We have not completed our first two legs of trans-Siberian train travel across Russia and we are in the heartland of Siberia.
Our first journey (Moscow to Krasnoyarsk) took 69 hours of restive chugging through the Russian countryside. We passed through the green birch forests of European Russia, over the rolling hills of the Urals* into Asia; down into the endless steppe of Siberia, finally arriving at the foothills of the Siberian hills and forests. From Krasnoyarsk we had a (relatively) short over-nighter to Irkutsk, where we have come to hang out on the banks of the world’s deepest body of fresh water: Lake Baikal.
After four nights, we then hurry out of Russia before our visas expire (we will have been here a MONTH!). It is a two night journey to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. There we will meet up with three of our most splendid of fabulous friends for a month of traipsing around the Gobi and other such adventures. The final train ride will be just more than 24 hours and takes us into the heart of Beijing – a trip that we will enjoy as a fist of five jocular South Africans. And then we will have completed our train journey across the vastest of continents.
Taking the trans-Siberian trains and sailing across the Pacific are two journeys that capture the imagination. Both are the kind of adventures one might expect to find on a (fairly imaginative) “bucket list”. This slow travel, of seeing the change around us is overwhelmingly our travel method of choice. Traveling at “ground” level (as opposed to speeding over the earth in a plane) gives one a real sense of the vastness and wonder of our planet. Discoveries are made slowly: the imagination can only travel as fast as the eye can see and mind can comprehend. The journey is as much a part of the travel as the destination and one gains an intimate sense of the world as a whole. Just as, when sailing, an island appears at first as a small mound bobbing over the waves in a vast ocean, so arrival in a city by train opens the eye to where it sits in its own geography.
Interestingly, the Pacific and Siberian journeys are not entirely different. Stoffel and I have spent some time over the past train trip compiling a random list which (in Grand Russian Style) we have entitled:
Similarities and Dissimilarities between Crossing the Pacific by Boat and Crossing Siberia by Train
- Lots of reading.
- Lots of playing cards / scrabble / dominoes.
- Lots of sitting around staring at the view.
- The scenery changes very slowly, but it is ever shifting.
- Even though there are more people around (see point #D below), we still can’t really communicate with them so SnS spend a lot of time alternatively grunting or talking kak.
- When we do stop (see point #G below), there is a similar sense of panic that you might get left behind if you alight the vessel and be stranded in the middle of nowhere.
- Same awkward bird-bathing while wedged (so as to prevent oneself from falling over) technique is required while under way in order to maintain basic hygiene.
- It takes a long time.
- Ablutions also, um, just go right through the vessel. (No harbouring of sewerage.)
- Fair amount of self-catering (but see point #N below).
- Constant rhythmical motion.
- Need to wear sunglasses when sunny – it’s pretty bright out there.
- One gains a sense of space and travel that is bereft in air transport.
- Walking around can be pretty unstable… until you gain your sea/train legs.
- First night of sleep on hard land also brings that vague rocking feeling – like you’re still under way.
- Need for clever stowage.
- Plotting of positions as a manner of showing distance passing is important. Except on a train it is not the neat reading of GPS co-ordinates and then plotting them against a chart. On the trans-Siberian, we push our faces up against the glass on the right-hand side of the train and hope to catch a reading of the (ridiculously small) km mark and then referring to our excellent guide book (Trailblazers, by Bryn Thomas). Most attempts are only successful by about the 4th kilometer as it takes the eye a little training (ha!) to catch the number as we speed through the countryside.
- No watch system = more sleep!
- No seasickness.
- If something breaks/needs to be cleaned, the provodnik (cabin attendant) does it. Lovethemthemost.
- More people around (but see point #E above).
- Russian music is pumped through the speakers and not our own tunes. (Not ALWAYS bad… not always good.)
- Surrounded by land, not sea. Although the Russian landscape is pretty monotonous. And there are a lot of bogs, so we often travel along next to water.
- More opportunity to stop and alight as we travel (but see point #F above).
- There is a canteen aboard!
- More distance to stagger around while under way.
- Less suntanning. Although the aircon/heating can be rather hot.
- No actual navigation that matters to our direction.
- A lot more traffic on the rails than the ocean.
- Less nakedness (both because of general Siberian vs Pacific climate and decency towards our fellow travelers).
- No kitchen = lack of exciting cooking options. There is a limit to what one can achieve with boiling water and a mug.
- No swimming on arrival in port. Although the hot shower at the hostel is appreciated.
- The decision where to “drop the hook” is made further in advance when on the train: thus eliminating over-tired arguing about the best possible anchorage in the bay.
* The Urals are a somewhat underwhelming border between East and West (Europe and Asia). A bit like the Equator, but with less anticipation and less dramatic music.