Monday, 9 July 2012

Wandering around Siberia in my pyjamas...a journey on the Trans-Mongolian railway

The Trans-Mongolian railway is the first half of the Trans-Siberian railway, and instead of continuing to Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific coast, the train branches off into Mongolia, before continuing to Beijing. The 6304km of rail track between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar takes 5 days to travel, and it's one of the best things I've ever done, and I don't even really like trains.

Chugging through a Siberian dawn.
The train departed Moscow's Yaroslavsky station at 9.35pm on Tuesday night. I arrived at the adjacent Metro station with just under an hour to spare, and emerged confused into the late daylight. There are three rail terminals all on the same square, but I had heard that Yaroslavsky station was an architectural wonder, so I chose the prettiest building and crossed under the road to that one. Although I didn't really know what I was looking for, I wasn't able to find any clues that I was in the right place, so after 10 minutes of walking around, I asked someone who gestured that the station I was looking for was the other side of the road. I hauled my baggage back the way I had come from, and eventually found myself in the right station, in a right sweat. It still took some time to find where in fact I was meant to go, and I spotted someone with a Marks & Spencer's food bag, so chose them to be my saviour. It turned out he was from Suffolk, was also called Ben and was also taking the train all the way and then the boat to Japan. Selfishly, this slightly annoyed me, as it really pissed on my thought that I was doing something quite unusual and adventurous, as the first person I met was doing the same thing and even had the same name. Annoyance aside, together we figured out where our train was, and turning the corner to find it we saw a swarm of backpackers, excitedly buzzing down the platform.

The train waiting to depart Yaroslavsky station in Moscow. 
My room mate - Jon Kelly.
I found my carriage and boarded the train problem free, and in my compartment was a Londoner called Jon Kelly, who was taking the train all the way to Beijing, to meet his wife and young son who had been living there since March. We were clearly both excited about the journey upon which we were about to embark, and chatted frantically about our plans and who we were as the train pulled out of Moscow. We had hardly left the suburbs when the vodka was cracked open, and as we toasted our journey we were joined by some of our neighbours, a group of four from Belfast. It wasn't long before we had finished our two bottles of vodka, and then more was produced, as we all got to know each other and celebrated the start of this little adventure. We were joined by other travellers from the train, Georg from Germany and Lenka from Slovakia, and we chatted until the grey light of dawn crept into the carriage and the alcohol crawled through my blood.

I woke up feeling ok, considering the amount of neat vodka I had drunk the night before, and enjoyed the ride through green countryside and dusty towns. We stopped in big cities such as Perm and Yekaterinberg for 20 minutes at a time, where I wandered on the platforms and topped up my supplies from the kiosks. I spent the afternoon watching Russia roll by the window, my head out the window like an excited dog in a car, nervously ducking in through instinct when an approaching train roared past, just leaving fragments of the countryside glimpsed through the gaps of the passing wagons, before the landscape was glued together once more.

The Chinese train, racing through Russia towards Beijing.
Lots of the way was forested, pine and birch trees were the wallpaper for the day.

Buying supplies from the kiosks on the platforms - beers, noodles and cigarettes.
Photo opportunity - riding into a Russian town.
That evening I went to check out the restaurant car, with Georg the German, Lenka the Slovakian, and a new person, a middle aged Danish chatterbox called Jeanette. I ordered some food; fried potatoes, chunks of unknown meat and melted cheese, and when it finally came I wolfed it down but I could have eaten four times as much but the price was prohibitive. We stayed drinking beers and chatting in the restaurant car until we were kicked out by the glum Russian waitress who wanted to close it for the night, and so we joined our Belfast neighbours for more shots of vodka and beer. Lucy, a Northern Irish girl, insisted I wear some of her clothes as this was in fact the Tranny-Siberian railway, I obliged after almost no persuasion. I went to bed drunk again.

The next morning the landscape had changed, and I could have been forgiven for thinking I was somewhere close to home. The flat, swampy ground stretched out to the horizon which was dotted with distant trees, and the small and dispersed settlements resembled the Paddy shacks which litter the Fens, where I grew up.

The flat and featureless land, with a hazy horizon lined with trees, looked lots like home.
Houses made from weathered wood and patchwork corrugated roofs lined the railway.
We stopped in a city called Omsk, with a grand old station and more supplies were bought on the platform. My diet for the next few days would consist of spicy noodles, purchased at the stations and cooked with the hot water provided from the boiler at the end of our carriage, supplemented with whatever else I could purchase: bread, biscuits and tomatoes. A few hours later we stopped in a place called Balabinsk, and the entire town and countryside for countless miles beyond, was trapped in a cloud of foul smelling smoke. Everything was shrouded in this dirty, brown, tar smelling duvet of pollution, and the sun was just a faint orange orb, hanging in a sky the colour of faded newspapers. At the station I walked up on to the footbridge to get a good look around, but the view was limited due to the pervading smoke but I could see an Orthodox church, complete with golden onion domes. The town felt quiet and a little miserable, as if sadness was hanging in the air, as well as pollution.

Balabinsk - dirty smoke seeped through everything, and a line of new army trucks sat on the tracks adjacent to ours, we speculated they could be heading to somewhere like Syria.
The golden domed Orthodox church, seen from the footbridge over the tracks.
A woman, arms laden with supplies, crosses the tracks at Balabinsk.
Later on, towards the evening, the train strained to a halt in a place called Novosibirsk, which before planning this trip I hadn't heard of but it's Russia's third most populous city, with well over a million residents. The city only exists due to the Trans-Siberian railway crossing the River Ob, which itself is the world's seventh longest river. The booming growth and industrialisation of Novosibirsk led to it becoming nicknamed the 'Chicago of Siberia', but it's actual name translates as New Siberian City. The city's centre was full of tall high-rises with neon crowns, and the outskirts filled with industry and a vast dock area, the distant cranes resembling wading birds, feeding from the waters edge. I went into the station for a look around and see what I could purchase, I got a few looks from badly dressed Russians as I was wearing pyjamas, which I wore for the entire trip, but comfort was paramount. I was amused by the thought that I was wandering through Siberia wearing nothing but my pyjamas. When I returned I found a mother and daughter, travelling from Kazakhstan, were quietly making themselves at home in my compartment. I was both at once disappointed to have lost the luxury of extra space, but also pleased that my journey across Siberia wouldn't be spent with purely Europeans. Our new guests were nice enough, very polite and rather timid creatures, but as time wore on I become annoyed, not by their presence, but by the relationship between the mother and daughter. The daughter was 20 years old, but when German Georg first saw her he assumed she was about 8, so to say she was young looking was an understatement. She was quite a pathetic character, who said she was an architecture student at university, but spent her days writing in a tiny princess notebook, refusing to make eye contact, and allowing her mother to cuddle her all day and tuck her up into bed at night. I enjoyed observing them, but I did get a bit wound up by the dynamics of their relationship.

I spent that evening in the Northern Irish compartment, again drinking vodka and beers with the same social crowd, and we absorbed a few more members to our group. A Swedish double act and two slightly quieter students from Wiltshire. We were all crammed into the one compartment, with a few more floating in the corridor or moving to and from the end of the carriage which links to the joining carriage, where we were allowed to smoke. It felt a little bit like we could have been in a play. There was a limited stage set, and a cast of characters each with their own stories and performances. I went down to the restaurant car, where I had been told a traveling Russian folk band were rowdily singing. There were no songs to be heard by the time I arrived, but I chatted to some Dutch travellers before the Russians, presumably having seen my big camera, gestured for me to take their photo. Afterwards I returned to our carriage to continue the socialising and merriment, discussing everything from love to politics, God and parents, before going to bed in a misty dawn which rushed by my window like white ribbons.

Pouring back the vodka in the Belfast cabin.
Two members of the Russian folk band.
The ghostly dawn eerily streamed by the window as I went to bed.
When I awoke we were already stopped in a station, in a Siberian town called Ilanskaya. I rubbed my eyes onto the platform, and bought some bread, tomatoes and cucumber to supplement the diet of noodles. I spent the day writing my diary, which I hadn't touched since Moscow, making green tea from a cleverly improvised brewing pot made from a water bottle and idly chatting with my fellow travellers.

The Kazakhs went to bed very early, partly because our body clocks were on different times. We were on Moscow time, which the train operates on, but they got on at a station in a time zone three hours ahead of Moscow. Also, because the train is constantly heading east, into the night, it gets darker earlier every day, but the night is still the same length of time. It was confusing at first, but once you accepted that time didn't really exist on the train, it didn't matter. We went to the restaurant car for a few beers, and the Russian band were playing and singing. It was great to sit and listen to, and it made some great video too. I stayed in there for quite a while chatting to different groups of people as the Russians sang song after song. After another beer, I gained the courage to move over to a group of three pretty French sisters, travelling with their Larry David look-a-like father. When it died down in there, I moved back to our carriage where I knew there would be a party in full swing, and to my surprise the French showed up and the dad produced a very welcome bottle of vodka. We all got drunk together and I enjoyed the conversation of the night. In the early hours we stopped at a place called Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal, and Lenka and Jeanette departed the train, and we all sang songs on the platform before taking some group photographs. Back on the train, the evening took a turn for the crazier, when Lukas the Swede decided he wanted a new tattoo, so Belfast Lucy produced a sewing needle and bottle of ink, and proceeded to give him a line down his finger, prison style. We rounded Lake Baikal at dawn, and some salted fish was purchased through the window when we paused somewhere. We all went to bed drunk and our hands stinking of fish.
Andre, the Russian folk musician playing his accordian.
The grumpy Russian waitress serves the band a coffee.
One of the Russian folk singers who liked having her picture taken, with a Chinese train guard.
Smoking on a station platform.
The band performing in the restaurant car.
Drunken singing on the platform.
The tattooing by dawnlight begins. 
The next day the landscape had changed once again, and it was starting to look much more like how I imagined Mongolia to be. Voluptuous hills rose out of wide river valleys, and rocky outcrops pierced the lush green. Everything looked more dramatic, including the sky, and all the passengers spent the day watching the scenery unfold before them.

Wide river valleys took us closer to Mongolia.
Lukas, with his new tattoo, watches the landscape as Mongolia draws closer.
One of the Kazakh men in our carriage enjoys the views. Note the gold teeth.
This was also the day we left Russia and entered Mongolia, so we had a few hours wait on the Russian border, whilst passports, visas and customs were all checked. Stern border officials boarded the train and checked all our documents, men with torches searched the nooks and crannies of our carriage, presumably for stowaways, and an Alsatian was led through the train. In the UK an Alsatian is more of a security dog, not a sniffer dog, so I'm not sure if this was for show and security, rather than to look for narcotics and explosives. Whilst we waited at the border station in Russia, there was time to wander the streets close by and visit the grocery shops, but a heavy rainstorm quickly ushered everyone back onto the train.

Travellers spend their remaining Roubles in a shop in the border town.
Swedes Lukas and Christian wait on the platform for all the passports to be checked and stamped.
The night before some new people had boarded the train at Irkutsk, so I spent some time chatting to them. I spent a while talking to Annie, a 19 year old Californian with a sunset smile, on a trip with her younger cousin and grandmother. The same process of passport and custom checks was repeated once we entered Mongolia, so a lot of the time was sat going nowhere. We hadn't got far into Mongolia when the sun sank below the horizon, hiding the landscape from view. I went to the bar with a few others for a beer, to spend my final Russian Roubles. I was close to leaving when two Dutch people I had met previously turned up with half a crate of beers, and we stayed there chatting and drinking until the early hours and the beer was gone. I returned to my compartment, chatted to the Swedes for a bit who were up and could not sleep, before deciding to see if I could get an hours shut-eye before we arrived in Ulaanbaatar. In my compartment, the Kazakh women were already up and applying their make up, and the father kept popping in and out, and despite the fact I appeared to be sleeping, he didn't seem to understand the concept of whispering. I was listening to my iPod, and observing the women's rituals through one peeping eye, out of curiosity. As soon as I had closed my eyes, the Chinese conductor started shaking my leg, telling me to get up. I got up, knowing I would not be able to sleep, and joined the rest of the passengers at the windows in the corridor, watching the Mongolian sunrise and our approach into a hazy Ulaanbaatar. With chimneys of industry pouring out white smoke into a yellow dawn, we passed many traditional Mongolian Gers (tent houses), before the train pulled the reins on the diesel engine and the journey for me was complete.

Mongolian dawn - approach to Ulaanbaatar (UB).

On the platform in UB, from left, Swedes Christian and Lukas, Belfast Paul and Helen, German Georg, Jon from London and Belfast Lucy and Paul.


  1. Strikingly similar to the Peterborough-King's Cross journey if you choose to go First Capital Connect rather than intercity.

  2. Indeed it is, though half the time you're not even likely to get a seat on that journey.

  3. I am loving this blog. The Trans-Siberian is something I have always wanted to do but having read this, i have worked out I am too claustrophobic and have way too limited a diet to manage it unscathed!