I’d been booked onto Train 4 from Ulan Bator to Beijing – the actual direct train that runs around half of the globe from Moscow to China.
It’s the service I’d wanted to catch originally from Moscow.
There’s a degree of romance attached to it I think, the fact that the carriages spend their entire life shuttling backwards and forwards between two of the most secretive countries in the world, over a distance of some 5,000 miles. There’s only one service in each direction each week, proudly displaying their special plaques on the side of the carriages.
After being slightly disappointed it was fully booked from Moscow, I was pleased to get a place onboard at Ulan Bator – if it was full here, I had a four day wait for the next Mongolian train service to Beijing the following Thursday.
It meant an early start as the train left Ulan Bator station at 7.10am. With our drop-off leaving the hostel at 6am, there were a few blurry eyes as the alarm clocks went off at 5.30am.
At the station, the train was already waiting. Steam and smoke from the coal fires burning in each dark green carriage filled the air, while travellers were walking around trying to find their respective compartments. This was a Chinese train, the train guards and carriage attendants, dressed in their smart uniforms and hats, proudly stood to attention by each door. Ahead, the sky was purple and orange as the sun began to rise.
I took my bags onboard and then went outside for some photos. My carriage was the first passenger carriage behind the engine, so it was easy for me to run up to the front and get a few shots before we left Mongolia for the 1,100km journey to Beijing. As I was kneeling down at the front, trying to get a steady, sharp photo, the driver got out of his cab. Then he whistled to me, and at first I thought he was telling me to either move out of the way or get on the train. And then he motioned me to follow him.
He disappeared up some steps on the engine, cleaning the handles as he went, and signalled for me to follow. I clambered up, first into the engine compartment, and then into the drivers’ cab. He moved the chair, grabbed my camera and smiled as he told me to sit down. I couldn’t believe it! He got me to hold the controls, the dead mans handle which controls the power, and took a photo.
What a privilege! There I was, in one of the most far-away, isolated countries, at the controls of one of the most famous trains in the world! I could tell the driver is rightly proud of his job, and I guess he was happy to see a Westerner taking an interest in his loco. It was far from plush in there, with lots of peeling green paint and metal everywhere you looked, but the seat was relatively comfy! Now I had a photo I know I’ll always treasure – the time I sat in the drivers’ seat of a Trans-Siberian express train on its way from Moscow to Beijing.
After a quick shot of the powerful diesel engine on the way out, I thanked the driver as he dashed back to his controls, and I ran back to my carriage where the attendant was waving me on. The door closed behind me, and with a long blast of the horn from the engine at the front, we pulled out of Ulan Bator.
Like most passengers, the early start had knocked me for six, but the beauty of these trains is that you get a bed, so I enjoyed a few more hours kip. I woke again as we were approaching Choyr, on the fringes of the Gobi desert. Inside the cabin was a Mongolian couple, who seemed to be avoiding eye contact, and Arian, from Hong Kong, on his way home.
We passed a herd of wild camels, slowly making their way through the desert, but I was unable to take a photograph as the windows were filthy. It may be one of the most famous direct trains in the world, but it needed a serious dose of Windowlene. Worried I won’t get any decent photos, at the station I took it upon myself to clean the windows. Unfortunately, my backpack supplies were lacking in glass polish, so it was down to toilet roll and bottled water.
Its fair to say they were filthy, with what was obviously months of dirt thrown up through umpteen thousands of miles of too-ing and fro-ing between Europe and the Far East. The toilet paper wasn’t strong enough, so in the end I got a dirty sock out of my bag and used it as a cloth. Much better!
Able to see out of one side now, much of the day was spent writing my blog, as a busy few days in Mongolia meant I’d fallen behind a little. After another few hours, we stopped at Saynshand in the south, where I cleaned another window on the opposite side thanks to a better platform.
I gazed out of the window as the vast plains of the Gobi desert drifted by, complete with wild horses, camels and the occasional isolated yurt. For much of the journey, there was nothing but sand and a horizon. It was incredibly empty, but for a railway line running straight through.
As darkness fell, we approached the Mongolian border and stopped at Zamiin Uud while officials came onboard to check passports and stamp us out of the country.
There was a long wait while we waited for clearance to go across the border, during which most people got something to eat. I’d bought a Spanish sausage (Santi and Galli’s influence rubbing off on me!) a small loaf of bread and some more cheese spread to make a sandwich or three. I then carried out probably the dumbest thing of my trip so far, by trying to clean my penknife with my fingers.
It was a momentary lapse of concentration which saw me forget it was actually quite sharp – and slice straight into my thumb. Arion instantly asked if I was alright after watching me do this particularly stupid act – and hearing my suppressed yelp as I tried to hide my stupidity.
Blood mopped up and Tesco first aid kit plaster attached (I knew I’d need that kit!) we slowly began to inch forward. We travelled for about two miles at a crawl, regularly sounding the horn, passing through various gates and fences, before arriving at Erlian. We’d reached China- and what a show they put on!
All along the platform, officials and guards stood to attention, looking dead ahead as the train slowly pulled into the platform infront of them. The Chinese writing that adorns the station, combined with the patriotic music blaring from the station’s speakers, really made it feel like you had arrived somewhere special. Just a few miles before, it was a dusty desert town, now we were in a whole new world – neon lights dazzle in the sky around, while smart-looking hotels and offices rise above the well-kept, smart station.
There was a strange moment though – I recognised the Chinese music I could hear through the window. For reasons unknown, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, with a distinct Chinese twist, was the music of choice for the station after the patriotic welcome. It was slightly surreal, but perhaps apt with the travelling theme – it always reminds me of the film Titanic!
China had one more trick up its sleeve to welcome us however, and something I will never forget. Thanks to Russia being awkward, it built all its railways with tracks which are further apart than anywhere else in the world.
Apart from Mongolia of course – but that’s because Russia built their tracks too! It’s known as gauge, and it leaves trains heading elsewhere with a big problem. Once they hit different sized track, the wheels would quite literally come off!
So, in what can only be described as the most amazing pit stop on the planet, the entire train’s wheels have to be changed so that it can run on the tracks in China. After much bumping around, sounding of horns and going backwards and forwards through the station, we are eventually being shunted around the back of a huge long shed, over some points and in through a large door.
Inside, powerful bright red jacks, and a workforce of dozens of Chinese engineers, are waiting. The whole train is then hoisted up into the air, leaving the wheels – or bogies to give them their proper name – on the ground.
The whole procedure is fascinating. To feel the carriage being lifted up while everyone is still inside is a strange sensation. Outside, a row of bogies is set up and ready to be rolled underneath.
A special pulley system is built into the track, and suddenly it starts moving. In one straight move, the new bogies roll in from outside the shed, knocking every old bogie out of the way, all the way along a line of carriages jacked up in the air.
Incredibly, it takes less than an hour to change the entire train. It’s a procedure that leaves me, and many other passengers, in awe. I was lucky enough to have a helpful carriage attendant who opened up the back door for a few of us to get some great photographs of this unique procedure.
With new wheels on, soon a shunter was back at one end of our carriage, and we went bumping along as all of the carriages were pushed back together again, each with a firm thud that jolts everyone back and forth. We pulled out of the shed, and then reversed again, with the now familiar bump, bump, bump as we meet yet another carriage. We go forwards again, passing more carriages in a siding, before reversing into them to pick them up. It creates an extremely long train, which waits until the early hours before being given a green light for the Chinese capital.
The next morning, it was distinctly China outside, and yet again the scenery had changed overnight. We were passing through small villages, lush greenery and winding our way through some incredible gorges, although thick fog in places meant we couldn’t see further than about half a mile from the window.
I woke up with the sound of coins being played with on the table next to my head. It was all the loose change from my pockets that I had dumped on there the night before to prevent one of those ‘loose change noisily rolling around on the floor after falling out of pocket’ moments.
The Mongolian man, who so far had not said a word to me, was studying each and every one. I glimpsed and saw that he was studying a £2 coin, looking at the Queen’s head and running his fingers over the engraved writing. I turned away and smiled to myself. It was all new to him. Coins that are part of everyday life for me, that you scrabble around for in the car to feed into parking meters or vending machines, were a source of fascination, particularly featuring the Queen.
I looked back and he was sorting them into piles – British, Russian and American. I decided it was a good way of breaking our language barrier, and grabbed a few Togrogs out of my wallet. I showed a two-pence piece, and then lifted a 10 Togrog note, and he immediately knew what I was doing. He smiled as I went through various comparisons, and seemed amazed when I showed him the £2 coin was worth getting on for 5,000 Togrogs, which of course in Mongolia is a lot of money.
Now awake, it was time to venture out into the corridor. At the border we’d been given a green and white ticket, which at first we thought was some sort of immigration formality, but instead turned out to be a free meal voucher. Naturally, the first place for us to head was the dining carriage, some five or six carriages behind us.
We were met with quite a funny scene, as there were very few Chinese people eating in there- they were still sucking on freeze-dried noodles in their cabins – and instead, the dining car was absolutely full of foreigners, all sat swapping travel stories and memories of the journey. We’re obviously suckers for some free grub, and the rail operator knows it!
The food wasn’t bad though, some kind of squishy mystery meat in a ball, potatos and sauce with some rice. It filled a gap for a while, and on an opposite table, Santi and Galli got speaking to some fellow Spanish travellers.
With just a few hours to go before Arion went his own way, he gave me his camera SD card so I could download some of his shots onto my laptop. He’s got a fantastic digital SLR camera, with an even more impressive fish-eye lens which has produced some brilliant group photos. The only problem was, my netbook battery was on its last legs, and I needed a power supply. I went in search of a power socket on the train with enough voltage to keep the netbook operating. Twelve carriages later, I found myself in the uber-first class carriage, where the compartments even get a posh little armchair. But all the poshness and fancy woodwork fell into insignificance, as everyone on the train was after a powerpoint, and I knew these luxury cabins had one in the form of a shaver socket.
I got talking to a German lady, who had been on the train all the way from Moscow in one direct journey. She told me it had been her life’s ambition to travel on the trans-Siberian from her home near Frankfurt. She’d been travelling for over a week, and will spend just a few days in Beijing before flying back home. For her, the destination didn’t matter, it was the travelling that was the holiday. The same for another German woman in the same carriage, travelling with her son, who had even left her husband at home because he didn’t fancy spending all the time on the train.
“With flying, you miss all the scenery and the people you meet on the way,” she said.
“It’s all much more of an adventure, and we’ve passed through scenery and places that otherwise we would never see. And you meet wonderful people on the train who become friends.”
Plugging my netbook into their socket, I wholeheartedly agreed – and there was an added bonus in that their windows would open, so we all stood around taking photographs and generally having a lot of fun and laughs. All along this carriage, everyone had clearly become really good friends since leaving Moscow, and as they tried to take group shots between themselves, I offered to become official cameraman and promptly had around six cameras dangling off my arm!
Back in my cabin, and with an hour to go before arriving in Beijing, I caught my cut thumb on my bag as I was packing things away. The cheap Tesco plaster had fallen off, and the Mongolian man could see that it was sore. He said something to his wife outside in the corridor, and then began looking in his bag before handing me a plaster. He gave me a few spares too, which was a lovely gesture, and we began to have as good a conversation as we could in our respective languages.
I found out his name was Oggoo, and that he was travelling with his wife. With the help of a map in my book, he told me they were originally from Japan and will be heading back there next year, as I think his son or daughter is having a baby. He’d seen the photographs on my netbook, and could tell he was trying to have a look, so I showed him the pictures of us all in Mongolia, followed by my photos of home. They both sat on their bed smiling and looking at the photographs, pointing at similarities between me and my family, and gasping when they saw a picture of my house. Its only a three-bed terrace for me, but for them it seemed like a palace as they pointed at the windows and smiled with each other.
When you can’t talk the same language, I’m finding that showing photographs gets you a lot of friends. While you can’t tell the people you meet about your life back home or where you are going, you can show a bit about who you are. It obviously breaks down a bit of the mystery, and makes you into a person rather than ‘that foreigner’ sharing a cabin.
By now, we were in Beijing’s suburbs, and the small rural villages have turned into high rise apartments and towering office blocks festooned with neon and advertising. With my belongings all packed away, I kept a £2 coin separately in my hand. As Oggoo began getting ready to leave the train, I tapped his arm.
“This is for you,” I said.
His eyes lit up. I could tell how fascinated he was by this strange, two-tone coin with a very famous head on it. From a country that doesn’t seem to use coins, it was an alien concept anyway.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” came the reply, as he smiled, stroked it again and put it in his shirt pocket. He then reached into his bag and I could tell he was looking for something.
“For you, very good,” he said, handing me a shrink-wrapped pack of Mongolian sausages.
I said there was no need, but he insisted, and before he left, I made sure I got a photo with him and he said he’d look at my blog, so hello again if you’re reading!
With sausages safely packed away, we slowed to a stop at Beijing Railway Station. After almost 8,000km, five time zones and some of the most amazing landscapes and cultures, the trans-Siberian leg was complete.
It was a far cry from the icy cold open-air Moscow station that I left exactly two weeks before – it was covered, the weather was warmer, and we’d pulled in next to one of China’s incredibly smart ‘Bullet’ trains.
The sleek, modern technology put the East German-built carriages of yesteryear that form the trans-Siberian train, complete with their coal fires and dodgy bathrooms, to shame.
But however modern the new trains are, they will never be able to compete with the spirit of adventure, the mind boggling distances, the laughs, the friendships and the incredible feeling of travelling to the far side of the world over land that you get on the trans-Siberian. Tomorrow, they do it all over again, as the train heads back to Moscow.
It beats flying any day!