Leg 1 :- Moscow to Yekateringburg – The Russian Train
Having boarded the train, I quickly settled into my couchette ready for the start of the 7,622km journey to Beijing. It was clear that the train was very busy, and populated almost entirely by Russians. At the early stops, everyone would pour out onto the platforms to stretch their legs, smoke and stock up on drinks and snacks. In addition there seemed to be hundreds of people already on the platform selling all sorts of things from dinner sets, to glasses, to hats and even chandeliers! You could barely move, let alone exercise or run up and down the platform as I had planned to do. It was only the fresh air that made it more attractive than staying on board.
I shared my couchette (measuring approx. 2x3x2 metres) with three Russian men, a 28 year old man called Anton who spoke a little English and two men who I think were father and son. Anton explained to the others that I was English and didn’t speak any Russian. The three of them started talking as if they had known each other all of their lives! (this actually seemed the case all over the train, people being put together by chance, knowing they would be spending hours, possibly days together, and totally embracing it!)
I was fascinated, happy to sit, watch and listen as this different culture was unfolding before me, but before I knew it, once they started unpacking their food, I was involved and included too! They were clearly prepared for the long journey with all manner of foods and drinks stored away and I was being handed pastries, chicken and beer. I too shared what little food and drink I had left with them – but Anton took one look at my apples and turned his nose up and said what I can only image to be some Russian expletives!! For a few seconds I thought I had seriously offended him, then he delved under his bed to bring out a whole box of apples and gave me 4! I later found out through Google Translate that these were from his family’s orchard where he had just visited and they certainly tasted much better than the shop ones I had. I also ate carp that had been caught the morning before from his family’s lake and sunflower seeds that had been grown on their farm. As we shared around the beers however, Anton (who was actually an off duty train driver), said you weren’t meant to bring alcohol on board and they are quite strict about it… little did I know that when I was freely drinking what I had brought on the night before. So language may have been a barrier for us but offering hospitality and friendship to a complete stranger certainly wasn’t!
Anton in particular seemed to take a genuine interest in me being an English tourist, he said he wanted more people to come and visit his country, he feared that everyone thought Russians were evil from what he gathered was portrayed on the news in other countries. At Yekateringburg I had to leave the train and my new friends and wished them good luck! Anton however, followed me out to the front of the station, (I wasn’t really quite sure what he was doing, as he had previously shown me his stop on the map, further down the line). He then went straight up to a taxi, told the taxi driver where I was staying, gave me a big hug and wished me well with my travels. As the taxi pulled away he shouted to the driver (and then quickly translated back for my benefit): ‘I told him to be nice to you, as you are English, not American’! What a great guy I had met in Anton and what a great experience the first leg of my journey had been.
Leg 2:- Yekateringburg to Irkutsk – The Ghost Train!
This was to be the longest of the 4 legs of this journey, taking just over 50 hours, travelling some 3,374km and I would pass through 3 time zones. Although I was a little put off by the length of this part of the trip, having had such a positive experience on the first leg, I felt more prepared for taking this one on. The experience however, was going to prove to be completely different!
The train left Yekateringburg at 4am, when I arrived at the station the train was in and the platform was totally empty, so I assumed people had already got on and joined other travellers who may have been on the train since Moscow! I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find that my cabin was empty and with very little thought other than this meant I could make up my bed with the luxury of the light on and not wake anyone up, I settled down to catch a few more hours of sleep before morning. As each stop passed however, nobody else got it and I only saw a few other passengers scattered throughout the length of the train! This situation continued for the whole duration of this leg! So I had gone from a very social train a few days previously with people laughing and joking from each room and now I was suddenly experiencing the total opposite! I was the only one in the restaurant car on the first night and ended up speaking to the chef for a while who spoke broken English!
Don’t get me wrong, the luxury of a private room was lovely, even if there was the chance at every stop that someone could join me and I soon got into a routine, of reading, writing, watching a movie or TV show, eating, listening to a podcast and organising old photos etc to pass the time. It was lovely just to completely switch off from life for a few days, be a little lazy and not worry if you have just wasted half an hour by daydreaming out the window! I did feel though that this leg of the journey had deprived me somewhat of a bit of local culture. I thought back to my experiences with the guys on the last train and I think that a few hours of that sort of company, would have certainly been welcome.
Leg 3:- Irkutsk to Ulan Bator- The Tourist Train
Boarding from Irkusk to take the train to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, it was quickly evident that the experience was to be very different from the previous two legs of the journey! Attached to the back of the train were Mongolian carriages that would split from the Russian ones later on the journey and it seemed most of the people on these carriages, myself included, were tourists. In fact, I did not see one Russian that was headed for Mongolia! My carriage was a mixture of Europeans and after the loneliness of the previous leg, it was certainly nice to engage in conversation again, as we shared stories of where we had stopped in Russia and what we had experienced so far on the train route. Almost immediately the scenery stated to change quite dramatically, gone was my view of countryside and forests now I was greeted with a vast barren landscape as we headed towards the Gobi desert.
The route also provided the first long border stop of the trip, where we had to wait around 3 hours at the Russian /Mongolian border. I used the time positively by running 10km on the platform – part of my challenge of running a marathon distance on the Trans-Mongolian route! My chief supporters on this run were a group of young Germans who cheered me on each time I passed them which was a great encouragement, I also passed cows (literally on the grass verge of the platform) and Mongolian monks, so although the run was monotonous, it was at least rather interesting!
Talking to this group of Germans afterwards however, it appeared one of them was in a little bit of trouble! Germans did not need a visa to enter Mongolia unlike the rest of Europe but one of their group, who lived in Germany, had a Spanish passport so there was a mad rush to see if we could get her through immigration and into Mongolia OK. I was the only person with a Russian SIM card, which I gave to her so she could make necessary calls to various Embassies, but it was to no avail, in short, she had to stay a further 3 days to get a visa processed. A reminder of the importance of shorting visa logistics before travelling!!
Leg 4:- Ulan Bator to Beijing – The Runaway Train
After spending a few days in Ulan Bator, I boarded again for final leg of the journey to Beijing. Again, the train was populated mostly with tourists but I called this the Runaway Train simply because everything started to run out, and not just the track!
Firstly, the runaway aspect links to the final 9km I ran outside the station at the Chinese border control therefore completing the 42.1km I needed to say I ran a marathon on the Trans-Mongolian route!! Most of the run was uneventful – until I decided to run a bit further along for a change of scenery, only to be chased back by two dogs! I guess it made me run a bit quicker! I had tried first to do this run on the station platform but I was quickly told off by the Chinese station guards – so that’s why I had to take my exercise outside of it!
I was also running out of food. At the stops in Mongolia I had access to the normal station stalls which I got snacks from during the day. However, at the Chinese border control there were absolutely no shops open! Added to that there were no money exchange outlets there either, so I was unable to change my Mongolian money! (I still have it with me as no Chinese exchange bureau seems to want it!). No money meant going without dinner so I had to resort to eating the few mini mars bars I had, just to keep me going! Luckily in the morning, on the train I found out I was entitled to some bread and jam (spread on with chopsticks) for my breakfast, so I was certainly ready for the mammoth feast I ate after arriving in Beijing!
On the previous trains, there were plug sockets in the corridors outside the couchette where you slept, so you could keep devices charged to keep you entertained during the journey. The Chinese carriage however did not seem to like my adaptor so I had to ration the use of my phone and laptop. Slowly though they both started to run out, and by the morning they had run out of juice completely! I had my book of course, which I was powering through (‘Walking Home from Mongolia’- a great read and apt for the journey I was on) but even that I completed with an hour to spare of the journey. This was perhaps a blessing though, as although anyone travelling this route needs to bring forms of entertainment to get them through the long hours of sitting in a train, having nothing to do during the final hour of this epic journey forced me to simply look out the window and appreciate the surrounding scenery as the lush outskirts of Beijing were slowly being replaced by a concrete jungle. Even having completed the journey now, it is still hard to comprehend the length of the route I have travelled over 7500km, through 5 time zones and 3 countries in total but just as important are the countless memories I now have, the many amazing people I have met, the different foods I have eaten and of course the fact that despite the odds I have actually run a marathon too!