The chilly heart of Manchuria (Matthew Woodward)
Blog Words : Matthew Woodward | 01 May

Frozen beards and fond farewells In the heart of Manchuria

As Matthew Woodward's journey takes him further into Manchuria he has to say goodbye to the people who have kept him fed and happy since Moscow

I'm pretty confused about the border ahead. I can’t make any sense of the timetable and everyone has a different version of it. I'm going to need to be flexible with my planning. 

Valerie has taken to passing me notes with helpful things written on, as his English is nearly as bad as my Russian. This morning his note says just one thing: "-31°C".

I had already guessed that it was cold when I went to the bathroom and discovered that the toilet had frozen solid. The water to flush it should be heated, but my WC is at the other end of the carriage from the samovar which provides the hot water.

My sleep was pretty mixed last night as the train has frozen brakes again. Every time the train slows down my carriage lurches backwards and forwards and is impossible to sleep through. I also got up before each stop during the night to re-seal my window. It's a high maintenance activity, but worth it as I can get the temperature from 29°C down to a more manageable 21°C without getting into trouble.

Train to Manchuria (Matthew Woodward)

Looking at my map, we are now heading south-east. The landscape has changed dramatically overnight. We have been slowly climbing on to a huge plain and my view this morning is of tundra and the Great Khingan mountain range in the distance. It's much drier up here and my throat and eyes are a bit painful today. I have started to cough too – not a good sign. I wonder if the altitude is what is keeping the temperatures so low. 

Our 40-minute stop at Borzya reveals that we are carrying a lot of post, but few passengers. The RZD staff and security greatly outnumber us by five to one. One of my guide books says that this place was built to move military equipment into eastern Mongolia during the Japanese invasion of 1939. 

Most of the factories and buildings look derelict today, so I'm not sure why the stop is so long. On the platform I wander about trying to keep moving and warm. I notice that the moisture from my breath has actually frozen my beard for the first time. If it is like this in the sunshine, it must be quite chilly at night!

The timetable states that our next stop will be Zabailask, in a few hours time. This is where I say farewell to the Russian restaurant carriage (a.k.a. Robin's Nest). The Russians are busy moving things back into the Russian zone of the train that will be detached before we reach the border. I make a mental to note to make sure I am in the right part of the train when this happens.

Valerie inches full dress uniform (Matthew Woodward)

I shall miss the Russian restaurant and feel sad to see Valerie and the team go. They were very kind to me. I exchange small Christmas gifts, and before I go, I ask Valerie if he minds if I take his photograph. What he does next surprises me - he insists on changing into his full uniform and poses very formally for me behind the bar. He explains that he doesn't want to smile as he is hiding his gold fillings. 

What a thoroughly genuine and nice chap he is. 

More like this

The restaurant at the end of the Trans-Manchurian Express

Why you should never wash your hands on the Trans-Siberian Express

How to avoid having breakfast for lunch on the Trans-Siberian Express


Matthew Woodward has completed several amazing long distance rail adventures using the Trans-Siberian railway and onward across Asia. From from his home in Edinburgh he has reached Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and is now headed for Tibet. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures 


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