From Tiananmen Square to Red Square – Russia, China, Mongolia
“There really is no other journey like it”, gleefully proclaimed the jolly provodnista, as the train headed deeper into far-flung Siberia along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Spanning some 5,772 miles, eight time zones and three vast routes across Russia, China and Mongolia, I couldn’t help but agree. I gazed out of my compartment’s window into the infinite forest landscape, only occasionally broken by a quaint village, seemingly forgotten in time. A flight wouldn’t have been the same. Beginning (or ending) in Moscow, Vladivostok or Beijing, the Trans-Siberian is far more than simply about getting from A to B. An Inter-Rail pass may be the ticket to a pan-European tour, but the Trans-Siberian remains the great train adventure for travellers seeking a holiday with a difference.
Not about comfort and elegance
Through the cracked glass at a ticket desk inside Irkutsk’s crumbling station, the po-faced, surly attendant staring back at me stopped my broken Russian and over-zealous gesticulations in their tracks; independent travel in the region wasn’t going to be easy. Eventually securing my third class ticket to Krasnoyarsk, the following day I boarded a train to scenes reminiscent of a refugee camp. The open carriage of 53 beds, replete with two washing lines weighed down with dripping-wet clothes would be my home for the next two days. I began to question whether forsaking the relative safety and comfort of second class, with its private compartments of four beds for a few roubles was prudent; my only consolation was that my two days would not be spent on the wooden benches of fourth class. First class, with its two-bed compartments, DVD players and wardrobes was a world away. But my Trans-Siberian travels were not about comfort and elegance; I wanted to see life on board in the raw.
I had always imagined Russians as gloomy and downtrodden, an intolerant people whose mindset was invariably trapped in a Cold War-era time warp; the indecorous and officious board guards I had encountered days earlier had done little to dispel this belief. As I settled into my diminutive top bunk bed, though, I was soon ushered down by a burly looking man below; a tin of unidentifiable, grey meat and a bottle of vodka were eagerly thrust into my grasp. The stereotypical Russians I had envisaged were nowhere to be seen; instead I found an open and warm people, actively engaging in a vibrant and bustling on board community, which I was unwittingly propelled into. With the language barrier quickly overcome by a deck of cards and several bottles of vodka, countless containers of Russian delicacies were passed around the ever-expanding myriad of characters that were gathering.
Amid the multitude of homemade Russian delicacies adorning my table, I began to wonder why, with a restaurant on board, so many were avoiding the chance of a cooked meal. Much to my chagrin, I found out the hard way. Donkey meat, somewhat cleverly disguised as “beefsteak”, two fried eggs and a limp sausage masquerading as an omelette on the barren menu proved to be the chef’s signature dishes. Having eaten a deplorable meal (I’d opted for the beefsteak), I spent the duration of my trip buying my food from the abundance of “babushkas” that trawled the platforms, selling an assortment of regional delights that were thrown up as the Trans-Siberian wound its way across the country.
The Trans-Siberian covers a vast area
Even staring at the map above my desk each day, I failed to appreciate its sheer enormity. Jumping out of the pages of my now well-worn guidebook were countless places, all screaming at me to break-up this-once-in-a-lifetime journey. From Red Square to Tiananmen Square and everything in between, my journey would be one that would live with me forever. As I headed west from China’s bustling capital, Beijing, I passed through the Great Wall of China; the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, home to nomadic tribesmen and a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries; Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake; and to the conclusion of my journey, Moscow, almost unrecognisable from its communist past. A week-long route soon turned into several months. With St. Petersburg only a few hours from Moscow, I found it to be a destination befitting any Trans-Siberian adventure.
When my train pulled into Moscow’s grandiose Yaroslavsky station early one morning, the culmination to a trip of almost 6,000 miles, it was something of an anti-climax. There was no indication we had completed the world’s longest train journey, no fanfare and no sense of achievement amongst my fellow passengers, who disembarked with minimal fuss. Clutching my tattered ticket, the sole memento of my time on board, I quietly stepped off the train and slipped solemnly onto the busy streets of Moscow.
That evening I reflected on my incredible journey; travel in the region certainly isn’t geared towards the independent traveller. At times a deep breath and a great deal of patience were required to deal with the sometimes absurd scenarios that cropped up; they simply added to the adventure and to the myth that is the Trans-Siberian Railway. Unlike Moscow and St. Petersburg, The Trans-Siberian has yet been hit by mass tourism; per mile it remains one of the cheapest journeys in the world. I will always look back fondly on my Trans-Siberian travels; the people I met, the places I visited and the things I experienced. As the provodnista had rightly declared, there really is no other journey like it.