Yough Pioneer Tours

The Borsch Express – Or, how I stayed sane on a six day train

Ever thought about embarking upon the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian?  Last year, YPT’s Shane spent six days and five nights on board the direct service from Beijing to Moscow as part of our Eurasian Adventure. He shares his survival tips and insights.

6 days on a train?! Have you completely lost it? 

Well, maybe a little, but think about it for a minute. That’s 6 days of pure escapism and isolation. No internet, no worries, just a journey through some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. The contrast between urban China, the Gobi desert and the Siberian tundra is spectacular.. Plus, doesn’t it sound romantic?

That’s all well and good, but what do you do to keep occupied and stop yourself going insane?

I was well prepared, so the list is pretty long. I’ll give you a rundown on how my day usually went;

  1. Get up at whatever time you please. I’d tried to keep it to a reasonable hour so as to have some sort of routine going. All time was Moscow time, which is quite difficult to adhere to when you’re more than 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow and it’s pitch black at midday.
  2. Make your bed. Your bed would become your sanctuary so making it nice and comfortable was of paramount importance. Tidy living area = tidy mind.
  3. Breakfast – Now this was a real highlight. We were located in carriage number fifteen. The dining carriage was in number two. The thirteen car trek took about ten minutes and was a twice daily return pilgrimage; Breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was my favourite. I had the same dish 6 days in a row – Borsch. For those unfamiliar with slavic cuisine, Borsch is a sort of beetroot, tomato and sour cream soup best enjoyed with stale bread and butter. Yuri, the train’s cook, (may not be his real name) was a burly, angry looking, middle aged man of few words. He looked like he hadn’t stepped off his beloved restaurant car since Gargarin went into orbit. What he lacked in charisma he more than made up for in his exquisite borsch. I’ll miss that wonderful man.
  4. Play cards. After Yuri had cleared his bowls away, we would partake in card games – sometimes for money. What better way to dispose of your leftover Mongolian Tughrik? A particular favourite was the much loved Israeli travellers game – Yaniv. I won’t explain the rules here, they would confuse the hell out of a nuclear physicist.
  5. Usually around this time there would be a scheduled stop where you could pick up some much needed supplies, or just not be on a train for a bit.
  6. Have a shower; again this was another highlight of the day. The “shower” consisted of a kettle filled with boiling water, a cold water tap and a toilet cubicle with a hole in the floor. Use your imagination.
  7. After the shower there were a few choices, A) Crack open the vodka because it’s inevitable anyway. B) Watch a movie from someones collection or C) catch up on reading that book you’ve spent the last 6 months “getting around to”. Almost every time this turned into a combination of A and B.
  8. Dinner, and back to the warmth of Yuri’s bosom. Dinner was usually a turkey escallop; mainly because he would always recommend it, and I enjoyed the way he tried to pronounce the word “escallop”. The small things really start to matter. More vodka would follow, as well as interactions with local Russians and our fellow travelers before retiring back to carriage fifteen and our beds for the cold night.
  9. Doing it all over again.

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Didn’t you ever get extreme cabin fever?

Maybe a little! But you had these frequent enough stops lasting anywhere between 5 minutes and 2 hours where you would be ready and waiting with hats and scarfs, scratching at the door as the train pulled in. These stops were greatly anticipated, but you would generally not spend more than 15 minutes off the train due to the onset of frostbite.

Is there anything you wish you had brought or glad you had with you?

Essentials included a plastic cup, teabags, a pair of good slippers, a warm hat, a speaker and an adaptor. I probably should have brought an extra blanket, socks and more toilet paper in hindsight…

What would you say to anyone thinking of doing it?

It’s a truly unforgettable experience. I think it’s the longest single train journey in the world so yeah, pretty remarkable. It’s a wonderful escape for anyone wanting a real offline holiday experience, and for anyone wanting to catch up on some reading and writing whilst being inspired by the majestic Siberian landscape.

Six weeks, seventeen countries, one breakaway Soviet state,  one nuclear disaster, and countless bowls of Borsch. Our infamous Eurasian Adventure.

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