We made our way to the Moscow train station in the early evening just as the sun was going down. Big clouds were looming over us as they had been for the last few days. We made our way into a smoke filled diner (the only place to sit near our train track) just seconds before the biggest downpour we'd seen yet began. The crowd at the train station seemed to be a little bit of a seedier crowd, and not an English speaker in sight. We started to get a little nervous wondering what our fellow train passengers might be like on the seven day journey.
After sitting for a few minutes, we realized that we forgot to stop by an ATM to get cash for the trip. We figured we might not have an opportunity at any of the stops to find an ATM and it was highly unlikely the babushkas would be excepting Visa. So I waited in the diner while Scott ran out in the rain to go find an ATM. While waiting for Scott to come back, I was awkwardly stared at by two old Russian men drinking beer, watched a belligerently drunk guy almost fall over trying to find a table to sit at, and watched a young fellow eat two entire cans of some sort of weird meat out of a can that he'd pulled out of his backpack. What did we get ourselves into?
Scott finally made it back after what felt like an eternity. The rain stopped just a few minutes before our train arrived. We decided to head outside to wait by the track just to make sure we wouldn't miss the train. We looked around and realized that sure enough, there were lots of English speakers and a few other backpackers waiting outside by the track. We figured out that most of the people in the diner had been waiting for a different train. We were a little relieved. As we stood there waiting with our overstuffed packs, day bags, and two huge tote bags full of bottled water, ramen noodles, and other snacks, we looked over and saw a young couple that looked like they were toting the exact same stuff. We introduced ourselves as we all walked towards our train cars. It turns out our new friends Rachelle and Blair were from Canada, and had a similar travel route planned out for Asia after the train ride.
The train we were on turned out to be Chinese train #4, which we were a little disappointed about since we had read so much on other travel blogs about the Russian trains. Having a Chinese train also meant that we had Chinese male attendants instead of the providnitsas (Russian women attendants). However, when we boarded the train our carriage attendant was really nice and brought us the sheets for our beds right away.
We are sad to report that the accommodations on this train were much, much worse than the very comfortable sleeper train we had taken from St, Petersburg to Moscow. The walls in our compartment were covered with a faux wood paneling strait out of a seventies horror film. The barely there seat cushions (which would also be our beds for the next six nights) had tattered seat covers. But it gets much worse! The private bathroom we were promised with our “first class” ticket was nothing more than a sink (that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since it was installed) with a retractable sprayer. The water that came out of the sprayer was suspicious looking and frigid. There was a drain on the floor which more than likely drained straight onto the train tracks. We also had to share our washroom with another cabin. But far worse than the non-existent mattresses and failure of a shower, was the fact that we were in the last compartment on our carriage…next to the one toilet that would be shared with our entire car! Not to mention that when you flush the toilet you can literally see the waste falling onto the train track! We would definitely not recommend living near a train track in Russia. Also, the train was B.Y.O.T.P. We had read on some blogs that this was the case, so luckily we had stocked up ahead of time. The smell wafting from the tiolet combined with burning coal and second hand cigarette smoke from the chain smoking German guy two compartments down was almost unbearable.
After a couple days on the train we decided to try showering by filling up our tea kettle with boiling water from the samovar. After letting it cool enough to not scald ourselves, we poured it over our heads, washing our hair and essential body parts. However this was also a not so fun experience since we had to let the water cool off between rinses. I'm not so sure all of the shampoo was washed out of my hair, but at least it smelled good.
So it wasn't the Orient Express, but we luckily had a fan that we could turn on to minimize the toxic smells and it was nonetheless another adventure.
We spent the next few days watching the scenes outside our compartment window change drastically from mostly burch trees to little wooden shack villages, from shack villages to a mountainous region, to beautiful Lake Baikal, from a beautiful lake to more little shacks.
We would hop off the train when it made stops to stretch our legs and sometimes buy snacks. Sometimes the train only stopped for five minutes in what seemed to be ghost towns and sometimes it stopped for half an hour in villages where the tracks were bustling with Russian women selling home cooked goodies (a.k.a. Babushkas). Scott bought some snacks from the babushkas, but I was hesitant to try the home made meat filled pies since we had heard rumors that they could possibly be filled with unknown animal meat products of animals we consider “man's best friend”.
We trekked across the length of the train to check out the Russian dining car. The dining car was small, and like the rest of the train, looked like it had seen better days…including the old, limping man running the car. The food was actually pretty terrible, but it was nice to escape the confines of our room for a while and chat with other travelers. We met an older English couple while we were in the dining car that were a blast to talk to. The guy named Ian had been drug on the train by his eager to travel wife (who had ended up getting food poisoning). It was blatantly obvious that the guy was miserable, but his whittiness and sense of humor was the perfect combination for his pessimistic attitude toward their adventure.
Because of the few dining options in the dining car, our diet for the rest of the week mainly consisted of ramen noodles, hot tea, and whatever kind of cookies we could buy at the stops. We were so sick of ramen by the end of the trip!
We spent a lot of time on the train playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, and catching up on our favorite tv episodes we had downloaded to our iPads before we left Moscow. Having iPads and an electrical outlet to charge them was the only thing maintaining our sanity when there was nothing to look at outside our window. Come to find out, our friends from Canada's electrical outlet didn't work the entire train causing them not to be able to use their iPad. They had just assumed the whole train was in the same circumstance so they didn't mention it to us until the last day. Had we known we would have offered for them to use our outlet to charge up.
At the end of the second day on the train, Scott came down with a cold, which was a total bummer. He had a stuffy nose, cough and felt just plain crumby. It was probably the most uncomfortable circumstance to be in when you don't feel good. But on a positive note, at least it wasn't food poisoning or a stomach bug!
Our first long stop was when we arrived at the Mongolian border. The train stopped for a few hours to allow immigration and customs checks to occur. Russian immigration agents came onto the train, they gathered everyone in our cars passports and got back off the train. We were required to stay on the train until they came back with our passports a couple hours later. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be sitting on a train in the middle of nowhere Russia with our passports out of our hands for that long. When they finally brought back our passports, the customs agents boarded and did a one by one cabin search. It was a tedious process, but thank God for word puzzles (we must have finished at least thirty by the end of the trip). Once the process of leaving Russia was complete, the train moved for about twenty minutes and stopped for the whole process to be repeated by the Mongolian border agents.
When we woke up the second morning of being in Mongolia, the scenery outside had completely changed once again. We had entered the Gobi Dessert. Off in the distance we could see the little white tent like structures (ger) that some Mongolians call home. We also saw some livestock, and even a few camels.
Along with the scenery change outside the train we also had a nice change of scenery on the train as well. When we crossed into Mongolia our train left behind the horrible Russian dining car and picked up a Mongolian dining car. This time the dining car was attached to our end of the train which was nice not having to trek through a billion moving train doors to get to. The car was much more interesting to look at, and the one meal we ate there was actually pretty good.
It didn't take too long to get through Mongolia before we were at the Chinese border. This required another really long stop. Once again agents took passports and rooms were searched. However the process to cross into China is even longer due to the fact that Russian and Mongolian railroads require a different size wheel than any other country. So, one by one the individual train cars were jacked up and the bogies were swapped out. We stayed on the train while this process took place. It was actually kind of fun to watch out the window.
Once we got into China the dining car changed again to a Chinese dining car. We were all given vouchers for free lunch for the last morning of the train ride. As you can imagine, the dining car was packed. Luckily we got seated at the same table as the English couple that we had met in the Russian dining car. The free meal consisted of some sticky rice, some slimy vegetables, and some sort of really squishy meatball. Not so good, but it at least served as some entertainment to watch Ian's reaction to the food.
Not too long after our last meal (if you could call it that) we arrived at our trains final destination, Beijing.
The trek across Siberia was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The scenes we saw outside the windows were at times amazing and at other times depressing. However, if we were to do this ride again we would probably do it a little differently. We would definitely arrange our schedule to be on the Rossiya train #1 (a much nicer train) from Moscow to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal), where we would spend a couple days and then board the Baikal train #10 to Ulan Bator. From there to Beijing is only a one day train ride, so any train would probably be ok for that period of time.
We would also recommend the following items to anyone planning on making the journey:
- Toilet paper and wipies
- Paper towels
- Playing cards
- Dry shampoo
- Bath towel
- Mugs to make noodles and tea in
- Travel cutlery and a Swiss Army knife
- Lots of food that either requires no preparation or just add hot water
- A first aid kit including cold medicine
- Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes
- Lots of bottled water