Ride the World’s Longest Railway
At just 5°C Lake Baikal’s water was bitterly cold. I took in a huge gulp of air, held my breath and jumped. Despite having tested the icy surface with my big toe just seconds earlier, the cold stunned me, stinging my skin and causing me to gasp in horror. Local legend says that those who brave a swim here add 25 years to their life. If the shock doesn’t kill them first, that is.
It was two months earlier, when planning a trip to China, that my acute awareness of my merely average life expectancy inspired me to take the train to Beijing, rather than subject myself to 10 long hours on a plane. Life is short after all, and how many chances would I get to ride 9,258km across Russia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway?
Boarding the train
So, in early September, just as the leaves were changing, I left a sweltering Moscow on the 16:08 Yekaterinburg Express with my boyfriend David, bound for – yup, you guessed it – Yekaterinburg, some 1,422km away.
Being written in Russian, it took us a little while to decipher our tickets, and we couldn’t even fathom which of the many digits told us our platform number. But, after some furious hand-signalling with fellow train users, we found our carriage and showed our tickets to the uniformed attendant, who ticked us off the passenger list. “Spasiba,” (thank you) I ventured, and she frowned, seemingly unamused by my no doubt mispronounced attempt to speak Russian.
We had opted for a 4-berth cabin, consisting of two sets of bunk beds, between which was a fold-down table, laid out with four cups and saucers, a delicately painted china teapot and a vase of leaves. With storage compartments both above and below the bunks and hidden in the walls, there was plenty of space. While David introduced himself to the two Dutch girls who would be our cabin mates for the next 26 hours, I hastily claimed the top bunk with my backpack.
Waking up on the gently rocking train the following morning, I swept back the curtains to be met with thick fir forests. With over 7,000km ahead of us across an unfamiliar land where we couldn’t even read the station names, I couldn’t help the rising feeling of trepidation in my stomach. This wasn’t helped by the cabin attendant, who came in to introduce herself as Anastasia, or Nastya for short, while scowling fiercely and hastily showing us how to fold the beds into a sofa.
The restaurant car
Rumbling stomachs soon told us it was time to try out the restaurant car, which seemed to have been plucked straight from Murder on the Orient Express, complete with draped tasselled curtains, pristine white table cloths and plush wooden chairs. With plenty of time on our hands, we lingered lazily over our meal and let the trees, lakes and wooden houses roll by, swapping Moscow travel stories with the Dutch girls, most of which involved run-ins with overzealous Kremlin security guards.
Due to our meagre backpacker budget, that was the only time we used the restaurant, and from then on we instead made full use of our carriage’s never-ending supply of boiling water, gorging on pot noodles, cup-a-soup and tea, supplemented by the occasional smoked fish or cured sausage purchased at the stations we passed.
After a two-day stop in Yekaterinburg, the site of the 1918 Romanov assassinations, we reboarded the train at a horrifyingly early 04:18 and flopped straight into bed. The next leg of the journey was a long one: 52 hours and 46 minutes to be precise. With plenty of down time, we played cards, shared train gossip with our new roommates, Swedish this time, and when the cabin fever hit, wore the teapot as a hat. I wish I was joking.
Whatever romantic notions you may have of a long distance train journey, I can assure you that 40 hours in a confined space with two slightly eccentric Swedes is enough to send anyone around the twist.
As the entertainment options were limited, and the scenery a never-ending procession of fir trees, David and I decided to try making friends with Nastya. Creeping up to her little office, both egging the other to be the first to speak to her, we were distracted by her formal, chauffeur-style cap swinging from a doorknob. Although her office door was wide open, her attention was diverted enough for David to grab the hat and place it on his head.
Of course at that very moment she stepped out of her office just as he gave a triumphant thumbs up to my camera. This immediately led to a flurry of scowls accompanied by a few choice Russian words, and a hat being hastily flung in the vague direction of the door, missing it entirely. Holding back the giggles, we scampered back to our cabin and regaled the Swedes with our tale.
Although Nastya was clearly not here to make friends with restless tourists, plenty of passengers were, and the corridors were filled with people gazing out of the window, relaxing on the floor and chatting animatedly, many in broken English. Some were backpackers like us, others included elderly Russian ladies, students, businessmen and families returning home. At each station stop, the never-ending vodka supply was gleefully topped up, so as the hours passed, the conversation became more jovial, and everyone’s English, as well as our Swedish, infinitely better.
At last the train trundled happily into Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal, and where we stayed for three days with Galina, a Russian lady who liked to feed us cheese, tea and homemade cake. She also let us use her banya, a Russian steam bath, which was wonderfully warm and refreshing after two days with no shower. After checking out the earless Baikal seals in the village’s tiny aquarium, we took a chairlift up a nearby mountain to admire the lake’s sapphire blue surface, which mirrored the snow-sprinkled mountain backdrop. By now the warm days of Moscow were a distant memory and we were glad of our woolly jumpers in the chilly autumn temperatures.
Over dinner, discussion inevitably turned to a possible Baikal swim, and Galina informed us that full submersion in the icy water would add 25 years to our lives. Ever competitive, David and I agreed that we would each do it if the other did, so the following morning we put on our swimming gear and gingerly wandered down to the water’s edge.
My big toe, which I bravely dipped into the glassy water, was numb in seconds. I began to have second thoughts but looked up to see David strip off and run in, duck under the surface and then immediately sprint back out again, his skin red raw and covered in goose bumps. As he shivered and hastily put his coat back on, I knew I had to have a go too.
After the initial shock, the water was actually quite refreshing, and the outside air felt warm in comparison as I re-emerged. Although I didn’t feel any different for the sudden extension of my life expectancy, I was grateful that the cold water hadn’t finished me off.
It was a few days later, 5,600km east of Moscow in Ulan-Ude that I first started to feel like I was in Asia. The people looked different, accents changed, the landscape became more barren. And suddenly there were Buddhist monasteries everywhere. We looked around a couple, including the Chinese-style Ivolginsky Datsan, and marvelled at the sheer number of stern looking Lenin statues adorning the city.
It was with much fanfare that the train stopped on the Mongolian border, although our excitement soon turned to boredom bordering on delirium as it took over 6 hours for the surly Russian border guards to check our tickets and passports and meticulously search every compartment on the train with sniffer dogs. They even removed the ceiling panels. We had heard rumours that this might happen, so were prepared for a lengthy process, but even so, the whole thing left us feeling somewhat exasperated, especially as our entrance into Mongolia was met with a quick glance into the cabin and beaming smiles from our new attendant. Despite everything, we were sad to see Nastya go, and it is her who sticks most in my mind, despite the warm Mongolian welcome.
Having been focused on the daunting prospect of getting through Russia without being arrested or left behind at a station, I had no prior expectation of Mongolia, and was pleasantly surprised. A wild, vast land of few roads and even fewer people, it was a real highlight, a country whose lack of modernity and nomadic way of life made it more intriguing than most. But now, as our train rumbled onwards into China, the stark Mongolian Steppe fizzled away, replaced by modern apartment blocks and a maze of bicycle-laden streets. Shocked at how quickly the landscape changed, we pulled into a sea of identikit commuters at Beijing Station, our final stop.
Here we were: 9,258km, 28 days, three countries, 10 time zones and five overnight stops after leaving Moscow, we had reached the end of the line. It might have taken longer than the plane, but our lives had been lengthened by 25 years, and I promised myself that at least a tiny portion of that time would be used to ride the journey in the opposite direction. Perhaps in winter, when Lake Baikal freezes under two metres of ice and Siberia turns white with snow.
Born with a severe case of itchy feet, Angela Griffin has tried to appease her perpetual wanderlust by selling high-end safaris, dabbling in guidebook writing and more recently travel copywriting, but to no avail. A life-long lover of the great outdoors, she’s at her happiest when up a mountain, or skiing down one.