The Trans-Siberian is the train which goes from Vladivostok, Siberia to Moscow (or the opposite direction, if you so choose). A full 7+ days if you were to go non-stop. I chose to do the more Southerly route from Beijing to Moscow as it runs right through the middle of Mongolia. This route is called the Trans-Mongolian however as soon as it passes into Russia it hooks up with the Trans-Siberian. You can stay on the train and do the whole journey in a week however, I thought it more interesting to get on and off at various stops along the way.
I started in Beijing and although I have been to this city a few times before, I stayed a couple days to once again see the Great Wall, Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc. How can you not see all these incredible sites repeatedly if given the chance? I then bought a ticket for the first segment of my trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It was a 36 hour trip and as I approached the train it was everything I thought it would be.... straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. It was hunter green on the outside and the inside was wood paneling and blue carpet with yellow Fleur de lis print. I sprung for the deluxe cabin which had two berths; the upper one being folded up during the day so you have more space. It also had a small table and chair, a closet and water thermos and it shared a lavatory (sink only) with one other cabin. Toilets were always found on each end of every train car. I lucked out and had a cabin to myself on this part of the journey. There was a water heater on one end of every car providing hot water all day long if you wanted to make coffee or tea. On these long distance trains you realize very quickly who's in charge of each car..... it is the provodnitsa (in Russian). There are two of them working in each train car working as a team. One rests while the other works. They are the ladies who are in charge of keeping the train car clean, checking your tickets and robustly waking you in the middle of the night when you arrive at your destination, etc. They also make sure the water heater is in working order and pass out sheets for the berths, etc. They provide dishes, cups and cutlery if you need. With unusual hair-dos and heavy makeup these humorless women worked with great efficiency. Upon settling into your cabin they come around and pass out your sheets and pillow cases. Later in the day they thrust open your cabin door (no knocking here) and proceed to vacuum your carpet. They later come in and wipe down your table and the lower berths.
Arriving in Mongolia is a major production as the trains in Russia and Mongolia run on a 5 ft gauge which is slightly wider than the standard gauge used in the rest of the world. Believe it or not, before the train can continue its journey, it must make a stop at the bogie-changing shed where the carriages are raised and the bogies are replaced with the correct size. This process along with the police coming on board to check passports, etc. takes about five hours. This process all occurs in the middle of the night. I stayed on the train and tried to sleep while the clunking went on outside and the train was moved back and forth settling onto the new gauge. They finally finished the job and after the police came back to return passports and arrival documentation we were eventually on our way. As soon as the sun came up I was greeted with the most spectacular view of the countryside. Mongolia is wide open space country and reminded me of the background of the movie "Dances With Wolves". It looked completely different from where I had just been in China. There was nothing for miles as far as the eye could see but beautiful countryside. Coming into the city of Ulaanbaatar, however, was the opposite.. very ugly. Typical soviet block style architecture prevails. I only spent one day in this most hideous of capital cities and decided to get out into the beautiful countryside. I arranged to go out and stay in a ger which is the typical Mongolian home. A cylindrical building with a conical roof; it is covered with felt or skin on the outside. It is one room only with a wood stove in the middle and a big smoke stack sticking through the roof. There were three guys that were going that day as well and so we all went together; two Americans, a German and me. We did some rock climbing when we reached the area and later spent a few hours horseback riding. The Mongolians are avid horsemen and the two kids that guided us put us all to shame with there excellent riding ability.
A few days later I left Mongolia after buying my next ticket to Irkutsk, Siberia. This train didn't have deluxe cabins so I bought the next best available. Kupe class, as it is called, involves a cabin with four berths and no attached wash room. The toilets, once again, were located on each end of every car. When you buy a ticket for the train they do not take into account as to what sex the occupant is, so you can very well end up in a compartment with three strange men. This trip took 2+ days and the first night I had the cabin to myself (it was not high season for the Trans-Siberian) however, the second night two young guys shared my cabin. Luckily, they were good travelers and were quiet and turned the lights out early. Both guys got off the train early the next morning. I then had a mother and her daughter come to the cabin and they were obviously Mongolian traders going over the boarder to sell their goods. I watched in great amusement as they stashed clothing around the cabin and each put on several layers of clothing so they would not have to pay duty on their goods as we crossed over into Russian. I watched this mother and other sellers that over took the train right before the boarder wrapping pants to be sold around the calf of each leg. They then put tights on over top to keep them in place, then put another pair of pants on over top so everyone had on four pair of pants. They also layered their tops and each person had on several shirts and sweaters. We then approached the Russian boarder and this crossing made the crossing into Mongolia look like a breeze. Although we did not need to change the gauges again we were at this board crossing for 9 hours. Why? I do not know! My guide book indicated this crossing could take up to 11 hours but no one ever seems to know why. The Russian officials came on to collect our passports and documentation and hours later returned them. Where they were in the interim, I have no idea! I never had a problem of any kind crossing any of the boarders, the police were far more interested in the Mongolian traders (after watching their stunts at hiding merchandise I can see why). They shamelessly stashed clothing around the cabin and under the headrests, etc. After what seemed like an eternity at the boarder they were finally satisfied and we were allowed to go. As soon as we entered Russia all the merchants started peeling off all of their extra clothing and started stuffing their bags with the goods. Moments later after peeling off all the layers I realized they where all about 40 pounds lighter then they first appeared! At the first stop they all got off, apparently on their way to make some money.
I eventually arrived in Irkutsk, Siberia and spent a few days exploring the city. I was most impressed with the various church's in Russia with their magnificent onion-domed tops. I eventually decided to press on and due to time constraints bought a ticket non-stop to Moscow. A four day journey. In case you're wondering "where do you bathe on the train"? well, you become creative. The provodnitsa (for a fee) will let you rent a nozzle that fits on the sink faucet and you can hold it over your head (there's a drain in the floor) or you can just take a glass as I did and pour water over yourself, lather up and continue the process. There is a mat with holes in it on the floor so you're not actually standing directly on the floor itself. The drainage hole is beneath this mat. It worked OK but that first shower in the hotel in Moscow was most welcoming. Also, as far as the toilet went, when you flushed, all the contents just drop out of the train onto the tracks, there was no holding tank (yes, I looked!). The problem with this is, as we approached a town that we were stopping in, the lavatories would be locked off since they did not want waste on the tracks near any town; understandably so. As such, you really needed to evaluate when you had to use the lav since some of the stops at towns would last up to 30 minutes and the lavs wouldn't be opened from another 15minutes after leaving the station. Since they locked them 15 minutes before arriving at a town we were to stop at, this meant that they could be locked for up to an hour. If you drink a lot of water or coffee, you better keep an eye on the train schedule! I finally figured out how to read the schedule listed on the train wall. Since the Russian language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet I had to use my guide book to translate and figured out at which towns we would be stopping at and for how long. We only stopped periodically. Some stops were only for 2 minutes while others could be for as long as 30 minutes. You were allowed to get off on the longer stops and could walk around the platform. It was nice to get some fresh air and you could also buy food from the babushkas (grandmother in Russian) that would be on the platform selling their food and drink. Although you could eat in the dining car, the food from the babushkas was actually quite good. I would frequently buy sausage, cheese and bread from them. They would also sell bottled water, beer and wine. I had the cabin to myself until the second day when, in the middle of the night, a rather large Russian man got on the train. He was booked in my cabin and I could hear him before seeing him. He, a very heavy breather; I tossed and turned all night! The next day after getting up I realized he didn't speak English but I whipped out my map and with universal sign language asked if he was going to Moscow. Luckily he said "nyet" and pointed that he was getting off at Perm which was only a day away. I was happy as I only had to put up with him and his heavy breathing and incessant snoring for one night! I then had the cabin to myself again for the rest of the journey.
A funny aspect of train travel in Russia is that all departure and arrival times are indicated in Moscow time. That doesn't sound too bad except for the fact that Russia has eleven (yes, count them) eleven time zones! Trying to figure out where you were while on the train for days and what time is was locally was all but impossible. I always, however, knew what time it was in Moscow. At the end of each train car was a read out with the temperature and Moscow time.
The houses in Siberia all seem to look the same. They are a very dark wood, almost black with cobalt blue shutters with yellow flowers. This is all I saw for days as we passed through various villages. We eventually pulled into Moscow. A very expensive city but full of treasures. My favorite was spending time in Red Square staring at the Kremlin and St. Basil's cathedral. They are opposite one another and as I sat staring at the two, it was hard to imagine that I grew up during the cold war which of course lasted from the end of WWII until 1991. This is also where Vladimir Lenin's tomb is located. Lenin died young of a stroke at age 53 in 1924. Stalin proposed that the father of Soviet communism be preserved for all to pay their respects. Although his widow vehemently opposed this as it was his final wish to buried in St. Petersburg next to his mother, he still, today lays entombed in Red Square. Scientist came up with a formula to stop the natural decomposition. After the fall of communism it was let out what process was and is used to keep him preserved. Immediately after his death they removed the brain for examination by scientists for many years to come. They also sewed the mouth and eyes shut. The body is now wiped down every few days. Then, every 18 months it is thoroughly examined and submerged in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax. Can you believe this has been going on for 85 years!! There has always been talk of finally laying him to rest in St. Petersburg, as he wished however, as of today, that has still not happened and Red Square continues to remain his final resting place.
After two and a half weeks of having the good fortune to see a large portion of the earth via train, I headed home happy and content. It was my first time circumventing the globe. I hope it's not my last.