Riding the Trans-Siberian

Trans-Siberian train


Luke-warm dumplings, luke-cold beer and a room full of smiles welcome me to China in a small luke-clean restaurant, deep down a dimly lit alley in the bowels of Beijing. Grinning through my dripping dumplings, I can’t believe how willing everyone for me to try my Mandarin out on them, casually joking as I fumble with a battered old phrase book I’d found last minute in a small bookshop back home. Aimed at a traveller from an earlier generation, I skip the Do You Know Where I Can Find a Girl? introduction and move right on to Getting Conversation Started:

“HELLO”

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”

“I LIKE YOU”

“CAN I TOUCH YOU HERE?”

I never really planned to go to China. Turns out it’s one end of the Trans-Mongolian train journey I’m about to embark on and I’m caught off guard by Beijing’s big city vibe. News is out that the Olympics are coming to town and every corner I turn, buildings are being renovated and redeveloped, construction filling the hazy air with dust and sparks and cranes. People are everywhere and the roads are chaos. I jump in a taxi and spend a small fortune being driven haphazardly along the packed, wide roads as I struggle to communicate with the driver, getting queer looks and nervous laughs from him as I misread the less than conventional phrases. He smiles politely as I get out of his taxi and accidently pay him half the money I’ve just withdrawn.

Almost everyone I encounter knows no English apart from a loud, across-the-road style, “HAROW!!!”, and there’s little in the way of the ‘International Guests Services’ you’d expect from a soon-to-be Olympic city. Even the proud Foreign Booking Office at the train station has no English speaking staff. I find out later that what makes it ‘foreign’ is that a few years ago they would have sold you tickets at a higher price. Now, rumour has it that everyone pays the same. Chinese whispers. Beijing looks set to put on a good show in 2008, although a few athletes may be stuck, fumbling with phrasebooks, in the back of traffic-jammed taxis when the starting gun sounds.

Next morning I wander off the main road and into the now threatened hutongs; small tree lined streets that crisscross Beijing and have housed Chinese for hundreds of years in unique communal housings of four dwellings around a central courtyard. Homes that families have lived in for generations are being torn down by greedy local governments and replaced with space efficient high-rise apartment blocks the original families can’t afford. Subsequently, they’re having to move to the outskirts and find new employment or commute for hours. I come across a flock of Tai Chi enthusiasts moving elegantly to a crackly stereo, while jackhammers tear up pavement 20 metres away. The Chinese are experts at living in close quarters. When you have a billion neighbours, you quickly learn how to shut out distractions. Street stalls hang on the sides of roads, bikes jumbled around them as Beijing has breakfast. With a decent meal for a couple of yuan, one Chinese yuan equals about 12 cents, the stalls are soon busy with early diners.

Full on noodles and wondering how long it’ll take me to get used to having chilli for breakfast, I wander through the morning streets to the soundtrack of 10 million Beijing residents clearing their throats, the finale landing next to my boots. Whilst preparing for the descent into Beijing on my flight, I’d watched a short film highlighting Beijing. I clearly recall Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and an array of incredible looking foods, but don’t remember them mentioning the Sea of Discharge, complete with it’s own mini eco-system. Island hopping patches of terra firma, I thread my way to Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square is massive. Take what you’re imagining, times it by ten and you’re getting closer. It’s mid-morning and the square is alive with tourist, mainly Chinese, having their photos taken, flying kites and following flag bearing guides who bark out information on B-grade screeching megaphones. Giving his megaphone a rest, one of the guides informs me that he, like all the other guides, is an official, fully qualified, guide. At Guide School, they’re told they mustn’t talk about the little black spots on China’s report card; the Tiananmen massacre, Tibet, China’s dubious human rights record. This void of information extends well beyond local guides. With speaking out against the state still a crime, newspapers are essentially propaganda machines and searching any human rights related issues online usually results in ‘This page is unable to be displayed’. The local guides probably don’t know their real history anyway. They simply tell what they’ve learnt, history that the government has moulded to become truth. After being a local guide for a few years, they will be experienced enough to lead longer trips throughout China.

There’s an impressive size queue for Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and I join the end, which is twitching with excitement and anticipation. I can see only one other foreigner in the couple of hundred queuing; a vivid blond mass of hair looming above the horde of 5’8″ neatly combed black hairdos. As we get closer to the entrance, individuals bolt to a canteen selling fake flowers and rush back with their purchases in hand, distraught at the idea of having lost their position in the line. Under the watchful eyes of the Chinese military, the line is split in two at the top of the stairs, the flowers thrown into a massive trough before Mao’s even in sight, and I’m bustled down the side of a huge glass room. In the centre of the room, within a glass display, under a bright red flag, lays Mr. Mao. He’s got that orange-tinted-wax look and like his comrades Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, looks like he’s seen better days. But before we’re able to better acquaint ourselves, our allocated minute is nearly up and we’re ejected onto the far south end of Tiananmen Square.

Forbidden City

Twenty minutes later I’m standing at the top of the square under a large portrait of a less orange Mao guarding the ironically named Gate of Heavenly Peace, the same gate that an unknown number of Chinese, mainly students, were massacred in front of in 1989. The massive doors are decorated with bronze studs and the Chinese eagerly rub them for good luck as they enter. Past the military doing their morning drills and a second gate, lays the south gate of the Forbidden City.

You need guide? I best guide in all China. Wünschen Sie einen Tourführer?

The touts are only half-hearted. A group is a lot more profitable catch for them and they don’t waste much breath on a sole-traveller like me. I end up wandering the Forbidden City solo for a few hours, overhearing bits and pieces of info whilst trying to avoid the hoards of tourists and boycotting the culturally numb Starbucks.

As the dust and dusk settles, I begin searching for the great food I’ve heard so much about. Traversing a lively street, I duck into the closest packed restaurant, the number of chopsticks and napkins littering the floor reassuring me of the chef’s ability. Chattering away in Mandarin, three young waitresses seat me and bring me a Chinese menu. I fumble with my phrasebook and do my best to ask for an English one before resorting to pointing to the relevant phrase. The girls smile and giggle and shake their head, then start reading English aloud from my book, laughing each time one of them says anything. Finally I wander over to a particularly excellent smelling dish that has recently emerged from the kitchen and using my best Chinese sign language, signal that’s the one I want. Literally minutes later I’m presented with an array of sharp aromas and exotic flavours in a porcelain bowl. I fall asleep with cultural stomachache.

Slowly rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I spend a few minutes wondering where the hell I am. Vaguely remembering boarding a bus to the Great Wall, I realise we’re still on the road and notice an eight-year old sitting opposite me. He grins and waves at me as he stops filming. A minute later I hear a gurgling snore coming from the camera as he excitedly shows the footage to his dad.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall was supposedly built to keep the barbarian Mongols from the north at bay, but it never really worked. At the time the Chinese Empire’s capital was a few weeks travel away in Xi’an, and guards were easily bribed. The wall was more likely a bit of an ego trip for the emperors, something to brag about to impress the concubines. Emperor Qin (of Terracotta Warrior fame) had three times as many people building his tomb than he had constructing the wall, so he mustn’t have been too worried by the Mongols. Ancient Oriental penis extensions.

The Great Wall is a mishmash of contradictions. You’re supposedly able to see it from outer space but when I reach the top, it’s only four metres wide. My driveway’s wider than that.

I guess the moral of this is to never trust an astronaut. And watch out for devious Mongolians who, for the record, gained control of China in the mid 13th Century when the wall stretched over 3000kms. I decide I need to check out these fearsome warriors to the north.

The train to Mongolia leaves at 7:40am. Even at 6:30, the station’s full of commuters, travellers and businessmen in bad 80’s suits that reveal cheap white socks. People run to catch trains, try to sleep on their red, white and blue bags, and play cards on laid down suitcases. At 7:00, a loud speaker crackles in Mandarin and the locals who are not already in the line grab up their cards and rush off to board the train. I’m snatched up by a sea of Chinese that sweeps me down to and along the platform, landing me outside carriage No. 11. Glancing up and down the platform, the train seems endless. An immaculately dressed Chinese attendant checks my ticket, gives me the universally understood nod of authorization, and motions for me to board. As soon as the stations clock clicks over to 07:40:00, the train jolts a few times and slowly hauls itself out through Beijing.

After about an hour, the high-rises have dispersed and only a few unruly dwellings remain in view. The wild marijuana that the guide book talks about grows lushly and unhindered alongside the track as the train labours out of the basin Beijing sits in, past the Great Wall, through long dark tunnels and onto a plateau 1000 metres higher. As the landscape beings to become monotonous, I wander off to explore the rest of the train.

Late at night we arrive at the border and remain on the train while Chinese customs check our passports and search our cabins. We enter a shed and are hydraulically lifted clear of our bogies (that’s fancy train talk for wheels), which are removed and replaced with 3.5″ wider soviet versions for our endeavour into Mongolia. The workers below the 40-tonne carriages wear woven straw hardhats. Around two in the morning the Mongolian customs board, waking us to repeat the check and search. The main difference to the Chinese check is that the customs officer is a six-foot Mongolian dressed in a short black skirt, black stockings and knee high black leather boots. Next morning, a new stamp in my passport assures me I wasn’t dreaming.

The first town we stop at has a statue to the only Mongolian to go into space. The train doors are crowded with people trying to sell us airag, fermented horse milk, and fatty steamed dumplings called buuz. Mid afternoon, we slide into Ulaanbaatar.

Bogd Khan Palace, Ulaanbaatar

I’d taken advice from my Russian cabin mates and read two guide books and am prepared for the notorious Ulaanbaatar Train Station. I step off the train and into the capital of Mongolia with its hoards of nomads, literate people, and supposed muggers. Unsurprisingly, I arrive at the hotel with all my possessions. It’s the start of July and the city is bustling with excitement. Naadam, Mongolia’s annual sporting festival, is poised to open in a few hours and literally thousands of Mongolians have travelled for days, weeks and even months to join in the celebrations in the capital. Naadam is beautifully simple. It comprises of three sports: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. The aim of the archery is to achieve the highest score through hitting a target (made of tin cans); the aim of the wrestling is, from a standing position, to get some part of your opponent’s body on the ground; and the aim of horse racing is to be the first across the finish line – the difference being that the finish line is some 30km from the start line and all jockeys are aged between three and 12. If a jockey falls off and their horse finishes, scaringly regular occurrence, the horse’s placing drops back one. Forget your Happy Valleys and Melbourne Cups. Mongolia knows how to put on a horse race. Jockeys are optional.

But maybe the most beautiful simplicity of the three-day festival is its itinerary.

Day One – Opening Ceremony and event

Day Two – Closing Ceremony and events

Day Three – National holiday and a huge party to celebrate

I dump my stuff in a hotel, drive the seven minutes to the sports arena on the other side of town and clamber into the grandstand. Outside the arena, an old monk chats on a mobile phone in the shade of an umbrella, held by a younger novice monk. Inside the arena, the wrestlers spread their arms and, in slow animated steps, circle their trainers like an eagle, signalling their respect for their elder trainer.

Early next morning, I head to the local bus stop and with about 24 Mongolians, pile into an Uaz, imagine a VW Combi on steroids, and drive out of town. Departing the capital is like driving through the camping grounds of a huge festival that hippies have arrived at a few months early and set up serious camps. Beyond downtown, the majority of homes are traditional gers, or yurts, spreading throughout the vallies and up the slopes of the surrounding hills. Each ger has a timber fence about seven feet high surrounding it and holding back vicious sounding dogs. An hour later we stop at a religious cairn atop a rise called an ovoo. Disembarking, we walk around it three times and throw a rock on for good luck, a surviving tradition from the countries strong Buddhist devotion and shamanic beliefs prior to Soviet interference. Dropping down the other side of the hill we enter Terelj National Park, making our way past impossible rock formations and hundreds of marmots.

Gers and satellites, mongolia

In Ulaanbaatar’s Gandan Monastery two days later, Yellow Sect monks draped in orange (the same crowd that the Dalai Lama hangs out with) glide amongst the temples and through groups of camera hugging tourists. I sit in a small, incense filled temple that’s lined with dark warm timber walls, listening as the monks recite their morning prayers. Children as young as five sit at the rear, whilst teens sit at the front next to progressively older monks, all the way up to the elderly head monk. They look around with obvious varying levels of concentration. The monk next to the head monk mimics his every move, and as the head monk tosses rice, he cheekily tosses a pinch on the monk next to him. A monk in his teens points out my very un-Mongolian haircut (orange and spiky) to his mate and they laugh about it. An old serious looking monk, with lines from a life of smiles creasing his face, chats on a Nokia 3310. In front of me a six-year-old twirls two drumsticks and I wander where his thoughts are. For the next couple of years his days will look like this.

After a lunch of horse steak, I’m back on the train.

I spend a sunny Tuesday drinking beers at another lengthy border crossing, compete with rogue cows stalking the platform and eating from the rubbish bins. Sobering up, I find myself in the former USSR. Russia seems cool. As soon as we stop at our first non-Asian town, I immediately notice blond hair and big, deep-set eyes. Trees start to gather around the tracks, a stark difference to the grassy plateau that Mongolia sits on, and by the time the sun sets and an expanse of northern stars light the way, the train in moving through thick taiga.

The Baikal train

Morning arrives as the train slides into the fairy tale town of Irkutsk. Created by fur hunters, miners, fortune seekers and penal colonies sent to build the Trans-Siberian railway line, Irkutsk is the capital of Eastern Siberia. In the crisp morning air, I warm myself with hot pastries called piroshkies and watch huge local men and sexy petite women weave along the street, dodging solid old vehicles, flimsy looking Asian imports and ancient decrepit trams that shudder as they brake.

I forgot to make any preconceptions about Russia but Anna, the Lake Baikal local guide, is just how I should have thought she would be. Perched up the front of our bus, microphone in hand, she delivers her commentary about every building and site in Irkutsk, with so much dry wit that even most of the Aussies and two Brits don’t get it. This being my first taste of Russia, I find the commentary, now about some American vice-President who drove on the road we’re travelling on, distracting to my gazing out the window. I tune out as Eastern Siberia rushes past. An hour later we disembark in Listvyanka on the shore of the lake.

Lake Baikal is huge. At a limnology museum we find out how big.

lim·nol·o·gy ~ n

The scientific study of lakes and other bodies of fresh water, including their physical and biological features.

The lake is 636km long, between 40 and 80 kilometres wide and at its darkest and deepest, a massive 1536 metres deep. It holds a whopping 20% of the world’s fresh water. Putting this into a more comprehensible perspective, Tatiana, the museum’s English speaking guide enlightens us that it would take all the rivers in the world a year to fill the empty lake, or, if our water supplies were to mysteriously disappear, Lake Baikal could supply the world with fresh water for 40 years. It’s big.

Three months ago, ice would have been up to a metre thick in places and the water temperature less than one degree, but today all traces of winter have gone and the sun futilely attempts to heat the mass of frigid water.

Late afternoon we visit a banya by the water. A banya is like an extreme sauna. A wood stove heats river stones on a metal plate, onto which water is thrown to produce steam. On the floor next to the steaming stones is a bunch of small branches from various local trees. These are use to whip each other. It all seems a bit kinky to start with, but Vladimir, the owner, swiftly rids us of any indecent thoughts.

Vladimir emerges from his lounge (the banya is part of their home) wearing dress shoes, smart slacks and a handgun. One massive hand grips the handle of a well used teapot. The other hand holds a bottle of vodka. In his lounge he shows me photos of him as a teen brandishing an AK-47 in Afghanistan. Now he prefers relaxing on the lake with his massive dog.

After charade instructions from Vladimir on how to whip each other, we cram into the small room and proceed to steam things up. Branches start flinging and land with satisfaction on backs and legs, leaves sticking to the walls and filling the humid air with a heady fragrance. When the heat, smell and moisture get too much, we burst out of the banya, bolt along the rickety pier and launch ourselves into the icy waters of the lake. The water temperature is five degrees. Skin bites with shock as our bodies hit the water, eyes stinging and feet tingling at the change of mood we’re putting our bodies through. Gasping our way to the shore, we all shove back into the banya to repeat the process again, downing a tea or vodka en-route courtesy of Vladimir.

Next day we take the bus back to Irkutsk.

“What’d you have for dinner last night?” I ask as the bus pulls out of Listvyanka. “Fish” comes the reply in unison from the other 13 passengers.

Lake Baikal is home to an endemic fish called omul.

en·dem·ic ~ adj

Used to describe a species of organism that is confined to a particular geographical region.

A visit to Siberia isn’t complete without trying it.

Back in Irkutsk the suns out and I wander the streets till I find a seat in a treed square. Although my language ability is non-existent, people are extremely warm and friendly and not as shy as the Chinese. When I get back to my hotel, the female receptionist asks me if all Australians lie about every day and drink. She’d seen a program on ‘the land down-under’ the previous night and was curious. Meeting a real live Aussie the next day, she’d jumped at the opportunity to ask. She’d seemed unconvinced at my negative answer.

In the afternoon, I embark the train for the long haul to Moscow. Loaded up with breads, salads, smoked fish, cheeses, salami, caviar, vodka, juice and water, I clamber into my cabin. As the train pulls out I slowly start settling in – I’ve got 76 hours on the train until we reach Moscow.

The train jolts out of Irkutsk and as the three-day countdown to Moscow begins, we trundle down tracks that will take us through east and west Siberia, across the top of Kazakhstan, over the Ural Mountains (which are so insignificant at this latitude, I don’t notice them) and into European Russia. Wooden homes dot the rolling landscape, their windows painted in faded blues (representing the earth and long life) and greens (representing the sky and hope)Intermittently, the train pulls up at miniature stations where one carriage takes up the entire platform and those disembarking have to jump off the train, stumbling down the embankment while locals scamper past them, selling eggs, mares milk and piroshkies. My carriage is a mix of locals and foreigners and the days slowly mash into a continuous late-rising, card-playing, window-watching, story-telling, vodka-swilling pyjama party, fuelled by either scampering off the train to bargain with smiling babushkas selling anything from ice-creams to fresh water crayfish, or wonky walks down the six carriages to the sacred dining car, where Viktor shares a vodka with us before cooking up incredibly solyanka soup served with thin slices of tasty dark bread.

Train food

The last six hours seem to take forever but finally we roll into Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station and I’m soon wandering the streets of a surprisingly very trendy capital. Moscow. A city of fashionable youth and smashing architecture. I can’t help but feel great. Maybe the fact that I’m walking about after three days in a train helps my glowing impression but even when I leave three days later, I’m still in love with Moscow. The city’s wide open public squares, gardens and space gather young Russians who chat, smoke, drink and laugh with their mates. It has a very European vibe to it. Al fresco cafes spot the sidewalks in front of old beautiful buildings that lounge about in various states of renovation, brand name stores occupying their lower levels and funky bars above. The city buzzes with life.

Ducking below the streets, I delve into the city’s metro. Built in the 1930’s, it doubled as a bomb shelter during World War II. Today it transports around nine million people daily. A speeding escalator rushes me down, and down, and down – nearly 100 metres into one of the many elegant stations. Circling beneath the city on the incredibly efficient trains, we pass through stations with statues, paintings, mosaics, carvings and glass windows illuminated along the arched platforms.

Back up in the sun, I jump a ferry and start slugging up the Moscow River. An hour boat ride takes us past an array of sights and I end up at a hilltop café next to a massive ski jump that appears as if it would launch skiers off into the river.

Days are spent wandering the beautiful city and it’s museums, churches, markets, and monuments. The Kremlin and Armoury display room upon room of gold, silver and wealth, electronic sensors automatically asking you to move away from the exhibit when you get close, and issuing infringements to the guide. My guide is on her second strike and looks petrified every time she hears a warning sound.

My final train ride is a relatively short eight hours to St. Petersburg. At this time of year, St. Petersburg is like a kid full of energy. Although the train arrives at 6:00am, there has been light in the sky for over two hours and the sun is hovering precariously over the horizon. It’s a few weeks before summer solstice and St. Petersburg is getting ready to celebrate its White Nights Festival

Stepping out in the warm morning, the city feels extremely European. Renovated facades glow in the low summer sun, fashionable locals zigzag the tight streets and pricey coffee shops grace the sidewalk. A few blocks deeper into the city, bricks peer through patches of render and paint from centuries gone slowly peels back to reveal soviet foundations. Apartments are owned by individuals but the buildings as a whole are owned by the local government exterior conditions are often in a spiralling state of disrepair.

The city is overrun with museums and in no time I’ve visited the Bread Museum, Vodka Museum, Natural History Museum (with Peter the Great’s collection of deformed creatures) and of course the Hermitage.

Halfway through the Museum of Air, I decide I need to get outdoors and head out to wander the streets. St. Petersburg is noticeably smaller than Moscow (five million compared to Moscow’s 12) and walking gets you out of the centre in no time. For better direction, I join Peter’s Walking Tours, a refreshing break from my previous Russian guides. He meets a group of us in a café and after a casual chat and coffee, takes us on the Dostoyevsky Murder Route Pub Crawl – a trek following the murder route of Crime and Punishment, healthily punctuated with drink stops at dingy underground bars and opulent cafes. As the murder route dries up, a vodka route spontanates

spon·ta·nate ~ v

To occur spontaneously

and we wander amongst the narrow streets and canals, ducking into bars full of carefree locals.

The light creates a surreal cityscape in which night never seems to fall. As we stagger out of each bar, we glance up into the luminous sky and decide that it must be about 7pm and time for another drink. Dangerous latitudes in St. Petersburg.

That night, there are about three hours of darkness. In six months, there will be three hours sunlight. And in six hours, I will be forty thousand feet above Russia, heading back to familiar latitudes and the less user-friendly daylight hours of my winter.

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