Train 004 – My Adventure To China On The Trans – Mongolia Express| 5 min read
Train 004, the Trans-Mongolia Express, leaves every Tuesday from Moscow Yaroslavskaya train station, arriving in Beijing the following Monday. I had a triathlon to compete in on Sunday 15th August and I needed to be in Beijing on Monday 23rd August for the start of the TTC internship, so I just had enough time to do the route straight through. Seven days on the train to kick start my adventure in China. When else would I get an opportunity like this? I think it must’ve been kismet.
I was in a 2nd class four berth compartment, sharing with two American guys from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia) then an English couple from UB to Beijing. There was a German girl down the corridor and a Swedish guy who both came all the way to Beijing, so I spent most of my time hanging out with those two and the Americans. At the end of each carriage there was a sort of a boiler thing (samovar) which we could get unlimited boiling water from – I’d read up on this so I’d brought plenty of teabags and cuppasoups which I supplemented with pot noodles. Fortunately, to save me from scurvy and carb-overload there was usually a gaggle of enterprising Babushkas whenever we stopped for any length of time at a station. These tiny old grannies (some who wore housecoats, headscarves and beards; some who wore lycra and looked like they’d been on the game) each grabbed a patch on the platforms to sell food they’d cooked from assorted baskets and trays. I bought a big meatball in a poly bag, some goats ceese pancakes, chicken legs, apples, litre cans of beer, bread and boiled eggs from these fine ladies across the journey.
The time passed surprisingly quickly reading, watching movies and chatting. I also spent literally hours looking out the windows and taking pictures, fascinated like a dog in front of a washing machine. Five days of the seven are spent in Russia and I have to say, I started getting some serious locomotive ennui on Day 5. European Russia passed mostly in the dark on the night of Day 1, but what I did see wasn’t particularly gripping. As we travelled further East across Siberia it became more silver birch trees than I thought actually existed: beautiful at first, but you can see why they sent convicts to Siberia as punishment.
Then came the slow transition from swampy and desolate (silver birch peppered) taiga into mountains and forests straight out of any fairytale you care to name. There were beautiful wooden herringbone cottages with intricately carved and brightly painted shutters and graveyards in the tree line. Further east, but still in Russia, still we skirted around Lake Baikal (deepest and oldest freshwater lake on the planet) at dawn on Day 5 which was utterly, utterly breathtaking. For the rest of the day we had vast plains with occasional scrubby bushes and rocky scree as we crossed from Russia into Mongolia. It was the biggest, emptiest sky I’ve ever seen, until we got onto the Mongolian plains and the Gobi desert!
Mongolia made me think of being on a gigantic train set as it was all wide and green and hilly. Around UB there was lots of heavy industry and Soviet style buildings, a bit further out there were wooden houses, cottages and yurts all jumbled up together, shanty town style. As most of Mongolia’s population lives in UB, once we were clear of that it was pretty empty except for the odd yurt and a guy herding horses on a motorbike. The bit of the Gobi desert that we passed through was a flat-ish rocky/sandy expanse with tufty grass rather than sweeping dunes, but we did see some galloping camels which was properly exciting. The last few hours of the journey wound through innumerable tunnels in the mountains in northern China, finally getting to Beijing in the stonking heat of an August mid afternoon.
The border crossings were a complete pain in the arse as you have to stop to have your passport and visa checked each side of each border, it takes forever! The Russian/ Mongolian border took about five hours; Mongolia/China took about seven. This was mostly because all the wheels had to be changed on each carriage to fit the narrower gauge tracks in China; they take all the carriages apart, raise them up on hydraulic lifts, shunt all the old wheels out and pull new ones through then put the train back together. We drew into the Chinese border station to the sound of the Vienna Waltz being pumped out of the speaker system – we pulled out to the strains of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Where do I begin?’ Strange, but also strangely appropriate now I think about it.
It was the most amazing journey – practically the perfect way to get to China if you’ve got the time. I’ve seen places I’d never have gone to by myself, I met some great people and by the time I got off the train, not only was I not jet-lagged but the nervous wreck who had been having nightmares about dying a slow embarrassing death at the front of a classroom was brim full of self confidence. The only downside was that I was in desperate need of a shower!