11.08.2015 - 24.08.2015 -25 °C
The Tran-Siberian railway is the passage way to the East...to the start of an adventure touring a world and culture that is entirely different to that in which one is used to in Europe. It's a world with different practices, traditions, language and life. While one could very easily get a plane to any number of destinations in the world, would it not be more an experience to take the option that is not so widely chosen? Take the option that may be considerably longer but will involve memories and experiences that one may never have again, yet always cherish? If so, I would recommend taking the Tran-Siberian railway. To say it's an "experience" is one way to put it.
I myself got the train with a mate of mine in Moscow, to start our venture towards Beijing, with a six day stopover in UlaanBaatar, Mongolia. There are different routes that one can choose, involving different stopping points, trains and views. The train in which we ended up on, was a Chinese train. Personally I was delighted because the Chinese and Mongolian conductors are more friendly and helpful; now I say that from reading various articles on-line, but also will say that from personal experience. We stayed in 2nd class berth, which suited our needs perfectly. Each carriage has ten or so cabins, each with four beds, with storage on top in a cabin like space, and storage underneath the bottom beds. So one is more then capable of maintaining a relatively neat and tidy cabin area. The beds are comfortable enough for what you are getting, and you are provided with two sheets, a pillow case (which I have never been more thankful for because when you look at your pillow and see the numerous of stains that litter it, your stomach will turn), and two heavy blankets. The cabin also has a table under the window, as well as a main light and each bed has their own personal light. The carriage itself has two toilets, with a sink in each, and a hot water canister that provides boiling water that can be used as often as one needs it. Needless to say I was delighted to know I could have copious amounts of tea, like a true Irishman
The main point to note, is that there are no showers!! None. Nada. Nil. So depending how long one is on the train, just be prepared. For us, we went five consecutive days on the train without a shower. Now that in itself is something I hope not to experience again. Granted one isn't doing anything too strenuous that involves much of a sweat, but still, there's only so much hygiene a baby wipe can provide! But hey, being a traveller, one has to adapt to the environment, and it's what ya do. Sure it ain't like your the only one doing so.
In terms of heat, we found the train to be grand. There's plenty of windows for ventilation so it never gets too warm, but in the evenings, it can get a bit chilly, so the blankets come in handy. Also, the train does make numerous stops throughout. At each stop, passengers are able to disembark and walk around the station. The time allocated to do so however, varies from stop to stop, and could be anywhere from just ten minutes, to forty-five. Get out and walk about because the air and stretch will do ya good. Watch the time!! Yes the conductors will check the cabins to see if everyone is on-board but the train schedule is so on point, that the train will leave when it is meant to. I have personally witnessed a lad having to run back to the carriage as the train was pulling out of the station. In terms of food, one can purchase food at the stations; instant noodles, cuppa soup, bread, sweets, cakes, drinks etc. We decided to stock up for the trip beforehand, and I found that personally, to be the best method. With the hot water availability, the smell of cuppa soups and instant noodles at breakfast, lunch and dinner, is something one will have to get used to.
We shared our cabin with a Swiss lad, and that was it; so having three in a cabin made space and what not that bit easier. We then got talking to others in our cabin, which is the norm, and sure enough, we got talking to people from Singapore, England, Germany, America, Italy and France. Everyone is in the same boat (train) so the mood is the same all round and we're all there to just have a good time and embrace the experience and all it has to offer.
Passing the time is not as difficult as one may think. Like I mentioned, you get talking to others, and sure you all become one carriage family. We ended up playing copious amounts of card games! BRING CARDS!! They are a life saver and ya have such a good laugh with them as well. Each person has a game they know off that others don't, so you learn new things, while sharing what you know as well. You alternate between cabins in a manner that is similar to knocking into your neighbour for some milk or sugar and ending up sitting and chatting for hours. Sure enough, that's what you do. Getting to hear the various stories of people, their experiences, their home towns...it's just amazing. I love hearing it all, and find it fascinating because everyone has a back story in life.
Vodka! Bring vodka because at some point or another, you will be roped into doing vodka shots. We first ended up having bottles of the stuff with the nearby American cabin, and sure enough, the "eat,drink and be merry" expression was in full swing. Sure c'mon, Americans and Irish...what else would you expect! The next night, we got invited to the French cabin, where once again, we drank beer and did vodka shots. We got talking to a lad in the carriage who has lived in Russia for years. He thought this method of downing vodka shots which was rather intriguing, whereby you need vodka and a jar of pickles. Firstly, down the vodka shot, and before you breath-in, smell the pickle, breath out, and then take a bite of the vodka. It supposedly allows you to taste the vodka, but not in the rapid burning sensation that I'm sure many of us are accustomed to when it comes to vodka shots. I must note here, that if you drink vodka, and even if not a big lover of the clear gold, the vodka in Russia, including the cheap stuff, goes down so pure and smooth. Back home, Smirnoff would be the common choice, and it's got a rather strong, somewhat burning taste. With any of the vodka in Russia, it's just near non-existent. It's a glorious and albeit dangerous quality! But sure feic it, when in Rome ay?! The only thing, is that when you have rationed your food and water for the duration of the trip, hangovers are even worse because you cannot drink copious amounts of water and eat anything and everything in site; especially when you've brought mainly fruit as your food source...it's actually rather depressing and the only way to get past it is to get up and keep drinking :P
If you want alone time, that's perfectly accepted. Grab your book and read, grab your sketch book and draw, grab your laptop and watch films. Better yet, sit there and look out the window. Look out and enjoy the scenery that is passing you by because it's highly likely that this will be your only time on the train, and sure the scenery is one of the push factors for taking the trip.
Last thing to note, is border control. When leaving Russia, you will be at the station for two hours roughly, and get at least six visits. The first will be the official who checks your passport (especially your photo, I mean she must have looked at the picture and me for more then thirty seconds), your visa and all that jazz. Then comes the customs official to determine if you have anything to declare. Another official comes and has you leave the cabin and checks it for anything illegal and what not. Another will take count of how many are in the cabin, while he is followed by two officials who check that your passport has been stamped. Lastly, an army lad will sweep the carriage with a dog (a beautiful German Shepard in our case). Once done, you trek on, and sure enough, not even an hour later, you stop for another near two hours where Mongolian border security takes place. It's not near as intimidating though. Simply one fills out the visa, gets asked about what you are bringing in your bags, what's the purpose of your trip and so forth. There aren't near as many visits from people, but they take everyone's passport on the carriage and that's the main hold-up because it's near an hour later that you'll get it back with approval or not. Once that's all done and dusted, it's onwards to UlaanBaatar.
At UlaanBaatar, we got off and spent six days here. We re-embarked the train the following Saturday at 8am. This time round we were on the Monogolian train, and needless to say it was a huge improvement on the Chinese train. First off, it was much cleaner; like they actually mop down the aisles fairly frequently! Each carriage is provided with both hot and cold drinkable water. The toilets are by far of a higher standard, with hand-soap, air freshener and even a towel. I'm telling ya, it's the small things in life :P As for the cabins, they are a bit narrower but have the same under bed storage, but much less storage on top. The table is narrower but in contrast, the beds are wider, and indeed, a bit more comfortable. The train ride to Beijing is only short of 28 hours so there's no need to worry about hygiene too much, and one does not have to bring on as much food either. The Chinese boarder is similar to that of the Mongolian in that they will take your passport and get it for around an hour or so, and there isn't as much in cabin checks as before. It's mainly a waiting game at this stage. From here however, the next stop will be the change of the trains wheels to fir the Chinese tracks. The whole process takes around 3 hours in total and everyone must stay on the train. It's pretty impressive once the train rolls into the station cabin where the whole process takes place, but one does not get a clear view of the changes that are happening. If your lucky, a train will pull up alongside and you'll be able to take a photo of the process that way. Other then that, I would advise you to have a film or two at the ready to help pass time. The following morning, your ticket will be returned to you by the conductor, and once that happens, it's a matter of just waiting until the train arrives into the station; during which just sit back, relax and enjoy the glorious scenery that encapsulates both a mountainous and flat terrain.
While the idea of being a train for so long, with limited services and what not,may hinder the desire of wanting to take the train; it's all about the experience. The craic and banter that was had is something alone I will remember. The world is changing and such methods of travel are becoming less common as the world is about getting to places as quick as possible, with the least hassle involved. Don't become one of those people, at least not yet. It's the least common methods ventured that have the highest reward value. Go and live on a train! Go and enjoy all that it offers and be able to be one of the few who can say they have done such a trip! It's what life is all about