We started the Ultimate Train Challenge on September 1st; and after 17 days of traipsing through Europe from Lisbon, Michael (www.gosewrite.com), Jeannie (www.nomadicchick.com), and I reunite in Moscow for the second leg of our trip: boarding the week-long Trans-Manchurian train from Moscow straight through to Beijing.
Although this train is regularly referred to as the Trans-Siberian, the actual route we are taking (around the top of Mongolia and through Manchuria) is more accurately referred to as the Trans-Manchurian. It is 8,986km (5,623 miles), and involves 145 hours and 37 minutes of straight train travel.
Give or take.
Here is my account of the trip.
DAY 1 (Saturday)
We board the train at 11:30pm, and start rolling just before midnight.
We have two conductors on our car – one is a kind looking woman, the other is a very drunk man who interrupts an obvious video we’re shooting to flirt with Jeannie and I. Initially it’s funny and even a little charming, but it shortly devolves into being creepy.
We find our cabin; it’s small but comfortable. The three of us play tetris to settle in and find appropriate spots for our bags.
“Beer?” the conductor says as he staggers into our doorway. We happen to just have finished our inaugural Trans-Manchurian-beer, so he can see that we’ve been drinking. We try to clarify his question. “Beer?” is his eloquent reply.
We don’t know if he’s telling us we’re not allowed to drink, or asking us for a beer, or – as we eventually deduce – he has beer (and vodka) and wants to drink with us. We politely decline as we make for our beds, and we go to sleep that night hoping that this drunken episode isn’t a habit. We’ve already discovered the Russian propensity for alcohol is no rumour.
I opt for the top bunk, figuring if I want to sleep in I won’t disturb anybody. In the middle of the night, I perform an act of acrobatics trying to get out of bed in the dark to pee.
DAY 2 (Sunday)
We are passing by little communities of wooden houses; they look increasingly derelict yet charming, with uniquely-shaped roofs and a uniformity throughout each community.
As we venture further from Moscow, the paved roads turn into dirt roads, and eventually no roads at all (seemingly). Is it possible these are self-sustaining communities out here? I try to imagine how they would survive in winter.
We eat dinner at the restaurant car; I have a thoroughly mediocre and overpriced bowl of borscht ($6) (which is really chicken soup), and Jeannie loses her shirt on a thin piece of salmon and some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers ($10). Michael sticks to beer, citing his stash of instant noodles as satisfactory for now.
We vow never to eat there again, and Michael chuckles. “You say that now, but trust me – before the week is out, I’ll bet you try it again.”
DAY 3 (Monday)
My bed is good, but hard. I wake up stiff after a (thankfully) long night of sleep. I wonder how I’ll feel about it by the end of the week.
We awake to even more pronounced autumn colours, and I’m surprised at how warm it is when we step off the train to stretch our legs and find some food at the (approximate) twice-daily 20 minute station stops.
There are numerous towns and signs of civilization along these tracks, yet many look abandoned and derelict. Only a string of laundry or a satellite dish or the occasional person walking along the tracks indicates to me these places are actually lived in.
Our food situation isn’t good. Yesterday at one of the stops, there were babushkas all over the place selling prepared foods (meat patties and potatoes, stuffed rolls, hard-boiled eggs, etc). But I wasn’t hungry at the time, and figured this would be available at every stop. Besides which – the food didn’t look all that appetizing.
Now, three stops later with little more than potato chips, preserved meat, and beer on offer, the babushkas’ food would have been downright delicious. The instant noodles we brought on-board aren’t appetizing or satisfying, and we’re all getting hungry for some good food. For now we have no choice but to settle for mediocre food.
At the last stop of the day we score a “bounty” of cheese and crackers (our best meal yet), and we enjoy it with Yvan from London (a fellow we met yesterday). We all enjoy this meal together in our cabin, washed down with a few beers.
We seem to be developing a routine of sorts; during the day we each spread out through the largely-empty car, working, reading, snapping photos, and napping. After the late afternoon/evening stop, we enjoy beers, music, and camaraderie at night.
DAY 4 (Tuesday)
Almost unbelievably, the autumn colours are even more beautiful, highlighted by lots of blue skies and sunshine. The same towns which, two days ago, appeared dreary and desolate in the drizzly weather, now pop out charmingly; full of character when bathed in sunshine and surrounded by the golden landscape.
We are thankful for a decent food stop at 10am; none of the babushkas we were hoping for are around, but the little stalls on the platform have fresh fruit and veggies, and some prepared foods that are a little more homemade-looking than the pre-packaged crap (instant noodles, crackers, sausage) we’ve been relegated to.
And we score an awesome food stop at 3pm (which couldn’t have come sooner, despite our moderate morning stop). A lineup of women are laying goods down on cloth panels just outside the train doors. Perogies, dumplings, roasted chicken, salads, hard-boiled eggs, fresh bread, beer, drinks, and some packaged foods are available.
The train conductors look on bemusedly as we fawn over what you might think was our first chance at food in weeks, given our level of enthusiasm.
We feast with Yvan back in our cabin. We ask him how his attempt at reading War And Peace is coming along. “It’s a light read, really,” he replies. “You know those costume drama movies? Yeah. Just like that. It’s just very, very long.”
I guess the Trans-Manchurian warps perceptions on many levels.
DAY 5 (Wednesday)
“Train Time” (which remains on Moscow time) is wreaking havoc with our schedules. The actual time is three hours ahead of Moscow time. So the sun is rising around 3am (Moscow time), and we’re finding ourselves tired by 7pm (Moscow time) when it has been long dark and it feels like bed time.
In an effort to reduce “jet lag” (train-lag?) in a few days when we disembark in Beijing (at 5:30am no less), we’re trying to adhere to the actual time zones we’re going through. But we still have to be cognizant of “train time” to understand when our next station stop is.
This straddling two different time zones is actually quite difficult and very disorienting.
So last night we went to bed before 7pm (Moscow time, 10pm actual time), and despite feeling tired, I tossed and turned for many hours. I don’t know if it was something I ate (I felt like I was in a broken fevered delusional sleep with vivid half-dreams), the change in time, or the bed. But it was not one of my better nights of sleep.
The upper bunk bed is also taking a toll. It’s narrow at the best of times. The bar that keeps me from falling off in the event of a hard break (I like this bar; it’ my friend) prevents me from spreading a knee or arm beyond the perimeter of the bed; something a lower bunk would allow. I am perpetually waking with pins & needles in my arms because there isn’t really anywhere for them to go, so they’re awkwardly positioned above my head against the wall or under my body.
So good sleep eludes me.
“I’m sorry,” are Yvan’s greeting words to me at the 10am station break. “You’ve been noticed by a Russian in my car, and over a few drinks (on him), I kind of agreed to facilitate an introduction. He doesn’t speak any English.” I feign a smile, truly lost for words. I assume he’s not serious; at least I hope so.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, Yvan approaches me and Jeannie on the platform with my suitor in tow, again starting with “I’m sorry.” He makes an introduction, and we all stand there awkwardly before Yvan says “There. It’s done,” and walks away.
My suitor starts in with some rapid-fire Russian, to which Jeannie and I reply with rapid-fire English. Neither of us really understand what the other is saying, but somehow we deduce that he’s Russian, and that we’re Canadian. A good time is had by all.
Jeannie and I get back on the train, assuming that’s the end of the episode.
But minutes later once the train is moving, my suitor appears in our doorway as we’re fixing breakfast. “Vodka?” he says. What? It’s 10am! Really?!
We decline his offer, pointing to our wrists (where watches should be) and saying “later”. (Thankfully he doesn’t return “later”).
I feel bad for eschewing this offer to ultimately be social, but I’m tired, it’s hard work to communicate with somebody whose only English words are about alcohol, and I feel uncomfortable about how the whole introduction transpired; I somehow feel “sold” by Yvan, and I’m a little miffed about it.
Where is Siberia? I muse as I look out the window. It doesn’t look nearly as desolate as I’d imagined Siberia to look. Is there a line that delineates Siberia – this vast harsh land for outcasts? Is Siberia geographical, or psychological?
We cross the border into China tomorrow morning, and we’ve been on the train since Saturday night. Surely in all this time across Russia, we’ve touched upon this renowned land.
DAY 6 (Thursday)
The sleeping situation is worsening. Jeannie agreed to trade bunks with me after I complained that the top bunk is just a little too small (she is much shorter than I). I settle in for what (I hope) is a good night, but ends up being my worst yet. Similar to my long trip on the Indian Pacific in Australia, I’m finding that sleeping in moving beds long-term is not very restful.
I awake in the middle of the night to the overwhelming smell of fart. And the heat is on in the cabin, full blast. I don’t think the fart’s origin is me, but I don’t rule out the possibility of this being a mixed brew between the three of us; the smell is so vile and thick that I struggle for breath. I sense that it has been lingering in the cabin for quite some time.
I somehow recover, only to be regaled with Michael’s renowned snoring. I don’t know if it’s worse tonight, or if sleeping on the bottom bunk has different acoustic properties; either way I lay awake in mild fits of claustrophobic frustration for much of the night, eventually getting up at 4:15am (actual time; 7:15am train time). Whatever time.
This morning the scenery is more like the Siberia I had imagined; largely-empty fields of brown grass. It’s a slightly-hilly grass desert, dotted with the occasional settlement or town that seems to pop out of nowhere.
I can tell we’re getting closer to China, as the people have a more asian look at each subsequent station stop. Our last stop before the Russian/Chinese border has an almost-equal mix of ethnicities.
We stop at the Russian border early in the day (7:30am Moscow time, 11:30am Beijing time – you pick one to go with), and are told through sign-language by our conductors that the stop is for three hours. We ask (again, with crude signing) if we can get off and back on the train, and are given the characteristic nods and “da”s we’re now used to.
So once our passports are in the hands of the Russian authorities, we go off to find some food and “discover” this Russian border town.
It looks like a place that was designed with great intentions, but stopped halfway through construction. Partly finished buildings sit with no windows and rebar sticking out where the roof should be, and streets are half-paved with no rhyme or reason to their jagged edges.
So it doesn’t take long for us to pick up some groceries and make back for the train. Problem is, we’re not allowed back on, and the station is being renovated and reeks of turpentine. We sit on the platform for four hours and watch the train roll off and back on over and over again as they change the gauge of the wheels to accommodate the Chinese tracks.
We are finally allowed back on to the train, and after our cabin is searched and passports returned, we still wait for hours. Although the stop is supposed to be three hours, we roll off the platform eight hours and 24 minutes after our morning stop.
We haven’t even cleared Chinese customs yet.
It’s now dark and we roll forward a kilometre or so, revealing a totally different (Chinese) cityscape full of tall buildings with animated LED decorations. It’s a stark contrast and we’re astonished at not having noticed these buildings from the drab Russian frontier.
Although the Chinese customs process also takes hours, we are greeted by lots of smiling and cordial officials, rather than the dour-looking Russians we had become accustomed to. I am surprised to initially feel quite welcome in China, very happy to be out of Russia.
DAY 7 (Friday)
Thankfully I sleep better than the last few nights and awake with a touch of sentimental remorse that it’s our last day on the train. As much as I’m eager to expand my horizons beyond the small cabin we’ve been living in for the past week, I’ve also loved the journey overall.
I’m stoked for a shower. A week of using baby wipes in mediocre cramped bathrooms to keep fresh has made me yearn for a nice long hot shower. Funnily enough it has skewed my priorities.
“Hey Jeannie!” I exclaim in the morning. “You know what we get to do tomorrow?”
“Um…see The Great Wall of China?”
“No! Well, yes, but we also get to shower!”
Our first station stop (and the only one of any length today) is the capital of Manchuria and a large looking city. It’s a bustle of activity; great for observing and photographing. Unfortunately the majority of my time is spent trying – unsuccessfully – to exchange my many Russian Roubles for Chinese Yuan. Last night at the Chinese border there was a kiosk, but after being kept off the train for four hours earlier in the day, I didn’t want to risk a repeat performance of train-exile, since the break was to extend well beyond midnight when I’d like to be tucked in bed.
Not taking the chance to exchange money however turns out to be a mistake, since I have nothing but Roubles and no way to pay for food on the station platforms or in the (now Chinese) restaurant car. I’m thankful that this is the last day on the train, as my ration of uninspiring instant noodles will barely last me the day.
Ah well…this will make me appreciate the abundance of flavourful (and spicy! God I miss spicy) Chinese food I’ll enjoy tomorrow and for the rest of the following week.
“Why ARE you keeping those eggs, Nora?” asks Michael, reminding me of a mistake I made yesterday and simultaneously giving me hope. I had purchased half a dozen eggs in a plastic bag at the Russian border; eggs which I had assumed were hard-boiled, as were all the other eggs in bags that I’d purchased along the way. (Of course, on trying to “peel” my egg, I realized – the hard way – that it was still raw).
“I dunno. Maybe I’ll donate them to the restaurant car,” I said, before I realized the brilliance of this idea.
And so is hatched (bad pun intended) a plan to walk into the restaurant car with a bag of eggs, hand them to the server, and see what happens.
I wander into the restaurant car desperate for a good meal, and with the hopes that they’ll either accept my Russian Roubles or my eggs in trade for a meal. The Roubles are no good, and they’re not sure what to make of my eggs. Yvan has agreed to spot me some Chinese Yuan, so we go ahead and order from the menu (of course, not having any idea what we are actually ordering; such is the fun of foreign-language menus with no pictures).
I hand the eggs to the server; I have no use for them, and I sign that they are a gift for him. The car is filled with Chinese people, many of whom I think work on this part of the train (which was only added at the border). They eye this transaction with curiosity, then each one of them fondles this plastic bag of five eggs.
Before I know it, the eggs have been prepared (scrambled with some aromatics and garnish – free of charge) and are brought to our table. An unexpected – and pleasant – surprise.
I go to bed early, after my first warm meal since the horrible “borscht” I had almost a week ago. Although I do love trains, I’m excited to get off early in the morning with visions of a shower, a good (stationary) bed, and some excellent Chinese food rolling constantly through my mind. If I could have those three things and stay on the trains, I’d be a happy camper.
DAY 8 (Saturday)
After a week – almost 150 hours – on the Trans-Manchurian, we get off the train at 5:30am, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but excited.
I’m looking forward to re-visiting China; a place that was the scene for my first-ever overseas trip…18 years ago.
But that’s another story, you’ll have to read about in a future post. As momentous an occasion it is for us to have completed the longest section of railway in the world, we’re still only part way to our final destination of Saigon in 30 days. The train must go on.
Such is life on the Ultimate Train Challenge.
Many thanks to Real Russia for arranging for our Trans-Manchurian tickets and giving us invaluable information and assistance along the way. Stay tuned for an amusing video diary post of my Trans-Manchurian adventures, along with a few other treats! Coming soon…