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All Aboard the Trans-Manchurian Express

By Jules Bass

January 13, 2009

It was just over two years ago, back in England I made the decision to descend on Hong Kong and set up home to continue with my career.  I had been watching with great interest the rapid growth of tourism in China and saw a potential opportunity arising, especially taking into account the casino businesses in Macau.  I am a Recruitment Consultant specializing in the Hospitality industry so it made perfectly good sense.

True to myself, and being a well heeled adventure traveller for over a decade, I ditched my corporate suits, high heels, and slipped very comfortably back into hiking boots and a backpack.  Flying direct to Hong Kong was never an option.  I let my imagination run away with me at the sight of a globe and pondered on what would be the most interesting route to my destination.

“That’s the one”, I thought to myself.  Perfect journey to take, passing over as much land as possible.  The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest rail line on earth covering over one third of the globe, approximately 6,000 miles navigating across some of the harshest environment in the world.  I am a bit of a romantic at heart and time permitting I will trade any flight in for a painful bumping bus ride or cramped train.  This is how I love to experience the world, meeting random people who open their hearts to complete strangers, knowing it is unlikely their paths will ever cross again.  Money can’t buy this kind of cultural exchange experience.  Russia had always been an enigma to me.  I knew my vision of Russia was completely distorted so was determined to find out more and get a real taste of the new Russia for myself.

I booked a one way air ticket from London to Moscow and started my journey to Hong Kong, the very long way around.  It was a scary thought when disembarking from the flight, a lone female, no guidebook, and no clue of where I was going to rest my head for the night.  I luckily bumped into some air-crew in the bathroom that recommended a reasonably priced hotel, and offered some sound advice to use an official taxi from one of the booths, and roughly how much the ride should cost.

After navigating through customs and baggage collection, I was suddenly surrounded by taxi-driver touts trying to charge extortionate fees to get me into the heart of the city, pulling and tugging, pushing and pulling.  I was no stranger to this, having spent a considerable time travelling through places such as India where the touts are notoriously fierce.  I braced myself with my backpack and smile and ploughed through the sea of burly blokes.  The lady in the booth had some harsh words for the touts who were surrounding me, which obviously worked judging by their response.  I gave her the name of the hotel and she issued me a ticket with the correct charge written down.  Upon payment, a huge hulk of a man came to my assistance and offered to carry my backpack to the taxi.

The whole enigma of Russia was shattered at that very moment of arriving at his vehicle.  With a huge smile on my face I climbed into the back of the gold coloured Hummer.  The driver switched on his radio and Snoop Dog came blasting out.  It was fantastically surreal.

After a week or so of being a tourist taking in the sights of Red Square, The Kremlin, the famous ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, and of course the infamous nightlife, I decided to start my epic train ride across Russia on the Trans-Manchurian Express to Beijing.  The Trans-Siberian actually has three lines, the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, Trans-Mongolian to Beijing via Ulaan Baatar, and Trans-Manchurian to Beijing via Harbin.  None stop, six days of confinement in a cabin containing four bunks sharing a tiny space with three complete strangers.  The train left around midnight so I headed to the railway station with plenty of time to spare.

The couple of hours I had to kill whilst waiting were terrifying and I sat praying on the platform hoping this wasn’t a sign of things to come.  I have never seen so many rough looking drunks staggering around, mumbling and shouting, then being dragged off out of sight by ever dodgier looking Policemen.  At this point I was really starting to wonder what the hell I was doing.  I didn’t speak a word of Russian, and most of the people I tried to talk to either shunned me or couldn’t understand me either.

Finally the train arrived precisely on time and I boarded, thankful to get out of the platform chaos.  I had bought cheap tickets for the regular train, the Vostok #20 to get from point A to B.  I soon found my cabin and secured my bags in the storage space under my bunk.  About ten minutes later the Provodnik arrived with two other female western tourists she had collected from the length of the train, and put us all together, “good” she exclaimed.  The fourth bunk was taken by a lovely Russian lady who could speak a few words of English, accompanied with sign language it was enough for us to communicate effectively.

It is extremely hard to truly describe the feeling of the first couple of days of travel.  The motion of the train sends you into a trance-like state after a while, gently rocking, and the constant sound, de dum de dum….de dum de dum, comforting you along the way.  I strangely imagine it is like being back in your mother’s womb in a surreal kind of way.  The scenery passing by your window is constantly similar with vast plains and grey coloured ramshackle towns and villages passing by.

The scenic view outside turns from flat plain nothingness to dense Siberian forest and your imagination states to run away with you and it is easy to picture a great Bear or Siberian Tiger wandering out from the wilderness.  More time passed by with reading books.  Mine was an incredibly terrible tale of life in a Gulag.  My travelling companion had armed herself with War and Peace, though this proved to be incredibly ambitious.  It was impossible to keep one’s eyes open long enough to get through a chapter without being lulled back into a heavy eyelid motion induced dream.  Time itself was the hot topic of discussion as it became increasingly difficult to keep up with whether it was Moscow time or local time.  The constant shifting through time zones, eight in all, adds to the unreality.

We lost our Russian travelling companion at Omsk and had one welcome night of additional space in the cabin, though this didn’t last very long at all.  The rest of the passengers started to relaxed and the barriers slowly came down.  Neighbours became best friends and the older generation sang songs, we exchanged food, music, culture, and of course booze.  The Vostok #20 train was mostly used by traders rather than tourists who normally opted for the deluxe offerings on other routes and timetables.  Curiosity brought people to our cabin wanting to hang out being the only foreigners on the train, along with them came lots of vodka to break the ice.  I had purposely picked up a bottle of Bushmills Irish single malt whiskey at the airport to share with my Russian travel companions, sparking a great drinking debate.

Alcohol infused fun took over and we invented the Gladiator Run, which basically was the description of making it from one end of the train to the other.  Our cabin just happened to be at the opposite end of the train to the restaurant cabin.  The train itself is an unbelievable length.  When boozily bleary eyed gnashing jaws threatened to tear off your toes when navigating in-between the carriages, next was the gas chambers where you had to pass through many designated smoking areas on the train, crammed full of people chuffing away.  The bathroom was aptly named “Harry Houdini” after the famous escapologist.  Imagine a tiny little stainless steel room with a sink and hole in the ground, two side rails to hang onto, tracks below rushing by, and the occasional blast of cold air up your bum.  I say no more!

During the entire length of the journey the train allows you the chance to alight at stops to stretch your legs and buy snacks from the local hawkers.  The food highlight for me was definitely Irkutsk near Lake Baikal.  We were not stopping long enough to alight so the hawkers rushed up to the windows and trade commenced with outstretched arms squeezing through the small openings, fish flying in and currency flying out.  I have to say it was the best smoked fish I have ever eaten in my life, a truly wonderful meaty texture and taste.  Lake Baikal, or also known as ‘The Blue Eye of Siberia’ offered a stunning change of scenery with sparkling crystal clear waters.  The train slowly snaked around the largest body of fresh water in the entire world, some 20% of the world’s resource, and we all finally drifted back to our bunks, bellies full of fish.

We picked up our next overnight guest in the spare bunk at Chita.  We named him Mr. Omul, the name of the local fish from Lake Baikal we had just recently enjoyed devouring.  He looked more Mongolian than Russian or Chinese, and he was a wily old goat who smelled like he had been in the fish smoking house his entire life.  The Provodnik checked his ticket and pointed to the top bunk which he angrily complained about, gesturing to his back and groaning with pain.  I couldn’t bear watching him trying to struggle up the little ladder so I offered to move up and give him my low bunk.  Upon securing the lower bunk the old man burst into action with the agility of an athlete ramming hessian covered bails of goods into the storage space.  It was like trying to fit an elephant into a wardrobe but somehow this wily old goat managed to achieve it.  Once settled he gestured and grunted a thank you in my direction.

We all lay in our bunks pulling strange faces, covering our noses, trying not to laugh at each other as the smell of fish became more powerful in the confinement of the cabin.  I could hear some rustling below so glanced down watching with fascination as he pulled out glass jars full of strange looking vegetables and liquids, placing them on the only tiny table in the cabin, which I had just relinquished along with the lower bunk.  The pungent dried fish appeared from a pocket in his tatty woollen dirty blue tunic bringing along a hurricane strength wind to my nostrils.  A jar popped open and a whiff of pickled sour stench permeated the air so thickly you could feel it settling on your skin.  I sank back into my bunk and buried my face into the pillow.  It took about ten minutes further to admit defeat and the three of us made our excuses and abandoned the cabin gasping for fresh air.

We found refuge in another carriage occupied by a nice family who befriended me shortly after they boarded at Irkutsk.  As we were walking by laughing about the thought of spending the night with Mr. Omul, the young daughter, whom I had practiced English with on a number of occasions, dragged me into their cabin.  The mother was a warm friendly Judge who spoke excellent English and she translated everything for her husband.  We talked and drank Cognac into the late evening then we stumbled back to our cabin giggling and dreading the night ahead with Mr. Omul.  Tears rolling down our cheeks, ribs aching from laughing so much, we finally managed to pull ourselves together and braced ourselves ready to open the cabin door.  Whoosh, a wave of aroma washed over us and we scrambled around in the dark trying to clamber into our bunks, bashing into each other, holding back laughter with the odd burst escaping.  It didn’t take long for Mr. Omul to burst into a sleeping chorus of snoring which sounded more like an angry bear growling in a cave all night.  Thank god for the Cognac.

Arriving at the Russia-China border the land was dry, dusty, and barren with tumbleweeds adding flavour to the remoteness of it all.  This is the point when everyone has to get off the train to allow for the rail gauge to be changed.  The small border town was surrounded by nothingness, an incredibly depressing place to be stranded in for the rest of your life.  This was the origin of Mr. Omul and thankfully we only had to endure one night of pickled fish hell.  Back in the cabin passports were checked and thorough searches of some carriages undertaken.  Once moving again we discovered to our delight, not only had the rail gauge changed, but so had the restaurant carriage.  Goodbye salty picked stuff, hello yummy Chinese food.

The scenery melted from barren to industrial passing through Harbin, and culture from Russian to Chinese with glimpses of rural life sandwiched in between cities.  Nearing Beijing sightings of the Great Wall gave you a taste of what lay ahead.  There was a renewed energy on the train with people packing up getting ready to leave.

Standing on the platform, your senses completely over whelmed by chaos and noise, you suddenly realize how insecure you are outside of the cocoon you called home for the last six days.  You snap yourself out of the culture shock and look around to absorb your surroundings.  This is the moment when you first really acknowledge “I’m in China!”  

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