Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Train Tripping on the Trans-Mongolian

The train
It was one wintry London evening many months ago, over a few glasses of wine and dinner chez Mr and Mrs Tuppen, that we first contemplated embarking on this Trans-Mongolian adventure. Holly and Nick's inspiring stories of green travel around the world (check them out at, and through Russia in particular, struck a chord. All we knew at that point was that we were going away, we didn't really know where to start and an epic train ride sounded just the ticket to get us on our way.

And so it was that, laden down with supplies of porridge, packet noodles, instant soups, tea and coffee, and the obligatory bottle of vodka, Chris and I made our way to St Petersburg's Ladozhskaya station, a little nervous to be starting on the real journey at last. The train was as you might expect - we were booked into 'kupe', the Russian second class, with four berths per compartment in a carriage with  2 bathrooms, a bottomless hot water tap for making hot drinks and meals, and further down the train, the restaurant car.  

The scrabble king in our little cabin
We had been anxiously looking forward  to meeting our fellow passengers on boarding the train and were all set with phrase book, and pen and paper for the inevitable scribblings that come with trying to make yourself understood. However, as we pulled out of St Petersburg we found ourselves alone in our compartment. At first I was worried that this would mean that we would miss out on part of the experience but actually we discovered that it was really nice to have our own space in the cramped train and the hoards of kids, who took a particular shine to Christophe, made sure that we were never excluded from the action by camping out outside our door for most of the journey. Sergei, our visitor for the last night also more than made up for any lost experiences by being the most stereotypical Russian you can imagine (more on this later)!

The lovely bright green restaurant car
Four days is a long time on a  train, 'period'.The first two and a half days sped by, despite the relative monotony of the scenery (miles and miles of silver birch forests with the odd station stop or village). We caught up on our reading, played a few games of scrabble and chess, watched a few dvds and even attempted some exercises and stretches in the teeny tiny alley of our cabin. By day three, however, our excitement at picnicking and making cosy in our two square metre cabin finally gave way to sore backs, despair at the  rhythmic rattling of the train on the tracks, boredom over the repetitive  vistas outside of our window and bleak acceptance of the dull monotony of our providista's daily chores. At the same time though, we both felt almost reluctant to exit our little safe haven, so accustomed had we become to our little routines. All of this, coupled with the fact that, as we crossed various time zones across the country, the time on the train stayed firmly fixed on 'Moscow time', made for a surreal and unsettling experience. Then, as if to answer our prayers, on our final night in the cabin, just as we were settling down to a couple of episodes of mad men, who should burst in through the door to disturb our peace but Sergei, a six foot something hulk of a Russian with chubby cheeks, a broad grin, huge sweat patches under his arms and the smell of alcohol and fags on his breath! He did not disappoint. Within seconds he had pulled three beers from his bag along with a huge bin liner full of pine nuts and another of fresh red currants (both specialities of the region). He cracked the beers open, settled himself down on Chris's bunk and started speaking at us in drunken and stuttering Russian.

Chris and Sergei
Not wanting to appear rude, Chris also produced our untouched bottle of vodka to add to the party - bad move! Once the beers were drunk, with much nodding, bottle clinking, and repetition of "i have black cat", "i have wife", it was time for the vodka. Sergei poured beakers full of the stuff to be downed in one. He then delved into his bag of goodies yet again to produce some roasted chicken legs, as you do  - to drink vodka without eating the Russian zakuski (essentially cold cuts) is to show yourself up as a drunk he mimed to us (seemingly oblivious to the irony of the fact that he was very clearly plastered already). Chris kept up with him well and between them they polished off about 3/4 of the bottle in the space of around ten minutes...

Sergei was as kind as can be. Despite the snoring, the constant ins and outs for cigarette breaks, the explosion of his belongings all over our tidy little compartment and the stink of booze on his breath. He shared photos of his wife, cat and family, insisted on giving Chris his Manchester United cap, tried to communicate as much as he could and practically dragged us off the train with him to meet his wife and stay for a few days near Lake Baikal....we declined his kind offer but did exchange numbers and will retain fond memories of our stereotypically Russian experience. 

A station along the way
As I finish this post we have actually completed the entire Trans-Mongolian trip and are in Beijing. The rest of the journey produced some more characters, including a Mongolian girl whose name we never did ascertain, but who kindly shared her food with us,  took numerous photos of herself on her phone and serenaded us by singing along to songs blaring out of her phone for about three hours. She was grumpy and rude to begin with but as we neared Mongolia, clearly exstatic to be coming home - it was nice to see, if a little odd. The Ulaanbaatar to Bejing stretch was infintiely more touristy with our carriage almost completely full of westerners. The scenery on this stretch however was far more interesting and just before entering Beijing we even got to see bits of the wall meandering through the hills high above us.

Would we do it again - possibly not, it really is a long way and once you have got over the initial excitement of being in a little cabin and traveling across vast swathes of land the novelty does wear off somewhat. However, I don't regret one second of the experience. It truly is an epic train ride and gives you an appreciation for the scale of the countries you are passing through. It also enabes you to glimpse those daily lives and parts of the country  that you would never otherwise see, giving you an overall flavour of the country that is unattainable through other means of transport. It might not all be fun and games at the time but when you look and think back to all the miles you have travelled there is an odd sense of achievement and satisfaction that you don't get from flying. I am a bit of  convert to the challenges of overland travel and am looking forward to carrying on our journey with more of the same. Tonight we undertake another classic train ride from Beijing to Lhasa, known as one of the most momentous feats of engineering in the past decade. We'll let you know how we get on.

1 comment:

  1. Whoop a convert! Gotta love the Russian's communal picnicking skills. Sounds awesome. Good luck on Chinese trains... Missing you both heaps xx