Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad

I now can say I have ridden the Trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing to Moscow. What a pleasant way to travel! Most tourists go from Russia to China, and since I was traveling the opposite direction, it meant I brought a trainload of Mongolian students heading to Universities in Russia as well as smugglers getting goods across the border tariff-free. There were only a few travelers like me on the train, but enough to have time to talk and meet some other Westerners.

I was on a Russian train, where all the cars are sleeper cars, either economy (4 beds per cabin) or business (2 beds per cabin). I heard from other passengers it is much nicer than the Mongolian train. It is kept fairly clean--though my car was run by a couple of blokes that weren’t as tidy as the other cabin crew. My bunkmates were 2 nice Mongolian girls on the way to a University outside of Moscow, and a woman transporting goods. This woman got off at the first stop in Russia, so most of the trip there were only 3 of us, which helped a lot.

The bunks are 6 foot long vinyl upholstered benches, and they give you a little mattress and sheet sets and a towel and pillow. Quite cushy! In China, that little mattress would bump you into “soft-sleeper” class, which costs more. On this train, the upper bunks were always down, but there was room to sit under it without scrunching. The top bunk people usually share the bottom bunk during the day, and move up to sleep. The 5-day journey (really 3 full days with a half day on either end) cost about $200. (The Beijing-UB ticket was about $350 and took 2.5 days.)

I got on the train with Mongolians that had enormous packages and baggage. Immediately, the bags were opened and there was a mad dash to unwrap the items they carried, and get other people to stash them, a little in each cabin. The smugglers kept the info in little notebooks: where they had stashed each item and how many. One woman with a lot of goods kept putting stacks of packages on my seat. I was feeling claustrophobic with all the goods and people coming into my cabin, and I started putting the stacks back in her cabin. I also didn’t really understand what was going on, I just thought I would start kicking someone if I didn’t have some breathing room. The woman in our car was taking jeans across the border. We helped her take them out of the packages and remove the dangly tags. I saw people stashing jeans in their beds, stuffed in the sheets. They put on multiple pairs of jeans. Other smugglers came around with jackets, wallets, socks, sweaters, shoes of many varieties, purses and backpacks, bottles of vodka…sometimes they were quite pushy for the cabin mates to take their items. People hid 3-10 in their various bags, and the jackets were hung on our coat hooks, so that each cabin all the way down had the same set of 11 different jackets on their hooks.

I helped with the tags before I really understood what was happening, but refused to help hide any goods. On this trip I usually looked at what the locals were doing and then did that, but in this case I did not support the community effort. Turns out I could have made 50 Rubles per pair of jeans I stashed, but compared with the penalty and forfeiting my journey through Russia or worse consequences, I refrained.

The train goes through some stunning Mongolian countryside where I said goodbye to seeing the gers dappling the landscape. Lake Baikal, the largest inland sea in the world, was amazing. We spent 4 hours just going around the edge of the southern tip. For those of you interested in the Trans-Siberian rail, taking a stopover in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal would be the top of the list. After Irkutsk, it is long stretches of woods and farmland, dotted with small settlements of darling wooden cottages painted in cheery colors. I enjoyed time to nap, write, and visit. I read over my journal and notes so I can start to make sense of it all and prepare for travel talks I want to give.

The main downside of this leg of the Trans-Siberian was the amount of drinking the Mongolian men did. There were a couple of fights, and the bathrooms got kind of sketchy from many drunk men attempting to use the toilet while the train bumped and jostled along the tracks and they were sloshed. Not a good combination for aim. I had to set a limit with my cabin mates that their male friends could come in when they were sober, but not drunk. Otherwise, I would have had up to 6 drunk Mongolian men squeezing in to hang out in our cabin. If I had gone at a different time, or started in Moscow (as long as it wasn’t in June when all the students come home to Mongolia for the summer) this would not be part of the ride.

Also, after making it through 5 months of crazy hard travel, my camera suffered an attack. One of my cabin mates accidentally smashed it in the seat after she got something out of her suitcase stored under my bed. Only the edge of the screen works, and my camera doesn’t have a viewfinder. At least it still takes pictures, so I can limp through the rest of my trip. But I can’t get to any of the settings, and have to just point and shoot like a blind old school camera since I can’t see much to line it up. My travel insurance should replace it, but not until after I get home. I handled it really well, just felt a little bummed.

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