Impressions along the way through Russia, Mongolia and China

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….Excuse me, but I don’t understand Russian. Do you speak English or German?

To my surprise, I got by more often with German than English, with some usage of Google translate app thrown in. It already started on the train from Budapest to Kiev. I shared my wagon with an older Russian couple who spoke, well…only Russian naturally.

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At border control, the customs officers come on board, sometimes with dogs. They take a look at all the passengers, and take the passports for stamping. Sometimes they take everyone’s passports and take the whole stack to their office for processing before returning them. This process was repeated at both sides of every border = takes a while!

Finally I arrived in Moscow, to be warmly greeted by Sonya. Feeling a little disoriented after a long train ride (plus first time in Russia),  she took me by the hand to arrange my further connections and drop off my bag before lunch. Sushi! has apparently become a fashionable mealtime favorite there, and we decided to make no exception. Today is May 8, tomorrow is the Victory Day parade, and the city is getting ready. Amazing architecture, stylish people (high heels!), high cost of living, overwhelming!

Train 044 departing 00:38 goes from Moscow to Khabarovsk, through Yaroslavl/Kostroma, Perm, crossing the Europe-Asia border near Yekaterinberg. It was a typical old Russian train with brown wood-like panel interior. In my 4-er cabin were Sergei and Marina, and Natalya. Sergei and Marina were on their way to Kostroma to visit family over the public holiday, and they were genuinely surprised that I was travelling alone. Natalya was on her way home to Perm and opened up a picnic to share since the first meal. We chatted using my Google translate app and Russian phrase book, and I perfected my pronounciation of Спасибо and Пожалуйста with some role-playing. Between the cities were many unpaved villages with very simple wooden houses. As some passengers disembarked at their destinations, others came on to take their place. As the bed linens change, so does the smell and the atmosphere of the cabin. Yekaterinberg, it was my turn to get off the train after 1814km and 33h.

Kick off the sneakers and click into heels. The women here are very stylish, functional wear go away! Yekaterinberg is the political capital of the Urals, and known for the site of execution of the Romanovs. I see among the iconic Russian buildings and worn-out public transport vehicles a young booming city with copious modern constructions. The people are very friendly and even as a border city it exhibits a European flare with Asian influence.

In a Russian Orthodox church, the men take their hats off, the women cover their heads, and everyone stays standing for mass. Surrounded by the stern faces in many golden icons with painted ceramic frames, the worshippers are humbled. Some kiss the icons and touch the floor in front. Platters with thin lit candles complete the atmosphere.

Its time now to get back on the train. Next stop: Krasnoyarsk deep in Siberia. Train 3504A is another local train that takes its time. I make myself comfortable on my lower bunk in platskartny (3rd class wagon), ready for the next 37h 18min and 2284km. Our two provodnitsa check  tickets and passports at boarding, then pass out bed linen as the train get started. To Omsk there were many women and children on board, making the atmosphere comfortable and relaxing. As most of them got off at Omsk, I look out the window to see the incoming passengers waiting, and to my surprise and displeasure, mostly male migrant workers. The atmosphere and smell in the wagon changed immediately and I was not as relaxed. Across from my bunk was a Kazah woman Marina with her child. She told me that these men were from Uzbekistan and they will go to Novosibirsk for construction work, returning home only twice a year. They travel the entire day, with only an instant noodle soup and a tea, sleep all afternoon and arrive in Novosibirsk late at night. At Barabinsk train station the women outside were selling many smoked fish and some even fur vests. In the wagon were also two ‘gypsie’ women, a young one with a small boy and an older one with a purple shimmery dress. The child was rolling on the dirty floor and eating what he finds, I gave his mother some chocolates and cookies. The woman in the purple dress was selling scarfs on board to the other women. Some other small vendors were also on board, selling food and toys. At Novosibirsk was another high passenger turnover. Others came on board, I was getting sleepy. I slept a few hours, woke up to see the Siberian sunrise in the taiga, packed up my things and moved over to the provodnitsa to wait out the last few hours to Krasnoyarsk. Outside, there was a heavy snowstorm on the taiga. That was somewhat unexpected.

Krasnoyarsk is a small city with a mixture of concrete post-WWII industrialization and impressive timber mansions. It sits on the Yenisey River and has three main streets: Lenina, Mira, and Karla Marksa. Everything you require of a city is present, but it does not keep me. The traffic on the roads was quite obvious by the smell. On the big roads, the air is very bad. There is a huge range of vehicles, new or old, clean or dirty, left or right steering, electric or benzin, particle filters are likely not widely used. Most of the cars have a large crack across the windshield, apparently it is due to the extreme temperature difference between winter and summer. There is no bus schedule posted anywhere, but the traffic lights show timers so you know when they will switch.

The Stolby was the main reason for me to get off the Trans-Siberian train at Krasnoyarsk. It comprises unique rock formations along with its unique subtaiga landscape. Moreover, I was attracted by Stolbism, which I understood from books as freestyle mountaineering devoid of our modern day equipment. My Stolby experience was not the standard tour to see the rock formations. A Stolby enthusiast Alexey answered all my (sometimes silly) questions about all things Stolby and took me along for a visit. I was warned of two important things: be careful of the ticks, and five years of bad sex if I litter in the Stolby. On the way to the pillars, we met three young Russians (Ana, Elena and Valentin) with the same intentions, and I joined them to climb up the rocks. It was a snowy Siberian morning in May and we carefully scrambled up with just our sport shoes and bare hands. On the way, Valentin gave us some instructions (in Russian) where to step and how to step properly to get up. Once we were at the top, I was surprised with a “kaloshevaniye” ceremony by my dear new friends, which means I was gently smacked with a shoe so many times as the date of climbing (mine was 14, ouch!). We spent the morning climbing in the snow, and picnicked in the entrance hut on nuts, crackers, chocolate and hot tea. As we were on the gravel path leaving the Stolby back to the city, we saw the sun once more in all its glory in the blue skies. Siberian weather in May, tempermental. What I will remember is the warm hospitality of my Russian friends, how comfortable I felt climbing up the rocks with snow instead of gear, and the impressive rock formations as well as the view of the taiga beyond from the top.

Train 008 takes almost 17h to travel 1087km from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. Another Siberian sunrise on the rolling plains. The train runs pretty flat with no climbs, the path is sometimes cut through the rocks or is elevated above the depressions. This is a fast train (see the low train number) with less stops and shorter stop times. It is dusty and warm on the train with few open windows, the smell depends on the people around.

The Paris of Siberia, Irkutsk, a historic city built and rebuilt on the Angara River. A mixture of Russians, Mongolians and central Asians can be seen in the faces, the architecture, and the food. Going down ul Karla Marksa gives an impression of a quaint small city. The central market and its surroundings are very East Asian, the brown glassy architecture, the marketplace, the many small shops. Near the regional administrative buildings are many timber houses characteristic of Siberia. I will leave the photos to tell the rest. Every May as the weather warms up, the city performs maintanence on its waterpipes, this means that whole city blocks will cease to receive their cold water supply for a few days. Today was one of those days. Good luck showering with just hot water.

 

70km away on Lake Baikal is the small fishing village Listsyanka, accessible by minibus from Irkutsk. Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, it is also one of the oldest and cleanest.  This day it was cold and windy, only few people were outside. Actually it seems to be a run-down Siberian village with many timber houses and a small bit of tourism. The atmosphere at the marketplace was cozy despite the wind and rain, and you can see the hills on the opposite side of the lake. We had smoked Omul and bread for lunch while waiting for the rain to stop. Tomorrow I will be on a train circumnavigating the southern half of the lake on route to Ulan Ude.

Now is the longest of my train rides: 58h and 12 min to go 2672km, leaving Russia crossing through Mongolia to pull up in Beijing, China. Time is ticking and I have got to get to Hong Kong on time! Train 004 is made of a Russian locomotive and Russian restaurant wagon, and mostly Chinese sleepers. I got on early in the morning in Irkutsk and headed for the train station, saying a quiet goodbye to Russia while thankful for the warm hospitality she showed. The train attendant was a Chinese man, he showed me to an empty cabin which was to be all mine for that night. We continued around Lake Baikal to enjoy the morning frost and large chunks of ice still floating on the lake, cutting through the hilly regions to Ulan Ude. Starting at Ulan Ude, the landscape more arid and flat. Crossing over to Mongolia you are fully in the Gobi desert. Apart from the capital city Ulan-Bator, there were few settlements to be seen. Mongolia is sparely populated, due to its nomadic culture and harsh terrain. At the Russian-Mongolian border, the locomotive and restaurant wagons were changed to Mongolian ones. At the Mongolian-Chinese border, not only were the locomotive and the restaurant wagons changed, but also the gauge of the rails changes from 5 feet to 4 feet 8.5 inches, meaning the bogie has to be exchanged (with the passengers on board!) The landscape on the Chinese side changed rapidly, from dry river beds and few trees near the border, to richer, more bountiful regions before entering the mountains. The train track built into the mountains, through many tunnels and cutting along the sides for a long stretch, was extremely impressive. The rich landscape kept me busy practically until the final stop in Beijing. On Train 004 there were many European tourist, some have been on the train since Moscow. They keep their windows clean at the long stops to take clear pictures along the way. I also met other travellers who have been doing similar journeys and we shared our stories and experiences. It was nice for me to speak some English again and to around people ‘like me’.

In Beijing I was greeted by friends and my overnight stay was made memorable with meeting of new friends, amazing food, and great atmosphere. In the morning the bullet train/High-Speed-Rail G71 left Beijing West Railway station heading towards Shenzhen north. In 10h and 16min, the train covered 2400km travelling at 300km/h between stops. It was a big change to sit in a modern train again, after the last two weeks in old sleeper trains. What I like about the sleeper trains is that I have space to move around, can lie down and take an afternoon nap, read, picnic. This modern bullet train sits like an airplane, many rows of seats next to each other, and you stay in a sitting position for the duration. My parents met me at Shenzhen North railway station to take me home to Hong Kong. That was the best end to an amazing and long journey home.

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