Westward on the Trans-Siberian (Train Station Observations, Beijing, UlaanBaatar, Irkutsk)

The trans-Siberian train is a dream trip for some, an escape across continents for others, and just a normal passenger train for the majority of people who make a living working abroad, as migrant workers, or by trade between China, Mongolia, and Russia. My motives fell somewhere between the first and second as I took the train the non-traditional route, westwards out of Beijing.

Now, coming from the west there are a few different routes: two from Vladostok on the Russian pacific, one that traverses all of Siberia north of Lake Baikal called BAM that cuts the transit time, the other south of the lake; and then two from Beijing, one via Mongolia and the other through Manchuria.

I was leaving Beijing and opted for Mongolian landscapes out my window. My destination: Irkutsk, Russia. Some say, as my mom told me, that Irkutsk is the Paris of Siberia. But when I got there the locals didn’t really care for this comparison. They were also much kinder to me than Parisians, and I speak French! I didn’t feel the similarities with Paris, though Irkutsk is beautiful and especially on a grey night with a light mist. Anyway, I digress.

I understood that the trans-Siberian is a hot ticket in the summer time but I found that there was plenty of space. From Beijing the train was about half full with the majority being Chinese. There were many international tourists and even a high school class trip from France, which must have been just the coolest. Not too much in terms of vodka bottles being passed around that I had come to fantasize about but then again not all stereotypes are true, and also there weren’t many Russians on the train.

It took all day to reach Erlian on the Chinese side of the Mongolian border. As far as visa control goes it was fast and efficient; what is time consuming is adapting the train to the Mongolian rails. So we all sat in the train station making new friends, with most taking advantage of drinking their last water downed Chinese beer. For me, it was a last chance to take in all things Chinese, like the speakers outside on the platform blasting Western New Years Eve music at 22h, and say goodbye.

I was on the train sleeping again by the time the Mongolian custom agents woke me for my passport. They would flick the light switch of my cabin and wake me up again to give it back to me.

Something unexpected was how much I would sleep on this journey, and sober sleep on top of it. I had taken several naps that day, and besides for being woken by a little critter in my bed, after crossing into Mongolia I slept soundly throughout the night.

I left a little slit in the window to keep the air circulating over night. First and only big mistake (though, I should have also brough noodles since there’s hot water on every cart). By morning there was a thin layer of ash covering everything in our room. After living in Beijing for so long I got use to the dust, but this was different, this was fast and in abundance, maybe due to constantly being in motion. I should have known better, after all these two countries love their coal mining and burning.

Sitting and sleeping all the time is exhausting. So I’d go for walks through all the carts. I knew that all the people I met were getting off at Ulaan Baatar by 13h so at 11h off I went to see them. The train had been rearranged somewhat since the border. I was in for my first surprise. The restraint car not only moved closer to mine, but it was completely different. The boring and plane table clothed room of the Chinese restaurant was replaced by a wooden panned room with beautiful carved tables. Gone were the smoking Chinese waiters bringing you free dinners for your coupon. Hello tough, tired looking Mongolian woman with an expensive menu.

The changes in the train were resembling the landscapes outside. North of Beijing there isn’t much scenery: rolling, dusty hills with the occasional wind turbine farm. In Mongolia the scenery was barren. It was a green desert. No trees, no animals, just short, green grass stretching to oblivion.

At least it was like that until we started approaching Mongolia’s capital and only major city. The flat lands became hillier, some mounds poking up in the distance. Horses running as if they were indeed still wild. They have a great amount of open space. White yurts scattered along the landscape where you found other domesticated animals like cattle, goats, and lamb. Small communities numbering no more than fifty people began to spring up. And then I guess suburbs. Ulaan Baatar, or UB as people like to call it, looks like a great village, but then again that’s my perspective from a train window.

As I anticipated all the travelers I met disembarked at UB. They scattered everywhere. Some immediately into the city like the Chinese and Mongolians who were sure with where they were headed, others lingered around looking for their tour hosts or their contact with whom they were about to volunteer with. A few reminded me of zombies walking aimlessly with a slow pace. Some noticed me looking on from the train window, and surprised that they were being watched, waved an embarrassed wave. But then something I hadn’t predicted happened: nobody new got on.

Again, the idea that so many people want to travel the trans-Siberian gave me a false expectation that I would have a new cabinmate. Instead, I found myself alone on my carriage, the berth (as it was written on my ticket) all to myself. Well almost. The Chinese guys who work on the train took up residence next to me where they watched tv or smoked and played cards. I had brought with me my ukulele so when I played they’d stop by for a moment to appreciate the live music, and the strange looking guitar.

That night, again around 22h, we crossed borders. This time no need to get off the train. I recognized while we were at the border why the train was reversing and then advancing until a great crash shook the whole train: they were switching restaurant cars.

The Russians were the most thorough of all customs. They had golden retrievers. They also had female custom guards giving me warm smiles welcoming me to Mother Russia. It’s amazing how a musical instrument can make people treat you with empathy.

The next day I wandered the train alone. There were some Russians who had got on in the middle of the night somewhere in Russia, and presumably my Afghani Russian friend (I met him in the Mongolian restaurant the day before where together we felt like the only passengers on the train, and that this for some reason wasn’t creepy) was somewhere in his first class berth. There was only one thing to do: go check out the new restaurant. It was all brown beige like a diner with their plastic leather booths. It seemed longer than the others, and was completely empty of customers. Only three hefty Russian women and one skinny Russian guy huddled around a netbook watching a show. They looked up at me with blank expressions. Then the youngest girl smiled at me. “Niet rubbles,” I said, and they said American is ok. I had a 17 dollar borsch. It was delicious but way too pricy. It’s much smarter to just bring your own food.

Looking out the window I admired the view. Trees everywhere, cabin huts scattered about, wilderness. I knew it’d look like Canada, I thought.

Shortly thereafter, we arrived at my destination, Paris – I mean Irkutsk.

I got off the train slowly. I was expecting to see one of two people, my couchsurfing host or the volunteer coordinator I’ve been in contact with. Instead there was only my Afghani friend smoking a ciggerette with some people I hadn’t met. I shook his hand and we exchanged pleasantries. I looked around. No one waiting for me. Cyrillic. No rubbles. Damn, I’m in Siberia! I walked away from the train slowly. I need money, and a SIN card. There was a gate that led to the street straight from the platform. I proceded out of the station not knowing where to turn, without a trace of where to go, much like an aimless zombie without a scent for brains.

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