Sleeping through Siberia? How is THAT possible? my friends would later ask. Well, try staying awake when you’re being rocked gently from side to side for seven days and nights.
My daughter and I spent a few days in fascinating St Petersburg before taking an overnight train to Moscow, where we would begin our adventure.
We stood on the platform at Yaroslavsky station, replete from a dinner with our host family of fish soup, buckwheat, and apple pancakes, to board the nine twenty-nine train number ten headed for Beijing, via Irkutsk and Ulaan Bataar. My daughter Georgina had earlier done a bungee jump over Moscow’s Gorky Park, so we drank champagne in our compartment as the train pulled out for our Trans-Siberian adventure. Sleeping through Siberia was not what I had in mind, but reality took over my plans.
Rocked by the slow motion of the train – whose average speed is only fifty five kilometres an hour, taken at a gentle rhythm of one-two, three-four, one-two, three-four – we slept well. Ours was a first class compartment, which simply meant there were only two of us sharing six berths. Second class had four sharing, third class, six. Every carriage had a samovar of boiling water at one end of the corridor, and squat toilets with a small washbowl at the other. For the next few days a strip wash would be all we could manage in the confined space, so I had brought a supply of wet wipes. Sadly, these were not well known in Russia, and some of our sputniks (Russian for travelling companion) would have been more popular in outer space.
Vodka for breakfast?
Next morning we tried the infamous dining car. Rumour had it that the food was terrible, so we had stocked up on dried soups, powdered hot chocolate, crackers, crisps and other not-very-nourishing foodstuffs. Georgina had two fried eggs and I bread and jam, costing less than two euros. ‘Pretty yuk’ was Georgina’s verdict. The men on the next table ordered Vodka and croissants. Strange, unwholesome smells emanated from the corridors near the kitchen.
Everyone got off at Kirov – after nine hundred and fifty seven kilometres- to stretch our legs and buy fruit and bread rolls from the babushka (old lady) on the platform. The fruit was delicious – a mixture of blueberries and raspberries – and the rolls were stuffed with jam and cheese mixed with potato. The forest on either side of the track was dense.
Grassy tracks led through villages of wooden houses, where women in headscarves bent low to weed or pick in vegetable gardens, or carry heavy bags, one each side for balance, along the muddy trails. The forest extended right up to the tracks as the train snaked around curves up ahead, through tall trees.
During the evening we heard Russian music coming from a nearby compartment, the sound of laughter and slamming of glass onto table. At nine in the morning passengers queued up to buy beer on the station platform. At Nazevayevskaya, over a hundred sellers lined the platform to sell beer, pies, boiled potatoes in paper bags, and cigarettes wrapped individually. In one of many ‘copse markets’ t-shirts were hanging on trees for customers to view.
We passed through four time zones in two days, but the train remained steadfastly on Moscow time, so although it was five forty in the afternoon outside, it was still officially nine forty in the morning on board. We played travel trivia with Ali and Ludmilla, students from the UK, who shared their peanut butter with us. We ate it from the jar with spoons whilst discussing quantum mechanics. At three in the morning it was daylight outside. We passed through thick taiga forest and not long after pulling out of a station, I noticed a car abandoned deep in the grass, perhaps stuck in a snowfall en route to the train.
At Krasnoyarsk we bought sausages of dubious origin and hard-boiled eggs, then stopped again five hours later to buy yogurts and Russian-style chicken noodles. We became obsessed with finding edible food and spent hours either dreaming of or talking about it. The acrid odour from the kitchen of repeatedly used fat kept us well away from the dining car after our first morning sortie.
Naps between sleeps
An old lady on the platform wearing fingerless gloves, a headscarf, shawl and soft boots clapped her hands together to ward off the cold. It must have been a circulation problem, as we were travelling in the summer: I could not bear the idea of winter temperatures despite the temptation to see all the snow. Life on the train was blissfully cosy, and the comforting rocking rhythm relaxed me completely. At night we indulged in hot chocolate or malt drinks to round off a busy day of what Georgina called naps between sleeps.
Lost in translation
In the night I stumbled to the lavatory and passed Tanya, our carriage attendant – The Provodnitsa – sitting looking lonely in her compartment. In an attempt to be friendly I practiced my rusty Russian and asked her if she ever went to sleep. She looked at me oddly and gave me a cursory smile. On my return to our compartment, instinct told me to check what I had said, and I discovered I had just asked her if she ever had a thought in her head. Oops.
After warnings against Siberian mosquitoes, we were all covered in evil-smelling, skin-burning repellent as we left the train after three days and four nights to spend two days trekking around Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal pines
The first thing I noticed when we stepped out of the minibus was the crisp, sweet scent of pine. The hills were glistening in the drizzle, a veil of mist shrouded the treetops, and I wanted to breathe in this cleansing air deep down into my boots. A rounded, cracked face beamed up at us as we alighted.
“I Sonya – welcome to Listvyanka.” she cackled.
Behind us, the lake was a turbulent gunmetal sea. We couldn’t see the far shore. I had expected to go swimming here. Summers are hot in Siberia, they told me. Lake Baikal is a tourist destination for Russians, famed for its numerous species of wildlife, fish and birds.
Today was famous for being the wettest of a wet week. The drizzle turned into rain, then into a downpour, and we sloshed along muddy paths towards a group of one-storey huts to Sonya’s, where we were to rest and consider the wisdom of our planned two-day trek in such hostile weather conditions. It wasn’t difficult walking, our Phil Collins lookalike guide, Sacha, told us. The problem was that the slopes were very steep and it would be dangerously slippery, especially with packs.
After four nights of being rocked to sleep, I was ready for some hard exercise. I persuaded Sacha to take me on a long walk at least, assuring him that getting wet was not a life-threatening issue for me. I wondered what kind of European wimps he was used to guiding in these remote parts. Georgina chose to be one of them and stayed in the comfort of Sonya´s timber home, drinking tea with blini pancakes and sour cream, snuggling under furs beside a wood-burning stove. Sacha and I talked as we ascended, face down to prevent drowning in the downpour, about his home town, Irkutsk – the Paris of Siberia – where we had spent the previous night. I liked it better than both Moscow and St Petersburg, finding it more animated and visibly happier. Cosy looking log cabins decorated with intricate fretwork once housed soldiers collecting fur taxes from local tribesmen.
Tea caravans from China purchased furs as they passed through, establishing the city as the trading and later administrative capital of Siberia, some twenty times the size of France. Dissenting noblemen from Western Russia were exiled here, the most famous being the Decembrists after their ill-fated coup against the Tsar in 1825. Ex-convicts and illiterate adventurers made vast fortunes during the gold rush in the early nineteenth century, and built lavish mansions amid the dilapidated shanties of the poor.
I told Sacha that I hadn’t seen as many people here wandering around the streets with beer bottles in their hands. He patted his back pocket.
“We drink Vodka here” he informed me with a conspiratorial smile.
He told me about his mother, an ex-teacher, who had saved 15% of her income throughout her working life towards a pension. When she cashed it in after the fall of the rouble, it bought one trolley of groceries. We stopped to buy a pinecone from a roadside stall manned by a tiny boy dressed in turquoise leggings, red quilted jacket and padded cotton baseball hat: a young entrepreneur who has already learned how to play the tourist game. I enquired why we had paid for the cone when I can pick them up free back home in a nearby copse. Sacha showed me how to twist it to reveal plump pine nuts that we snacked on during our return walk along the now calm shore.
Later, as I patted a bunch of birch twigs over my thighs in the Siberian sauna, the sun streamed in through the tiny wooden window, promising a glorious new day. We dined on omul fish and strolled to a pine cabin ‘nightclub’ where we danced the night away to house music. It was hard to believe that we were some 6000 kilometres from London. Even Moscow seemed another planet away!
But during lunch next day, camped at the water’s edge watching Sacha build a fire from branches of the rowan tree, London was a universe away. The pebbly shore was deserted, only the occasional putt-putt of a fishing vessel disturbing the tranquillity. The forest is thick here; without a guide we would never have found a way through. The same sweet scent now lingered purer after the previous day’s rainfall. Sacha had been right: the track was very steep and would have been impossible yesterday.
World’s deepest and oldest lake
Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest at 1637 metres and contains twenty per cent of the world’s freshwater supply. It alone could supply the planet’s needs for forty years. It is also Earth’s oldest lake, formed fifty million years ago, and one of its largest, four hundred miles long by forty wide. Numerous types of sponge live in its depths, filtering the water sufficiently to make it safe to drink. Over eighty percent of the species found in the lake are unique to it, including freshwater seals, mosses, lichens, fish, and crustaceans.
As the fire burned down and we lay on our backs dozing in the warm sun, I wondered how long it would be before coca cola and ice cream stalls would be set up here. I wanted to keep it as our secret, to preserve its remoteness.
But eight hours later when we stepped out of the bus once more back in Irkutsk, and shook hands with our gentle, strong guide, his parting words were
“You are good people. Please tell your countrymen about us. And come again, soon.”
Grumbling and smuggling to Mongolia
We re-boarded, to enjoy spectacular views of the Lake as the train grumbled its way onwards to Mongolia. We heard rumours of smuggling going on in the second class carriages and indeed, police were patrolling the corridors. An elderly man carrying a hand sickle plodded by an abandoned army camp full of rusty tanks and trucks.
At Ulan Ude I ran back along the platform to photograph a steam locomotive, whilst illegal trading appeared to be going on all around me on the platform. People were handing boxes up into the train, passengers shoved aside to allow those we assumed to be smugglers access to roof compartments through ceiling plates. I noticed air freshener, umbrellas, analgesics and kitchen pots bulging from the boxes.
Everyone appeared to be involved – small children clambered over our luggage, guards glanced the other way as coins tumbled into their palms.
A policeman beckoned to one man carrying a sack crammed full of goods, only to point at the compartment he was to stash them into. It was our last stop in Russia, and I was sad to leave. I had wanted to visit this vast land since I was thirteen years old.
Sleeping? Through Siberia?
I told my daughter how thrilled I was to have seen this vast country.
‘Mum! Do you realise all you’ve been doing is sleeping through Siberia?’ She laughed. She had a point; I must have missed a lot of the scenery. But she hadn’t, and as a parent that made me feel very happy.
Fat pink pigs and woolly sheep were dotted across the hills. There were signs of cattle; flocks of geese were gathering by the track. We caught glimpses of swamps, wooden huts, cemeteries with coloured gravestones enclosed by chain fences, flooded rivers, distant hills.
A soldier got off with his young family, carrying a huge supermarket bag, and they walked off into the fields. There was no one else in sight as they picked their way over the grass-covered tracks. Had they made the four-hour journey to Ulan Ude to stock up on supplies? Tiny, lonely villages broke my heart as I watched people at work, including a fisherman in a turquoise t shirt, bucket in hand, knee deep in the river.
We reached the border with Mongolia at ten to nine in the evening, and everyone got off to change our last roubles at the station. Some passengers drank champagne while the border guards searched our compartments.
Camels, yaks and yurts
Seen from the train, the Gobi desert at sunset was an ocean of stillness. Under a new moon, the landscape slowly turned from pink to olive. A motionless Bactrian camel was silhouetted against the horizon, breaking hour after hour of nothingness. A wild horse lowered its neck to graze, a yak stared vacantly as if he’d been transported into a time zone far beyond where he belonged. A lone yurt, the octagonal tent which the Nomads erect in no time, formed a secure, warm home, complete with stove and shrine. They call the tents gers here.
We alighted at Ulaan Bataar to head out to a ger camp for two nights under the stars, about an hour’s minibus ride out of the capital. Next morning, a nervously eager party gathered around a corral whilst our guide went off to catch the horses for the day’s expedition. Hours later, flushed with effort, Georgina declared that she wanted to stay here for a very long time and go galloping across the grasslands again and again.
I climbed to the top of a hill to gaze, uncomprehending, at the vastness surrounding me. Pristine light bathed the distant, empty steppe. Nothing could rob this scene of its solitude.
A cluster of yurts far below marked a settlement of sturdy, swarthy horsemen and their families. They milk mares and ferment the milk to make a very alcoholic beverage which made our young guide go bright red in the cheeks. They top up the barrel every day with freshly drawn milk, and use some to make a delicious kind of nougat.
The people live, breathe and smell like horses, and are extremely hospitable, despite their bewilderment at the increasing number of visitors who come to gawp at their rare lifestyle, in return for a small gift such as a key ring or pen. When we departed, they gave us the traditional send off, galloping, whooping and waving alongside the minibus until we were too fast for the horses.
Mongolia is a charming destination for those with a sense of adventure and humour. Perusing a menu consisting of only eggs and bread in the Urge restaurant, we needed to remember the latter. Where else could we buy a roll up chess set which stank of burnt wool, or hear the strangely haunting but utterly peculiar sound of throat singing, which is simultaneously the song of a bull frog and a canary?
When we re-boarded, it was immediately obvious we were on route to China. Tea was served thirty minutes after departure from Ulaan Bataar. We had been given sponge bags and fresh linen when we boarded.
Sponge cake stations
We passed a herd of camels as we entered the desert. Choyr station looked like a pink and white sponge cake. The restaurant indoors was adorned with huge watercolour paintings and bright blue frilly nylon cushions, yet we were surrounded by scrubland and sand, broken telegraph poles, ramshackle dwellings and a futuristic, silvery statue of a Mongolian cormorant.
As we penetrated the Gobi further, the temperature rose to over thirty Celsius. At one stop I counted seven houses and two sheds, as urchins ran alongside the train catching sweets thrown from the carriages. From now on we saw nothing outside but sand, through 360 degrees, right out to the horizon, until nightfall. The track snaked behind us into infinity as the desert turned pink.
They’re changing the bogie at Erlian!
Suddenly, there were lights in the distance. I thought it was the border stop and started to get ready, but it turned out to be a caravan depot. As we pulled in to the Chinese station at eight thirty in the evening guards lined up along the platform every twenty metres, saluting the train.
A new moon glimmered behind the steeple tower. Customs officers boarded and began their search as we were served tea an hour later: we had become accustomed to waiting. As the train moved towards the border itself a grasshopper jumped in through our window onto Georgina’s head, and out through the compartment door.
Up, and into China
We pulled into China to Paula Abdul belting out a song on the station loudspeakers. At midnight we were shunted into a huge shed where the whole carriage, with us still in it, was raised two metres by huge hydraulic jacks. The Chinese line is of a narrower gauge, and a new bogie slid in underneath the carriage from one end, which then pushed the old one out of the other end. The train was slowly lowered and we moved out of the shed to make room for the next carriage. The whole process took a couple of hours.
We woke at seven to find everything covered in thick black coal dust from the engine. The landscape now consisted of what looked like tiny islands: mounds with one small tree on top. Sunflowers were growng in the fields. Needless to say, more tea was served as soon as we showed signs of movement in our carriage.
It was misty outside but hot; we needed our compartment fan on. As we breakfasted on egg and tomato bread, we chatted to an Australian girl who turned out to be the fiancée of the son of friends back home. Passengers frequently wander in and out of each other’s compartments; this is a very sociable way to travel.
High in more ways than one
As the train slowed, a handful of travellers jumped off the train from the front, gathered up handfuls of marijuana plants growing alongside the track, and jumped back on at the back.
We stopped to attach a banking engine to haul us up to the level of the Great Wall. Anticipation almost rocked the train; everyone murmuring excitedly, especially the westerners, poised at the windows with cameras. The crossing was spectacular: the wall rose to each side as we zigzagged through, up, back and down, passing long sections above the train and the near-vertical, famous section at Badaling, where hundreds of tourists were squashed onto a narrow path.
The train pulled into Beijing. We discovered that the ‘free’ tea was going to cost six yuan – about seventy five pence, so I didn’t protest too loudly. We had spent seven nights on the train, with two stops. It had been the journey of a lifetime.