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Riding the Trans-Siberia
by
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

The Mongolian camp where I was staying was tucked into a vast amphitheater of sand-colored cliffs and serrated crags. The high-elevation air was crisp and clear. From a distant nomad's tent I saw someone galloping toward me across the grassy steppe, his jacket flapping.

Pulling up on the small, sturdy horse, the rider dismounted gracefully. It was Orgil, our 20-year-old interpreter and guide, who led tour groups in summer, when he wasn't studying electronic engineering in Ulan Bator, the country's capital.

"Wow," I said. "You must have spent lots of time riding out here in the country as a child."

He shook his head. "I've only been on horses four or five times. But I'm a Mongol, and horses are in our blood."

It made sense. In the 13th century, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan and his mounted "hordes," managed to conquer most of Eurasia from Korea to Hungary. The distance involved is staggering, as I knew from first-hand experience. I had already crossed much of it on a 12-day, 4,900-mile train ride from Moscow to Beijing, including seven nights on the train and two side trips in Siberia and Mongolia. On a sleek, blue electric express, we rolled through vast forests, sprawling grasslands, boundless deserts and rugged mountains, most of it on the Trans-Siberian, the world's longest railway.

It started with a flight from Vancouver to London and then on to Moscow, where the September weather was warm and dry. Over dinner at the hotel, I met the group of 24, organized by Britain's Intourist Ltd., who would be my companions. They were a gender-balanced mix of well-traveled Brits: retirees, teachers, civil servants, Oxford students. Plus one Irishman and myself, the only Canadian.

I hadn't been to Moscow in 15 years. While in my twenties, I had studied Russian and later spent months there and in St. Petersburg and Kiev, but had not been back since the fall of communism. The changes that I saw in our two days of bus tours and free time were dramatic: rebuilt churches, glitzy cafés, supermarkets full of delicacies, and fashionable boutiques.

While in university reading Russian history, I learned that the Trans-Siberian was the crucial link tying the vast country together. Building this engineering marvel had required blasting through permafrost and cutting through trackless forests. The rugged section skirting Lake Baikal alone has 233 trestles and bridges and 33 tunnels. And though I knew it would be no luxury jaunt, I had long dreamt of riding the Trans-Siberian.

As a child, I had toured North America one summer with my father, riding the Canadian Pacific, Santa Fe and other railways. Later, while studying abroad, I tasted the romance of inter-city expresses in Europe. But the Trans-Siberian is in a class of its own, a route that spans two continents and offers a chance to visit Mongolia and parts of China as well.

At 11 p.m., a bus took us from the hotel to the ancient Yaroslavl station near central Moscow. It was a gritty place with appalling toilets, dim lighting and windy platforms. Fortunately, the train was ready, and we climbed into the white-and-chrome interior. It was a pleasure to settle into tight but comfortable four-berth compartments with fresh linens and towels. I climbed into an upper bunk and nodded off to the rhythmic sway as we pulled out into the night.

By morning, we were already beyond Nizhny Novgorod, 300 miles east of Moscow, with three days to go before reaching Irkutsk and our side trip to Lake Baikal. After coffee and breakfast, I explored the nearby cars. This summer express mainly carried foreign tourists, with only a few Russian couples and families here and there. There was no dome car, so I spent much of the time looking out the window of my compartment, or out the corridor windows to get a view of the other side.

We trundled non-stop through forests of silver birches dotted with villages. I could see homes made of squared-off logs, with steep gable roofs to shed the snow and cheery pastel-painted windows, shutters and fences. The backyard gardens had been harvested, except for sprawling cabbages and tall sunflowers. I could see people splitting firewood, and feeding chickens, ducks and goats. The first flurries of winter were only a month away.

Our daily routine was soon established. The train stopped for around 15 minutes at major cities -- Kirov, Perm, Yekaterinburg -- just long enough for us to stretch our legs and buy bread, sausage, pickles, beer and vodka from kiosks and babushkas on the platform. The tour included most meals in the cities and on side trips, but not on the train. The mediocre dining car had been largely pre-booked by a more-inclusive group tour of affluent Germans, so we fended for ourselves.

Each car had a bossy, eagle-eyed provodnitsa (conductress), who kept things orderly and spotless and served us tea and instant coffee. We used boiling water from the coal-fired samovar at one end of the car to make powdered soups and instant noodle dishes. There were no showers on board, but the WCs at each end of the car had sinks and warm water. (Travelers can book deluxe Trans-Siberian tours on a special train with private showers, roomier compartments and better dining cars at a higher price. The regular Trans-Siberian departs Moscow several times a week, with some trains ending up in Vladivostok -- the full Trans-Siberian route at almost 6000 miles -- and others reaching Beijing via Manchuria rather than Mongolia.) During the second night we crossed the Ural mountains and awoke to more birch forest and flat farmland, a landscape that barely changed for three days as we rolled through 3,000 miles of countryside. The train pushed on toward Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, clattering across bridges spanning great rivers like the Ob and the Yenisey, each flowing more than 2,400 miles to the Arctic Ocean.

When we tired of staring out the window, we read, played Scrabble or cards, and had impromptu parties. Mark, a strapping Irish cop, could charm a smile even from our dour provodnitsa. Sergei, our gregarious Russian tour leader, enforced the etiquette of vodka drinking; no one left until the bottle was empty. I bonded with Geoff, a retired geologist and teacher who shared my compartment, and we took several hikes and walking tours together in our free time. With good company and good cheer, the days passed quickly.

The fourth morning we arrived in Irkutsk, a city of 600,000 with universities, cathedrals and ornate pre-revolutionary architecture. A bus whisked us off for an overnight visit to the tiny fishing village of Listvyanka on the hilly shores of Lake Baikal, Russia's ecological crown jewel. Fringed by glacier-capped mountains, the mile-deep lake holds one fifth of the world's fresh water and has hundreds of unique species, such as fresh water seals. We ate delicate local omul, a kind of land-locked salmon, and took a smooth boat ride across the waters.

The old village church was being repaired by a young bearded priest in jeans who spoke excellent English. He had spent a year at the Russian Orthodox monastery in London, but was glad to get back to Listvyanka. "Siberia is my home," he beamed, sweeping his arm to encompass lovely woods tinged by the colors of advancing autumn.

Back on the rails on Day 6, the terrain changed as we traversed lush grasslands full of cattle. Crossing into Mongolia was an 11-hour ordeal of border bureaucracy and waiting, while our train cars were shunted and reassembled. (By contrast, entering China from Mongolia several days later was much faster, despite having to replace the wheels of the train to match the Chinese tracks.) We began to spot gers, circular tents known elsewhere as yurts, and people on horseback herding cattle, sheep and goats. Even among the modern buildings of Ulan Bataar, the capital, where we disembarked, clusters of gers were common. The tour included two nights in a Mongol camp perched on a grassy slope among the hills of Terelj National Park, and this turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

Here we got a taste of nomadic life by bedding down in a ger, drifting off to sleep to the grazing sounds of hobbled horses, and awakening in the frosty dawn as a Mongolian teenager lit a woodstove to heat the tent. By day we drank fermented mare's milk, went rafting on a shallow but swiftly flowing river in a nearby valley, saw herds of shaggy yaks, and attempted to ride the small, distinctive Mongolian horses on trails through clusters of aspens. Hiking into the hills with Geoff, I spotted a sobering reminder of the past, a new complex of high brick walls and pagoda roofs. It was a Buddhist monastery being built on a distant slope. The Stalinist regime of Mongolia had murdered thousands of monks in the late 1930s and razed nearly all monasteries. As in Russia, religion was making a strong comeback.

After the adventurous Mongolian outing, we returned to Ulan Bataar, a bustling city of 800,000, for a free day. In the morning of Day 10, we boarded the Trans-Mongolian train for a final leg to Beijing. It had an incredibly ornate dining car but was otherwise little different from the Russian trains.

The next day, we crossed the Gobi Desert, a scorched wasteland that extended like an ocean to the featureless horizon. The second night we entered China and woke to a stark contrast from the views out the window we had become accustomed to seeing in Mongolia -- teeming life. People were everywhere: on bikes, walking along the tracks, hanging their laundry in crowded old residential compounds, working in the fields.

After about 10 hours observing the horse carts and other signs of poverty as we passed through rural northern China, Beijing was a shock: a sprawling metropolis of stylish skyscrapers, vast construction projects and multi-lane expressways full of cars. We had two days in Beijing, where we toured pagodas and ancient shrines, visited jade and silk factories and hiked a section of the Great Wall. Arriving in this modern city, so similar to other metropolises in other parts of the world, reminded me of how enriching the rest of the trip had been.

The long train ride had allowed me to savor the distinctiveness of each region: ground-level views not only of the geography but of people and architecture, of agriculture, industry and commerce. And there was time to make local connections, such as with 20-year-old Olga from Irkutsk, whose job on the Trans-Siberian was to push a little cart through the train, selling packaged snacks and drinks.

She worked for a pittance, 21 days on, seven days off, she told me. Although she was bright and articulate, in today's Russia this menial job was a desirable position. It exposed her to people from Moscow and far beyond. She was learning snippets of English and eagerly pumped us for information about our jobs and homes. Her eyes lit up when I gave her a travel-size bottle of kiwifruit-scented shampoo and explained a bit about New Zealand. Life on the railway opened up for her a whole larger world of romance, glamour and future possibilities, just as riding the train gave us a window on life in Russia, and beyond.

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Intourist Ltd. offers fully guided 17-day tours of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian route for USD $ 3334.  Included are the flights (on Lufthansa, SAS or British Airways) from London to Moscow and back to London from Beijing, as well as 7 nights B & B (double occupancy) in 3 and 4 star hotels, 2 nights in a ger camp, 8 lunches, 10 dinners, numerous excursions, all transfers and entrance fees, and all taxes.   For details, see their website at www.intouristuk.com, or email them at info@intourist.co.uk

I flew to London with Air Canada, which offers excellent daily non-stop service from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. 

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Email:  koppel@saltspring.com (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)

 

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