‘Trains seemed the happiest choice. You could do anything on a train; live your life and go long distances. There was little stress, there was sometimes comfort, and there was something romantic in the notion of boarding a train.’ – Paul Theroux: The Great Railway Bazaar.
I have long had the ambition to journey along the Trans-Siberian railway but I have always found a reason not to do it. This summer, having finished employment in China, provided Nicki and I with the perfect opportunity to get on the train to Moscow. So we did.
In order to make best use of our time, and get some shower/hot food stops we planned our train journey in 3 parts:
Part 1: Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)
Part 2: Irkutsk – Omsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)
Part 3: Omsk – Moscow (2 nights, 1 whole day)
Part 1: Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)
Our journey began in Mongolia. You can read about that leg here.
Our hostel host in Ulaanbaatar had kindly called upon his dad (for that’s who we thought he was) to give us a lift to the train station. We arrived with our rucksacks about an hour early, but we weren’t the only ones.
There were about 10 other foreigners of different ages and nationalities waiting to board the train. We took the obligatory photo of the carriage before boarding and finding out who awaited us in our cabin.
Throughout our journey we had booked onto second-class carriages. This meant that we were bunked in a 4-person cabin rather than the private 2 bed of 1st class or the 6 beds of 3rd.
We ambled along the narrow corridor towards our cabin, Nicki leading the way. Once we reached our bunk we discovered one man already positioned within it. It didn’t take us long to realise that he was unique. He was murmuring to himself and clutching his chest in pain. He was a skinny man dressed in a white vest, which he did not change until he left the train with us in Irkutsk.
Upon departure, we were immediately engaged in conversation with or carriage-mates. Several of them were from New Zealand, of which many were former Brits, which contributed to a laid back atmosphere and a few beers. We found that alcohol was easily drunk on the Trans-Siberian despite not technically being allowed.
In fact, our Mongolian roommate, Shak, soon asked me to open his 1 litre bottle of Chenngis Khan Gold Vodka. Upon doing so he poured Nicki and I a ‘shot’ that filled half of our paper cups. He dipped his fingers in his and flicked some out of the window before flicking some more at my feet in a kind of pre-drinking ritual.
He then showed us how to down half a glass of vodka before egging us both to do the same. Nicki has filled hers up with coke in the meantime, which left Shak with an expression of distain. So much so that he put his fingers to his throat in a motion we mistook for throat cutting aggression (instead we inferred that this is a Mongolian sign for ‘drink more’). I had made the mistake of humouring him and he now thought he had a drinking buddy for the next 36 hours.
Shak then invited Tara and Andy, two well-mannered Ango-Kiwis, to join us for another half cup of vodka. After a whole cup of vodka in 2 gulps I was ready for an escape. However, Shak now really wanted to sniff his bread whilst he drank but didn’t have a knife (thankfully). Instead he ripped into the bread with his teeth, spraying crumbs all over the cabin. Thankfully escape came when Shak finished the remainder of his 1 litre bottle and passed out asleep. We moved our conversation to Tara and Andy’s cabin.
Before we could put ourselves to bed, Shak woke up and asked us to join him as he opened his second bottle of vodka. He could not grasp that other people could not speak Mongolian and continued to talk to us; he even tried to speak to the Russian inspectors in Mongolian at the border crossing. We declined more vodka and Tara tried to use her hands to get him back to sleep while I put his bottle back into his bag.
We eventually got ourselves to sleep. The cabins on the Tran-Siberian are of amble size for a good night sleep. Despite being a hot July day, it wasn’t too stuffy in the room.
We were woken in the middle of the night by the arrival of our 4th roommate, who looked like a smaller (but still very tall) version of Yao Ming. Nicki is the lightest sleeper in the world, so the big man’s snoring did not impress her.
At around 5am (too early), Shak was awake and lively, with no regard for others. He was still chewing on his bread and trying his best to wake others up in the desperate need for company. I habitually sleep on my front and tried to pretend that I was still asleep but I couldn’t once Shak slapped me twice on the bum. He motioned as if to say I shouldn’t sleep on my front and, in an attempt to appease him, I lay on my back with my arms folded. He then slapped my arms and told me to lie with them straight. I can only describe him as Golem-like in his manner.
Once I had run out of ways to pretend I was asleep, I sat up to see Shak celebrate at the discovery of his second bottle of vodka. He obviously assumed he had finished it the night before. So he drank a few shots (before 6am). He decided to open a large tube of processed meat and left it open for us to smell and the flies to feed on for a few hours (until Nicki nicely asked him to put it away)
We had brought too much food on our trip and it was clear by breakfast time that we weren’t going to eat it all. We were on a learning curve and after this journey we realised that dried fruit is better than sweets (which do not leave you feeling good), one packet of pre-packed noodles is enough for any human in a 24-hour period, and dried nuts are the perfect snack.
We soon came to the board crossing to exit Mongolia, where we completed our customs checks with very friendly officials before moving 30 minutes more before our check into Russia, with far more stringent checks that left us motionless for 3 hours. However, once we were cleared for entry into Russia we were at liberty to stretch our legs around our first Siberian town in Russia. It was very basic and seemed like would fit the Siberian stereotype had it been covered in snow. Yet, the hot weather and bright sunshine made it feel somewhat confused.
The afternoon on the train was very pleasant. Shak had passed out again and Nicki caught up on her sleep. The Kiwi ladies had tuned into a radio service playing the British and Irish Lions vs. All Blacks so I listened to that from my bunk whilst observing the train cut through the beauty of the Siberian countryside. I also found time to write this.
Actually, I had not expected the train journey to be so relaxing and not boring at all. Despite no access to Wifi or 3G we were surviving, who knew it possible? If conversation ran out there were books, if I didn’t fancy reading I could look out the window, type my blog, watch some Orange Is the New Black, eat, have a beer, have a nap, or even do nothing. This was the beauty of the journey.
Night approached swiftly and we exchanged a few Serbian beers after a short stop at a station. There is a timetable in each cabin telling you the arrival and stoppage length at each station. This is useful to know when you can get off for a stretch or to stock up on water or beer. It is worth noting that these times are always in Moscow time, yet we were 5 hours ahead at the point so we had some maths to do.
By the time the sun set, which was about 10pm, Shak had finished his 3rd litre bottle of vodka in 24 hours and was passed out again. This made for a much smoother transition to sleep and we were packed and ready for a 7am departure upon our arrival in Irkutsk, Siberia. Shak was up, ready, and smartly dressed in a shirt by 6am. We caught him drinking Nicki’s unfinished beer from the night before. The journey will definitely be most remembered for his contribution to it.
Part 2: Irkutsk – Omsk (2 nights, 1 whole day)
After a fantastic introduction to Siberia at Lake Baikal we were now back on the train for our second leg of the Trans-Siberian express. It is probably worth noting that our first train journey was officially known as ‘Trans-Mongolian’ since it ran through Mongolia and not Eastern Siberia, but before Irkutsk the routes unify, which meant we were now ebbing through Siberia on the ‘Trans-Siberian’ railway.
After the previous experience in our carriage, we were eager to find out who our cabin mates would be for the next 42 hours. Irkutsk was a long stop so everyone had evacuated the train to get some fresh air and stretch their legs. This gave us an opportunity to make assumptions about our new friends based on the property they had lying around. One item was a pair of jeans neatly hung on a hanger. I asked Nicki to inspect the label, where a ‘made in Russia’ stamp presented itself. I fathomed that they looked like women’s jeans and only a lady would be considerate enough to hang them up.
The food and utensils also caught our eye. There was a juice drink that I would have expected a Chinese person or a British person to drink and, most disturbingly, there was a very sharp bread knife wrapped in a flannel. Thankfully, there was no tube of processed meat.
Shortly before the wheels starting turning again, our companions jumped aboard. They were a father and daughter combination (although it took us a while to work that out) heading back home for work. We eventually found out that they were lovely, but the micro-expression the 30-something woman presented when she first saw us indicated she didn’t want company on this trip.
The evening went quite swiftly as we watched the Siberian countryside roll by between downloaded episodes on our laptop.
There are many wonderful elements about spending so long on a sleeper train. One of them is that you can get up when you want, without that carpe diem regret you get with a lie-in at home. Also, because you can’t do anything else, you have no guilt about being lazy. Nicki would ask ‘what is your plan for today?’ and I would reply ‘might have a nap, read my book, look out of the window’. She would say ‘when do you want a beer?’ and I would reply ‘sometime today’.
At about 11 in the morning our Russian friends departed the train and were replaced with the scariest-looking Russian men I could have imagined. The shorter, older one had a bottom row of teeth made only of gold and the taller, wider one had a ‘scar’ on his forehead that resembled recently applied stitches. Upon closer inspection I thought it was a tattoo, but Nicki is sticking with stitches as an explanation for the monstrosity on his face. My prejudice made me assume that they were heading to a football match. It turned out Alexis and Alexander were two friendly, scary men.
Nicki remained apprehensive about their presence in our cabin and, twinned with the oppressive ‘you are in Russia, speak Russian’ stewardess of our carriage, we decided to spend some of the afternoon in the dining carriage.
We originally came to eat the tuna sandwiches we had made in the dining cart, but was aggressively told off for even thinking about it by the large lady running the stall. Instead we decided to watch a film and relocated into another seat to block out the sun. The waiter/owner lady thought we were hiding away from her so we could eat our tuna, so she (still aggressive) came and took our lunch bags away and hid them in her fridge. We had a beer.
Eventually we came to a half hour stop in the mid afternoon. This allowed us to sit on a bench and eat our tuna sandwiches whilst macho Russian men took their tops off and went for a stroll.
Upon returning the dining carriage we were pleased to see the Kiwis enjoying a beer. One of companions, Sarah, is also a teacher in China and the youngest member of her group. She sat with us most of the afternoon as we ended up drinking, playing card games, and chatting until the late evening. This made for an easier sleep in the bunks alongside Alexander and Alexis (who, by the way, would not accept any of my offerings for sweets as ice breakers).
The next morning arrived and we were to get off the train for a brief stop in Omsk where we were going to have a shower and a warm meal before getting back on for the final time,
Part 3: Omsk – Moscow (2 nights, 1 whole day)
The final third of our journey saw us travel 39 hours and across 3 time zones before arriving in Moscow.
By now we were far more knowledgeable about how to prepare for our excursions. However, we were somewhat hampered by the liquid that we absorbed during lunch. This made our last minute supermarket shop a little more hap dash.
Despite this, we still entered the train armed with tuna (always a hit), cheese, instant mash, dried fruit, soup, and a few chocolatey treats.
For the rest of the journey we would share a cabin with a German mother and son, both of whom were lovely in a typical German way. The boy, who had just finished school at 19, spoke English fluently and eloquently explained the emotional trip they had been on together: his mother was born in Siberia and wanted to retrace her steps to her ancestral home.
He described how his mother, who he was speaking for because she could not speak English, left Siberia when she was young (probably 50 years ago, but you don’t ask these things) and didn’t know much about her hometown. They had flown into Moscow from Germany and caught the railway into Siberia only to find her town completely different to how she imagined. He explained how the streets she remembered were no longer there and how the beautiful countryside around the town had been lost to deforestation in the processes of becoming a smoggy and polluted city. He went on to suggest that timber had been sold to the Chinese for financial gain but, since it was un-replenished, a loss to the natural environment. His mother had heard how the weather was more dramatic now, without the surrounding natural environment to protect the city. It was quite a sad tale and the lad’s mother seemed quite emotional as he retold it.
That said, the views we had from our train window showed Siberia to remain largely wild and beautiful in its landscape. The landscape appeared to be changing from the Eastern Siberian plains beyond Irkutsk to miles of trees as we drew closer to Moscow.
We slept easily in the company of our new friends and woke up early with the sun beaming through our window.
Nicki waved to me as I lay on my shelf from the narrow corridor and invited me into the dining carriage that was, helpfully, only 10 metres away from our cabin. Inside she had prepared two plates featuring an apple, 3 squares of chocolate, and a handful of raisins. Inside each apple was a candle that Nicki lit and quietly sang Happy Birthday to me so that it was audible only to me. She had also prepared a birthday card in advance. I was now celebrating my 28th birthday aboard the Tran-Siberian express bound for Moscow. Nicki had also ordered me 2 fried eggs and a beer to complete my 7am surprise! What a lady!
There are worse places to spend your birthday, although being stuck on a train might not be everyone’s idea of a nice day out. The train from Omsk to Moscow crosses 3 time zones. This meant that my birthday actually lasted 27 hours. Perhaps the best place to have a birthday?
Anyway, we spent the day occupying ourselves once more, and I spent a few hours preparing for the upcoming football draft in the dining cart. We ordered a few beers from a kiosk at one of the 20-minute station stops and drank them with our German friend We both value hygiene, personal space, decent food, and WiFi too much. I would recommend the Tran-Siberian to anyone!