The Thermal Trip #3: The Trans-Siberia Journey – Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia

The Trans-Siberia Journey
6552 km from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia

Get there early, it said in my guide book and unfortunately I took this a bit too seriously. Russian train stations are not designed for sitting around in comfort in the winter. Metal chairs suck the warmth from you, so quickly that I ended up drinking endless cups of coffee trying to regain some heat.

Finally, after a couple of hours waiting, the platform number for train #4 was announced and I headed out to find my carriage. I thought it had been cold inside but was not prepared for the wind outside. I had no feeling in my face by the time I had walked to carriage #11, where a Chinese carriage attendant greeted me with a huge smile and helped me onboard with my luggage.

As for my compartment, I had booked first class, which meant two berths instead of four, and that was all I thought. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised with the set up. The compartment had two berths, a comfy seat and ensuite sink/shower. It seemed decorated from the 1950′s and I really felt like I was travelling back in time. I waited expectantly for my fellow traveller to arrive…

As the train pulled out the station and no one else had boarded, I went to find the carriage attendant to see if anyone else was due. As it turned out there were only two guys from Denmark and myself in the whole carriage for most of the trip. I didn’t meet them until the next day, so I settled in and spent a quiet New Year’s Eve as the train started to travel through Russia.

Travelling onboard the Trans-Siberia in winter was certainly not what I expected. For one there were very few passengers onboard. I did wander down the train a few times and found that most carriages were either full of Chinese traders, or almost empty.

I tried the Russian restaurant car only once. I ventured down at lunchtime, it was part full of Russian men who were watching a movie, I didn’t see which one, but from the sounds coming from the set, I didn’t want to look either. I asked for a menu and the waiter just started bringing me food. Tomato salad smothered in mayonnaise (edible), purple soup (again, edible), then raw chicken and cold macaroni (definitely not edible). The moans and groans coming from the TV set now were now reaching a crescendo so I decided that this was a good time to leave…..

Since the restaurant car didn’t seem to be a good option, I was hoping that I could buy supplies at the stations as we passed through. Instead of being greeted with a platform full of traders, only the brave few ventured out in the cold, but I managed to buy bread and cheese at some stations. I wish I had brought more supplies with me, and would definitely bring more if I did the trip again in winter time.

The other factor I hadn’t really considered was the short days. This really limited what you could actually see and everything was covered in snow. After a few days this did become a little monotonous, but I guess that was to be expected. Russia is so vast, and I think it’s only when you sit on a train and travel through it that you can really appreciate just how massive it is. Little settlements would appear in what seemed the middle of nowhere, but a huge factory would loom close by, obviously providing employment.

Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest lake, the world’s deepest lake with 20% of all fresh water in the whole world, was amazing. I wished I had had more time to get off here to explore this beautiful area. But all too soon we had passed through Russia and were at the border crossing for Russia/Mongolia. Officials came and went, asked me to fill out forms, checked my passport and then we were though and in Mongolia. A swift border crossing and we were off again.

The scenery definitely changed here. Less snow, more sand and mountains in the distance and camels eating by the side of the track. I also spotted a couple of white foxes and some huge birds of prey circling about the train.

Next evening we were at the Chinese border, here the train had to change the bogeys, since the tracks in China are narrower. This was amazing, the train is driven into a huge warehouse, split in two and then each carriage is lifted as the old bogeys are rolled away and new ones rolled back. The whole procedure only took three hours and we were on our way again.

Woke up in time to see the Great Wall, which is just an amazing site. The train runs along the wall for quite some way, so you really start to understand that it just goes on and on, an amazing feat and I can’t wait to explore it more later in the year.

Later that day, the journey came to an end. Had it really been 6 days? Was I really in Beijing having travelled 6552 km from Moscow, via Mongolia? Yes I was, and as much as I had enjoyed the trip, I was also glad to get off and stretch my legs and move on to new horizons.

A wonderful trip, definitely worth doing, but perhaps the summer months would allow for more appreciation of the countries I had just travelled through, as then the colours of the country would shine through more and longer days would allow for more viewing. But, I am glad I did it in winter and found six days of nothing to do except watch the world go past is a luxury I would recommend to everyone.

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