“Who knew riding on trains would be so much fun?”
We’ve always wanted to travel in China, and what better way to get there than the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian rail routes. Neil came up with the idea, I hadn’t even thought of it, and I’m so glad he did because it has turned out to be a great start to our travels and a really interesting way to see different countries we would have otherwise have just flown over. There are two ways of getting to China on these railways, we decided we wanted to travel through Russia and Mongolia before arriving at our final destination – Beijing. It’s a really popular route with tourists and we did meet a lot of travellers from different countries along the way. To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect. We did a lot of background research first just to see how much it would cost, whether we could afford to do it and what kind of seasonal weather we would expect. We found that ‘The man in seat 61‘ was a fantastic source of info for researching different train journeys around the world. We also really recommend using Real Russia, they specialise in booking trips on the Trans Siberian, Trans Mongolia and Trans Manchurian rail routes (our Danish friends used them as well as correspondence is over the Internet or by phone). We got them to organise our tickets and visas as we were both working right up until we left the UK and we didn’t find their mark up on tickets to be that much. They were also super helpful when I had issues with my Chinese visa.
From London we flew to St. Petersburg (BA had a big bank holiday sale – hurray!) and stayed there for 4 days before getting the bullet train to Moscow where we stayed for a further 4 days. St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, has a very European feel but you wouldn’t need more than a long weekend there. Moscow we loved, such a crazy place! We look forward to returning at some point but it is very expensive – apart from cigarettes, transport and vodka! Russia in general was very expensive, probably on par with London.
“The first leg of our Trans Siberian journey was a total mixed bag!”
From Moscow we took train 16 to Yekaterinburg which was about 31 hours, and had booked a kupe (2nd class 4 berth sleeper cabin) which we shared with two native Russians who were on their way home to Yekaterinburg. Yvette and Vladimir spoke little English but we tried to have some kind of conversation anyway – even if most of it was like playing charades! Luckily for us Yvette lived near our hostel so she and her son kindly walked us halfway to the hostel. There are many trains that run between Moscow and Yekaterinburg, train 16 was relatively new and very clean and comfortable, the floor was even carpeted and hoovered pretty often so I was really pleased.
We also had to learn ‘train etiquette’ – simple things like taking off your shoes and changing into slippers (we didn’t have any so flip flops would do), changing into pyjamas, making your bed (you receive a pack containing clean sheets, pillow case and a mini towel), and putting your luggage away in the spaces underneath the beds or above the beds – and you need to do all of this before settling in. We had to just copy Yvette and Vladimir…being the clueless tourists! The two bottom bunks were used as a communal seating area, and there’s a table in the middle where we ate our food. It was pretty tight for space! But we got used to it pretty quick. Yekaterinburg was nice, though we didn’t really need 3 nights there, there wasn’t much to see or do. But still, good to get off and stretch those legs and prevent cabin fever!
We then took train 340 from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk late in the night, train 340 being a higher number meant it was older and less fancy than the number 16 train or the super new number 2 ‘Rossiya’ train. There were no carpets on the floor but the attendants moped the floor pretty often, the toilet was very basic and also pretty smelly but we just had to hold our noses! We were on it for about 64 hours so it was pretty long! But lucky for us we had the BEST experience! We had read about people meeting lovely Russian locals and tourists and it was this leg of our journey that we made a lot of new friends. We shared our kupe cabin with a Russian called Sergay who was on his way home to his family in Omsk. He was lovely, spoke pretty good English and told us of his love for the Beatles. He shared his food and tea with us (he laughed at our instant noodles, jar of nutella and other processed rubbish in our food bag – typical tourist train grub!) He grew many of his own veg and only ate mainly organic foods. He shared his wife’s homemade pies, cheese, salami, home grown cucumbers and tomatoes. It was luxury compared to the rubbish we had bought with us. With only a samovar (hot water boiler) available to make hot drinks or instant noodles, there’s not much else you can safely travel with without making yourself ill if you’re on the train for as long as 64 hours!
Anyway, Sergay was great and it was a shame we only got to share one evening with him as he got off the train the next morning. He told us a lot about Russian culture and he introduced us to all our neighbours in the cabins in our carriage. It was where we met Pia and Rikke, crazy sweet couple from Denmark, Ben and Christina, cute couple from Oz, Roger and Katerina from France. We also met another Russian called Sergay and a weird naked guy…
“Happy Birthday Sergay!”
The next day on the train we spent most of the time getting to know our new friends, exchanging travel stories and getting advice on best places to visit next (Philippines was highly recommended for diving) or what local foods to try in different countries as well as what food we missed from home….Whole Earth peanut butter….*sigh*….someone please send me a jar! Huh huh….we’d only been away for a week and a half at this point! How lame am I?!
Come the evening after some instant noodles we ventured into the restaurant car to have a beer and socialise. That’s when things went a little crazy and unexpected! There was a Russian dude called Sergay who didn’t speak a word of English other than “it’s my birthday, happy birthday Sergay” and he wrote ’36’ on his hand. So he joined us for a beer….and then he ploughed us with beer, quite literally. He kept buying beers for all of us all night and wouldn’t accept any money. He then got some salted fish (sorry to say it was hideous) which I tried a little of to be polite and the bottle of vodka he decided to open – again we had to be polite despite having already polished off one bottle ;-). The restaurant car then closed around midnight so we were booted out. At which point we took our beers into an empty cabin and carried on drinking. Then Roger and Katerina arrived and it was actually their cabin we were partying in so the only place we could finish our beers was in the small smoking area in between carriages.
The train stopped at a main station for about 20 minutes and Sergay dragged Neil out shopping – they came back with more beer, vodka, ice cream, a chicken leg, biscuit wafers and a single pear. It was very clear everyone was very drunk. We all enjoyed the ice cream, apparently the chicken leg tasted like leather and someone threw it out the train window! We’re not quite sure what happened to the rest! But it was around this time the weird naked guy turned up and promptly declared his love for Pia. He seemed to refuse to wear clothes other than a pair of small shorts throughout the entire duration of the journey and he was definitely no hunk (just a chunk)! The next day we had a few sore heads… but since there’s nothing much to do on the train other than eat and sleep there was plenty of time to rest and recuperate! Apparently Sergay turned up in Ben and Christina’s cabin with a bagful of salted fish and more beer at 10am! He was quickly escorted away! Come our last night on the train everyone wanted to chill out and not drink anything alcoholic. Roger took out his travel guitar and little amp and we all piled into his cabin to sing songs. Neil of course had to share his guitar and singing talents which were well received. And after a rendition of ‘Don’t look back in anger’ Sergay turned up again…dun dun duuuuuuun!…
“Happy Birthday Sergay – Take two!”
Sergay joined us listening to Roger or Neil playing guitar (and the rest of us belting out karaoke style), all seemed fine… until he ordered the waitress in the restaurant car to bring in platefuls of food! We didn’t know what was happening! In those tiny cabins there was no room for platefuls of food! Oh…and more vodka at which point I think everyone turned green. We took everything back into the restaurant car, and having only just eaten dinner (yummy dumplings, meatballs and salad we bought from babushkas selling goods on the train platform) no one was actually hungry. All night Sergay kept saying “Happy birthday Sergay” and we were like “but it was your birthday yesterday!” he ignored us and ordered us yet more beers… By this point Pia, Rikke, Ben and Christina made a strategic exit, left us and went to bed. Only me, Neil, Roger and Katerina were left. We were lucky that Natalia, a Russian English teacher decided to joined us and could act as a translator for Sergay! Lucky for us the waitresses in the restaurant car didn’t kick us out at midnight as they were enjoying the live music too much, by the time we left to go to bed it was gone 1am. Although 64 hours seems like a long time to spend on a train, it was a really fun (because of the people we met) and time flew by. It was sad to say our goodbyes to our friends.
At 9am the next morning we arrived in Irkutsk, the place most people stop to use as a base to go and visit Lake Baikal. I’ve never tasted tap water so fresh tasting in my life. Especially since in some Russian cities and towns we couldn’t drink the tap water, but in Irkutsk it came straight from the lake. We saw Baikal in the morning from the train, such a vast expanse of fresh water – looked like a big glistening blue sea. We only stayed in Irkutsk for one day and night, the actual place didn’t have anything much of interest but we had a wander around and then got to bed in preparation for an early start and yet another train…
Back at the crack of dawn we got back on the train, this time the number 2, the super new, super clean and super modern train. I wished we were on this train for all of our journeys! Every kupe had a TV (only Russian channels though!), floors were carpeted, toilets were great (and didn’t smell). We were only on this train for 8 hours however…which was shame! If I did the Trans Siberian again I would pick trains 2 or 16. We arrived in Ulan Ude in the early evening. Things were starting to look more and more oriental rather than Russian. For example we could find chilli sauce easily, but in Moscow finding a bottle of Tabasco was a difficult task! Russians love salt rather than chilli. We found people in Ulan Ude more friendly than ‘European’ Russians, because they were on the border between Mongolia and Russia plus they also looked very different – more Mongolian than Russian. Ulan Ude was an interesting place though you wouldn’t need long there. We stayed for 3 days, and spent one day at the Ivolginsky temple which was really interesting, as were the two minibus rides with locals to get there and back! The scenery was so beautiful out in the countryside, big rolling hills and blue sky, we knew we were getting closer to Mongolia.
The next leg of the trip we crossed the border from Russia to Mongolia and instead of taking the train, we took the coach…
Read the second part of the Trans Mongolian rail journey in the next blog post!