Jessica Gregson braved low-carbon travel, Mongolian plains and contraband smuggling when she hopped aboard the famous Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow
The Trans-Siberian railway is the sort of travel experience that divides people. The idea of multiple nights on a train, sharing a cabin with strangers, no access to showers, dependent on the vagaries of the buffet car for sustenance is many people’s idea of hell on earth. For others, including myself, it’s a unique chance to travel overland across one-third of the globe, meeting the locals and seeing a lot of spectacular scenery along the way – and in these climate conscious times, it’s also a chance to take on a very big trip without feeling too guilty about polar bears floundering on melting ice floes as a direct result of your carbon footprint.
That’s certainly how I justified it to myself as I boarded the train in Beijing in the early hours of the morning, dodging the Chinese and Mongolian traders who were sprinting along the platform using their teetering trolleys of goods as battering rams. I was sharing my scruffy but comfortable four-berth compartment with an American, on his way home from teaching in Korea, and the young son of Mongolian diplomats who was eager to learn English swear words.
The first few hours of the journey, through the jagged mountains west of Beijing, snatching tantalising views of the Great Wall of China, were spectacular. However, one sixth of the way through the 30-hour journey from Beijing to Mongolia’s capital Ulaan Baatar, we were in the heart of China’s coal region, characterised by distant chimneys wafting black smoke and grimy-looking townships where we were allowed to jump off the train and plunder supplies from platform traders. By dusk, the landscape became flatter and drier as we headed into the Gobi desert, and the temperature dropped, with sparks from the train’s coal heater floating past the windows.
At the border between China and Mongolia most of the passengers, old hands at the journey, got off the train to spend a couple of hours in the station café, but my American cabin mate and I elected to stay on the train for the novel experience of seeing it lifted into the air as the bogies were changed to fit on the marginally-wider Mongolian track. All the carriages are uncoupled and then lifted hydraulically, a process so gradual and gentle that we didn’t really feel it until we looked out of the window and found ourselves six feet above the ground.
We were also entertained by our cheerful cabin attendants who, as soon as the passengers were off the train, began filling empty pillowcases with contraband to smuggle it across the border.
I stirred briefly at dawn to see the sun rise over the Gobi; and then woke properly a few hours later to blazing sunshine, high on the Mongolian plateau. Mongolia seemed dazzlingly empty; the brown grasslands dotted with nomadic tents and the occasional town consisting of no more than a single pristine block of flats and a few gaudily-painted outbuildings, amid the big, bald mountains, eagles wheeling above, and horses picking their way through the early October snow.
By lunchtime we reached Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s engaging capital, where I was spending the night. It may be low on sights, but there’s a very dramatic main square, Sukhbaatar Square, dominated by a gigantic statue of Genghis Khan, a beautiful working Buddhist monastery, and locals walking through the streets in traditional Mongolian dress. I would have liked to stay longer, but after barely 24 hours I was on the train again, ready for another 30-hour journey, bound for Irkutsk, Siberia.
This time I was sharing a cabin with a tattooed Mongolian man, the patriarch of a huge family travelling together, who drew an enormous crowd of weeping people to the platform as the train departed. My cabin mate was clearly an experienced smuggler, and spent much of the journey tearing open large plastic bags, stashing the contents in a variety of ingenious locations. After crossing into Russia at 3am, I rolled over in my bunk, wondering what the noise was, to find that three Mongolian men had unscrewed the ceiling of our compartment and were flinging mysterious packages inside. I decided that it was better not to pry.
The next morning, a glimmer of blue to the west signified the appearance of Siberia’s most dramatic feature: Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, vast and ringed by snow-capped mountains. It was stunning, and the main reason why I was leaving the train in Irkutsk and heading to Listvyanka, a traditional, if tourist-aware, Siberian village on the shores of the lake. By October, the forests around the lake were blazing with autumn colours, the streams feeding the lake were starting to freeze, and tourist season was finished. I stayed in an empty guest house across the road from the lake, ate my dinner of fresh omul, the local fish, and the next morning took a bus back into Irkutsk, where I wandered around, admiring the traditional Siberian architecture, before getting back on the train for the epic three-and-a-half day journey to Moscow.
The final leg was the most comfortable, but the least interesting part of the trip, as the train puttered through interminable taiga (birch trees), beautiful and evocative in small numbers, but after a few thousand kilometres of them, I’d be thankful never to set eyes on one again. Thankfully the taiga were punctuated by wide, flat rivers running north to the Arctic, and huge, grey Siberian towns. I spent my time catching up on both sleep and reading, buying pancakes and hot potatoes from the old ladies on the platforms, and looking forward to Moscow.
Jessica Gregson’s novel, The Angel Makers, is out now in paperback.
Getting there and around
Flights from Glasgow to Moscow start at around £400, but can be as low as £220 from London; flights from Glasgow to Beijing start at £380. Tickets for the Trans-Siberian railway are cheapest when bought in person in Russia or China at around US$250 from Beijing to Moscow, but for those who want to plan ahead, Trans-Sputnik, a Dutch agency, offers fares from around 395 Euros: www.trans-sputnik.nl. Vodka Train (www.vodkatrain.com) organises trips on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways and across Vietnam on the Reunification Express guided by a local honcho and aimed at 18 to 35-year-olds (prices on request). Intourist, 19 St Vincent Place, Glasgow, can offer visa support and accommodation arrangements for travellers who want to stop off en route: www.intouristuk.com
Stock up on food before you leave: you can generally buy food from the dining car or from stations en route, but it’s not reliable. Dried noodles are good as boiling water is in constant supply in every carriage.
www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm for general Trans-Siberian advice; www.poezda.net/en/index for Russian train timetables.