Note: This article is dedicated only to the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian journey. For more details about cities, experiences and stories in Russia, Mongolia and China follow the specific links.
Crucial was one of the many travel proposals that are received daily by email. Among the many offers was the “Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing”. I was 16 and it seemed like a dream to me, but now the spark started in my head… I had been dreaming Russia since high school and I often imagined on the train of the cartoon Galaxy Express 999 that turned the space in the footsteps of Captain Harlock. After my first trip alone, in Euskal Herria, I spent more than a year in alternate periods organizing this, without telling anyone about bad luck and because I knew that, perhaps out of fear, they would try to convince me to desist from this madness . I made my passport, got the necessary visas, booked the return flights and train tickets. Now I could communicate my summer destination. I still remember how I described the trip at home: “I have to go to Russia…but I come back from Beijing … I cross Mongolia… I do the Trans-Siberian alone!”. I was 25, a few travel behind. But his is THE travel . The Trans-Siberian is not a train but the railway line that connects Moscow to Vladivàstok after 9,288 km, 7 time zones and 157 stations. It takes 8 days to make the journey but of course you can intersperse the route stopping in the various cities. The Trans-mongolic is instead the railway line that from the Russian city of Ulan Ude, one of the stops on Lake Baikal of the Trans-Siberian, arrives in Beijing crossing Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. In this case, the journey from Moscow to Beijing is 7.867 km. When a traveler talks about Trans-Siberian it often refers to the Trans-Mongolian.
First class (called SV): compartment for 2 people, usually with 2 lower beds, sometimes a bunk bed for more space. Each compartment has a folding table, a space for luggage under the beds, a sliding door with lock, radio, sheets and towels. Second class (called kupe): compartment with 4 beds, 2 bunk beds. Luggage space for all 4 passengers is under the lower beds. Each compartment has a folding table, a sliding door with lock, radio, sheets and towels. During the day lower beds are uses as a sofa for all passengers. Second Superior class: compared to the second standard class it includes additional services such as newspapers, magazines and sometimes 1 meal. Third class (called platzkart): the entire wagon is an open space that can accommodate up to 54-56 people. The narrow corridor divides the rows of 2 bunk beds on one side and 1 on the other. Without curtains, doors or locks, it is suitable for those who must make short journeys or for those who are not interested in comfort and privacy and want to save money.
The toilet is located at the end of each wagon. There aren’t showers and it is washed twice a day. It is preferable to take a shower (arrange with the sink) early in the morning, around 07.00, when the provodnists have just finished cleaning the bathrooms. On the opposite side of the wagon there is a samovar, from which you can always draw boiling water for tea, coffee or freeze-dried foods.
The restaurant wagon is mostly a meeting point where you spend time with other passengers.
The provodnik is responsible for the wagon. If you have any problems, you have to contact him/her.
Access to the train
After maybe spending a few days in Leningrad/St.Petersburg and Moscow, it’s time to get on the Trans-Siberian. In the immense Komsomolskaya Squar, beyond the Komsomolskaya and Belarusian metro stations, there is the Jaroslavski station (it has a green sign Ярославский вокзал and the structure is surmounted by hammer and sickle and CCCP inscription). Since 1906 the Trans-Siberian departs and arrives from these tracks.
Before getting on the train, the provodnik checks the correspondence between the data on the ticket and the passport and give the necessary for the “stay” in the train: sheets, pillow, blanket, towel and slippers that you have to return at the end of the journey.
Life on the train
The Trans-Siberian must be lived. It is not just a means of transport but a few days’ experience with hundreds of people. Watch the landscape slide out of the window while you talk to the other passengers. Tourists, travelers, Russians on holidays or returning home, everyone has something to tell, learn, share. In the long stops you get off the train, don’t be afraid to buy cakes, biscuits, fish, cheese, milk, drinks and anything else that children, peasants, breeders or old people sell at the station. They cost little but are made at home and with the heart. Again, sharing with other passengers is the norm.
I was lucky enough to make the trip to Irkutsk with a family returning home to Vladivastok: Aleksander, 27 year old Russian aeromechanical technician, his 22 year old wife Katia and their little 10 month old Sasha. Thanks to them I quickly learned all the secrets to live better this journey, and this train. It was nice when at the first train stop, we bought all 3 something for the traveling companions. I took a drink to accompany sausage and cheese brought from Sardinia and they made me discover fillets of cheese and dried fish.
Departure from Moscow: Ярославский Bокзал – Jaroslavski Station
At 11.58 pm I leave the Moscow station Ярославский in Mosca quandothe whistle of the locomotive spreads in the air and from the windows I seem to see the greeting of the peasants at the hiss of steam. I’m finally running on the Trans-Siberian and I imagine myself on the locomotive, running against injustice.
The Ural Mountains, the Europe-Asia border and Siberia
During the night train pass Yekaterinburg and at kilometer 2.102 cross the natural border Europe-Asia: the beginning of Siberia. Here it is common practice to drink 2 glasses in hand: one in Europe and one in Asia. The famous Ural Mountains seem like hills and the landscape never changes. I watch the kilometers going at the restaurant wagon where, between one cafe and another, know the other passengers. The hours in the train pass by wandering in the wagons, chatting with the other passengers and taking pictures. In each wagon there is a sheet indicating every stops and their duration. Consult it will be a constant of the journey.
It is a bit difficult to understand the exact time. Train passes between various time zones but in all Russian stations (and so also in tickets) only Moscow time is indicated. This is why happens that someone has breakfast while others have lunch. I followed the behavior of the Russians: I carried the watch forward following the trend of the time zones so I was synchronized with the time of the arrival city. The landscape does not change in the more than 2,000 kilometers that from Yekaterinburg lead to Krasnoyarks, with relatively long stops in Omsk and Novosibirks. Train arrives at the Irkutsk station, where I decided to get off and spend some days discovering Siberia and the famous Baikal Lake.
After the rest of these days, at 10.15 pm I get on the 362 train, to Mongolia. The wagons are older than the Russian train, this is Mongolian: narrower and without a restaurant car. In the upper compartment of the bunk there is a box of grapes and soon the Mongolian provodnista comes to communicate that it is hers, and it will not be the only box I will see … In the morning the train is still coasting along Lake Baikal, until finally moving away about lunch time. I arrive in Naushki (Наушки), the town that marks the Russian border, the first frontier. The train stops about 1 km before the station, in the open countryside. About 20 Mongolian men emerge from the bushes, helping the provodniste to unload illegal imported goods from Russia: dozens of crates of grapes, watermelons, various boxes, etc. etc. This would be the dangerous smuggling on which the film “Transiberian” was about (watch it only when you return from the trip, will you relive sensations and landscapes) and of which Lonely Planet warns? I’ve only seen people do it to help their families …
After the 10 minutes required to complete the operation, the train leaves and enters into the station. The doors do not open and it is necessary to wait for the men of the Russian border to come up and get their passports and customs forms and search the inside of the bunks with the help of the dogs. At the end of this check you can get off the train.
With the towel given to me by the Russian Railways at the entrance of the train I create a small balloon and in a very short time starts a soccer game 4 against 4, barefoot and without tshirts in the square of the practically deserted station. The fun lasts about 15 minutes, definitively interrupted by the diligent Russian customs officer who, shouting “NIET!”, kicks the “ball” breaking it and decreeing the end of the match. Disappointed as children, we move going to discover the small market behind the tracks: some junk and some food available. After almost 4 hours, with the passports stamped for exit from Russia, the train leaves the station. The locomotive has been replaced and some wagons will remain in Russia, not continuing the trip to..
We enter Mongolia and the train, although lightened by some wagons and passengers, proceeds slowly. Rightly the Mongols get off the train when their house is next to the tracks.. It feels like a bus. I reach Sukhbaatar the frontier city that marks the beginning of Mongolia. Here the soldiers immediately get on the train to take passports and check the bunks (less carefully and without the dogs used by the Russians). After a definitely inconvenient exchange rubles/tgrik with the provodnista, I get off the train taking advantage of the stop of almost 2 hours for a first approach with the Mongolian cuisine. I eat ravioli and pancakes with mutton and I take the famous airag, fermented mare’s milk from a street vendor. The breeder takes the milk from the mare by leaning the bucket on one knee. The milk is fermented for hours or days, allowing the bacteria to acidify it and the yeasts to turn it into a slightly alcoholic beverage. The milk is poured directly from a bucket to a plastic bag. The taste is very good and I share it with the breeder who tells me the story of the city. The name is dedicated to the hero (in Mongolian “baatar“) Damdin Sukh, a Mongol nationalist partisan who defeated the Chinese with his revolutionary army and the help of the Soviet communists, giving life to the People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1921. I return to the train which, having abandoned the Siberian forests, runs in green prairies until the firstger appear from the windows. Arrival at 06.10am in Ulaan Baatar station, capital of Mongolia. I get off the train for a break of a few days to discover this little beaten nation where nature, tranquility and silence are the boss. Ulaan Baatar looks like an ancient oriental town of 1200BC but a few hours by car is enough to discover a practically uninhabited Mongolia: just think that it is big as Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy put together and does not reach 3 million inhabitants (of which about 40% lives in Ulaan Baatar). It is difficult to describe the sensation of seeing the steppe, the mountains on the horizon, blue sky, no noise and maybe only a ger in all that territory.
After a few days spent in Ulaan Baatar and in the solitude of the steppe, the taxi took me to the station after a wrong journey to the airport (it seemed absurd to the taxi driver that I travel by rail). The train leaves the capital and among the wooden “houses” you can see lots of ger. The Mongols do not lose the nomad culture and tradition, even if they live in the city.
In my bunk there is only one Chinese gentleman, still asleep. The train crosses the steppe and enters the Gobi Desert. The wagons quickly fill up with sand, dust and earth, making it difficult even to breathe.
We resist a few hours, until we arrive at the small station of Zamin Uud, the border of Mongolia. The soldiers enter to get passports and take a very quick look at the bunk. After having finished their checks and ridiculed the documents, the train leaves without letting us get off the heat and the breathing difficulties of the previous hours. The Chinese removes packs of cigarettes from under his sheets and fills his suitcase: now it is quiet, we are in China and have passed the checks.
The People’s Republic of China welcomes me in the station of Erlian with light music. The soldiers go up to take passports and get the Chinese off to their destination. Although I can get off the train, I don’t move: I stay in the train and enter into a huge building site. The gauge of the Russian and Mongolian tracks, a legacy of the Soviet Union, is different from all the others, so small lifting cranes lift the train completely off the ground, allowing the mechanics to adjust the measurements. This lasts over 2 hours.
I leave the station around 02.00, after about 4 hours at the border. I only stay in my bunk for the rest of the trip, so I can spend the night watching the scenery outside the window. In the morning I go to the restaurant in the morning for the breakfast offered by the Chinese Railways: tea, 2 boiled eggs and bread with jam. The wait for the vision of the Great Wall is great and it is worth spending 2 hours standing in the corridor of the car to be able to photograph it as soon as it appears in the mountains on the horizon. After traveling just over 100 kilometers in Chinese territory, you have the chance to admire it for the next 20 kilometers.
It is impressive to see how it follow the mountains’ trend and how impressive it is. The landscape continues among grazing animals, sunflower fields and bicycles. Between kilometer 80 and 50 (in China they indicate the distance from Beijing) the train follows a spectacular route: 63 tunnels pass through the green mountains and every time you go out in the sun you see fantastic views.
Then I relax in my bunk thinking of all the kilometers covered and what awaits me in Beijing: another trip is about to begin. The Beijing station suddenly arrives to interrupt the unison I had established with the train. But the stop immediately becomes not a point of arrival, but another starting point. I go down the stairs with melancholy and I find myself immediately projected into a traumatic crowded and demoniac world that I had totally forgotten these days. The crowd almost transports me to the exit and I manage to greet only 7 traveling companions, while the others have already been thrown out somewhere from the fury of the human river. In the large square outside the station, the Trans-Siberian-Trans-Mongolian journey has been concluded.
It was a long trip, perhaps the trip par excellence. Maybe it had been 6 or 7 trips together. I have traveled more or less 25,000 kilometers between fantastic cities and slums, between history and prehistory, between luxury hotels and ger, between steppe and desert, between pristine valleys and metropolis where the sun cannot be seen. I used trains, planes, buses, taxis, metro, bikes and ferries. 3 states, 3 cultures, 3 peoples, 3 languages, 3 stories, 3 different coins. From this trip I go out stronger, better and aware of being able to travel the world without problems. This trip should be done at least once in a lifetime. This trip is the trip of a lifetime… a life on travel!