One Train, Seven Days, Siberia, Winter

I’m writing this for friends, family, and anyone else who might be interested in travelling. For a little background, I recently completed a trip around the world travelling by land (and a little water) from France to South Korea over three months. All together I went around 29,000 miles (47,000km) with 18,000 (29,000km) of those being on a train, bus, or ferry. It was quite an adventure!
The primary goals of my trip were to complete the Trans-Mongolian Railroad and meet my relatives in France. This post will focus on the first of those.
For a little background on the route, what is often referred to as the Trans-Siberian Railroad is in fact three routes (plus the Baikal-Amur Mainline if you want a detour). While there are a few named trains that run these routes each week, I learned the hard way that this is not exactly the most common way to complete the journey. The three routes are:

  • Trans-Siberian: This route begins in Moscow at Яросла́вский вокза́л (Yaroslavsky vokzal (station)) and passes through Siberia, past Lake Baikal, and continues to the Eastern Coast of Russia in Vladivostok.
  • Trans-Manchurian: This follows the same route as the Trans-Siberian until Chita, Russia where it heads South into North-East China, a.k.a. Manchuria, and then back into Russia also ending in Vladivostok.
  • Trans-Mongolian: This is probably the more interesting of the three as it deviates from the Trans-Siberian at Ulan Ude, Russia and heads through Ulan Bator and the Gobi Desert before terminating in Beijing.

My trip was an amazing experience. I spent a few days in Moscow meeting some awesome people, exploring, and adjusting to Russian culture. My new friend Katya saw me off at Yaroslavsky vokzal at 10:30 PM and I settled in for the seven day journey to China.

One of the first and most striking sensations upon boarding the train was the smell of coal. I don’t think I had ever smelt it before, though I had certainly heard plenty about it. It evoked unique feelings in me of Winter and cold and industry and the past that is difficult to put down in words. I would later discover that our carriages were not particularly well insulated, so I came to appreciate the coal as the time went on.

Another new sensation for me was the repetitive “thunk-thunk” of the rails. While almost all of the railroads I had traveled on in Europe had been continuous-welded rail (CWR) with no gaps between the rails, large portions of the Trans-Siberian outside of the major cities were still old-fashioned railroads, some dating back to the early 1900’s. In any case, the sound quickly faded into the background.

When I first got on the train, I met our проводник (provodnik, carriage attendant), an animated Chinese man, and my bunkmate, a Dutch guy from Amsterdam somewhat younger than myself. The first night on the train, we got to know each other and our new homes for the next week. It was pretty sparse. None of the buttons or knobs seemed to do anything, but it was okay: we had come for an adventure.

In the first morning, I awoke half-frozen. I discovered that our room had a faulty window and some snow had fallen on my feet during the night. We would have to work on that. We resigned to stuffing whatever we could find in the crack and adding the bedding from the two upper bunks to our own. (We had a four-berth sleeper with only two people).

That morning we met the other crazy adventurers who had decided to make the trip. There were two Brits around my age who were still at uni and an older English lady returning to China to teach English. And, well, that was it for our carriage. My bunkmate and I decided to explore the extent of the train, from front to back. After accidentally walking into the unlocked engine car(!) and being escorted back to our carriage, we discovered that the train was effectively empty! Each car had two attendants and, save for the five of us, no one else.

I would come to later find out that the train is for international travellers only. That is, once you board the train, you can’t get off until passing into another country. The five of us were the only people who were going to complete the journey from Moscow to Ulan Bator and beyond. As we began our hourly stops in small Russian cities, we slowly accumulated new passengers.

The first half of the journey was reasonably uneventful. The morning would begin with some tea, the hot water provided by the coal-fired samovar, and looking out into the snowy landscape. The conversation would be along the lines of: “Anything interesting outside? Snow and trees perhaps?” “Yep, snow and trees.” 

My bunkmate had a Lonely Planet guide (recommended) which pointed out any interesting sites and gave a short history of each city or village. To stretch our legs and milk any experiences out that we could, we tried to get off for five to thirty minutes at each stop, whatever our provodnik would allow. Some of the cities seemed very interesting, though we didn’t have time to see anything but the view from the station. I would like to note that, considering the enormous distances and remoteness of most of these towns, I never had trouble picking up free fast wifi or grabbing some fresh food from the small station grocery stores. 

Occasionally we would linger too long trying to soak in each new place and our provodnik would scold us. A few times he told us we couldn’t get off as punishment we theorized. This might be a good time to mention that no one spoke English on the train: neither the restaurant attendants, nor the provodniks. They would always tell us through hand signs, “(Be back in) 10 minutes!” as we left even when the train was scheduled to be there for an hour.

It was at this point that I started to realize my mistake. You’re not supposed to do the whole trip all at once. It should be done in sections one or two at the least. This gives you a chance to visit some places that don’t get many visitors, and keeps the voyage from being more than a gray, white, and brown blur. You can meet more people and try some things other than sleeping, eating, and riding. Lest it be misinterpreted, I’m very happy that I got the chance to do it. But, next time will be different, if there is a next time!

I don’t think I can write down everything I saw or felt or did on the train ride, but I can give the journey any journey a hearty recommendation. There is so much going on in the world and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the microcosm we all create around our daily lives. Moscow, Siberia, Mongolia, and China are beautiful places with interesting people, inhabitants and visitors alike. With those things in mind, I can try to condense some of my experiences into a few tips that someone might find helpful one day. Here they are:

  1. Don’t go in the month before or after the Winter solstice. There are only seven hours of daylight in Siberia on December 21.
  2. With #1 in mind, don’t go during mid- to late- Spring. The snow will be melting and things will be miserable from what I’ve heard.
  3. If you’re going to stop somewhere, stop at Lake Baikal. Containing one fifth of the world fresh water, it’s the largest lake in the world. There are all kinds of activities to do there such as fishing, hiking, animal watching, or boating.
  4. Bring food. Luckily, I had some very generous friends who gave me food along the way (thanks Iselin!), but unless you have some confirmation, a ticket “with services” doesn’t imply any food service (only bedding).
  5. Don’t bother with electronics outside of a camera. Turn everything off, pack it away, and enjoy the trip.

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