Published: March 25th 2006March 21st 2006
People who hear the words "six-day train trip" will usually have one of two opposing reactions. This either sounds enchanting and relaxing or like total hell. In order to acheive the former experience, we bought first class tickets for the six-day journey. Many people break up this trip in either Ullan Bator, Mongolia, or Irkutsk, Siberia, but we had so much trouble buying tickets in Beijing. Our Russian visas couldn't afford us getting stuck along the way, so we decided to buy tickets straight through to Moscow.
We found that most of the other travellers in our car were also tourists making the same 6-day journey. Needless to say, you get to know people pretty well in six days. We were also fortunate enough to have a social director on board - Anni, a half-Japanese, half-Swedish six-year old who continually poked her head into our rooms to share her chocolates, sing us a song, show us her toys, or practice her only English phrase "Oh, my god!." Along with her mother, Shinko, she was midway through her journey from the southern islands of Japan to northern Sweden. Also in our group, Sean and Paloma, a Chicagoan/Spanish couple were moving from
San Francisco to Barcelona, Spain, but taking a 7-month route between the two. Among the many adventures they shared with us, they were robbed by men wearing tribal masks and sporting machetes on the roads of Papua New Guinea - the most harrowing story we've heard from anyone we've met. Robert, an Oklahoman, had recently finished a year teaching English in Korea, and was now doing some traveling before going home. Adrien, Malaysian, but now living in Boston, was on his own trip around the world. He spoke Chinese, and acted as translator with the many Chinese passengers. Through him, we learned that most of the train passengers were on "tours" to Moscow where they planned to work illegally.
With all this company, six-days passed pretty quickly. Chris brought "War and Peace" with her for the journey, but barely made a dent in the thing. Each morning, we awoke to entirely different scenery, and several times a day we stopped long enough to get off the train and take a quick look around.
As we left Beijing, we passed the Great Wall (we were unsuccessful in our attempts to replace our missing photos of us with the wall)
stretching over the rolling hills. But by mid-afternoon the hills had given way to massive desert - as barren a place as we've seen, except for the occaional dead animal. In the evening we stopped in the desolate border town of Erlian - a place that has invested in massive poles of street lights despite the fact that there is very little to see. Once the train had been lifted up off of the Chinese tracks and onto the Mongolian tracks (they are different sizes), we crossed the Mongolian border. At nearly midnight, we were met by a Mongolian customs officer who really could not have been more stereotypical - stern and serious would be an understatement. She yelled at each of us to pronounce our name and tell her where we were going. Welcome to Mongolia.
The next morning we began to realize that Mongolia may be flat, but it is really high - endless steppe and tundra. Except for the herds of wild horses outside the train window, the highlight of Mongolia had to be the dining car. At each border, the train's dining car is switched, and while the Chinese and Russian cars were nothing special,
the Mongolian one was an ornately wood carved room. The decor was so amazing, we hardly noticed that, despite having a massive menu that was kindly translated in English, they seemed to actually only have one item - blintzes filled with some kind of meat. Once again that night, we had a late night border crossing. We're pretty sure that the Mongolian woman at the border's exit was the same person who had greeted us the evening before, but at least, the Russian customs official managed a small smile. Chris was extremely relieved when we finally pulled away from the border station at 3 am as the train's bathrooms are closed when pulled into a station.
On the third-day, the train rounded the southern end of beautiful Lake Baikal. According to the guidebook, Lake Baikal holds 1/5 of the world's fresh water, and the entire thing was frozen. Again from guidebook, the ice is apparently so thick that people had felt confident enough to temporarily lay the train tracks on the ice itself, However, even in Siberia, the ice was not quite thick enough, and the train plunged straight through on the first journey. We safely enjoyed the views
of the lake's shores and people icefishing, before arriving in Irkutsk. A regional center of Siberia, several passengers did get off here, but after buying some food at the station, we jumped back on the train. At the next stop in Zima, Justin stocked up on provisions for a St. Patrick's day party that began prompty after we pulled out of that station. We couldn't dye the river green, but we did bring along a bottle of Jamison purchased in Beijing.
The next morning, our car was a bit slow getting up, but Chris and those awake passed through several picturesque clusters of brightly colored buildings hidden among the large fir trees. Travelling through these Siberian villages, Chris finally started reading "War and Peace." We made several stops along the route, and most of the train stations seem to have been built out of some sort of Soviet kit. The layout, the shops, even the signs are identical. But the stop at Novosibirsk was much grander, and we were able to buy some hot food from the restaurant there.
In the last few days, the fir trees never ended, but the snow got higher and the towns got
bigger. We passed through Sverdlovsk, Perm, Balezino, Gorky, and Vladimir before finally arriving in Moscow. When we arrived in Moscow, we were certainly ready to get off the train (and take a full shower), but we were also a little sad to leave our cozy room, especially since it was snowing.
That evening, we joined Sean and Paloma for dinner. It took a little while since all the menus are entirely in Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet, but with some patience from our waitress, some excellent charades, and Paloma's point-it book (a very useful picture book for travelers), we eventually enjoyed some Russian food.
There are more photos below