(extract from my book“People & Places: Walk My Journey” )
Almost everyone I know dream of going on the Trans Siberian journey. This iconic trip has captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. Steeped in history, writers still discuss the Trans Siberian railway at length, while travelers still include it in their bucket list. The railway track that was built in 1916 by the Russians, said to be “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars” has travelers romanticizing the journey.
The Trans Siberian Railway network covers over 9,288 kilometers with international trains (K3/K4 & K19/K20) running between Beijing and Moscow and K23 / K24 running between Beijing and Ulan Bator. The network spans 2 continents and crosses 7 time zones. This makes it the longest journey one can make on a single train.
“While travelling on the Trans Mongolian Express in 2015, I remember standing by the window of the K3 coach for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the Steppes. The Steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands, some time dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.
Some travelers (like Paul Thereaux), love being on a perpetually moving train, watching the changing sceneries, or spying on some back-yard on-goings, interspersed with getting up for a cup of coffee or chatting with strangers in the corridors, or simply being lulled to sleep by the gentle rumbling of the moving train. It is the immense freedom of movement on a moving train and being left alone to immerse in your own thoughts while staring out that large window of the ever-changing scenery of mountains, trees and farms that I love about long-distance train travel.
I recall the mad rush that early morning of 2nd September, trying to get everyone onto the tour van heading towards Central Train Station in Dongcheng District to board the Trans Mongolian Express. The Beijing Central Train Station was a sea of people. I have never seen so many lines lining up to buy tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building was no mean feat, given the pushing and jostling crowd. It was absolute madness. I remember Sam, the van driver, telling us “In Beijing, there is no time to be polite”.
As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started rumbling and pulling out of the station, I felt a tingle of excitement. Our cabin was the 2nd class, hard sleeper that was slightly less comfortable since the berth was narrower. Furthermore there was no bathroom, only a toilet at the end of the carriage. Going 6 days without a bath was simply unthinkable for me. With a little ingenuity and a lot of patience, I managed to take a bath, leaving a wet toilet and an angry train guard.
The next morning, we all headed for the buffet coach. I managed to find a quiet corner, sipping some green tea. I began scribbling some half-forgotten details about Beijing into my note book. After some 30 minutes on my mobile phone, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable so I decided to refocus. In front of me were two white ladies, in their early 50s, maybe. I decided to say hello and they reciprocated. They were from UK , accompanied by one young male, a Russian model I was told. I had noticed him back on the platform in the train station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and his polished air of self-importance.
While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach, I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon. In their early 30s, the couple had just been married in Beijing and were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station.
Without doubt, there is something undeniably romantic about train travel.
Why are people more willing to chat to strangers on trains? Is it because train journeys tend to be more relaxed? Unhurried? Un-cluttered; and pleasurable with the changing scenery thus allowing freedom and time to interact? The next time you feel like indulging in some romantic ambience, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express….you will never know who you meet !
Figure 1: Travellers taking a breather on the platform of the Malinsk station.
Figure 2: The Chinese couple (who got married in Beijing,) was taking the Trans Mongolian Express to St Petersburg for their honeymoon..