The days on the train, four and a half days continuously on the move.
I’m lying in bed in my “ger” in Mongolia, the traditional tents that the Mongolians have had with them across the plains for centuries. I was offered my own private four bed ger. Now I’m audio recording the diary of my journey on the fly. I’ll take it by memory, because so much is going to happen over the next few days in Mongolia and the capital Ulaanbaatar and later Beijing. I was lagging a little behind in writing, because I spent time on the train writing my travel diary from Moscow into my smart phone.
Now I will write about the Trans-Siberian railway, in segments. Writing a regular travel diary with a day-to-day story is a little difficult, because the days melted together into one large lump. I intend to sort the story like this:
The carriage and rest of the train
The train stations
The surroundings in general, and my concluding impressions at the end
Before reading on you may want to spend the next 16 minutes watching my video:
The Trans-Siberian (actually Trans-Mongolian) from Moscow to Ulanbaatar. Life on board, the stations, and the views.
Wednesday evening day 1 on our six days trip, we came into the carriage and found our compartments. We were 13 people from Norway. I ended up in a compartment to myself, as the odd number I was. It worked perfectly fine, but I had thought on beforehand that I would share it with three vodka drinking Russians or the like. Part of the reason for my single compartment was that there were few Russians on the train. The large majority of the passengers were Mongolian, perhaps because the train had Mongolian staff and Mongolian carriages.
A separate cabin created a sense of luxury. The couples in my group had paid extra to reserve the four bed compartments to themselves. The four in my group travelling together wished they’d done it, because it was a bit cramped. The rest of the compartments in the wagon were filled by Mongolians. They kept to themselves most of the time.
The cabin has four pretty hard upholstered beds. Simple thin mattresses were handed out to be placed on top. Clean sheets and a small towel came along as well. Luggage is stored on the floor or on a shelf above the door. The storage is big enough to hold a suitcase. It is okay to lie on the back, but it takes its toll to be sideways.
The window has curtains at the bottom and blinds on the upper part. It was dirty from the start, and became increasingly dirtier. The carriage service personnel cleaned on a regular basis, but the carriage was clearly built years ago. There is reading light on the bunk, and good overall lighting. The compartment worked really well.
Last night I was awakened by strong hammering on the door and I opened the ordinary lock and the extra security lock. The conductor was standing outside with a stout man in his late fifties. An Englishman, a taxi driver from Surrey, London. I let him in. He had a bed from that station, Irkutsk. We went to sleep right away.
I woke up with a bang at two in the morning, by myself. As planned. Because I wanted to be awake when we came to one of the supposedly most scenic areas in Mother Russia, namely Baikal Lake.
The taxi driver is a globetrotter. He lives and breathes for it, and he travels to special places: Iran, Namibia. He had been a few days at a home stay in an apartment in Irkutsk, and will proceed to Beijing and South Korea. He had contact with some travel agencies in London that specialized in the extraordinary journeys. I got the addresses.
Apart from this, my life in the compartment was fairly quiet. I had it alone. I spent a lot of time writing my travel diary from Moscow. As I wrote pretty fast on the phone it ended up in quite a lot of typing. I was however surprised by my returning home to learn that it was more than eight A4 pages long.
But there was a social life in the carriage and on the train, which made the train journey far faster than expected. An important reason is that we had such a good social life in the carriage. And that is the next part of the story from the Trans-Siberian railway.
“Samovar” – hot water boiler on train
So, it was a very good atmosphere in the carriage, certainly because we were all set on having a good time.
In addition to ourselves we had the two conductors. The one on the day shift, the other at night. They kept to the end of the carriage near the samovar, and slept in shifts. Two Mongolian women, one sweet and nice and smiling, the other was sour and cross. One was interested in learning English and came up with her dictionary; the other was sour and cross. It was the lady of the evening and night shift who was nice. Both spoke equally bad English, really, so the conditions for communicating with us seemed alike. It was I believe more about different desires and attitudes.
What was special with the three compartments with Mongolians was that they worked as traders. Some loaded onto the train their boxes at the station in Moscow, others on the next station. Huge amounts of luggage were stowed in the cabin. It was also these traders that gave life to the stations we passed. The 21 stations in Russia, and for that matter the four in Mongolia, were arenas of trade between the Mongolians and the local Russians.
Most other travellers on the train were Mongolian. They brought with them shirts, pants, shoes, bags, even iron sticks and cream. They brought along an incredible amount of goods. We assumed they had taken the goods with them from China, but it could also be that they got it from Moscow. We do not think they were returning home and would get paid for their ticket by selling an item or two. It was strange that they both in our carriage and elsewhere opened a hatch in a cabin ceiling and brought down boxes on boxes of goods. T & H was called out in the hallway, and a trader climbed up and brought down several boxes of lady handbags and possibly other goods. As it approached the end of the journey they even opened a floor hatch under the carpet in the corridor.
Sales activities on Ulan Ude train station
Probably not a bona fide business. One of them was angry at us at the station and shouted “no camera” and shook his fist several times. Otherwise there was little communication between us. As we walked from carriage to carriage to and from the restaurant we saw they were mostly staying in their compartments with their noodle buckets. We saw that they paid the conductor off as they climbed up in the ceiling. No wonder she was so happy. We gave her some notes as well, by the way.
Finally, the toilet. It had toilet paper the first day, later on we used our own. There was one toilet at each end of the wagon. Gender division. They were attempted to be held fairly clean by the staff, but not all travellers are clean and T put up a note with instructions to lift the ring before pissing. A small sink contained only cold water, incomprehensible as it was directly behind the samovar.
Balezino train station
I list all stations below, scheduled arrival and staying times, as well as the distance from Moscow. In Russia there are five time zones as far as I remember, but all train times and all the clocks at the stations are Moscow time. This information, as well as the same in the later stretch of railway from Mongolia to China, was posted on board the carriages. It was very easy to keep track of time.
What made life on the stations was the trading activities between the travelling Mongolians and the local Russians. At some stations trade was missing, and it was connected with the amount of police officers. It seemed that it was known which stations they would be, for these stations were almost deserted when we arrived. But where there was activity, there was a very large activity.
We bought nothing. We, however, had expected the Russians to come and sell home-baked goods, pirogues and such, to us travellers. It turned out to be the case to a very small degree. Instead it was the train travellers who sold to the locals. Towards the end of the trip a few local women came selling food to us. Biscuits, pirogues and the smoked fish I bought at Baikal. In some places there were kiosks selling soft drinks, noodle packs, crackers and such. Not the most exciting.
Kiosk on train station
That was the station life.
The station buildings were of varying design, but seemed consistently well-maintained, freshly painted and all.
Ulan Ude train station
We had bottled water with us, and got hot water from the samovar. I had some packages of instant soups, which I hardly used, I also had a noodle pack I did not prepare, tinned cheese from home, some small cheeses purchased in Moscow, an Italian sausage, and oranges. I had breakfast in the cabin, like most people.
Russian restaurant carriage
Otherwise, we went to the restaurant. It was five to six carriages away from us. It was a Russian restaurant carriage, the other carriages were Mongolian. It is the rule on the Trans-Siberian railway that the country the train travels through provides the restaurant carriage. We therefore had a Russian restaurant carriage.
There we met the waitress Olga around fifty of age. She was missing three teeth in her upper jaw and had three gold teeth in her lower jaw. So she never smiled broadly, but was gentle and nice all the same. The restaurant was ruled by a lady boss, who did little. Her name was Tatiana, and she was grumpy in the morning. In the course of the day, and perhaps with some vodkas inside, she would wake up and speak a few words in Russian and a single word in English that did not always fit into the context. The local chef turned out to be named Sergei. He wore a red Kamikaze head band. Those were three good Russian names.
They had a very basic knowledge of the English language; in general they spoke only Russian to us. Very strange as they had this as a profession, and most guests were Western. Sometimes a lone, drunken Russian came around, but they were scarce. The Mongolians were not there in the restaurant, they were in the compartments with their noodle boxes.
It must be something with the purchasing power that explains it all. For it was not very cheap. A meal was just over 500 to 600 roubles, approximately 18 USD. As with other Russian food, we had to order several dishes as otherwise the portions would be a bit disappointing.
There was this passenger who ordered the beef filet, and was served three fillets and a dollop of vegetable pâté served on a tiny saucer. The three at her table began to laugh out loud, and I saw Olga reacted negatively to it. She said nothing. It’s not that Russian food is ridiculous, but it is unusual. My piece of advice is not to laugh at other people’s customs. Perhaps the laugh was not meant to ridicule, but I was embarrassed nonetheless.
The trick is about buying courses in a sequence. We hit the code after a couple of days. There was a French group with a Russian-speaking guide we set our eyes on and learned from. They had a set menu with multiple dishes. We asked the same thing, and got it almost at the first attempt. The last couple of days, we were served a menu with salad for appetizer, soup and meat. To some extent fruit if the kitchen was not empty.
Otherwise it was to order from a menu, which actually was in English. The first so in Russia. It was not always they had everything, and it could vary significantly from one meal to another what they had. But we were positive and generous. The food was Russian and that means it was pretty boring, simple home cooking. It was kind of tasty, but not refined in any way. Think of pan-fried potatoes and some kind of meatball. It may be the key words of Russian food.
But they had a bearing on soups. Not only borcht, but meat and vegetable soups in particular.
I must mention that there was not so much vodka on the “vodka train” as I had heard about in advance, only the half bottle I served from the first evening. There was also beer. The great Russian Baltica comes in two varieties, number three and number seven. The latter is a bit fuller in flavour. And then there was another kind. I do not remember the name.
That was the story of the restaurant carriage and food on board. Now I have told about the cabin, carriage, stations and restaurants. That brings me on to the next sequence, impressions from the surroundings.
View from train
The Trans-Siberian railway winds over the Ural mountains which we passed the first night, and into Asia. Further east it splits in the original Trans-Siberian line that goes all the way on Russian territory to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. Then we have the Trans-Mongolian that we took, and a third middle line that goes further to the east before turning down to Beijing without passing through Mongolia. It is called the Trans-Manchurian.
I can mention a familiar landmark along the way, namely Lake Baikal. The world’s largest freshwater lake in volume and the world’s deepest lake at 1642 metres, according to Wikipedia. We passed it in cloudy weather, a little sad because it’s a beautiful area. I and the Englishman were awake when we passed by the lake at night. At some places we came very close, no more than five metres from the shore. Fascinating to see a seagull actually, and some remains of ice from last winter.
To the tunes of the Russian national anthem (old Red Army choir version). Filmed from the train on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Lake Baikal is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Otherwise on the journey of 4.5 days, more precisely 100 hours and 55 minutes, and over 6266 km, we stood by the windows. Filming, taking photographs. There were a lot of forests, not so much spruce as I had imagined, but mostly birch. We passed villages on villages. At least in the western part we saw small cabins. Looked like allotments. We wondered if they were dachas (homes) for people in the cities or whether they were houses for the residents. Further east, they seemed to be the latter, and many were dilapidated and living standards equally low. It seemed like a hectic kitchen garden life anyway.
Cities, i.e. the station towns that we actually saw, did not seem to be something to cheer about. We passed through a number of industrial cities, with exciting and somewhat legendary names such as Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk , and Irkutsk. It was a shame that we could not get off the train and look around in the cities on the short 20-25 minutes stays that were set up. Often, we were rushed inside long before the train departure, and with the low frequency of long distance trains that seems to occur, there was no reason to take chances on being left behind in the middle of the world’s largest country. Our train kept roughly the times that were set up.
The view was thus birch forests and great plains. Nina, our guide on the excursion from Moscow, was right in her question: Where have all the animals gone? But not only that I might add, where have all the fields gone? It did not seem as if anyone had ploughed the soil for some years, we saw huge plains literally screaming for a plough. Perhaps it was the climate, soil, organization, ownership. I do not know.
There were no mountains. We did not see the Urals as we passed during the night. The only mountains we saw was when we approached Mongolia. When we climbed up and up. The altimeter on my watch showed from 150 metres above sea level in Moscow to 250 metres elsewhere, which are not very high altitudes. When we entered Mongolia and rolled into Ulanbaatar the metre showed a final 1350 meters.
These are the impressions I can think of in terms of the Trans-Siberian railway, here I lie in the “ger” of mine in Mongolia. The next sections of this travel narrative deals with precisely this country with the smallest population density in the world.