Boarding the train at Beijing Station

Boarding the train at Beijing Station

Over the course of five and a half days, we are traveling by train from Beijing to Moscow, across China (for 12 hours), Mongolia (for 24 hours), and then Russia for the remainder of the trip, including large swaths of Siberia.  (In fact, although the train journey from Beijing to Moscow is commonly referred to as the Trans-Siberian Railroad, our train will travel over two separate lines: the Trans-Mongolian line, from Beijing to Ulan-Ude; and then the Trans-Siberian line, from Ulan-Ude to Moscow.)

Our compartment is approximately four feet wide by six feet long.  Of that 24 square feet, most is occupied by a bunk bed, table and fold-out chair.  Jude’s tent fits (just) on the floor at the foot of our bunk bed (we put it away when he is not sleeping).  The compartment’s design is efficient and provides ample storage room under the bed, in a cupboard, and cavernous shelf above the door (the space extends all the way to the far side of the carriage, above the shared hallway).

One cabin over from ours is the dining car.  The dining car attached to the train at the start of the trip is run by Chinese workers and serves Chinese food; at the Mongolian border, the Chinese dining car will detach and be replaced by a Mongolian car; a Russian car will then attach at the Russian border.

Adjoining our compartment is a small washroom, shared with one other compartment.  The door to the washroom from our compartment shows a picture of a running shower.  Actual showering in the washroom is, however, impossible.  The room has just enough space for one person to stand, next to a small sink.  The faucet, when turned on to “full blast,” provides only a trickle of cold, non-potable water.  The showerhead attached to the sink does not work at all.  To clean myself and Jude, I filled up the sink basin with boiling water from the dining car, also adding cold water, drip by slow drip, from the faucet.  Unfortunately, even with the drain plug in, the basin quickly drains.  The cleaning itself was achieved by blot method, involving the quickly-draining water, multiple refills, one of the two wash cloths (“towels”) we were given upon entering the train, and one impatient, screaming toddler.  The floor drain works either not at all or very slowly (we haven’t been able to tell which yet).  Needless to say, we will do our best to limit the number of times we bathe until we reach Moscow.

The other passengers are mostly locals who are doing only part of the journey from Beijing to Moscow and foreign tourists like us, doing most or all of the journey.  Almost everyone in our carriage is foreign, and there are no children apart from Jude.

The most interesting person we have met so far is a Siberian schoolteacher named Alex, an avowed pro-Soviet socialist and Stalinist.    Alex is 35, very western looking, friendly and cheerful, and he speaks perfect English, Mandarin, and, of course, Russian.

Buying water in Jining, China

Alex helped us buy bottled water and ramen noodles from a Chinese vendor at the Jining station stop through the cabin’s window by translating my English to the vendor’s Mandarin.  He told us that he was moving back home to Minusinsk (in Central Siberia) to open a foreign-language school, after teaching at an international school in Beijing for seven years.

Alex was happy, he said, to be moving back to a place where “people look like me and think like me.”  From there, the discussion quickly turned to politics.  He told us that his Soviet childhood had been “glorious.”  There was no crime in Siberia during Soviet times, he said.  Now it is overrun with mafia and drug addicts.  Our country used to stand for something.  Now everyone just wants designer clothes and soft drinks.  This, he said, was bull****.

At Ulan Bator Train Station, Mongolia with Alex and his wife, Irena

Just think, he told us, when Stalin was born, the country was an agricultural backwater and almost everyone was illiterate.  Then, over the course of one man’s lifetime (Stalin’s), the Soviet Union became a powerful empire.  We put men into outer space and built nuclear weapons.  He acknowledged that Stalin had not been perfect, but that some of the Soviet people were “weak and lazy” and needed to be “corrected.”  His own father, deceased for six years, was far from lazy, he told us, and had been the chief engineer of nuclear technology in Siberia.

Alex had unkind words for “that drunk,” Yeltsin, and even worse words for Putin.  He told me that he hoped the Soviet Union would reunify, and that its initial fall had been “illegal.”  He was not, though, anti-American.  He told me that our countries had much in common.

First Night – Border Crossing and Bogie Changing

The bogie change

Our train pulled into the Mongolian-Chinese border town of Erylan at 8 p.m. on our first night on the train.  Here the train was raised on giant hydraulic lifts and descended upon by a team of Chinese mechanics in yellow and gray jumpsuits.  Over the course of several hours, they changed the train’s bogies to conform with the change in train-line gauge size between China (standard and narrower) and Mongolia and Russia (irregular and 3.5 inches wider).  Naturally, Jude was captivated.  (“Train! Train!  Up! Up! Men! Men!”)  Unfortunately, the changing of the bogies also coincided with bedtime, which meant that we were dealing with a toddler who was both excited and operating on a very short fuse.

Also interrupting our night’s sleep was border control, both exiting China and entering Mongolia.  This basically involved soldiers from both countries poking around our compartment and giving us lots of forms to fill out, only some of which they bothered retrieving.  The Mongolian soldiers were by far the friendlier, and at least one female soldier was fairly smitten by Jude.  Somewhat nerve-wracking was that the Chinese soldiers took our passports for nearly four hours before finally returning them.  What they were doing with them, we can’t be sure.  We were more than relieved to get them back.

Both sets of soldiers treated the weekly passing of the train with solemn formality, and greeted our train by standing at attention and saluting.  China, though, outdid Mongolia by blaring Vienna Waltz over large mounted speakers as our train pulled away from the station.




  2 Responses to “Trans-Siberian Railroad: Day 1”

  1. Interesting person – that Alex guy!

  2. Guys, u are crazy 🙂 . I won’t go there even alone but U did the trip with toddler! Awesome.

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