Our first Trans-Siberian train from Beijing was luxury, unmatched for the remainder of the transport we took to Moscow. Not that the other trains were bad. It’s just that on this train we had the whole compartment to ourselves, the mattresses were a bit more comfortable, and we were given an insulated jug thing, which saved us repeated journeys to the end of train for hot water.
The miniscule differences that made our first train ‘luxury’ serve to show that it was hardly the differences between the trains themselves that made a journey good/bad/interesting/dull but the people that filled it.
Every carriage we lived on from Beijing to Moscow consisted of a narrow corridor with nine compartments on one side and windows on the other side, letting in a much-needed breeze. There was a loo at each end of the carriage and at one end you had the compartments where the conductors hung out and the big hot water tank for our tea.
Our compartments each had four beds, the bottom bunks doubling as the seating on the rare occasion we felt like staying up for any sustained period. Shortly into each journey a conductor would fling some sheets our way so we could make our beds. This became a well-oiled routine by the time we had got onto our train to Moscow.
You may well have guessed that the fact our train was slightly cushier than the others was not the most interesting thing about this journey. The highlight of the border crossing between China and Mongolia was the changing of the wheels on our train due to the difference in track gauges. Our carriage was lifted from its wheels (with us on it!) while a new set of wheels was trundled beneath us. This whole operation took place after midnight. By the time the border control people were kind enough to return our passports, we were drifting in and out of sleep. We awoke to swathes of nothingness outside our windows. Occasionally we might catch sight of a horse or a ger or even the odd camel. Apart from this we saw not a thing until we were pulling into Ulan Bator.
We took the next train after a magical week on the Mongolian Steppe. This train covered less than half the distance of the first train but took just as long. The main reason we averaged roughly 10 miles an hour for this journey was the length of time it took to get through the border. Having got on the train in the evening from UB and attempted a faltering conversation with the Russian and the Mongolian with whom we shared our compartment, we were woken much too early the next day by the border police on the Mongolian side of the border. It took them around 5 hours to check our passports and, while they were at it, they ejected us, sleepy eyed and pyjama-clad, from our compartments so they could rummage through our possessions. All the way along the Trans-Siberian the toilets were locked from a half hour before every stop to half an hour after. This was annoying at the best of times, but for the first five hours of that day it was inhumane! And it didn’t even stop there. Roughly ten minutes further along, on the Russian side of the border, we were subjected to a similarly excruciating length of time stationary. As you would expect, hours into the day not having used the facilities, we were bursting by the time we moved into Russia! Fortunately, the Russian in our compartment informed us that we could sneak into the luxury carriage and go there, provided we ignored the attendant telling you to shove off! Unfortunately, a irate Taiwanese tour group in our carriage wasn’t so informed. Picking up the odd word of Mandarin, we heard a hour-long tirade of angry shouting from mostly middle-aged women demanding to be let into a toilet. They eventually discovered there was a toilet on the platform, only to discover that none of them had the Roubles required to get in it.
By the time we had finally been allowed into Russia, most of the day had passed. As the evening drew on, we were entertained by a gorgeous little Mongolian girl. Probably bored out her skin, she started running back and forth past our door pulling a different face each time. I got speaking to the others in her compartment – a Russian guy who had been studying in China and a Vietnamese guy studying in Irkutsk (our next stop) both about my age. They informed me that the father of this girl, who didn’t speak any English, used to be a Mongolian wrestler. I decided I wanted to get a picture of these people, who to me represented a significant part of this stage of our journey. I made no secret of the fact I was doing this, and I thought my candidness served as a request for permission given the father didn’t try and stop me. But when I had taken a few pics and the girl had taken one of me, her father mutely walked up to me and prodded at Jo’s (I’ll explain later why I wasn’t using my own) camera indicating that he wanted the pictures deleted. I was upset but proceeded to do as he asked under his intimidating glare. Just then the battery ran out. I was terrified! To my relief he just let it slide and I managed to keep hold of a couple of photos. I think it would be disrespectful to him to show the pictures of his daughter, so I’ll just post the one she took of me. The next morning, we arrived in Irkutsk and soaked in our first views of the sparse, colourful, and strikingly western houses of Siberia.
After a stunning stay on Baikal’s largest island, we hopped on the train to Taiga – the closest Trans-Siberian station to our next destination, Tomsk. At a mere 22 hours, this train was by far our shortest, but perhaps our most eventful. There was one other guy in our compartment, who was apparently a doctor from Irkutsk. He didn’t speak a word of English, but Jo managed to speak an impressive amount with him after just a term of Russian at uni. This man was on the beer from the moment the train left, and consequently he got more and more obnoxious as the evening wore on. Later on, the last berth in our compartment was filled by a fit-looking man named Victor. We all soon prepared for bed. Having gone to brush my teeth, I came back to an unnerving sight:
Victor and the very drunk guy were grappling furiously and Jo was trying her best to calm the situation from her bunk. Victor, by far the stronger soon had his opponent pinned to the ground with hands behind his back. The conquered upstart was unfortunate enough to slam his head on the radiator on the way to the floor. This disturbance attracted the attention of the other passengers and they came to our aid.
This wasn’t the end of the matter. Soon afterwards, a dispute over whose bunk was whose again broke out into a fight. Punches were thrown and Victor, who really actually seemed quite reasonable, again got the better of the fight. This was all way too much for the attendant in our carriage and the other passengers. In a collaborative effort, the two were prized apart and given a severe telling off as if they were children. The drunk guy was ordered to pack his stuff and get off at the next stop. A Russian police officer (with one of those intimidatingly large hats) got on the train and took Victor’s statement before carrying off our compartment’s troublemaker. Victor, without being able to speak any English, clearly expressed his embarrassment at the episode with the apologetic look on his face. As I drifted off to sleep, Jo spoke with Victor in Russian in what she describes as her most successful stab at a conversation in the language while we were in the country.
Our compensation for the previous night’s excitements was that we were left with a compartment to ourselves for the next morning, as Victor had got off early. We returned to the normal regimen of life on a train – insofar as living on a train is normal! Later in the day we were joined in our 4-berth compartment by a mother and her two young children. In such company it might have felt cramped, but the children quietly got on with their colouring. Towards the end of the journey we taught the girl and her younger brother slap games. They loved it, especially the boy who didn’t really get it and simply delighted in whacking my hands as hard as he could!
This was the only train we got in Russia that wasn’t completely on time. It was also the only train where it really mattered. We had allowed plenty of time in Taiga to buy our tickets for the last train to Tomsk …or so we thought. We were left stranded in Taiga station with the sun just about touching the horizon. The solution to our predicament is almost worth a blog post on its own. I’ll leave it to later – if I ever get that far in writing up our Trans-Siberian trip.
So much experienced already we still had two train journeys left. The next took us from Tomsk to Perm (with a stop in Taiga). This journey was far more subdued than the violence of the previous one, whether from a drunken Russian man throwing punches or a small boy swinging free rein at my hands. It allowed me plenty of time to get on with my Kindle copy of War and Peace. We also fit in countless games of backgammon. It was on this section of the Trans-Siberian that we reached the other end of Siberia and I finally returned to Europe 10 months after I got on that plane to Guangzhou.
The final train (besides the high-speed one to St. Petersburg) was defined by the anticipation of the reunion with my family in Moscow. I also remember a little Russian girl with the cutest voice you could imagine. She was quite unsteady on her feet in the rocky train, so constantly had an adult in tow as she tirelessly zipped up and down the carriage. It kept us, and the nice lady in our compartment, amused for a good couple of hours! But the best moment was when we drew into Kursky station in Moscow and I saw my family standing expectantly on the platform. It was the moment I looked forward to most after I leaving my school in China over a month before.