Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
A veteran of the London to Yorkshire rail commute, George was blasé at the prospect of the 19-day journey through Russia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian Express. The assurance there would be snow (plenty, with temperatures around -30) evoked enthusiasm, but it was the idea of sleeping on the train and what’s more, in bunks that brought him round. And so in the depths of a Moscow winter, fat in polar clothing, we board Train #10, the 23.24 to Irkutsk, Siberia, each with personal agenda, mine to travel on the world’s longest railway through lands associated with classic books, epic films, iconic leaders, and turbulence on an altogether un-English scale, George’s to see if his eyeballs froze.
We have a compartment to ourselves, a small space embellished by satin curtains, a Chinese rug, mirrors, reading lamps, two packs of bedding, a TV (for Russian videos) and a ladder to reach both the on off switch and the upstairs bunks which are neatly folded against the wall. On the table between us there are cups and saucers, tea, coffee and a packet of chocolate biscuits. It’s our home for four nights. George lays out his pack of cards and gets into his Simpsons pyjamas while I stow the bags. He’s game but vague: “So, Moscow, Russia and Vietnam – those are the three countries?” Along the corridor there are slurring Slovak voices, the attendants’ or provodniks’ lair, the toilet for cramped ablutions (although we have an en suite shower on the Beijing train) and the all-important samovar, the urn providing constant hot water for tea and pot noodles available everywhere along the route, even in the middle of the Gobi. According to the thermometer it is 27 degrees. There’s a jolt and we move; it’s easy to sleep.
Dawn, and in place of dusk-grey Moscow, with its unexpected opulence and gaudiness and density of epochal events, glory and revolution packed under the sleet, there is ice on the glass and beyond it, snow and white-barked birch forest. Nothing moves but there are occasional signs of life: paw prints tacking along the track, a cluster of low, sugar pink or leaf green wooden houses, shutters closed tight, drifts banked against the walls, an outpost station every few hours where icicles hang from the eaves like washing from a line, a dog barks, a distant door slams, a melancholy voice echoes from the tannoy, and we ease off again into endless space. The scale is both exhilarating and alarming. I feel the need to wake George; “Look! Hurry! Snow!”. After a week all this elicits is a sardonic “quelle surprise”.
The trans-Siberian crosses a frozen continent on a schedule of split-second accuracy but there are things about it which are thrillingly basic, like coal fire burning under the hot water cylinder, the rushing track beneath the toilet bowl, the idea that if we wandered away from it we’d die of cold. To visit the dining car we open doors and dart across the icy spaces between carriages, enjoying the deafening rackety-rack, the spray of snow, the way our hands stick to the iced handles. The dining car through China is raucous, filled with card sharks and jovial drunks at 9.30am, for a while in Mongolia it’s missing, but here on the Russian train it is not the social hub of Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, or even Murder on the Orient Express or North, North-West but empty except for the hefty, bleach-blonde chef always either absorbed in a puzzle book or gutting fish with a sharp knife, although all we ever manage to extract is beef stroganoff and chips served on a saucer.
We entertain ourselves by playing I spy with my little eye (“something beginning with S”), wander through the corridors sneaking a look into other lives in other compartments, discuss the Russian Revolution, War and Peace, the rudiments of political dissidence, card tricks and the gulags, and stare out of the window for hours, lost in thought. Longer stops are the cue to add several layers, climb down, stretch our legs and eye the fellow passengers through the slit in our balaclavas. There are Russian soldiers heading for border patrols, Mongolian salesmen going home, and David and Ruth from Wales, also travelling to Beijing but then to Thailand, Cambodia, Delhi, on motorbikes to Nepal and so on. They give George a copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm which he reads carefully cover to cover twice.
The train sticks resolutely to Moscow time although we have travelled across five time zones, and while George works hard to decipher destination names as we pass through (“Okay we have an a, 3, r back to front, thing like an H but not…”), we lose our grip on time and distance so that when we arrive in Irkutsk we are surprised.
After regaling George with the gloomiest episodes of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitzen to get him into the spirit of things, we step into a deepest Siberia that is radiant and magical, the frosted trees, roofs, the ski slope of a road all sparkling pink in the early morning sun, icebergs bobbing on Lake Baikal under wreaths of mist. “I don’t see what’s so bad about being banished here” says George. We spend two nights in Listvenitsa, a Christmas card village set in frozen meringue on the shores of the lake, in a Siberian log cabin, an izba, with carpets on the walls and a blazing stove at its heart, the home of Ludmilla and her granddaughters. George’s suspicion that Siberia is actually the land of food and plenty is confirmed. The girls take him to slide about on a frozen river, he feasts on smoked fish, potato dumplings, blinis, cakes and strawberry jam, and goes native, sluicing himself down in the steamy garden sauna or banya before frolicking in the snow ‘to cool off’ while I watch from inside.
“I’d like it to be warm, you know around ten but then to get to about 30 just to experience how it felt” says George struggling into his thermals, salopettes, insulated socks, glove liners, balaclava, hat and light, mid- and heavyweight fleeces, snow boots, goose down jacket and mittens on our second morning. He opens the door. It is -27 (although no-one bothers using the minus prefix much in Siberia) and our breath freezes in the air around our heads. He wavers but thoughts of holding Siberian husky-cross-wolf puppies draw him out. We spend 12 hours outdoors, dog-sledding and snowmobiling at speed (“like James Bond”) through mountainous forests.
A last day is spent in Irkutsk itself, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, first linked to Moscow by rail in 1898, where tottering across the boulevard ice rinks in search of fruit, shelter, beer and a tyalet we smell cordite and find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with stuffed bears, live camels, cheering men in fur hats with lit fireworks and an ice sculpture of Tutankhamen. And then we clamber back onto the train, close the door, lie down and everything goes quiet and peaceful again. “Only two days to Ulan Bataar?” There’s a note of disappointment in George’s voice as he lays out his apples.
It seems like the middle of the night when we step off the train into Mongolia, and it’s almost 60 degrees colder. The platform is loud, busy with porters, faces covered but breathing balls of fog; beyond there’s an anarchic mess of cars, bikes, shouting and the sound of wheelie cases dragged across glacial moraine. We are swept away on a city tour to see the statue of the great ruler Ghengis ‘Chinggis’ Khan at sunrise in the vast Soviet-built central square, and then to the monastery, the towering Buddha, the chanting monks, vibrant colours in shafts of bright light, incense in the icy air, all surprising after the cool atheism of Russia. George learns that it is still common for the remains of the dead to be left on mountain tops for the birds. He keeps his eyes peeled. The city is in a state of flux. Women in the traditional ankle length silk coats and fur boots offer phone services from large desk phones carried on trays around their necks, a banner reads ‘Live Different’ across Peace Avenue, students slip across the black ice in Korean trainers and logos of international companies sit at the top of new glass towers.
We travel fifty miles west by Russian Jeep and several centuries back in time to a Ger camp on the Mongolian plains. Snow here is not as we know it, but blown into waves like whipped cream, glittering like mica with a crust that gives underfoot. The light is pure like polar light or moonlight and the sky is a brilliant azure. There are 280 sunny days a year here, a statement which should be qualified by adding that temperatures frequently drop to -48. “It’s like white Mars” says George, crunching through the snow towards our new home, a tent. Nomads pack up their tents and horses and make seasonal migrations but this camp stays here for the use of predominantly Japanese tourists keen to learn the legendary horsemanship skills and, well, get away from it all. But aside from the clientele, and the absence of yak butter tea and khyaram (salted hot milk and water), the experience is fairly authentic. After all, we sleep in tents of felt, (heated by a roaring, glowing stove), the setting is wild and bleak and the ‘toilets’ are holes in the ground some distance away. There are horses with frosty fur as thick as bears’ and an affectionate dog with stalactites of drool. George goes riding with the nomads, (“the merciless wind striking my face”) and afterwards, discovering with some relief that the pile of bones on the rush mat is not dinner but the components of shagai toglokh, (sheep’s ankle bones), a popular game out on the plains passes a pleasant if competitive evening in traditional Mongolian style.
Or actually, several. George finds David and Ruth on the train to Beijing and teaches them to throw and flick bones in the dining car as we travel through the Gobi desert, pausing the game to watch white camels, herds of antelope and later, a heavy orange moon hanging low over ashy land. There are more foreigners on this leg to Beijing, Tommy an Australian working at a Mongolian orphanage and a girl on her way to Australia. We swap travellers’ tales over Chinese beer and sweet and sour pork for brunch. David tells of cargo boats off Panama and karaoke bars in Vietnam. George, swigging Fanta, says “I ate snails once either in France or Canada and I tried to catch an ostrich in Kenya.” And: “I only ever crossed a border on a train once before and that was going from Costa Rica to Paris.”
We wake to find ourselves on the Chinese border, or more precisely 8 ft above it, the view from our window being of the top of people’s hats and mechanics with wrenches removing the undercarriage in gung ho fashion and replacing it with something more suited to the narrower gauge of the Chinese track. Insecurity, a loud juddering and the piped tunes of a brass band make sleep impossible. George reaches down for Chinese for Children, the only English language book we could find in Ulan Bataar and does a bit more preparation for his time in Beijing. “I don’t want an apple” he says in Cantonese to the passing train guard who nods politely. Waking up again we see China. The land is full, carved up by terraces, walls and roads with donkey carts and bikes cutting through icy mist. Trains pass, three tiers of faces looking in from the third class berths, and strings of stone walled villages give way often and suddenly to large cities with neon signs, traffic queues and western grey. Over rubble-strewn mountains above fields, villages, trains, factories, weaving its way left and right of the track on the final stretch before Beijing was the Great Wall of China.
“You could easily live on the Trans-Siberian for a year and not get bored. As long as you got off for a bit every other stop…” says George, packing his bag. We don’t want to get off. We’re used to our compartment, to having great vistas presented to us as we sat in our thermals eating pot noodles. And more than that we are dazed and moved by the tales of revolution, independence, bravery and oppression we’ve heard along the way. For a ten year old, a journey from Red Square to Tiananmen Square, from the Russian Revolution to the Cultural Revolution, from Lenin to Mao by way of Ghengis Khan is a heady introduction to the world of politics and, although George is still quite interested in knowing at what temperature an eyeball might freeze, he arrives in China something of an embryonic activist stirred up by feelings of political injustice. “I don’t think it is right that half the population – aka kids – has no say over the decisions that affect their lives” he says, at our hotel (formerly the Chinese Communist party Delegation of the Executive Department of Beijing Military Mediation Section). “Get 50 kids to canvass their MP and 50 adults and I bet I can tell you who’d get listened to [bitter laugh]…”
Hunting for something to eat at Donghuamen Night Market among seahorse, songbird and cocoon kebabs, goats’ stomachs in pots and goose feet, he abandons political activism and reverts to “Oh yuk”. We follow marching soldiers to Tiananmen Square and buy a waving Mao watch and a kite, shuffle through Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum (“Oh yuk, his ear’s black!”), explore the Forbidden City (Roger Moore does the commentary on the self-guide tape), lose our way by the East Gate and stumble across a Mandarin emperor and his family playing in the snow which is a little bit confusing until we hear the Chinese equivalent for “Cut” and realise we’ve stepped into a film set – for ‘Peace and War’ as it happens, eat shark fin soup, and watch acrobats make precarious pyramids at the at the Choyung Theatre. All in a day. We’ve seen so much, we know so little. It’s exhausting.
“That was good”, George says. “Are we going to catch the train back now?”
Train travel and city tours courtesy of The Russia Experience, Tel 0208 566 8846, Email firstname.lastname@example.org; Cold weather clothing and advice provided by the North Face and Ellis Brigham outfitters, and by Tog 24.
A half-day walking tour takes in the Famous Sights: Red Square, the Kremlin (“Helm’s Deep”), Lenin’s Tomb (“is that the guy they pickled?”), GUM the glorious mall where Stalin’s wife lay in state, and St Basil’s Cathedral with its swirling turrets built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate victory over Mongolia. There’s also the Metro with its marble and chandeliers, the dark symmetrical blocks of Stalinist architecture – the inspiration for every evil empire HQ in Marvel comics, and restored luxury: apartments, arcades, and the Hotel Metropol, erstwhile home of the Committee of Peasants, Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin. George gets the gist of the Russian Revolution which he ascribes to overcrowding, but is more affected by the tale of the dogs that joined the 1945 Red Square Victory Parade as recognition of their war work. “Some had grenades tied to them” shrugs Lena, our guide, “Some rescued wounded soldiers”.
Few will be able to travel to Siberia without thinking a lot about those who went less willingly before. Stalin’s gulags were located here, but Irkutsk itself had been a home in exile for many since the late 17th century including Volkonsky, barely disguised as the hero Bolkonsky in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and his humble home still stands. The past is poignant, the future seems bright. A vital trading centre and base for scientific expeditions, Irkutsk benefited from the proximity of silver, salt and gold to mine, and is now something of a cultural asylum with eight universities and one of the youngest city populations in Russia.
It’s the oldest, deepest (at 9km) lake, averaging between 20-80 km wide, covering a space the size of the Netherlands, containing 20% of the world’s fresh water, (as well as oil fish that produce an alternative to kerosene, sturgeon and seals). All these facts and more at the Limnological Museum in Listvyanka! Between January and April the lake is frozen. “People like to drive on the lake and spin around” says our guide, Tatiana, “tie sledges to the back of the car – that’s how they entertain their children. Not at all safe”. During the Russian-Japanese war, before the circum-Baikal track was complete, a railway was built across the frozen lake to Tanhoy to transport armaments.
The National Museum not only gives an insight into the extraordinary culture and history of Mongolia but by documenting its relationship with both China and Russia, it puts into context the disparate pieces of information Trans-Siberian passengers glean along the way to create a phenomenal and moving insight into the people and shifting powers of a whole region. Highly recommended.
The 9289km / 5772 mile Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Nakhodka, east of Vladivostock is the world’s longest railway and was built between 1891 and 1915. At the peak around 1895, there were 89,000 workers employed in construction, most of whom were Siberian peasants.
Of the three primary routes that branch off the Trans-Siberian, the 7865km journey through Mongolia to Beijing, developed to aid the trade in tea, is the best-used and most dramatic. The actual journey takes just over a week, but as the first train terminates in Irkutsk, and the second in Ulan Bataar, taking additional days to explore en route is a popular option.
SORREL DOWNER / HIGHLIFE