Our Trans-Mongolian Rail journey
Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
58Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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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
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 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
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.
Phil & Nickie