Over 9,000 km in length, the Moscow – Beijing Trans –Siberian Railway crosses seven time zones and crosses the Ural mountains, the neutral boundary between Europe and Asia. Here is a narration by a passenger onboard the train bringing you fascinating tales from the vast Siberian and Mongolian landscapes.
Moscow – the Russian capital is one of the remote mysterious corners of the world. Distant unfamiliar and only since the end of the soviet communalism it is easily accessible to foreigners. But for some, this is only a point of departure the beginning of what could be the last great overland journeys in this age of the jet. Yaroslavsky station, this is where the longest train ride in the world starts. No wonder passengers get very busy as they embark on a journey headed for other continents other worlds and they would be riding the rails for nearly a week. The train is called Vostok, a war course of a train, crowded not very comfortable and slow, chugging along at an average of only 40 miles an hour. Nothing gracious or elegant about the Vostok but it takes us to fabled lands that we have only heard since childhood. Until recently, the barriers of international politics kept foreigners out, now the gates are open and it is all aboard for the domains of Chengis Khan.
There are actually three routes on the Trans-Siberian railroad, two Russian, one Chinese. One goes from Moscow to Vladivostok 9,345 km, six and a half days and eight time zones away. A second goes along the same tracks but leaves Russia after almost 6,440 km and swings through Manchuria down to the Chinese capital of Beijing – a total of 9,055 km. The Chinese branch starts at Beijing ploughs through the great wall and runs through the Gobi Desert into the Mongolia of Chengis Khan and Marco Polo onto Siberia and the main line tracks to Moscow 7,911 km. The Beijing bound Vostok is a rumbling creaking clangling time capsule. People are thrown together not for hours as on a plane but for days and nights seemingly without end. It is just a break of 10-25 minutes every few hours at some station in the wilderness to stretch your legs and buy something to snack or breath in some good freezing air and look around. The locomotive is electric, a Scoda made in what used to be Czechoslovakia. The system changes to diesel towards the end of the run as the Vostok approaches China. It is no youngster but the engineers know how to baby it and keep it rattling along. It does not need to do much strenuous work as most of the way is pretty flat and where mountains do get on the track the Russians have made long detours rather than go to the expense of digging tunnels. Maximum speed about 160 km an hour may be when it was younger. With the Vostok underway, life on the slow track resumes. A little cold in getting the kitchen going. The compartments are only about six feet square, with four in second class and two in what passes for first class in this train. The only way to assure yourself some privacy is to book all the berths in a compartment otherwise you can end up sharing with just about anybody, but just about anybody here seems friendly.
Life on the Train
Aboard the Vostok, I met this computer expert from Perth and his pal a security guard from London. They found themselves in a compartment with a South Korean missionary and a scuba diver from Liverpool. Fasiliy, a Ukrainian business man and his wife Yuksana were heading for Sheng Yang in China to try to sell some boats. Russian soldiers on leave jam into another compartment. Natasha a young girl was visibly quite nervous, as she was leaving her family and her country to teach Russian in China. “Now that we are free to travel,” she said, adding, “The world is my home, Siberia is my room and now I am going to another room.” In the first class car, Nadia and Tania are the cabin attendants. They kept their rolling home clean and a motherly eye on the charges. They sometimes delivered the refreshments personally, a small touch of luxury on a basically do it yourself trip. Two young Germans ventured out of their compartments from time to time but always seemed glad to get back to it. A Russian made it clear to a German tourist that knowing the language is not necessary. There are universal ways to say come share a cigarette or a glass of vodka. The most important thing on a trip like this is the people you meet and not so much the views that you see out of the window. People you would not otherwise come in contact with in your regular life. As the days go on, you realise the typicality of the warm Russian hospitality. Russian trains run on Moscow time. The first morning wakes you up with a makeshift shower with bucket and an enamel cup. There aren’t many creature comforts on board the Vostok but on this run, at least there is hot water in the two bathrooms in each car. As you do your sightseeing through your window, there is always something worth seeing along the tracks and the marshalling yard. When you start getting bored, there is always one remedy and on this train whenever passenger break out the provisions especially something as special as fish caught through the ice and sold at a station they want a travelling companion to share it. Here when time and space take on new meanings, strangers become old friends quickly and so what if its morning here further east where this train is headed its afternoon and time for a drink.
The Vostok rolls on. Engine, two first class carriages and seven second class, restaurant and baggage car. There are enormous stretches where it seems God has spread a great white table cloth over a continent and then as an afterthought sprinkled iron rails and a few buildings here and there just for decoration. And then we reach the Ural mountains, the beginning of Siberia. The stations bring in variety with the locals from Russia’s great variety of ethnic communities, there is a rhythm to all of this as the train brings in essential provisions to the wilderness cities and the people here in turn supply those who ride the train. Upfront its back to eating up the miles still thousands to go. It is cold out here especially in December. Inside the coach, there is bottled heat maintained by the attendants. For those who live east of Moscow and for those who must cross this immense vastness the inexpensive way, it is a matter of keeping the lifeline intact. You watch as the scattered communities go by in a blur. Their wooden houses, unpaved street they look like something like the old days. Many passengers don’t even ask where they are as the train chugs east into the vast wilderness as the sound of the train in the Siberian night becomes a lullaby.
Siberia – 77% of Russia with only 27% Russians
The hundreds and thousands of political prisoners who were sent here on foot and shackled by the Czars and the communists had some harsher names. The land of chains and ice, larger than China, larger than the US and Europe put together, enormous but lonely. Three quarters of Russian territory, little more than a fifth of its population. Ten to 15 people per square mile. You travel through it in a daze suspended in time. The swaying of the train, its croans and moans and grumbles that puts you to sleep and rattle you awake, the blur of the endless countryside. Siberia’s woods of larch and pine, big enough to cover the continental US, a forth of the entire world’s timber reserves and dwelling in these woods the animals whose fur was a lure for the opening up of Siberia. There is great wealth below the frozen surface too. Gold and diamonds to rival the bounty of South Africa – antimony and tungsten perhaps a third of the world’s coal, oil and gas to the kind of quantities found in the Arabian Gulf. It is the job of this railroad to bring this wealth to Moscow and the rest of the world. For the passengers perhaps a train passing through this world of white is just another train. They rarely give a thought to what it took to build this rail highway the longest of the world. Japan and China is closer to Eastern Siberia than Moscow is and towards the end of the 19th century those countries made no secret of their desires to take over the territory. The Czars knew they had to do something to protect the growing Russian population and Siberia’s natural resources. How could they get troops and new settlers into the area quickly ? The idea of laying tracks across this wilderness seemed just too overwhelming. Russia couldn’t do it. Nobody could do it, but there was no other way. Russia had to do it!
Work began in 1891, one of the most gigantic construction jobs of modern times, was underway. Soldiers and convicts exiles and farm labourers using hand tools began hacking through two continents. They were to link Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific a distance of nearly 6,000 miles. Siberia became known as the land of frozen corpses. It took World War 1 to finishing the job top priority. In 1916, the highway of steel linked Europe with the Pacific. Now it is hard to imagine Siberia without this rail road. Satellites, telecommunications, jet planes may have changed other parts of the world but Siberia is still the great sleeping land and there isn’t much traffic to way it up. The tracks are Siberia’s freeway ad Siberia’s small population still in this immensity only about three times as big as metropolitan Moscow lives for the most part in clusters in primitive homes alongside the tracks. It may look pretty dull through a foggy window but there is a lot of history out there. Omsk was the headquarters of the Siberian Cossacks until the late 19th century. Fyodor Dostoyevsky who wrote Crime and Punishment was exiled here and served four years of hard labour for suggesting the czars to ease up on their repression. Just to the south and east of Omsk is Kazakhstan formerly part of the Soviet Union and this is where the Christian and Muslim worlds meet. Novosibirsk is the biggest city in Siberia with a population of a million and a half, 2,000 miles and three time zones from Moscow. It is population don’t just live in Siberia they live off of it. Throughout history, Siberia has been on the trade route between China and the west. There used to be caravans taking furs and hide out bringing tea silk porcelain and spices through now it is pretty much a one way trade route with the iron horse replacing the camel. Chinese merchants bring in big cargoes, others smuggle in bundles of shirts, jackets, jeans and women’s underwear. They are better than the Russian made goods available here with the supply line stretched thin. Another 500 miles up the line is Krasnoyarsk. Not so long ago, foreigners were barred from this area as the Soviet Union kept nuclear weapons and a reactor here. One underground complex was said to be 10 times the size of the Moscow subway. Now there is no Soviet Union and Russia doesn’t care who gets of the train. All you would likely see if you explore Krasnoyarsk today would be factories making things like TV sets, CDs and audio cassettes. We have travelled more than 3,000 miles now and the landscape is changing with the mountains visible before us sweeping east to the Pacific and south towards Mongolia and China. And then those who know start watching for it Lake Baikal. Here it is 88 hours on the train and it is worth the journey. The frozen pearl of Siberia, perhaps, the most beautiful place in all of Russia ! With rustic villages hugging, it is shore is the magnificent frozen Baikal. The 636 km long and 79 km wide Baikal is also the deepest lake of the world, containing one-fifth of all the fresh water on the earth’s surface. The way to really see it is to get off the train at Irkutsk. An hour and a half to the East by road and you are at the lake. It is not
just Baikal’s enormity that stuns you but the tranquil beauty. Thirty six rivers and streams flow into Baikal only one flows out – the Angara river. Irkutsk with its rich heritage and people mix it sure makes an interesting stopover. Back on the train, it is time for the communal breaking of bread. For the lifting of glasses which is so much a part of the Russian life and even the Solyanka the tangy soup made with lemon sausage olives and a dollop of sour cream and who knows what else wears thin after a few days, but everyone digs in but the party goes on. You slowly begin to forget your worries about leaving home as it is a moment out of time and space, a moment to cherish an eternal friendship with people, you will never see again. It is still Russia and it is still Siberia but once you leave Irkutsk and swing past the southern tip of Lake Baikal, you are in a very different world. This is the land of the Buryat Mongols. It was near here that Chengis Khan as born and began the conquest of what became the largest nation the medieval and the modern worlds have known. The Budiyat capital is Ulan Ude. Because it is so near the Mongolian border it was a closed military city under soviet rule. Now it is open to the world. As we near the worlds of Chengis Khan and Marco Polo we feel the beat of the wild heart of central Asia.
Buriyat Country – Ulan Ude
The Vostok on this run from Moscow to Beijing has brought us so far 5,644 km to the Buriyat capital Ulan Ude. We are at the place where the Russian bear gives way to the horsemen of Mongolia and the dragons of China. The land of Chengis Khan and Marco Polo. Very near the Mongolian border and the vostok is taking us ever deeper into Buriyat Mongol country. The Buriyats may be separated from their kinsmen by a line in the snow but none, the Czars or the connoisseurs of communism were able to strip them of their traditions, to take from them their language, their ways, their religion. Stalin send thousands of lamas the Buddhist priests to Siberia’s gulags and destroyed most of their monasteries but one survived near Ulan Ude and once again people come to worship here the old way. The old way is a strict form of Tibetan Buddhism called the yellow hat. They marry here and spin their own kind of wheel of fortune. It was not far from here that in the year 1167 the wife of a Mongol chieftain gave birth to a boy who was named Timuchen but came to be called Chengis Khan the universal ruler. Chengis khan with his hordes of Buriyat and other Mongols conquered half of the known world. His sons and grandsons stretched that empire from Korea to Hungary.
From Ulan Ude, the vostok heads east for lands that the Mongols conquered. We are bound for China. We cross still another time zone. Its Moscow time plus six hours. For those who have not stopped along the way it is day five on this journey towards infinity. We are in a vast almost empty world, a wilderness breached by powerlines and railroad tracks but in a few places you could call cities or even towns and judging from what we can see from our windows, few living creatures. Some passengers are excited by the prospect of leaving the world’s biggest country Russia and entering the third largest China. Canada ranks between them. Some are just glad to be going home.
At last, the Russia that seems so endless…ends. It ends in a miserable little border town called Zabaykalsk.Hardly the place one would chose to spend four hours hanging around a dingy railroad station. It is not the passport checking or the custom inspection that causes the delay. What happens now is the throwback to the fear and mistrust that Russia had for its neighbours for centuries, often with good reason. Fear and mistrust that so often in the past pointed this giant country to be an aggressor rather than risk being a possible victim of aggression. It is an operation railroad buffs rarely get to see usually because it is not necessary. The changing of the wheel assemblies,bogeys as they call them. Russia fearing invasion by train, build it is railroads wider than those of it is neighbours and the rest of the world. Now for the Vostok to move on to the Chinese tracks it must shed its five feet wide bogeys and settle back on the smaller standard gauge assemblies.
Headed into China
Finally it is all aboard again. The slow train to China on its new wheels is set to roll again. But not for long. Ina few minutes, we will stop again for a couple of hours on the Chinese side for baggage and passport control. It’s about three in the morning when the Vostok gets going again but for many it is no time for sleeping. Chinese Russian relations had been always a bit uneasy and the Chinese passengers are happy to be back on their turf enjoying their kind of food in the Chinese dining car that has replaced the Russian car. Now it is the turn of the Russians and westerners to enter someone else’s territory and for the South Korean pastor to mix with the normally hostile North Korean who is heading back to their home. On the peace train called the Vostok that is no problem. Language is no problem either as voices are raised in the songs of several nations. The Asian women do not take part; the men do not seem to mind. There is more food in this Chinese dining car, its chopsticks for eating and making music. The Chinese are smiling and sending out a message which translates as – you Russians think you know how to dance, watch how we Chinese do it now. A Russian joyously takes up the challenge. The Russian flavour is still alive on the Vostok as it plunges into China.
When day breaks, we at last can see something of china and a rather sober look it is. Ever since crossing the border we have been in a land with a mystical name and a glorious past, Manchuria – home of the fierce Manches. Marco Polo in the book of his travels called it chorcha. He described it as a far stretching plane with no cities or towns. A tributary state of the legendary Christian prince Prestor John. In 1644, the Manchus breached the great wall and conquered China. The Manchus established the Qing Dynasty that ruled China until 1912. Manchuria through the ages has been a disputed land. Russia China and Japan have fought for it. At one point the Russians were permitted to build a railroad across Manchuria to their naval base at Port Arthur. But the Japanese war put an end to Russian domination of north east china. The Japanese controlled Manchuria until the end of World War II. After the war, the Soviets rolled in, plundered Manchuria and armed and protected an underground Chinese communist army that eventually took it over. Now Manchuria is just another part of China. As far as the Chinese are concerned, it doesn’t even have its old name. The Chinese in their most romantic moments call it the land of the black dragon river. Officially it is just Dong Bay – literally east north. You look from the windows of the Vostok and wonder where the grandeur of the Manchus have gone.
When the Vostok stops, there is a not so subtle reminder that the camaraderie of Chinese and Russian passengers aboard the train is not generally shared by their countries. The norm on any railroad is to lock the toilets while trains are at the station to keep the tracks their undefiled. As soon as the Vostok crossed the border the attendants forgot about that sanitary precaution. But then as day turns into night, we begin to see different China. The China we imagined when we heard the whistle of trains passing through our childhood. Back in the great social hall of the Vostok the dining car its Chinese beer now instead of Russian vodka and time to tackle the chopsticks. It looks so easy. We have reached the industrial city of Sheng Yang and here the Ukrainian couple gets off to see if the Chinese will buy their boat their factory is building. They bid farewell to people who were strangers a week ago but in the forced intimacy of the Vostok had become friends even without knowing each others’ languages. This was the seventh and last night aboard the Vostok. Little more than 500 miles to Beijing. We will be there early in the morning.
The Russians still referred to it by its old name Peking – 9,054 km from Moscow. The Vostok made it in a little over six days. For some of us, it seemed more like six weeks, others were sorry to leave from what had become a home away from home and were eager to continue the adventure by whatever means. We entered our final destination a city that is the showcase of the nation of contrast and contradiction.
A nation that despite central planning developed the world’s fastest growing economy where the free market has been officially caged but has sprouted a thousand wings. Where two-thirds of the urban workforce is employed by 100,000 state-run companies but somehow private enterprise quietly nursed by need and Chinese business acumen, has steadily grown in the rubble of communist dogma.
Navigation & Trip Planner
New Delhi to Moscow one way Aeroflot/Jet Airways/Air India/Turkish Air /Aerosvit Airlines- 6.5 hours flight for about Rs 17,000 – 23,000. This is around 20 per cent costlier than return tickets but here you don’t have a choice.
Beijing to New Delhi one way China Eastern Airlines/China Southern Airlines/Jet Airways – around 12 hours flight for Rs 18,000 – 28,000 depending on time of booking.
The train starts from Moscow every Tuesday. It crosses Siberia, Mongolia and reaches China after six nights. The Best stopovers if you have time are Irkutsk in Siberia and Ulanbator in Mongolia.
One night each in these two places unless you plan more. But you will also need at least one night each in Moscow and Beijing if not many more given the variety of things to see and do.
A one-way ticket from Moscow to Beijing on the train would cost you around Rs 50,000 for a berth in a four berth second class sleeper coach with breakfast and all meals. Food is available at the stations, platforms and in the train restaurant car, without food the ticket would cost around Rs 42,000 – 45,000, but rates are lower in winter.
Meals would include ham and fried eggs for breakfast, schnitzel and potatoes for lunch or dinner, with soups and salads for starters. The restaurant car also sells beer, Russian champagne and of course vodka, chocolate and snacks. The Mongolian dinner will probably offer you rice and mutton with the Chinese dining car having a selection of excellent Chinese dishes. Free warm drinking water is available in the coaches.