living a nomadic life. Children will ride 100km on horseback to boarding school at the start of the week in Ulaanbaatar and then have their horses sent back for them at the weekend. These people with houses clearly didn’t live nomadically, yet the ger it seemed was still such a big part of their culture and warm place to gather in the darkest winters. Surely, the concept of ‘cosy’ originated in a ger.
The border crossings both into Mongolia and then into China were something else. Armed guards entered the train and took our customs cards and passports. It was exciting and also somewhat nerve wracking. What if I hadn’t done my visa properly? I loved looking at the various outfits of either side’s customs officials and army representatives. Some of the guards looked like they could be 14 years old and at a costume party. I didn’t tell them that though.
Entering China was very exciting. We had to get off the train and remove all our goods and have them scanned through customs. They also had to change the wheel gauges as the track sizes are different. So fascinating! It took a couple of hours sitting in the station at the border in China and we were finally allowed back on the train just before 2am. I excitedly woke up the next morning early, eager to see the mountainous Chinese landscape. It did not disappoint though was different to what I’d expected it to be. SO many solar panels along the mountain sides and so many villages along the way. Each town we passed through had many apartment buildings with window after window after window of evidence of human life.
Coming into Beijing was rather mind-blowing in that sense. I was excited to explore Beijing however was also somewhat sad to be leaving the confines of the train and forced stillness it had gifted me. It took a few days to settle in Beijing. Chaotic is not a strong enough word to describe how it felt at that station, after the peace of the train and space in Mongolia. But once I found my groove and changed hotels from the business centre to a hostel in the hutong district I felt much more alive.
There were a few times when I caught myself during the train journey and reminded myself that This Was It. I was ACTUALLY ON the Trans Siberian Railway. You tend to forget when you are in the moment travelling, that you are in that place you had dreamed of for so long. I would really love to do the full journey across, perhaps starting in the far east at Vladivostok and travelling all the way across to St Petersburg, next time, during winter. But there are so many other places to go and trains to take and people to meet. For now I am just here, in my room, looking out my window to the plants and the fence. It is not quite as inspiring, but i feel so lucky that I have had the experience such that now I can remember, reflect and escape my lockdown confines somewhat. It’s lovely to be reminded that while travel is so much about the inspiring, exciting moments in newness; it is also about an investment into future memories and stories for family members and friends locked at home, dreaming of another world.