The only way to cross Asia, The Trans-Siberian!
|December 2, 1998
Trans Siberian Trip
The Trans Siberian trip was an absolutely fantastic experience – it lived
I will first give you a few facts about it and then mention some of the
The train is not a luxury train like the Orient Express or the Blue train
I had been planning this journey for quite some time and more recently Ana
I decided to do the trip on my own anyway and left from Moscow on 11 April
None of the people with whom I shared my compartment on all four legs of
The second leg of the journey, 3 days from Yeketerenburg to Irkutsk was far
The third leg of the journey, 3 days from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk I shared
Again this was a relaxed situation as the three of them often spoke amongst
On the last leg of the journey, overnight from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok
Another highlight was the sharing of food. I have travelled a fair deal and
The most memorable of these meals was the occasion where the brother/sister
To drink was of course a full bottle of vodka which was produced at every
The sister made sure all we men were well looked after by refilling our glasses
At times they also brought out a rectangular block of smoked pig fat [Note:
After eating, sleeping and talking there was still a lot of time to kill
The experience would not have been complete without reading a book by some
The scenery varied quite a bit mostly due to the change in weather as we
Every now and then we passed small villages with old wooden A-shaped cottages
This is the city where Boris Yeltsin was born and where they imprisoned the
I managed to go into a Russian workers canteen and joined the queue after
For each the two evenings I was there I went to see a variety concert which
Here there were whole neighbourhoods of decrepit double story wooden buildings
There was a play on the circuit called ‘From America with love’ all about
Lake Baikal/ Listvianka village
This is the biggest fresh water lake in the world with over 800 species of
I met a local who showed me around town, invited me for lunch and introduced
Price Waterhouse has a office out here and my boss suggested I pop in which
I hope that you have enjoyed reading about my little adventure as much as
September 17, 2002
Trans-Siberian Railway: Life and Fun across 9000 kilometers of taiga, steppes and plain wilderness
Siberia – the name chills. Siberia, to many, invokes images of an eternally cold land of exile and dark, endless winter. Siberia represents vastness as well as emptiness, a strange unknown territory stretching into the borderless horizon. There are shreds of truth, as well as misconception, in these popular images.
Let’s get the facts first. To geographers, Siberia is all the Russian territories east of the Urals Mountains, although politically, the popular definition of Siberia in reality also includes parts of the Urals Federal District and the Far Eastern territories of Russia. All in all, 14 million square kilometers with only 30 million people, stretching across taiga, steppes as well as vast forest lands. This is a land of great rivers – the Ob, Lena, Angara, Yenisey and the Amur – all among the world’s longest rivers. 53,000 rivers flow across its plains and 1 million lakes altogether. This is also a land of extreme temperature differences. There are places where annual temperature range from – 50’C to 45’C.
What holds this vast territory together is the legendary railway – the Trans-Siberian Railway – also the longest in the world, more than 9200 kilometers between Moscow in its western end and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. This is not a special tourist train. In fact, it comprises a number of lines and sub-lines that stretches from the west of Russia across the plains of Eurasia, some of which covers almost the entire length – such as Train Number 1 and 2, known as the Rossiya (Russia in the Russian language), or the Baikal Express, which runs from Moscow to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. There are also services (Number 4), which run to Beijing via Ulanbataar (Mongolia).
The TransSib is a working train. It is the lifeline of Siberia. There are few roads in Siberia, or rather, there are few intercity-roads of reasonable quality connecting cities and settlements in Siberia. As such, it is the TransSib that link these parts together with Mother Russia. It takes 7 days nonstop to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok, and it cuts through almost the whole length of Russia – 8 time zones in total where the train passes through, through many interesting (as well as absolutely boring) cities and locations.
During the past few weeks, I have been traveling across Russia on some of these trains, on Second Class tickets. I have met a number of interesting people along the way – not just travelers like me, but also ordinary Russians. In the confined space of a few carriages, people have no choice but to interact, or worse, tolerate each other. There is little space for those with an attitude problem. One simply has to live in close quarters with strangers. Of course, some people recommend spending the night in cities along the way and skipping long stay on the trains. That is certainly desirable if you get off to visit interesting places, but if you do that all the time, you might miss out the interaction with the locals, which in my opinion, is the most enriching experience of the entire journey.
It’s a matter of luck who you end up with. The worse it could was in the case of an Irish travelers I have met, sharing the compartment with a belly-challenged xenophobic man who ignores his presence, and sleepwalks naked at night. Even in that case, you could well spend most of your time with other people in the train. Most trains carry more than 400 people and you must be really unlucky to find a train full of 400 morons. I was somewhat fortunate. During the 8 nights on the trains (more than 7 because I have got off and on at some locations, and hence got onto trains of varying speed and types) and numerous daytimes I have spent on the main line, I have played cards and gotten drunk with Russian soldiers, veterans of the Chechen war and sailors of the Russian Pacific fleet, discussed politics and development issues with North Korean diplomats (while trying my best to use politically correct terms so not to use Bush’s language on the so-called Axis of Evil) and chatted in sign language and pidgin Russian with motherly babushkas (Russian grandmothers) who doted me like their grandson and stuffed me with endless supply of cakes, cookies and other goodies (while thoroughly disapproving my drinking binges with the young soldiers and officers).
The TransSib is also notorious for one thing – boredom. It’s the perfect train to read all the books that you have begun and never finished. The only problem is you can’t bring too many on the journey for the weight. And forget about posting them home along the way. Soviet-era laws still applicable in New Russia say that it is forbidden to send abroad all printed media, including those published outside Russia, such as your Harry Potter and the Official IYH Guide to Hostels in Africa, the Americas and Australasia.
For 5000 km from Moscow to Irkutsk, the landscape is fairly homogenous. The initial sight of quaint Russian villages and their wooden houses, sometimes brightly painted, intrigued most of us. However, if you have 4 days of that and most of the time nothing else except for endless forests of birch trees and occasional plains of endless emptiness, you go a little mad and start seeing kangaroos and dinosaurs as well. Many people even gave up on books or simply lie on their couchettes, slipping in and out of consciousness and Dreamland. Or you have endless feasts and drinks – the TransSib is not a journey for those on slimming programmes. TransSib etiquette requires one to lie out all of one’s supply of food and drinks, and share it with fellow travelers. And friendly locals might take your refusal at an offer of food as rudeness. The supply never runs out, for there are numerous stops where supply is constantly replenished. It’s an opportunity to get acquainted with food products and brands in obscure Russian provinces.
Indeed, the most exciting events of an average Trans-Sib day are the stops in provincial stations. Even the sleepiest passenger would suddenly jump off the bed and rush for the great Perm, Omsk, Yerofey Pavlovich or god-knows-what-Siberian-hamlet shopping experience, as he or she would for the summer sales in London, Hong Kong or Bloomingdale’s. I have no clue how the Russian Railways selects where to stop and for how long, for sometimes they stop for 2 minutes in a large town of 200,000 people, and sometimes for 25 in some unheard of hamlet. In many places, one is mobbed by local peasants selling anything from warm, hearty pelmeni (Siberian meat dumplings) and smelly dried fish, to toys and clothing.
Of course, the train does have a restaurant car, but if you fancy paying high prices (OK, they are not expensive by western standards but having traveled in many Russian provincial towns, the prices do appear high on the trains) for normal standard food, they are fine. But it’s good to spend an occasional afternoon in the restaurant car, do some reading there while having a coffee. The greatest benefit, however, is observing the restaurant staff – they seem to operate in a world of their own. Many seemed keener on their private trading activities than serving customers. At every stop, even at 2-minute stops, they are seen rushing to buy huge quantities of local produce or selling produce bought at previous stations.
Sometimes, they have so much to work on that they shouted for the restaurant customers to help carrying the stuff they bought onto the train. For instance, I have assisted in helping to carry basins of fresh cherry twice, but seeing no improvement in the service I received on subsequent visits to the restaurants, decided to ignore any shout for help during station stops. For whatever it is, the range and quality of food do seem to decrease as the train moves eastwards into the wilderness of eastern Siberia, and that seem to encourage the restaurant staff to spend more time in private merry making. I have seen them half drunk more than once while trying to serve dinner t
Moscow, the train moved east through cities like Yekaterinburg, where the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks; and Novosibirsk, the metropolis and scientific and university city of Siberia. Like most of the travelers, I got off at Irkutsk, the famous city near Lake Baikal. I am tempted to say “on Lake Baikal” – for indeed if you look at the map of Siberia, Irkutsk seems to be on the lake. But on the scale of things in Siberia, it is only over 60km from the lake and yet looks as though it lies on the lake on most maps. Everything in Siberia is huge and one is simply amazed by the great distance covered by this renowned train route.
Lake Baikal – the deepest lake in the world, over 636km long, greater than Belgium and contains one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. To the Chinese, this was Beihai, or “North Sea”. It was on these shores that the Han Dynasty diplomat and explorer, Zhang Qian, was exiled after arrested by the nomadic empire, Hsiong Nu. Here he married a local woman and after a decade escaped to Central Asia where he convinced the local kingdoms to ally with China in a joint attack on the Hsiung Nu horsemen. This was the beginning of China’s old Central Asian empire, which is another saga of its own. A thousand years later, it was a lady from these shores that gave birth to the greatest conqueror in world history, Genghis Khan of the Mongols.
Irkutsk, I took a local Zima (Winter) Express to Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic within the Russian Federation. Most travelers simply continue on their journey to Mongolia while I resolved to visit the little bit of Mongolia within Russia. The Buryats are one of the great tribes of Mongolia – most Russians I spoke to thought that the Buryats are a separate nation – the old Soviet Union is an ardent practitioner of the Divide-and-Rule concept and its propaganda machinery spoke about the Buryat people happily unifying with their Russian “big brother nation”. However, most Buryats I spoke to know who they are – the sons of Genghis Khan. It was their tribe, which gave the Mongol nation Genghis Khan’s mother, and later, chief wife as well. They spoke proudly of their great warrior king. The Cold War is over and Mongolia is free again.
Though living in different sides of an international boundary, the Buryats and Mongols (i.e., in Mongolia) are once again renewing their old ties and allegiances. I dropped by the Ivolginsk Datsan, the HQ of Tibetan Buddhism (which is the type of Buddhism professed by the Mongols and Buryats) in Russia. Here on the windswept plains of Central Asia, a shrine of Buddhism has been rebuilt. I met some Tibetan monks from Dharmasala, who greeted me in perfect Mandarin, asking if I was from China. No, I said, I’m from Singapore. China is not well loved in these parts, and Singapore, the tiny neutral nation faraway (and in fact well regarded as a symbol of law and order, progress and development in the former USSR) is always well liked in the plains of Eurasia (more so than in Southeast Asia). And we had a polite chat on Buddhism in these parts and the subtle difference between Buryatia and Mongolia.
I also visited an Old Believers’ village. These are Russians who escaped from the central authorities of the Tsars a few centuries ago, to the wilderness of Siberia, simply because they rejected the religious reforms of Tsar Alexis and Peter the Great. They tried to preserve their old way of life, their unshaven chins, traditional Russian costumes and old folk songs, mostly by shunning contacts with the outside world. By the time the Tsars’ domains caught up with them, they were simply left alone as weirdos. But Stalin took no fancy of exotic ways of life and minorities, and had their churches blown up. Even then, I have met people who had seen Old Believers come to town with their strange costumes and long beards, well into the 1970’s. What eventually led to the demise of their lifestyle was, ironically, the fall of the USSR. The great welfare state had collapsed and people now desire the goods often by the new temple of Capitalism. Young people no longer want to stay in primitive old villages and the more entrepreneurial among the Old Believers now invite outsiders to visit their villagers and have dinner with them for sixty dollars a session – I was invited there free by a friendly travel agency director. Welcome to Disneyland Siberia!
The journey further east is off-the-beaten-track for most TransSib travelers. I met hardly any travelers and spent my train evenings having a little too much vodka with hunky Russian military officers on their ways to garrisons in the Russian Far East (and them trying to teach a non-Russian speaker Soviet-era patriotic songs – that’s how drunk all of us became), or philosophizing life with North Korean diplomats (and trying to secure an invitation from organization with names like “Korean Peace Committee” and “Korean International Friendship Association”). Gone were the boring flat plains of western Siberia. Here we have numerous rivers and valleys of pine trees all in the glory of full autumn foliage. Soon, we entered the Russian Far East, once the realm of the endangered Siberian tigers and setting of great Russian trader-explorers and their exploits in their race to the Pacific.
After a short stay in the leafy city of Khabarovsk, where I strolled along the beaches of the Amur River, where fun loving young Khabarovsk citizens play volleyball on what used to be a high tension frontier land between Russia and China. Known as Heilongjiang, or River of Black Dragon to the Chinese, the Amur is one of the longest rivers in the world. Soviet and Chinese armies once crashed here in the 1960’s almost bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war between two former brother communist states. Now traders from both countries trade in consumer goods across this wild-looking river, while local beach bums enjoy the last of summertime in Siberia. The autumn has started elsewhere in the world but this part of the Russian Far East is still enjoying a bout of summertime in September, an anomaly in climatic patterns from the rest of the world.
Here I am in Vladivostok, “Lord of the East” as it is in the Russian language. 9,288 kilometers from Moscow. This is the eastern end of the world’s longest railway, and Russia’s window on the Pacific coast. Overwhelmed by package tourists from China, I had a hard time finding hotels in this city. This is a strange town where there are Chinese signboards in museums and souvenir shops – all to serve the noveau riche of neighboring China. Whatever it is, I am flying back to Irkutsk tomorrow, and then get onto the Trans Mongolian Express to Ulanbataar. That is another whole new adventure. Good Bye, Russia. And yes, have a glass of champagne on my behalf! WeeCheng has completed the world’s longest railway journey!