“Quite possibly there’s nothing as fine as a locomotive starting across country in early morning, Hardesty thought. That’s when you learn that the tragedy of plants is that they have roots.”
Winter’s Tail – On the morning of November 5, 2014, five alarm clocks rang out around Beijing. The sound marked the last stationary sleep for five intrepid travelers who would soon embark on an epic six day adventure beginning in the Chinese capital, and terminating in Moscow, Russia. Although we woke up in different parts of Beijing, we were united by our desire to stave off serious hangovers using water, coffee, and that orange-vitamin-pill-thing that dissolves in water.
As I clamored to pack my bags, I began to wonder what one would need to survive a 6 day rail journey. In the end, the only interesting things I packed were a pretty hefty knife and a pair of slippers in the shape of a cat. If the first earned me respect, the latter became a running joke, albeit an extremely comfy one.
Myself, Gareth, Freddy, Ruhel, and Sherlene all met up under the clock at Beijing Railway Station. After reminiscing about the previous nights antics, we proceeded through the ticket booth and encountered the infamous Beijing Railway Station security team who, by their unwillingness to investigate further the many many beeps, appear to be continually looking for people carrying non-metallic objects. At this point we were already pushed for time but as everyone who has gone on a YPT trip knows, no train journey can begin without first stopping at one of the many beer shops dotted around the station. And so, loaded with more beers than luggage, we walked through the gate, down the stairs, onto the platform and stood face to face with what would be our home for the next six days; the 北京- Mосква K3.
Getting ready to depart – Spanning a track distance of 7,621 km, the trans mongolian, by virtue of its sheer length and extraordinary views, is consistently listed as one of the most incredible train journeys in the world. The next six days would put this to the test.
Boarding the train, it didn’t take us too long to crack open the first beers. The first led to the second and so on until dinner time rolled around.
Drinking in our compartment – We made our way to the Chinese dining carriage where we could swap a ticket for a free meal. It was free for a reason. Gaz loved the meatballs and proceeded to swallow them whole. By the fourth or fifth he had built up quite an audience and many of those in the dining cart were now concentrating more on taking videos with their iPhones than eating their own meatballs. Staring led to conversation and soon enough we became buddies with many of the other foreigners on the train. The train stopped at the Chinese border city of Erlian and if everyone wasn’t already tanked, they certainly were after we set up a makeshift bar / nightclub inside the immigration hall. The thought of doing this at a US immigration hall makes me want to cry with trepidation. Say what you will about China but whilst someone doing this in America could find themselves fall prey to one of the US’s many War on Fun statutes, the Chinese simply don’t give a shit.
Gaz the barman at the Mongolian Border – After some vodka fueled dancing, we made our way back outside to the bitter cold, slipped along the ice covered platform, jumped onto our new home, waved zai jian to China, and said a big hearty Sain baina uu to Mongolia.
One interesting thing to note about the trans mongolian is that there are no showers. Needing a shower to start any day (even if my day consists of nothing more than sitting on a train), I tried as best as I could to recreate some semblance of normalcy. Enlisting the help of our carriage conductor – we were the only guests so he pretty much became one of the group – we managed to put a tube from the conductors room, through the panelling and into the bathroom. This allowed a limited amount of hot water to travel through, thereby allowing ourselves to wash. It turned out to be too much effort though and that morning in Mongolia would be the one and only time I would use it.
After showering ourselves and looking pretty incredible, we made our way through many many carriages and finally emerged at the Mongolian dining cart. As with the rest of the train, it was, save the cook and her family, empty. I figured that it was pretty strange for a daughter to accompany her mother to work when that work consists of cooking on a train going from the Chinese border to the Russian border. But before I had time to ponder this any further, Sherlene presented a pack of cards and due to the engrossing battles of an addictive Chinese card game that Freddy, Ruhel, Sherlene and myself would have over the coming days, the thought of that cook and her family would not again enter my thoughts again until just now.
Ruhel kicking ass at cards – Every so often, in between eating Yak, drinking beer, and Ruhel or Sherlene winning the card game, our glances would turn to the outside and with it, a sharp reminder of just where exactly we were. To say that rolling along beaten up tracks in an authentically designed Mongolian dining car whilst staring out the window at the vastness of the Gobi Desert was an incredible experience would be doing it a gross disservice; it was simply breathtaking.
Traveling through the Gobi Desert – Eventually though, this nothingness turned to something as the high rise buildings of Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, began to take shape in the distance. At one hour, it would be our longest stop on the whole journey. Coincidentally it would also be the one with the greatest availability of necessities, the purchase of which would allow us to enjoy our journey even more. With this in mind, Gaz prepared us with military precision in our purchases. I would be attempting to purchase a Mongolian sim card, Gaz would be on vodka duty, Ruhel’s mission was to acquire beers and cigarettes, Freddy would be keeping us alive with his food purchases, and Sherlene was given a pass as it was understood within the group that she would spend the hour taking selfies regardless.
Selfie time in Mongolia – With our objectives complete, we boarded the train once again and with everyone tethering to my wifi like newborn puppies feeding from the teats of a generous bitch, we sipped on vodka, ate our bread, and rolled through the stunning Mongolian wilderness.
Buoyed by vodka and uplifted from the tunes coming out of Freddy’s speaker, we watched as the Mongolian day turned to night. After an extraordinary sunset that lasted around 10 minutes, darkness suddenly came to the desert; It appeared as if someone had simply arrived and turned out the light.
The next day would see us entering Russia and following a search of the train – under the carriage, inside light fixtures, beds flipped over, dogs barking – that would put a pre inspection of Air Force One to shame, we rambled through the land of babushkas and borsch; both of which we would see plenty of.
Just one of the many unpronounceable stations in Russia – With a new country, comes a new dining car and with a new dining car, comes a new surly attendant. Russia, in this respect, did not disappoint. With a vocabulary that seemingly consisted solely of ‘borsch,’ schnitzel,’ ‘vodka,’ and ‘very good’ we, over the days, developed some kind of relationship with our new chef. I cannot, with confidence, label it as a good relationship, as more often than not he looked like he wanted to kill us. We knew that was silly, however, as we were his only customers and to kill us would have been akin to committing business suicide.
Undoubtedly the biggest event to happen during our time on the train was Sherlene’s 25th birthday. Having acquired birthday supplies before departure in Beijing and after picking up a cake at a stop called Zima (it literally means cold) I kept Sherlene occupied whilst the rest of the group went to the restaurant car to set up the surprise birthday. I have a niggling feeling that our chef and his apprentice enjoyed themselves but in true stoic fashion, both refused the cake that was offered to them.
Birthday Celebrations – For the next few days, we rambled through Siberia and occupied ourselves by practicing Russian accents, playing cards, watching movies, drinking vodka, and seeing who could make their bed the tidiest (I won).
My tidy bed on the right – One of the stand-out parts of the Russian leg of the journey was seeing Baikal, a lake so big that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for an ocean. Incredibly, it contains more water than all of the Great Lakes combined and holds the honor of not just being the deepest and biggest of all freshwater lakes, but also – at 25 million years old – the oldest. For a long time, we sat at the window, doing nothing except staring out at the vastness of this lake. Moments like this were among my favorite of the whole trip. On such a long journey, is is easy to get distracted and allow normalcy to set in; but taking time for simply looking at your surroundings reinforces that this is not normal, this is Siberia.
Sherlene pondering life whilst passing Lake Baikal – As we left the Siberian wilderness and inched closer and closer to Moscow, things remained relatively normal. We drank vodka, we watched movies (even the Trans-siberian Express)and Gaz almost choked to death swallowing another meatball.
Surprisingly not running out of things to say to each other – One thing was beginning to change however – my finger. Having turned a greenish color the night before embarking on the journey, it had over the days, got bigger and more, well, green. Keeping it bandaged up so as to not let anyone see it, the pain eventually superseded my digital vanity, and I showed it to the conductor. Without any attempt to mask his feelings in order to make me feel better, he looked aghast and immediately called for medical technicians to meet the train at the next station. The next station was nine hours away so I went to sleep. I was awoken by the medical technicians in the morning. The train was only stopping for another four minutes and if they didn’t do what they had to do in that space of time, they wouldn’t be able to get off until the next station. So, rather than encounter an 8 hour round trip, they hopped off the train without doing anything. I ended up treating my finger with vodka and you know what? It worked a treat.
Quick treatment somewhere in Russia – We spent the last night as we had spent the others: drinking vodka, listening to music, playing cards, teasing Sherlene, telling stories, and then dozing off to the rhythmic vibrations of the chugging train. We awoke a few hours later and in the distance could see Moscow emerge from the snow. Anyone who has embarked on a long train journey knows that the last five minutes can feel like five hours. This was no different, and after traveling through what seemed like hundreds of miles of Moscow suburbs, the train came to a final stop at Yaroslavski Station. We packed up our things, did a final check, probably had another beer, took a last photo, opened the carriage door, and emerged into the mid afternoon Moscow glare. Group 1 of the Eurasian Adventure Tour was over.
Arrival in Moscow after 6 days.