We had been looking forward to doing the Trans-Siberian train for over a year, and in fact it was the catalyst for us planning a year of travelling. So to say we were slightly nervous was an understatement!
We got up at 5am (despite the hotel forgetting to give us our requested wake up call), had our last shower, and got a taxi to Beijing Station. We found the correct waiting room easily enough with the past 5 sleeper trains giving us good practice in navigating Chinese train stations. Boarding for the 8.05am train started at 7.30 and we walked to the platform lugging our now huge backpacks and 3 bags full of food and drink for the trip.
We had heard so many differing accounts about the train compartments that we didn’t quite know what to expect. We had forked out a bit more money for a deluxe 2 berth, as spending a long time in a 4 berth with 2 random people sounded pretty nasty (especially after our experiences doing that in China). We were very pleasantly surprised. Our deluxe 2 berth compartment was spacious, fantastically well equipped with large and comfortable bunk beds, a chair separate to the beds on the opposite side of the table, a power socket, and even a bathroom shared with the next cabin! Amazing! The bathroom even had a shower head. Suffice to say we were grinning like Cheshire cats as we unpacked and settled in for the 6 day/5 night trip that would cross 3 countries and 11 time zones.
Lunch and dinner on the first day were supplied free of charge in the Chinese dining cart. It was a good thing it was free, as both portions were crap. Steamed cabbage and onion featured both times. Really? People are stuck with others in either 2 or 4 berth accommodation, and you give them cabbage?! Great idea. I felt sorry for the Mongolian border guards entering the train later that night as they just about needed gas masks.
On the first day the train wound its way through China, first through stunning valleys and mountains before the terrain flattened out into vast plains.
At around 8:30pm we arrived at the Mongolian border. A customs official came into the train, took our passports, and our compartment was searched. Then the train was shunted into a large nearby shed (being in a train during shunting is quite an experience!) As the Mongolian and Russian tracks have a larger gauge than Chinese tracks, each carriage had to be lifted up and have its wheels replaced.
3 hours later we were given our passports back and we were in Mongolia.
The next day the train traversed the whole of Mongolia, and we had a lot of time to spot Gers (traditional tent type housing), wild horses and camels. The Gobi desert was just so vast and seemingly endless, with only 2 cities to speak of: Ulan Bator and Zonhala. But even on the outskirts of the cities Gers reigned supreme as the main mode of living quarters. As the Russian border drew close the terrain became more undulating and even more sparsely populated than the plains.
Another thing we had heard about was the Russian border crossing. Ruthless, shining torches in eyes, questioning, detailed luggage searches etc. As with most things we read, this turned out to be bollocks, and in fact it was one of the easiest fastest and nicest crossings that we have done all trip. A heap of Russian officials/guards etc boarded the train. When they got to us one man took our passports, ran the electronic stripe through his laptop, scanned it, and stamped it. Done. We were then asked to leave the compartment while they searched it. That lasted 5 seconds and all that they did was lift up the seat. And that was it. Easy!
The third day of the trip saw us pass by lake Baikal and Irkutsk among other towns. Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world, was a breathtaking sight. The whole lake, which is larger in area than Korea, was frozen, creating a spectacular scene with small lakeside towns dotted along the edge and huge snow covered mountains in the far away distance. In the winter an ice road runs across the lake giving an interesting sight of tyre marks stretching out along the ice.
After an hour of circling the lake we stopped in Irkutsk. And while Ulan Bator was warm enough to not need a jacket, Irkustk was freezing! Which was ironic as it had the only not-completely-frozen river that we had seen since China. The train was stopped just long enough to have a quick look at the town outside the station – our first time properly setting foot into Russia. Unfortunately, and again contrary to what we had read, shops in and around stations along the route do not accept Chinese Yuan or US dollars. So our new mission was to find a money exchanger or ATM. We had just enough food, but were out of beer…so panic stations. Whilst we found an ATM in Irkutsk, 4 women were clustered around it using it, and we didn’t have the 30 years it was going to take for them to finish.
There was one more stop that afternoon in Zima where, despite there being no ATM, Sam used her charm to exchange 10USD into rubles from a friendly local. Enough for some chips and drink with quite a bit left over for the Moscow subway should we find no where else to get money along the way. Panic over.
The further we ventured West, the more the landscapes changed, becoming more wooded and being perpetually white with snow and ice. Quite a contrast to the barren brown plains of just the day before.
From the moment we entered Russia, time changed for all stations to Moscow time. Which makes sense as then every station in the country is going by the same time, but its still mightily confusing. We woke on day 4 about 3 hours after the sun had risen into the sky. Local time was 9am. But train time was 4am. It takes some getting used to, but the benefit is that we had 3 days to slowly adjust to the time difference.
At the first stop of the day, Malinsk, we finally managed to find an ATM that was not being used. Hoorah! So, finally cashed up in rubles, we bought some treats before heading on our way
For the first time on the trip, the scenery was very similar for the whole day – vast forests on slightly undulating landscapes with snow covered permafrost punctuated by the odd town. Houses were generally of wooden construction and seemed surprisingly quaint (at least from what we could see going past on a speeding train). At the end of the day – or at least the end of the sunlight – we stopped at Novosibirsk, which is unofficially the border between Asia and Europe. We ventured off the train to stock up on beer to celebrate. We had been drinking Asahi beer and Baileys so far, and this was our first Russian beer sample. Now, Chinese beer is similar to Korean beer. Ie: utter tripe. But Russian beer: fantastic!
The following 2 days saw the landscape stay very similar as the day before. The forests and snow seemed to stretch forever with countless frozen rivers crossing the landscape.
As we got closer to Moscow the towns and cities became more frequent and larger, though somewhat more “soviet” with concrete high rise apartment blocks becoming the norm. The cities also appeared much grittier, with graffiti and burnt out cars amongst slum type accommodation becoming more frequent around the outskirts.
On the last night the tracks became rather bumpy and the driver somewhat aggressive, resulting in quite a bumpy ride. It only lasted for a couple of hours, but reminded us of the train in Myanmar as we grabbed hold of anything to keep us from being bounced off our chairs!
We arrived into Moscow in the afternoon, just 7 minutes behind schedule. Not bad considering the 7,621km 6 day journey! It was an amazing ride. One which we already want to do again! But Moscow and Europe await, so that will have to wait for another day.
Finally, if you are doing the journey, a few tips:
– you can eat every meal onboard if you wish. But it is expensive (USD11-15 per meal) and not very good.
– despite what we had read (and fortunately not believed) you cannot exchange money onboard, nor at any of the stations you pass through. There are usually ATMs at the Russian stations, with an English language option, which accept MasterCard. But be aware that we found long queues at each one and as you don’t stop for long it may not be possible to have the time to get money out.
– shops in Russia did not accept USD nor Chinese Yuan. You will need Rubles.
– banks/exchange agencies do not traditionally stock Rubles. We ran around looking for some but to no avail, hence why we took a weeks worth of food with us. And we’re glad we did! Anything that you can add hot water too is good as there’s a hot water machine in each carriage.