From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

<<< Irkutsk & Lake Baikal | Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert >>>

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From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by a festering pile of trash next to the jetty and entertainment consisted of drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups in a rickety shack while watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

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