Trans-Siberian travelers

We boarded Train #3 of the Trans-Siberian railway in Beijing, headed toward Moscow. I have never felt so far away from home. Maybe it was the fact that we had been traveling for 6 months. Or that I'd felt so at home in India, and getting back on the road had been harder than I had imagined. Or maybe just that we were leaving familiar Asia for Europe, through some very unfamiliar territory.

We expected the Trans-Siberian to be memorable, both for the length of the journey (6 days from Beijing to Moscow, through China, Mongolia, and Russia), and for the stunning landscapes out the window. It was hard to decide beforehand if stopping midway would dilute the experience of this grand adventure, but the thought of going so many days without a shower convinced us to break our journey midway in Siberia. So we started our trip with a 3 day, 2 night route from Beijing, China, through Mongolia, arriving in Irkutsk, Siberia.

The end of winter is a strange time to travel through this region. The ground is sometimes brown, sometimes spotted with snow and in places completely white. The trees are still without leaves, but filter the sky and the light in a lovely way. Bird nests are visible everywhere. It was hard to tell what the outside temperature was, seated in our warm car (heated using an old-fashioned coal furnace). But when we walked between train cars, the blasts of cold jarred us into realizing that yes, we were indeed in Mongolia and Siberia. But we saw unexpected things whenever we near human habitation: trash strewn on the ground, people out working even in the cold, farm animals, and dwellings in ramshackle conditions. While passing through Mongolia, we indulged in games of ger (yurt) spotting. We were glad not be getting off here. This had been Mongolia's coldest winter. 

Train food was a minor adventure. We were given free meal tickets for the Chinese-run dining car the first day: celery, beef and potatoes for lunch, and the same for dinner (with carrots instead of potatoes). We'd brought ramen, oatmeal, fruit, and juice with us, but not nearly as much as our neighbors. Did they know something we didn't? The next day, we'd crossed into Mongolia, and decided to check out the dining car again. Our eyes popped. The dining car had been swapped out as we crossed the border, and we walked into a luxurious space straight out of the movies. The friendly Mongolian steward brought us the fixed lunch: juice, salad, noodle soup with mutton, and beef curry with rice and ketchup. We smiled at the other diners as we all commented on how tasty the food was. None of us had bothered to ask the cost; this was Mongolia, after all. But there were audible gasps at every table as we received our bills: 200 RMB (about $28) per meal. We sheepishly handed over the last of our Chinese money; our ever so friendly steward would likely be eating alone that night. The hot, cheap, bowl of ramen I had in my room that night was probably one of the most satisfying meals I have ever had. No more pricey dining cars for us.

We got off the train to spend two nights in Listvyanka, Siberia, a small village by the shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. In summer, it transforms into a resort town, but in early spring it felt sleepy and undisturbed. The enormous lake was still frozen, with ice over a meter thick. A jagged line defined the end of the frozen lake and the beginning of the adjoining fast-flowing never-frozen Angara River; the line separating ice and water disappeared into the mountains in the distance. It was a most black and white landscape. In contrast, the village was most colorful, with homes that looked like doll houses, painted in greens, blues and white.

We were the only guests at our home-stay. Our host was a fifty-something woman whose children had left home, but lived close by. She had a lovely wood cottage. The toilet was indeed outside, in a small outhouse, with a clean western-style compost toilet. The seat had a a pink wool cover: this was the kind of outdoor toilet we could work with. We didn't get that much-desired hot shower, but we got an even better option: am almost-traditional private banya (sauna). The cold outside only heightened the experience of the warmth of the wood walls and the heat. A home-made meal of salad, bread, and mutton dumplings brought us back to the land of the stationary.

And then we proceeded to do laundry. Like most travelers, we've learned to seek out entertainment and cultural experiences in even the most mundane tasks. When we asked our host where we could wash clothes, she instructed us to return to the banya. Thankfully, it was still warm. Unclear as to the procedures for drying clothes in the snow, and having been shown clotheslines both inside and outside, we decided to diversify our risk and hang half our clothes in the sauna, and half outside in the yard. My towel and t-shirt promptly froze and became stiff. Strangely the next day, even after periods of heavy Siberian snow, the clothes outside had actually dried. The highlight of the next day was a lazy stroll on a frozen riverbed during a freak 20-minute snowstorm, and then a walk on the frozen lake.

We spent the last day in Irkutsk, "the Paris of Siberia," walking streets that contained a mix of wooden houses and oddly French-style buildings (housing the standard mix of global brand stores: Adidas, Benetton, etc). We made our way to the banks of the Angara river to see people making their way to Easter services. The whitewashed old church stood in contrast to the painted church. By the river we found "love locks," padlocks engraved with names of couples, locked to the riverside railings; the keys had been thrown away. Our home-stay host looked embarrassed when we mentioned these to her. It wasn't a Russian tradition, she told us emphatically; the love-locking trend had started about seven years ago, and who knows, perhaps it was a Chinese import.

We were ready to get back on the road. The #9 Baikal train was rumored to be one of the best trains of the Trans-Siberian railway network. The faux wood paneling, traditional carpeting, and light off-white curtains immediately evoked a sense of luxury even in our 2nd class kupe. Children played in the corridor, the sun set over Siberia, and we made our way to Moscow. As predicted, our carriage's prodvonista (a short no-nonsense Russian woman in her forties) was stern, but not rude. The bathrooms were spotless and always equipped with toilet paper, soap, and tissues, the benefits of finally having made it to "Europe".

It was treat having our four-person cabin all to ourselves. In the absence of a common language, our interactions with fellow travelers were mainly with children who didn't seem to care that I was replying to them in Bengali. Our guidebook had warned us that local fellow passengers might "force" one to drink uncomfortably large amounts of vodka; apparently they'd only let off if you told them you were an "alkoholika" (alcoholic). We enjoyed our solitude, and seeing all the families in our car.

We were apprehensive when the the next evening, we had visitors: two big stereotypically unfriendly Russian men, arriving to share our kupe. We tried to make conversation, but we were ignored, dismissed with a stern nyet; I can't say that I was unhappy to learn that they were only going to stay a few hours. We had better luck the next evening. One of our two new cabin-mates, a bus driver from Perm, could speak a few words of English, but even better, he was both friendly and perfectly willing to use hand-talking to make himself understood. He demonstrated simulated earthquakes and seismographs readings to show he had studied geoscience, and made strange piscene facial expressions to explain to us that there were only mutant fish to be found when he went fishing in the Kama river. Anirvan loved it; he'd finally met someone as devoted to charades-based international communication as he. They ended up talking about Darkwing Duck, the Golden Gate bridge, and canine cosmonauts -- and both sides understood each other perfectly.

As we approached Moscow, the weather warmed, snow gave way to slush, monotonous walls were broken by colorful graffiti, and golden-domed churches made their appearance above broken wood houses that looked like they had been taped together. We would arrive in Moscow in about 3 hours. I'm writing this as we open our last two bowls of ramen, not quite sure if we are ready to be there.

Our photos from the Trans-Siberian railway:

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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