The three questions you have to ask yourself when planning a trip from Moscow to Vladivostok on The Trans-Siberian Express – the world’s longest unbroken train journey – are when, how and why?
Or to be more precise – when’s the best time of year to travel through Siberia? How am I going to get to Moscow? And why on earth do I want to take a train for six days to the remote port of Valdivostok anyway?
I asked myself these questions last year. After years of dreaming of taking this mother of all trips, the chance had presented itself. Commissioned to write a book on the world’s best environmentally friendly holiday experiences, and with the need to get to Asia to research some places there, I had both the time and the excuse to go.
As for the three questions, the when took care of itself. I’d be setting off in August as I’d already spent the first half of the year in Africa and I had to get the book finished by December. There are those who say that for the real Siberian experience, you should travel in the winter, when the land
is snow-covered, the people fur-clad. But with a vegetarian born in Johannesburg as my travelling companion, fur and cold were not top of the packing list.
Second question: how to get to Moscow. The quick way, obviously, would be to fly. But this trip wasn’t about getting there quickly. It was about getting there memorably. We wanted to journey for its own sake, enjoying the chance encounters and random experiences that make real travel so
rewarding. The only thing we’d remember about a plane flight would be if it went wrong.
So we weren’t going to fly. We’d go by train, from London. Allow ourselves enough time in Paris for a spot of lunch (well, why wouldn’t you), and then begin the journey east.
This only left one question – why? Why head to Vladivostok, a city so polluted that two thirds of its suburbs are considered health hazards to live in? With a little bit of research we discovered that there was a better option – The Transmongolian Express – following the same route as the
Transiberian for 4 days, before heading south to Beijing, through Mongolia. It was no contest – now we also had the chance to visit Outer Mongolia – one of two places (the other being Timbuktu) synonymous with being the back of beyond.
Furthermore, going this way gave us the chance to extend the trip – to Hanoi, 9249 km from London. And so, questions answered and bags packed, my girlfriend and I set off from London’s St Pancras one August morning. After a boozy lunch in Paris, we head overnight to Vienna, passing through scenery ever more alpine as we speed east, before another overnight train to our first proper stop – Romania.
A taxi picks us up from Brasov station and we weave along potholed roads past Soviet era cars and pre-Soviet era horses and carts, until we reach our first destination a little before nightfall: a hunting lodge in a remote Transylvanian village. We are offered a glass of plum brandy and told that our host – the Count – is not in, but will be back later. Transylvania. A Count. Not around much in the daytime…
Actually the urbane Count Tibor Kalnocky is more Ralph Fiennes than Vlad the Impaler. Transylvania however, doesn’t seem to have changed much since Bram Stoker’s time. Each evening we gather outside the lodge’s front gate on the medieval village’ s main street, glass of homemade 60 per cent proof brandy in hand, joining the old locals who seem to sit on rickety benches outside their houses from dawn till dusk waiting for something to happen.
Then, one by one, 40 cows appear at the top of the hill, and lope slowly down the dusty road, each turning off idly into whichever barn they spend the night. This we realise is what it really means to wait… till the cows come home.
We visit the self styled ‘Highwayman’, a muscle-bound shepherd living in a hut in the middle of nowhere with his wife, children, chickens, sheep, pigs and dogs. Sitting at his long wooden table, swatting away flies as we share his homemade cheese (mostly with the flies), we hear his life story,
one that involves killing his first bear at 18, showing us his spear, and a useful little motto that translates as ‘ Woman is not man. Beer is not drink. Bear is not toy.’
Then he pulls an old shoe box from a shelf above his head and leafs thorough an assortment of faded, dog-eared photographs. He shows us one, of an older son., and I ask where he is now. ‘ He works in London,’ he beams through toothless grin, ’ in advertising’.
Our travels through eastern Europe continue to surprise. In Slovakia we visit a spa whose cryotherapy suite is billed as the coldest place on earth, and where you pay to exchange your clothes for wooly pants, gloves, socks and a headband, slide your feet into a pair of clogs, add a paper facemask and then walk in slow circles around a small room where the temperature is -120 degrees centigrade.
Journeying through Ukraine we discover in Lvov one of the most beautiful and little known cities in Europe, yet are baffled by menus offering such delights as ‘ Luxurious Shapes’ , ‘ Tongue of the Chatty Godmother’ , and ‘ Pickled Lard’ .We arrive early one morning in the capital Kiev and take a
metro to the main street, where we surface unawares into a huge crowd gathering for the country’ s Independence Day parade. The street is closed off, and every division of army, navy and air force is lining up in front of us. We bag a spot and wait.
It begins with a roar from the crowd. Then two open top, grey 1960s Mercedes, number plates AA001 and AA002 drive slowly past the assembled military units, the President standing up in the back seat of one saluting, the head of the armed forces in the other. It looks and feels like a coup has
just taken place.
This is only accentuated when, division by division, the armed forces shoulder arms and march in goose-stepping, heel-clipping Eastern Bloc fashion, up the street. Yet all this turns out to be just preamble to what the young English-speaking Ukrainian next to us explains are ‘ The Technics’ .
Tanks. Bigger Tanks, Tanks so big and loud their caterpillar tracks churn the tarmac from the street as they pass. Rocket launchers. Cruise missile rocket launchers, Nuclear missile rocket launchers. (I only know what they all were because our guide – who’ d learnt English studying to be a vet in
Minnesota – seems to have the requisite words for each WMD on display). He, along with every man, woman and child, becomes more enthusiastic the bigger and more deadly they became. ‘ This is for Russia’ , he tells us ominously, by way of explanation.
And finally to Russia itself, to Moscow, where the real journey begins. An overpriced city with terrible weather and rude locals, but impressive art galleries – reminding us of London, somewhat. However, once we’ve seen Red Square with its Lenin and Kruschev impersonators it’s time to leave,
off for the longest unbroken train journey of our lives.
It takes 100 hours over five nights from Moscow to Ulan Bator. We’ve splashed out on a first class cabin for two – £400 each for the entire journey. We get two bunks, one of which folds up to give us a sofa, a little writing desk with a lamp on it, an arm chair, and a shared ensuite bathroom of sorts, which isn’t up to much but does provide a rudimentary shower and sink of our own, but no loo.
For the first four days the scenery out of the window hardly changes – Russia it seems is one huge forest. We play cards, read books and chat to other travellers. From time to time, when our rapidly diminishing stash of warm vodka isn’t quite cutting it, we stroll down to the restaurant car for a change of scene and a cold beer.
The restaurant car is an experience in itself. At the border with each country it is replaced by a different wagon, run by members of the country we are now travelling through. The Russian car is staffed by surly waitresses, the décor is faded, the food even more so. But they do serve dirt
cheap Russian champagne and vodka. The Mongolian is hysterical, as if someone has been given an unlimited budget to spend in a novelty restaurant fittings shop, got drunk and blown the lot – coming back with an abundance of antlers, shields, pelts and wooden latticework screens. The food, is no better than the Russian. The Chinese meanwhile, is modern and efficient, and you can get a passable bowl of noodles.
Every five or so hours we pull into a station for 20 minutes, and everyone piles off to trade with the babushkas – squat ladies who open their shopping bags and sell you cucumbers, tomatoes and other veg, dodgy sausages, dumplings stuffed with blueberries and cream cheese or potatoes
and cabbage, the odd dried and prehistoric looking fish, and a few strange things that I didn’ t get round to eating. For my vegetarian girlfriend, for whom there’s little on offer in the restaurants, these provide a much needed source of fresh sustenance, and she excels herself creating amazing
dishes from the babushka’ s offerings, added to the dried soup, pickles, hot sauces and couscous she’ s brought on board in Moscow and the free hot water supplied in each carriage by the samovar, another institution of Siberian travel.
It’s basically an old coal fired metal boiler, located in the corridor and providing heating to each carriage, with a tap for hot water whenever you want it. But for our ingenious and ever resourceful guard Do Yo Min, it’s also an oven. Occasionally we would walk past his compartment to see him
feasting on food way better than anything offered in the restaurant car, or prepared by ourselves. His trick? Unscrewing the front panel of the samovar, he would cook his food on the burning embers, either using the frying and saucepans he had bought with him, or directly grilling over the
The whole journey is quite disorientating, made all the more so by the incredibly confusing ways that time zones are dealt with. Over the course of the journey we pass through seven such zones. But while the timetable pinned to each carriage’s corridor wall remains in moscow time throughout,
the catering car (and any station we stop in) run on whatever the current timezone is. Some passengers thus remain on Moscow time, while others are constantly adjusting, meaning that as the journey continues it becomes ever more chaotic, with people getting up while others are getting
drunk, breakfasting while those around them are drinking beer. No one is ever sure exactly what time it is.
After four days of unrelenting forests, we reach Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake. For the next couple of hours we circle its southern shores, before finally splitting from the route taken by the transiberian, and heading south towards Mongolia.
The scenery soon changes again, trading forests for barren steppe, itself equally unrelenting until a day or so later, and almost out of nowhere, we find ourselves pulling into the rundown outskirts of the polluted capital city of Ulan Bator. It’s all a rather monstrous sight after so many days of empty scenery, a crazy frontier city that’ s a polluted post-Soviet equivalent of some Wild West goldrush town (crime ridden with great bars). After a couple of heady nights there we clamber onto a bus (which surreally smells of slightly off milk, due to the locals’ almost exclusively dairy and meat based diet) heading off into the steppe in search of the nomads with whom we will spend the next few days.
For three nights and four long, bemused days we hike, ride horses and sit on the back of ox carts through the barren and beautfiul Mongolian steppe, just us, our mongolian host and four rather charming French women (in that rather charming French women way). We see goats, yaks, and the occasional yurt, but little else by way of the mark of man. Without translator we are reduced to a lot of pointing, smiling, and the few phrases in the pamphlet the organisers back in Ulan Bator have given us – and just how many times is ‘ My hobby is collecting antiques’ going to crop up in
conversation with a 22 stone champion wrestler called Mr Bold while you watch him draw milk from between his horses’ hind legs?
From Mongolia it is 36 hours by train through the Gobi desert (disappointingly few camels), stopping late at night to witness two of the most surreal events yet. Arriving at the Chinese border in the middle of the night, the station is lit up in red, green and blue neon like it’ s Christmas in a
shopping mall, the platform is empty of other passengers, but lined with 40-50 uniformed types saluting the train, and the Vienna Waltz is blaring over the tannoy, in a treble-heavy Chinese cover version. For the next two hours we sit on board while they go through our passports and luggage, as
the world’ s remotest DJ works through a mix that includes Richard Clayderman, I am Sailing and ends in a stirring rendition of Beethoven’ s fifth.
With the music fading, we edge out of the station, only to roll into a vast train shed, filled with yet more Chinese military and the sort of men in hard hats always running everywhere whenever there’ s a submarine in dock in a Bond film. The train is split in two, put on to parallel rails and
separated into individual carriages, and then while we watch carriages seven to 12 and they watch us, we find ourselves ever so slowly lifted eight feet in the air, leaving our wheels behind.
10, twenty minutes pass while they roll a new set of wheels into place, before we are lowered back down again – all in preparation for China, where the track’s gauge is a few inches wider than Mongolia and Russia, due apparently to combined historical paranoia on both sides about invasion.
By the end of that day we’re in Bejing, where we spend a few nights in an ancient hutongs district (a hutong is a narrow street or alley), the last bit of the city that actually looks like you hope Beijing might look. Men sit on overturned crates playing cards, mah jong tiles can be heard clacking in
some hidden back room, and a caged mynah bird calls out ‘ Ni Hao’ in greeting at the door to a restaurant offering such delights as ‘ Peck Dies’ and ‘ Bare String’ .
We’ ve never been made to feel more welcome. Everywhere we go people – despite the 100 per cent language barrier – make us feel like honoured guests; on the first night the man at the next table doesn’ t just show us how to eat the food, he runs off to his house to fetch us some homemade
sauce to have with it. While we sit there the most spectacular firework display erupts in Tiananmen Square, not 400m away, as the celebrations for the opening of the Paralympic Games begin.
After Beijing the final two nights on the train seem to pass by in a blur, as our excitement mounts at reaching Hanoi, 41 days after leaving home. As we sit in the guesthouse bar, having fully unpacked for the first time since leaving home and enjoying a well earned beer, the fact of having reached
there overland means we feel as far from home as we ever have been. Then a familiar sounding voice calls out ‘Hello? Jeremy’ and I turn to see an old friend from school walk in, completely by chance, he too having just arrived in Hanoi. Talk turns not to adventures in far off lands but back to home, as we trade gossip on mutual friends and how our mums and sisters are. It’s all quite surreal.
Even odder and more disorientating is the final plane journey back home. Sitting crammed into my economy class seat, I stare idly at the TV screen sunk into the chair in front, watching the small icon of a plane moved imperceptibly east across a map of Asia. Usually the names of the towns
scrolling by are as abstract as the map in which they are found; but this time they are very real, places we had passed through and often stopped in over the previous few weeks. The memories of the greatest month-long trip of our lives are passed by in less than 10 cramped hours on return.
What else can I tell you about the journey back? Nothing at all.