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The View from the Tracks

The View from the Tracks

Jun 2017

Words Marc Dinkelmann

There’s something romantic about traversing Russia on a train, whiling away the hours watching the forests of the Wild Taiga pass you by as the vintage juggernaut powerfully chugs through the night.

It had long been a dream of mine to catch the Trans-Siberian and then deviate through to Mongolia, and the excitement while boarding the first train in Moscow was goosebump-inducing—right from the moment of deciphering the Cyrillic departure boards, through to meeting my cabin mates.

Leaving the Russian capital—an unbelievably vibrant and energetic city—and boarding your first train is an experience itself. The trains are clean and maintained, but they hardly compare to the excess that is Moscow! Your provinista, the matron of your carriage, does an excellent job (in a strict, Russian fashion) of ensuring your abode is spotless and that passengers behave themselves. Not unlike a boarding-school headmistress. I got the impression there’s a bit of unspoken competition between the provinistas as to who has the cleanest, most immaculate carriage; it’s quite something to see the lengths to which they go to make sure everything is in order. 

Inside St Isaacs in St Petersberg.

On the train, I got the rare opportunity to meet and interact with local travellers, and the occasional backpacker like myself. Invariably, this involved a bottle of vodka being cracked open, and the Russian custom is never to leave an unfinished bottle behind—so I had a lot of fun trying to communicate in a hodge-podge of English and Russian.

There were also times when the English language was entirely lost on a cabin mate, in which case I found myself merely greeting my fellow passenger and then spending the next 12 hours in silence, watching the beautiful landscape passing by. When it came time to disembark, we would exchange a rather formal goodbye and go on our separate ways.

Along the 7 621-kilometre journey from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, we passed through a large number of Russian and Siberian cities, some more exciting than others. It’s worthwhile adopting a hop on–hop off approach to break up the journey, as it’d drive you crazy to sit in a cabin for days on end.

In between the scattered cities are vast, never-ending conifer forests that made me think of Christmas. Perhaps the ultimate experience would be to do this expedition twice: once in summer to experience the lush, green forests and unfrozen lakes, and then again in winter to see the fairytale landscapes covered in knee-deep snow, trees bending under their heavy burden. 

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Bogolyubovo.

A personal favourite stop was Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal: the planet’s largest freshwater lake by volume, containing around 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface drinkable water. The lake’s main entry point, Listvyanka, is 70km from Irkutsk and serves as the start for treks to neighbouring rural villages. 

I chose to spend two days trekking to Bolshiye Koty, a small village on Lake Baikal that’s accessible only by foot or boat, until winter when one can simply drive across the ice. I could’ve been somewhere in eastern Turkey, admiring the Mediterranean; the lake was that impressive, and a true reminder that the hidden gems of Siberia are worth uncovering—summer or winter.

Upon reaching the next major city on the Trans-Siberian, I had a choice either to remain in Russia until the train eventually came to a stop in Vladivostok, or jump on the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Ulan-Ude to Mongolia. It was an easy decision for me: The wide, open plains of the Gobi Desert were calling, so off I went to Mongolia.

Central Mongolia approaching the Gobi.

The overland border crossing between Russia and Mongolia was a real test for my patience. Although the formalities took only 30 minutes, I found myself aimlessly wandering around the abandoned train platform for hours before the officials arrived. Nothing happens quickly at any border crossing, I guess. 

Of Mongolia's 3 million citizens, half live in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, while the other half are scattered all over the rest of the country—the 20th largest in the world. This has resulted in an extremely large country that seems virtually uninhabited. It’s a strange yet beautiful feeling to be surrounded by such an astonishing, raw, rural space. When I think back on Mongolia and the Gobi, I recall never-ending vistas scattered with herds of wild horses, camels and the occasional nomadic family with their goats and sheep.

The Gobi is best described as the land of big skies: The horizons stretch on forever, giving the impression that their only limiting factor is the curvature of the Earth. This feeling is further enhanced by how flat the country is, due to the infinite Mongolian steppes.

Central Mongolia, having just entered the Gobi.

The best way to explore the Gobi is by driving through it with an experienced driver in a trusty Soviet-built Russian van, the appearance of which will not instil much confidence, but the drivers have an intimate relationship with their vehicles and are able to fix them with virtually no tools. The terrain in central Mongolia and the Gobi is unforgiving, but the vans bash their way through without ever breaking down. Our driver, a Mongolian man by the name of Batar—“a father of three, a doctor, an engineer and a soldier”, all of which he was extremely proud—went all MacGyver on us with nothing but a pair of pliers. I had a look under the van while he was tightening something; let’s just say a health and safety rep somewhere out there would have sleepless nights…

Living with local nomadic families in their gers (portable tents) is a truly extraordinary experience. I was welcomed into their modest lives with extreme hospitality and generosity—the Western world could learn a thing or two! The accommodation was humble, and the lack of proper sanitation could best be described as a character-building experience. 

The 'White Angels' in the Gobi.

I was offered an endless supply of airag, the local alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk (the taste of which is moderately better than what it sounds like). There are traditions all guests have to adhere to in order to prevent offence, the most important being never to show your feet to the ‘sacred’ corner of the ger, and secondly, never to refuse airag

The Gobi is one of those timeless places where you lose touch with the world, and put your phone away and forget about it. Watching the sunset from the Khongor sand dunes (Khongoriin Els) or horse riding through the Orkhon Valley is much more appealing than keeping up with the news or your social media accounts. (Horse riding—another romantic idea, but I can't say I'll be doing that again in a hurry! Mongolians refer to their horses as “half tame, half wild”, but the animals are inclined to do their own thing.) 

Five weeks later, it was time to board one last train to Beijing. Another horrendous border crossing ensued, as Mongolia has single tracks while China has double, necessitating the carriage bogies to be changed. It was hours of sitting in a hot cabin before being lifted into the air as the train got adequately equipped for China. 

Khongor Sand Dune in the Gobi.

Eventually reaching the capital city of China, the first thing that captured my attention was the heavy air pollution. Strange for a city that’s actually extraordinarily clean from other viewpoints. 

A city of nearly 22 million people is nothing short of mind-bending after coming from a country with only 3 million. But it adds to the experience: the organised chaos, delicious food, remarkable World Heritage Sites, busy hutongs (narrow streets or alleys) and bright lights. The trick is to avoid the crowds. Our small group of five was the only one on an afternoon trek to remote parts of the Great Wall of China, just in time to catch the sun melting the clouds in a spectacular sunset. 

If you’re someone who gets a kick out of doing something different, the Trans-Siberian Railway is for you. It takes a decent amount of research, but it’s worth it to get a unique, non-touristy experience. There will be times you’ll be standing in front of a train departure board, written in an alphabet you don’t understand, asking yourself why you’re doing this—but there will also be times when, at 1 a.m., you’ll be sitting with a Russian family in your tiny train cabin, drinking vodka and playing card games, communicating in a language other than words. It’ll make the journey truly unforgettable.

Trans-Mongolian Railway en route to Mongolia.

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer