Our Trans-Mongolian Rail journey

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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The No. 4 Train, Moscow - Beijing

Flag of Russia  , Siberia,
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Six days (seven nights), five thousand miles, five time zones, two continents, three vast countries, following the ancient route of tea caravans and the Great Siberian Post road or trakt, temperatures between 17 and 40 degrees celcius; it sounds exhausting, but it's everything but, when you're on board the No. 4 train, Moscow to Beijing. The journey provided a delicious snapshot of  Russia, Mongolia and China along this 'Ribbon of Iron', a tantalising glimpse of the environment and human life within three very different countries, a perfect introduction and an unforgettable experience. 

We toasted the start of our rail journey in our comfy two-berth cabin (plus shower room!) with a Chinese beer (the No.4 is Chinese run), watching Moscow's smoking factories and apartment blocks fall away behind us in the evening light, and we woke to an European Russian landscape, flat with vivid green forests of birch, pine and oak and wildflower grasslands of pink, yellow, blue and white. Communities of 'dachas' marked the start of towns and cities - wooden houses, steep pitched roofs to shed snow, with fenced plots, serving as retreats and the allotments for city dwellers and permanent homes for many. Some looked so fragile it was hard to see how they could withstand a Russian winter.

We sped over the mighty Volga River, Europe's longest, through the rolling, forested Ural Mountains as the sun set and into Asia as we slept. We passed into Siberia early the next day and for the next two we sped across the open steppeland of the Siberian Plain; thick forests of birch and pine (called taiga) dotted with lakes, ponds and peat wetlands. The scale of this land is incomprehensible, as is the number of lives lost here of convicts, exiles, colonists (many forced) and railway laborers over the last two centuries. Today, five million ducks and geese are bagged every year from the Baraba Steppe, giving an idea of the scale of this wetland habitat.

Industrial cities and towns, chimneys belching fumes, blocks of flats and ramshackle dachas flash past; significant economically and, compared to UK cities, significant in terms of size, but mere blips within the vast surrounding natural landscape and within our long rail journey. Over the River Ob, one of the world's longest, and the Yenisey River, whose bridge had to be engineered to withstand the icebergs steamrolling down river, settlements, sawmills, lumber yards and open cast mines zipped past the window. The green foothills of the Sayan Mountains had people gathering at the windows and chattering away, refreshed by the change of scene and the views down over the steppe. Day four, we watched the dawn arrive at Irkusk station and the sun rose as the train wove up and over the cedar covered Primorsky Mountains. The cold, fresh air was heavy with the scent of pine, a blue mist filled the valleys, and then we had the first glimpse of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world (home to the world's only freshwater seals and apparently it contains enough freshwater to provide for the current world population for the next forty years!). We followed the Selenga River through rolling green hills, all the way to the Mongolian border, past many lakes, bright blue under a cloudless sky.

The Russian-Mongolian border was an interesting affair with border police, customs officials and sniffer dog checking all cabins. Shockingly, two of our carriage companions were marched off the train with their bags, not to be seen again. An important lesson in getting your paperwork in order, and I imagine a very hefty fine and an unsympathetic Austrian embassy awaited them!

Day five we awoke to see the wide open Mongolian grasslands panning out before us, an occasional, distant white ger (yert), horses and vehicle, drawing the eye. Before the industrial skyline of Ulaan Baator (home now to 1/3 of Mongolians), a festival site was beginning to take shape as more arrivals were erecting gers, tethering horses, chatting in groups and waving at the train. This was to be a big annual festival of horseriding, archery and wrestling and two of our carriage comrades were heading off to this, lucky things. For the rest of the day we sped through the wilderness of the Gobi Desert, through sandy grassland with distant gers, solitary human figures and vehicles, the odd herd of horses, cattle and goats. We saw camels at drinking holes and black cranes. There were a number of carcasses too; victims of one of Mongolia's worst winters on record. Tiny railway-road crossing settlements and industrial towns with soviet style blocks appeared out of the desert and were gone. The vast, open and empty desert rolled on and on under a sunset and then a huge dark starry sky. And then before we were really ready to say goodbye to Mongolia we crossed into China - a pulsating neon, fluorescent China - to the sound of a tinny Vienna Waltz blaring from platform speakers!

After the border checks the train was shunted into a huge hangar where a work crew were waiting to dismantle our undercarriage (the bogies) - the Russian and Mongolian bogies are too large for the Chinese tracks. We were uncoupled from our neighbouring carriages, raised into the air on hydraulics and our bogies replaced with shiny new ones. Thank goodness our carriage was of robust German build because some of the shunting was seriously violent. Great to see though.

At the end of day five we toasted our arrival in China with a Russian beer, bought from one of the many platform kiosks en route. On the matter of food, the station food (from kiosks and hawkers), and that of the three very different buffet cars was really good. Bread, vegetables (cooked and fresh), smoked meats and drinks were all in good supply. To supplement those we made good use of the coal-fired samovar that provided hot water for each carriage for tea, pot-noodles and cous-cous, and we had a good supply of biscuits, and whisky.

On our final day we awoke to a beautiful misty scenes starting with a flat sandy plateau dissected by new valleys to tall jagged limestone peaks dipping down to a wide river, with the train passing through tunnel after bridge after tunnel. The difference between here and Siberia and Mongolia was immediately apparent though - every square inch of land was being utilised, whether for industry, mining, aggregate extraction, agriculture, inhabitation, road or rail infrastructure or waste. The rivers flowed brown or pea green with pools of scum and blanket weed. A stunning temple on a hill top was backdropped by huge cooling towers belching steam. 
At Beijing central we gathered our carriage posse and our fuwuyuen (attendants) together for photos. They'd been great travel companions who we'd shared many laughs, observations and insights. Steven (beardy chap in hat) proved to be a very valuable commodity as he was tall enough to clean the cabin windows from the platforms!

We hope this short summary of our train trip will inspire others to undertake this journey. It's one we certainly hope to repeat one day but in winter time when Siberia lies under a blanket of thick snow and Lake Baikal is frozen solid. Stops at Irkusk and Ulaan Baatur would definitely be on the agenda too.

Best wishes
Phil & Nickie
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