To celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the longest train journey in the world, Phoebe Smith undertakes the classic Trans-Mongolian railroad, but with a twist: switching direction to travel east to west…
The milk was definitely off. I lifted the cup to my lips twice, and each time felt the sharpness of its scent deep in the back of my nose, pungent and stale, forcing me to stop shy of tasting it. The family looked at me expectantly from every seat in the ger (yurt) – the youngest little girl giggling as I winced each time I tried to drink. Finally, I willed myself to take a sip.
To my surprise, it wasn’t actually that bad.
“What is it?” I asked my guide Tseveen – having already learned that in Mongolia the best method was to try first and ask what was in it later.
“Milk vodka – Arkhi,” she said, as I took another swig, this time tasting a faint gin-esque flavour underneath the dairy. “They make it with yak milk yoghurt – it’s about 20 per cent alcohol.”
This was Day Four of my ride on the Trans-Siberian railroad – or more correctly, on the Trans-Mongolian spur of the train line – and I found myself somewhere among the grassy steppes, a couple of hours from the capital of Ulan Bator. It’s a place most people stop at near the end of their rail journey, as the majority go west to east. But I was doing things in reverse.
Instead of starting in Moscow and descending into the spartanly populated reaches of Russia’s Siberia gradually, I’d opted to get the long flight out of the way at the start and head east to west, inching steadily back to Europe from Asia, gaining (rather than losing) time as I travelled. And now, I’d just tasted my first sip (of what would soon become many glasses) of locally made vodka – a virtually inescapable activity on this trip.
The previous night, I’d stayed in my own Mongolian ger, lined with sheep-wool felt, warmed by a wood-burning stove and lit by candlelight. I’d spent the evening perched at the door, watching the Milky Way stain the cloudless inky sky, while above the camp a holy ovoo (pile of sacred stones – added to by nomadic families as they trek across the steppes to ask for a safe journey) watched over the scene. It was a far cry from the modern comforts of the train carriage that had brought me here.
Decked in mahogany-style cabinets and crushed crimson velvet curtains tied with golden ropes, my cabin aboard the private locomotive Tsar’s Gold was shared with just one other person (on a normal train, it would be a minimum of four). Any worries that taking a train like this would mean a less-than-authentic experience were soon unfounded on arrival at the Chinese capital, when I was told that I would not be taking a train from Beijing at all.
“What do you mean the Government has seized them?” I asked incredulously, as my guide, Freiya, gestured instead to a coach.
It transpired that the officials had decided their need was greater than ours. So it was on wheels, not rails, that I began my continental crossing.
My couple of days in China, roughly following the route of the train line by road, felt like trying to crack an impenetrable yet intriguing Rubik’s cube. Every time I felt like I was making progress and getting under the skin of the place, something happened to make me feel like I’d been pushed right back outside it.
A great wall (Neil S Price)
This feeling started at the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. Here the yawning brickwork sprawls up the impossibly steep hillside, stopping every few hundred metres to make way for a watchtower. It was overcast and humid when I began my short hike, making for sweaty work.
But, as it rose higher, I began to leave the crowds behind and found a little section to myself, up among the trees. It felt raw and wild, but when I descended back down into the valley I found a sign that explained how most of this section of the wall had been completely restored – a modern man-made rendering of a time gone by.
In the Forbidden City, so-called because emperors (together with their eunuch officials and concubines) were once the only ones able to enter, I wandered through its courtyards as Freiya explained about the lives of those who had lived here during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). As I looked in awe at the elaborate décor of one of the outbuildings, I noticed a locked passageway off to the side.
“What’s behind there?” I asked, only to be told this particular part was out of bounds – some places it seemed were still forbidden.
Finally, on exiting, we crossed the road to Tiananmen Square, site of the infamous massacre of 1989. Our guide waxed lyrical about Chairman Mao, of the bus routes into town, of the fountain that goes off every few minutes, but nothing about the fateful events of that mass protest.
When I asked her discreetly later, she said that they weren’t taught anything about it in school and internet stories were censored, so she had no idea about what happened.
“I do remember one thing though,” she confessed. “A couple of weeks later, I was taking the bus with my mum and we passed the square. I looked at the tower and could see bullet holes. I asked her about them and she said, ‘It’s nothing, only shadows’.”
A jade lion guards the Forbidden City (Neil S Price)
Leaving behind the secretive corners of communism, I finally boarded my train in Erlian, on the China-Mongolian border, where both the landscapes and the people seemed to open up. Arriving at Ulan Bator, the polished, politically correct answers were gone.
As our city guide, Battor, showed us Buddhist temples (rebuilt after the Stalin-backed purges and destruction wrought by the communist government here in the late 1930s) and the giant statue of Genghis Khan, he was brutally honest about the failings of the past and the surprising willingness of his people to accept communism (1924–92). “We were shepherds – we didn’t know who Karl Marx was…”
When I headed up into the steppes and saw some nomadic people with an eagle by the roadside, I asked Tseveen if it was used for hunting. “Well,” she said with a smile, “perhaps one day – but for now it’s a business venture. And as he’s charging US$16 for a photo, you have to admit it’s quite a successful one.”
After sampling an array of yak-based products, trying my hand at archery (abysmally) and committing the odd faux pas (never walk between the two central beams in a ger, always take your milk with your right hand), I was loathed to leave the nomadic family and my cosy little ger the following day. But the train was beckoning.
As we walked back to the station, the grass around my ankles began to sing.
“Grasshoppers,” explained Tseveen. “We always say that when they start to call, the seasons are changing and autumn is coming.”
Locals dressed in Tatar dresses in Kazan (Neil S Price)
Change was certainly afoot after Mongolia, and not just the onset of cooler weather. After crossing the strange no-man’s land between it and Russia – a desolate patch of earth surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards – the train trundled slowly into Siberia, near Ulan-Ude.
Here the scenery changed from herds of yak, horses and the odd camel to jumbles of Cyrillic signage, a plethora of churches (note: a normal service here lasts for three hours; for seven hours on a Sunday; and over 12 hours at Easter – all without breaks, standing the whole time), Russian dolls for sale by the roadside and Lenin statues by the bucketload.
The main street was a die-straight row of spartan communist buildings, bookended by a wonderfully ornate theatre and the largest ‘head sculpture’ of Lenin in existence.
Inside and outside the theatre, the town were busy rehearsing for their 350-year anniversary, while we were treated to another local speciality brew: kvas (aka ‘Russian cola’), an Eastern take on a Western drink, made from fermented rye bread and tasting something like dandelion & burdock, only stranger.
If Ulan-Ude seemed like a mix of Asia and Europe, our next stop, Lake Baikal, felt unlike anywhere else in the whole of Russia. Known as the ‘Pearl of Siberia’, it has claims to several impressive titles, including the largest, the clearest, the deepest and the oldest lake in the world, and on top of that, contains over 20% of the Earth’s unfrozen surface fresh water.
But if the lake’s stats are impressive, the feat of engineering that created the railway line that runs above it is arguably more so.
Take the train from Slyudyanka to the station of Baikal and you will no longer be on the Trans-Siberian proper, but on a dead-end 89km route called the Circum-Baikal. But it wasn’t always so.
Built between 1896 and 1900, this once connected the whole of Russia’s rail network together. To achieve this, the engineers’ only option was to cut through the steep mountainsides that rise up from the water’s edge (it has 33 tunnels along the line), where rockslides were and still are a common problem.
Add to that the tricky issue of winter – (when construction was still taking place) a time when temperatures regularly plummet to -20ºC and special ice-breaking trains had to clear the tracks – and it’s no wonder that, since 1948, an alternative route was built to avoid the lake. But I was very glad I hadn't.
Russian dolls (Neil S Price)
On the day I arrived, with the sun blazing overhead, it was hard to imagine the temperature could ever get that cold. After snaking our way along the precarious tracks – now a popular pleasure ride, I disembarked to take a short boat excursion on the glittering lake, visiting a local fish market to check out the omul – a Baikal delicacy.
After lunch I climbed the small mountain above the tracks to get a view of the train, which snaked for so long that I couldn’t see the end of it, then finished with a dip in the water. At 2ºC it was a bracing experience, but one of the locals in the tiny village, who was selling old train track spikes at the bargain price of €5, promised it would add seven years to my life.
While my life had supposedly been extended by a visit to the area, the following day in Irkutsk it was brought home to me how a visit to the same tract of land years ago could also be a life sentence. Back in December 1825 a group of some 3,000 military men (known as the Decembrists) staged a revolt to overthrow the monarchy.
To cut a long story short, it failed, and those who masterminded it were exiled to Siberia to endure a life of hard labour, stripped of their citizenship and declared dead. Their wives were free to remarry, although many left their well-to-do lives, friends and even children to join their husbands.
It was a hard life for all, and the exiles often tried to make their rudimentary homes mimic those of their old lives as best they could.
“The Siberian’s actually embraced them,” said our guide, Anna, as we visited one of the Decembrists’ homesteads.
“They were welcomed and many stayed in Irkutsk after their sentences – some as long as 25 years – were carried out, becoming pillars of the community.”
Epiphany church's belltower (Neil S Price)
We found the same warmth and hospitality here now. About 30 minutes outside the city, a family off ered to open their home to us and cook a feast to celebrate our arrival. That night we dined on vegetables and potatoes they’d grown in their back garden and supped on their very own brew of… vodka.
But the Trans-Siberian nearly didn’t come through the town at all, and in the centre a monument proudly depicts the man who sealed the deal.
“There were five plans for the railroad and only one featured Irkutsk,” said Anna. “We don’t know what made them choose the route that they did, as it wasn’t the easiest option due to the terrain. I suppose it was probably due to bribery – but we are glad they came here. The railway was and still is so important for the city.”
Further down the tracks, another key site is Novosibirsk, where we were met on the platform by folk dancers replete in floral dresses and knee-high socks offering to (literally) break salty bread with us. It’s a fascinating place to stop, with a lively local meat, fruit and anything-you-might-need market.
But from a historical perspective, it’s the crossing of the Ob River that draws visitors. It’s here where you can see the remains of a section of the original bridge that used to span it. Only wide enough for a single track, it was retired in the 1930s to make way for a larger one (to prevent delays) and is now a cherished relic of the railway’s past, covered in a smattering of lovelocks.
I was thankful of the new delay-free crossing as we raced on through Siberia, watching the white birch trees increase in number as a rainbow lit up the city we’d just left behind. When Russia finally took hold of what is now modern-day Siberia, they were faced with the issue of populating it in order to keep the land safe from invasion.
As such, between Irkutsk in the east and Moscow in the west, several ‘administrative centres’ line the route. Novosibirsk was one, but Yekaterinburg – ‘Capital of the Urals’ – is perhaps the most famous. The city is best known for being the site of the continental divide – where Europe meets Asia – but I was soon to discover that it has a far more macabre claim to fame.
“Your guide’s father was an enemy of the people,” said Valentina, as she led us out of the city to visit the Euro-Asia Obelisk.
On the way, we made an unexpected stop at what resembled a cluster of hills by the roadside.
“He was sent to the Gulag [prison camps in Siberia run by a government agency also known as the Gulag] for eight years. His crime? Going to church on Sundays. But he was one of the lucky ones.”
Spires of St Bastil's in Moscow (Neil S Price)
As I explored the ‘hills’, I soon realised what she meant. Tens of thousands of people were executed during the Great Purge of the late 1930s under the orders of Stalin’s Government, many without trial. Here, by the main road, we were standing at the site of just one of many mass graves from this era.
But, as I learned, even pre-Soviet Russia wasn’t immune to grisly goings on. Back in town, we visited the Church on the Blood, which sits on the site of the old merchant’s house where Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, was executed in 1918 along with his wife and four children. It was a beautiful, if chilling, space.
Despite a tumultuous past, the city today has a more positive vibe. As we stopped at the now bustling centre, we saw yet another statue of Lenin.
“He used to point to enlightenment, now he points tourists to the main shopping street,” Valentina smiled.
The face of communism directing people to the main place for the favourite capitalist endeavour – there’s some kind of poetic justice in that perhaps.
Between Yekaterinburg and Moscow, I had one final stop: Kazan. It was here where Russia seemed to mellow, for as well as Islam and Christianity sitting happily side by side – note the mosque and the giant church with local worshipers happily praying in both – it’s also home to two official languages: Russian and Tatar.
The latter is left over from the Bulgars, a semi-nomadic people who once roamed the banks of the Volga River, and the teaching of both languages is mandatory in schools. This embracing of difference is also evident in the city's architecture, which is a real blend of Asian, European, Soviet, Islamic, modern and historical.
We left Kazan under a sky that had turned the same shade of red that would soon surround me in Moscow’s infamous square. Ahead lay Russia’s capital, complete with its gilded onion-domed churches of the Kremlin and palace-like underground stations. But before that came time for reflection, which I did as I watched the birch trees give way to urban sprawl through my carriage window.
Over 7,621km I had witnessed secrecy and frankness, the hard edges of skyscrapers and the softness of the grassy steppes, as well as examples of both the harshness and warmth that the extreme nature of Siberia can bring out in people.
Without the slowness of the train, I would never have seen any of it. I looked down at the table where the conductor had once more filled my glass of vodka. This time my thirst got the better of me. I didn’t wince, I didn’t hesitate, instead I took it all in, in one single gulp.
The author travelled with Titan Travel (titantravel.co.uk; 0808 149 9606), which offers group departures on the Tsar’s Gold which takes the Trans-Mongolian route (the Trans-Siberian proper only crosses Russia and starts in Vladivostok) going east to west – Beijing to Moscow.
The trip includes five nights in hotels and nine nights on the train, most meals, local guides in each stop, and all excursions (note: staying in the ger in Mongolia is extra). The next departure is 10 June 2017. Group tours on the Tsar’s Gold (west to east) are offered by Regent Holidays.
Main image: Trans-Siberian Circum-Baikal railway (Neil S Price)