Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #60: Trans-Siberian Railway: Life & Fun Across 9000 km of Taiga, Steppes & Plain Wilderness, Part II –

#59: Trans-Siberian Railway: Life & Fun Across 9000 km of Taiga, Steppes & Plain Wilderness, Part II

From Moscow, the train moved east through cities like Yekaterinburg, where the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks; and Novosibirsk, the metropolis and scientific and university city of Siberia. Like most of the travellers, I got off at Irkutsk, the famous city near Lake Baikal. I am tempted to say “on Lake Baikal” – for indeed if you look at the map of Siberia, Irkutsk seems to be on the lake. But on the scale of things in Siberia, it is only over 60km from the lake and yet looks as though it lies on the lake on most maps. Everything in Siberia is huge, and one is simply amazed by the great distance this renowned train route covers.

Lake Baikal – the deepest lake in the world, over 636km long, greater than Belgium and contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. To the Chinese, this was Beihai, or “North Sea”. It was on these shores that the Han Dynasty diplomat and explorer, Zhang Qian, was exiled after his arrest by the nomadic empire, Hsiong Nu. Here he married a local woman and after a decade escaped to Central Asia, where he convinced the local kingdoms to ally with China in a joint attack on the Hsiung Nu horsemen. This was the beginning of China’s old Central Asian empire, which is another saga of its own. A thousand years later, it was a lady from these shores that gave birth to the greatest conqueror in world history, Genghis Khan of the Mongols.

In Irkutsk, I took a local Zima (Winter) Express to Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic within the Russian Federation. Most travellers simply continue on their journey to Mongolia, while I resolved to visit the little bit of Mongolia within Russia.

The Buryats are one of the great tribes of Mongolia – most Russians I spoke to thought that the Buryats are a separate nation. The old Soviet Union was an ardent practitioner of the Divide-and-Rule concept, and its propaganda machinery spoke about the Buryat people happily unifying with their Russian “big brother nation”. However, most Buryats I spoke to know who they are – the sons of Genghis Khan.

It was their tribe which gave the Mongol nation Genghis Khan’s mother, and later, chief wife as well. They spoke proudly of their great warrior king. The Cold War is over, and Mongolia is free again. Though living in different sides of an international boundary, the Buryats and Mongols (i.e., in Mongolia) are once again renewing their old ties and allegiances.

I dropped by the Ivolginsk Datsan, the HQ of Tibetan Buddhism (which is the type of Buddhism professed by the Mongols and Buryats) in Russia. Here on the windswept plains of Central Asia, a shrine of Buddhism has been rebuilt. I met some Tibetan monks from Dharmasala, who greeted me in perfect Mandarin, asking if I was from China. No, I said, I’m from Singapore. China is not well-loved in these parts, and Singapore, the tiny neutral nation faraway (and in fact well regarded as a symbol of law and order, progress and development in the former USSR) is always well-liked in the plains of Eurasia (more so than in Southeast Asia). And we had a polite chat on Buddhism in these parts and the subtle difference between Buryatia and Mongolia.

I also visited an Old Believers’ village. These are Russians who escaped from the central authorities of the Tsars a few centuries ago, to the wilderness of Siberia, simply because they rejected the religious reforms of Tsar Alexis and Peter the Great. They tried to preserve their old way of life, their unshaven chins, traditional Russian costumes and old folk songs, mostly by shunning contacts with the outside world. By the time the Tsars’ domains caught up with them, they were simply left alone as weirdos. But Stalin took no fancy of exotic ways of life and minorities, and had their churches blown up.

Even then, I have met people who had seen Old Believers come to town with their strange costumes and long beards, well into the 1970s. What eventually led to the demise of their lifestyle was, ironically, the fall of the USSR. The great welfare state had collapsed, and people now desire the goods offered by the new temple of Capitalism. Young people no longer want to stay in primitive old villages, and the more entrepreneurial among the Old Believers now invite outsiders to visit their villagers and have dinner with them for $60 a session – I was invited there free by a friendly travel agency director. Welcome to Disneyland Siberia!

The journey further east is off-the-beaten-track for most TransSib travellers. I met hardly any travellers and spent my train evenings having a little too much vodka with hunky Russian military officers on their ways to garrisons in the Russian Far East (and them trying to teach a non-Russian speaker Soviet-era patriotic songs – that’s how drunk all of us became), or philosophising life with North Korean diplomats (and trying to secure an invitation from organisation with names like “Korean Peace Committee” and “Korean International Friendship Association”). Gone were the boring flat plains of western Siberia. Here we have numerous rivers, and valleys of pine trees all in the glory of full autumn foliage. Soon we entered the Russian Far East, once the realm of the endangered Siberian tigers and setting of great Russian trader-explorers and their exploits in their race to the Pacific.

After a short stay in the leafy city of Khabarovsk, where I strolled along the beaches of the Amur River, where fun-loving young Khabarovsk citizens play volleyball on what used to be a high tension frontierland between Russia and China. Known as Heilongjiang, or River of Black Dragon to the Chinese, the Amur is one of the longest rivers in the world. Soviet and Chinese armies once crashed here in the 1960s, almost bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war between two former brother communist states. Now traders from both countries trade in consumer goods across this wild-looking river, while local beach bums enjoy the last of summertime in Siberia. The autumn has started elsewhere in the world, but this part of the Russian Far East is still enjoying a bout of summertime in September, an anomaly in climatic patterns from the rest of the world.

Here I am in Vladivostok, “Lord of the East” as it is in the Russian language. 9,288 kilometers from Moscow. This is the eastern end of the world’s longest railway, and Russia’s window on the Pacific coast. Overwhelmed by package tourists from China, I had a hard time finding hotels in this city. This is a strange town, where there are Chinese signboards in museums and souvenir shops – all to serve the noveau riche of neighbouring China.

Whatever it is, I am flying back to Irkutsk tomorrow, and then get onto the Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulanbataar. That is another whole new adventure. Good Bye, Russia. And yes, have a glass of champagne on my behalf! Wee-Cheng has completed the world’s longest railway journey!