12 Oct, 2009
The Trans-Siberian Express
Posted by: Scott In: The Rally
Having nothing better to do than sleep for the time being I decided to explore what would be my surroundings for the next three days and nights. I walked the narrow hall and found car after car looking exactly like the one I was in. I went on for about six cars or so before deciding to turn back–there obviously wasn’t much to see here. A few cars before I hit my own I heard some English voices and peeked in a berth while passing to see four white faces. “Ahh–nice to hear some English!” I remarked, sticking my head inside for a second. “It was actually Dutch, but no biggie” replied one of the guys in the room. They invited me inside and we introduced ourselves before breaking out a bottle of vodka. Turns out they were from the Netherlands and Belgium and had met up in Moscow when boarding the train. We had a nice chat before fatigue got the better of me and I retired to my cabin.
The next morning I was awoken by the sound of station announcements and my roommate hustling outside to sell her wares. It was a little before seven in the morning, and we had stopped at a small Siberian station to load and unload passengers. I wearily got up, threw on my jacket, and stepped outside for some fresh air. Once we started moving again I decided to do a bit more exploring, this time in the other direction. Again I passed train car after train car of rooms similar to mine, many of them occupied by Mongols and their loads of boxes of clothing for sale. After a half dozen cars I came to the dining car. It was unoccupied, so I sat down and the waitress gave me a menu. There were tons of things listed on it, but she was quick to point out that in actuality they only had three choices. I opted for the omelet, which came out a few minutes later accompanied by some slices of bread. A very overpriced, spartan breakfast, but I was just happy to have something in my stomach.
The rest of the day was spent lazing around my cabin. My roommate was hanging out with her friends in the adjoining rooms most of the time, so I didn’t see much of her. I spent a lot of time just looking out the window, taking a few pictures, studying my Mongolian phrasebook, and listening to my iPod. Around midday we stopped again and a large contingent of the Mongol passengers disembarked from the train, taking their loads of goods with them. Among those that left was my roommate–looked like I had the entire berth to myself for the time being! When walking around a bit later I came upon another cabin a few down from mine that housed four Brits. We hung out that evening and played a few games of poker in their room in which I pretty much ended coming out on top.
Now, it should be noted that even though the Trans-Siberian Express is often romanticized in novels and movies and whatnot, the reality is that the Trans-Siberian Express is just a train. I too had imagined nice comfy compartments, with a grand dining car with huge windows where people would sit and play cards games while drinking vodka and enjoying the view. Nope! Even with a second class ticket that costs hundreds of dollars you are put four to a very small room with moderately hard beds. There is no running water, so bring enough bottled water to drink, brush your teeth, and clean up with; and don’t think that you’ll have any access to a shower for the five days or so you are a passenger. Heating is come and go and it can get quite cold if you are unlucky enough to be on one of the train cars without it (and this is just in late summer!). Hot water is usually available for tea and cup ramen, but that depends on if your car’s attendants have been vigilant in keeping the stove fire stoked. As I previously wrote, there is indeed a dining car, but it’s not somewhere that anybody frequents with any regularity because of its limited choices and high prices. Also, the attendants in each car have the keys to open up any room and can and will open up the door to your cabin at any time without a moment’s notice. It’s always fun to be startled awake at three in the morning by one of them peeking into your room for no good reason at all.
The next morning we arrived in Irkutsk very early. So early in fact that I slept right through it! When I finally dragged myself out of bed and stopped into the hallway I heard French voices coming from the compartment directly next to mine. A women about my age stepped into the hall and proceeded to peer out the window. I gave her my best ‘bonjour!’ and we got to talking. She was traveling from France to Moscow, and then to Ulaanbaatar and Peking (Beijing) with her aunt. They invited me into their cabin and we continued to talk about their trip before I explained what I was doing there. The aunt didn’t speak much English, so her niece did an admirable job translating most of the conversation into French for her. They were both named Marie (Mary and Marie I think), and they lived in the North-East part of France, near Metz.
At the next stop, Ulan-Ude, I was introduced to my new bunkmate. A giant Mongolian guy came stumbling into the room looking a bit worse for wear. He smiled and waved and continued walking down the hall. I could smell the alcohol on him. Throughout the next few hours he would walk up and down the hall, wobbling back and forth between various people’s rooms, and always forgetting where his own room was whenever he returned to our car. He never seemed to pass up a chance to put his hands on women, especially the two attendants staffing our car, and it was obvious he liked to drink (he picked up a one liter bottle of beer at our first stop). When he finally succumbed to to alcohol he passed our on the bed next to mine, arms astray, shirt exposing quite the paunch of a belly, snoring loud enough to be heard in adjoining rooms. It was quite a funny sight…but I’m sure it would have been funnier if I didn’t know that I would have to be sharing a bunk with this man that very night. The two French ladies took pity on me and invited me to stay with them in their room for the night, which I gladly accepted.
That evening we pulled into our last stop in Russia before hitting the Mongolian border. It was here where we would have to hand over our passports and wait about six or seven hours for the customs officials to check everything, including all of our rooms and possessions. While waiting we went into town and dropped by a convenience store some drinks and a bite to eat from the babushkas that were sitting outside selling pierogies and samosas. The French girl and I had also met some guys from England, Denmark, and Italy, and we walked around together for a bit trying our best to kill time. It was evening by the time we got everything back and were confined to quarters while the police searched every cabin for contraband. I wanted to get the greasy taste of meat samosa out of my mouth, so I grabbed my toothbrush and headed over to lower the hallway window (the bathrooms had to be locked for the entire time were were waiting at the station). I had just finished brushing my teeth and was about to spit out the train window when a guard standing directly outside below the window said “no!”. “Mmph umph mmmmph!”, I replied with a mouth full of toothpaste and nowhere to spit it. Again, “no!” was the only response I got. It was quite the predicament. I thought quickly and decided to go in between the train cars where there was a bit of an opening and just did my business there. What an ass!
Eventually everything was completed and we continued on our way. Then we stopped again after crossing the Mongolian border to go through the whole rigmarole all over again. Luckily they were a bit quicker about everything and the visa checking process took only a couple of hours. It was already after midnight by this time so I along with the two French ladies retired to our bunks for a night of restless sleep, awakened at every stop by the commotion of passengers getting off the train. We woke up just prior to our scheduled arrival time of 7:30AM to find that the train was running a bit late and we had another hour or so to go. It was freezing in the compartment and we did our best to warm ourselves up and get packed and ready for our final destination. At a bit before 9:00AM we arrived at Ulaanbaatar Station just outside of the city center. I said goodbye to the new friends I had made and set off to find my ride.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.