It is a brisk minus twenty nine degrees Celsius here in Irkutsk today. It’s so cold it hurts. Outside, the pavements are frozen, light snow is drifting down on the crooked wooden houses and fur hats hurriedly bob past the window. We’ve spent the last week on the Trans-Mongolian train, traversing across the biggest country on the Planet. As we travelled West through seven different time zones, peoples’ faces changed, houses changed and the temperature steadily decreased until here, an hour from Lake Baikal and deep into Siberia, I find myself dressed like the Michelin man; wearing every single item of clothing I have. And I thought Moscow was chilly……
Our first train, Moscow to Yekaterinburg, took thirty hours. It was great. Brand new, clean and comfortable, we shared our compartment with two Russian businessmen; Vladimir and Andrei. Both were very nice but only Andrei spoke English and it took him twenty four hours to reveal this. They were from a small village in the countryside and had made this sixty hour return journey to Moscow for a one hour seminar.
We arrived in Yekaterinburg at five a.m. with our next train departing at three the next morning - a whole day to explore. However, the new World Snore Champion, Vladimir, plus a distinct shortage of degrees centigrade persuaded us to get a hotel room for a hot shower and a sleep before exploring the city. Yekaterinburg is great. Soviet-style concrete buildings and square frozen lakes skirt around the focal point of the city, the magnificent gold-roofed Church on the Blood. It was here in 1918 that the entire imperial family, the last of the tsars, were kept hostage and taken to the cellar to be shot. We peered inside at the gold-laden interior of the daunting church and made our way back the warmth of our hotel before our late night train.
We got on the train with forty seconds to spare after realising at the very last moment it was a one a.m. train, not a three a.m. train. In the remaining six minutes we’d packed our bags, ran out the hotel, slipped and skidded across the street, ran through the train station and dived on the train. Stressed, relived, cold and confused, the two of us found our four bed compartment contained the following;
three Mongolians, six huge bags, twenty-plus pairs of jeans, ten large puffer jackets, twelve stuffed cardboard boxes, several half-eaten potatoes loosely wrapped in newspaper and one very, very bad smell...
There was no room for either of us, let alone both of us and our bags. The Mongolians had taken up every available inch of space. Eventually, with very broken English, someone from another cabin apologized, assured us that everything and everyone was getting off tomorrow and helped us make some space. Tilda banged the iPod in, curled up and fell asleep while I lay there listening to all three Mongolians snore until finally drifting off into a strange dream about a whale.
I woke up to chaos. Mongolians carrying jeans, jackets, hats, shoes and shirts erupted from every cabin on the train. We were at a snow covered station and what occurred in the next twenty minutes was some kind of impromptu market. Locals obviously knew when to expect the train and they were waiting in their hundreds. The eager, vocal sellers jumped off onto the platform before it had even come to a halt and a cacophony of raw, frantic trade erupted. As the train’s engine started up again, the Mongolians jumped back on, the locals retreating contentedly with their new purchases. Astonishing.
Over the next three days, this occurred at every station for however long we stopped. Anywhere from five to twenty five minutes. Each station displays the temperature and, as we stretched further east, we saw -3, -9, -10, -17 and -19°C. Snow was everywhere, we were the only English speakers on the train and we were in the middle of Siberia. It was exhilarating travel. The endless white, snow-desert drifted past the window as we chatted using books, maps and sign language to Baggy, his wife and his mother (our room mates).
We established that these sixty-odd Mongolian traders on the train undertake this ten day return trip to Moscow every single month. That’s ten days on the train, ten days at home, then back on the train again, and, at just eight US dollars per pair of jeans, I really don’t see how they make any money, but they obviously do.
Our next stop was Irkutsk, the last major city before we reached the enormous lake Baikal. At five a.m. we waved Baggy and his family farewell and stepped off into darkness. Glancing up at the station’s clock-thermometer I felt rather pleased at the sight of the large neon numbers; ‘-20’. Then it started to hurt….
4,122 miles gone, 10,578 to go……