How do you catch the train across Russia, Mongolia and China? You just get on the TransSiberian and/or TransMongolian Railway. (Start from Moscow/Mockba or Beijing/Pekin and head to the other one.)
If you’re new to my journey across the world, see Stage One. Or you could start way back with Part I of planning. For my fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
Please note this is a multi-page post. Although my trip took 6 days, one hour and four minutes to complete, it won’t take you that long to read! That said, you might need a cup of tea and a little snack to take with you.
Hope this account inspires you to explore the world by train, too!
Tuesday 15th October 2019 – NIGHT ONE – TransSiberian/Mongolian – boarding the train at Yaroslavsky Train Station, Moscow – 23:55
Two middle-aged men in uniform greeted me at carriage five with some bemusement. They frowned and flapped my ticket. ‘But, do not fold it,’ I cried out mentally, thinking Lena from Real Russia would be shocked to see their carelessness. They gave the precious paper back to me and one fellow ambled inside. Without anything else to do I followed him and he pointed at my compartment and my lower berth number 9.
I said, ‘Xiexie,’ (‘Thank you’ being the limits of my Chinese so far) and he blinked at me before he left. This was not the same train as my previous shiny new Russian train. This was an antique Chinese train. It felt a bit rickety and there was no fancy screen showing time and temperature on the wall. Could it have been a steam train? I could definitely smell coal. Everything smelt of coal in the carriage.
Obeying train-life rules I quickly jumped into comfy nightwear and then serious man gave me a couple of sheets and a pillowcase. I said, ‘Xiexie,’ some more. I got my sleeping bag out as a base layer against the cold and I had brought a pillowcase of my own. I found the pillow on the top bunk but didn’t like to investigate further.
The full moon out the window. It was a wonderful feeling as the tow kicked in and the carriage began to move, pulled in the wake of the engine. We were off. We chuntered and chattered and clunkered on and on. We were going to Beijing. From Russia to China through Belarus and Mongolia. I was in for the trip of my life. At least, it would be the longest train journey of my life! Six days, one hour and four minutes.
The air got in and, boy, was I woken by some extreme industrial pongs in the middle of the night! Petrol, gas, plastics; all sorts of foul stenches came up from the walls. I got really cold too. (Mainly because I was too dumb to work out where the blankets were.)
The toilet was European-sit-down, metal and grim. I couldn’t work out how to flush it. I kicked a green lever and opened a tap all over my foot. I kicked it off and then noticed the other foot pedal. Actually, I considered the foot-lever thing a good plan considering Goddess Hygienia. Out in the corridor I could see the antique water boiler at the other end of the carriage. I couldn’t see anywhere else to get water.
The coffee from Avocado Cafe kept me alive, alive, oh, so I stared out the window at the big shadows and lights of the station and thought I was lucky. I was safe and well. The door locked with a big chunky metal handle.
During the night we stopped for long periods at a couple of
stations where, through a tinny loudspeaker, a kind of clarion trumpet call
heralded a woman’s shouting instructions. Still no-one else got in my carriage.
I began to hope I might have the place to myself.
I got out my test sachet of arnica and dripped the oil over the clean sheet. Not so clean really and definitely made my mark in the pattern of old stains! (My Fisiocream from Spain had finished and, given this interesting twitch in my arms from constantly altering photos somehow uploading upside-down, I needed a new muscle cream. Back in Moscow I’d gone shopping. The cosmetic lady waved me through to the chemist who pondered the ingredients and bought me a couple of options. One had recognisable calendula flowers on the front, and mint, so we were a quarter of the way to the recipe. I pointed to the hypericum on the ingredient list, thinking perhaps pharmacy training might extend to Latin – the old St John’s wort – but with smiles and extensive, ‘Spasibo,’ in action, in the end, made do with her offering. Smelt like toothpaste. On the way out, cosmetic lady pulled me over into a corner. She pointed at the Weleda range. There was arnica. She gave me three sachets – if only she’d gone there first! That’s the stuff I spilled over the sheet. Smelt nice anyway.)
Awoke very cold. Went for a wee and on my return prodded around above me. Piled on the upper bunk I found a long thin blanket to cover the base of the bed and another, wider, to cover me. I was so glad to have these. Not sure who else was in the carriage. All the doors were shut but it felt quiet, empty and cold. Apart from the constant train movement and groan and hum-bumbles of the engine.
There was, what I took to be, a sizeable air gap over the door. I wasn’t sure who had the key to the door. BUT STOP! I couldn’t be there for almost a week and worry the whole time. I had to give myself over to the power of the moon and my beautiful empty compartment for the foreseeable future. All would be well. My hip sockets existed, firmly pressed against the bunk. Slept, rocked by the irrepressible train.
It was 10:30 am on the train from Hamburg to Berlin when a young chirpy woman’s voice presumably welcomes us to our journey in German, before adding, clearly, ‘Good afternoon’. A loud laugh from the man near me gave notice there were not too many English speakers on the train. She said no more.
There was no ticket inspecting, as compared to Spain, where any intercity train journey is accompanied by a security check and close analysis of tickets at every opportunity. No-one ever checked tix in Hamburg. Does anyone even buy tickets apart from tourists?
As for my carefully reserved seat, there weren’t even any numbers on the walls or the chairs. The man, so kind and genuine, selling me the tic in his comfortable uniform and urging me to make that extra payment of four euros fifty to reserve a seat, said, ‘Hamburg to Berlin is our busiest route. It’s normally full. But, you must wake up in time. If you miss it you must pay again.’ All so jovial and such a big, fat lie!
I didn’t miss the train. Walking to the train station was a joy. It was a beautiful sunny morning in my leafy suburb and the fallen leaves, crisp and crunchy the day before, had already turned to sludge in the soft rain. The glowing autumn colours shone through. Those old trees spoke eloquently of change and time passing. The grey mist enhanced the mystery.
On the train I found my Jess-made sewing kit and fixed my pockets and zips, particularly the wallet pocket zip. Definitely a case of a stitch in time. Could not afford a uniform malfunction in the wallet area.
Arrived safely in my cheerful Happy Bed Hostel in Berlin and thought to seek delicious German fare.
All the world’s cusines are in Berlin!
Wednesday began in Kreuzberg, with the simple idea of getting my ticket printed and doing a tour of Berlin, taking in the Spree Gallery in the afternoon. I figured the ticket might take half an hour. I began at the U station, Hallesches Tor, near my efficient hostel.
I bought a daily ticket which no-one asked to see, ever. I put
it in the machine to get it stamped. Who buys tickets in Germany?
From there I caught the train to Warschauer Strasse station. Then I had to change to the S-train. I asked the only staff member I could find who was hiding in a booth and didn’t want to come out. He didn’t speak any English and the jutting of his whiskery chin made it plain he didn’t like the idea of English. After I indicated my desired destination by jabbing at my map, he pointed to the exit. I came out of the U and looked around the streets for the S. Where was S? I started to feel I was in an ep of Sesame Street. There was considerable building, scaffolding and blocked pathways around me. I was about to cross the street to find a café with a human who might know something when I looked up. A sign!
When I got to the S I could not find a train that went to my
station. It only went to Nölderplatz. You might think this is petty but when
you are trying to organise ongoing travel arrangements these things can get
stressful. If I had made this trip the next day when I wanted to catch the
train to Warsaw, I would have missed it. So the dry run was turning into a
sweaty run. But I took deep breaths. Planning ahead is good.
Back in the corridors of train world, I asked a couple of men in orange high viz and they shrugged. I figured it was better to get close to where I wanted to be and caught the train to Nölderplatz. There seemed to be no ongoing to Lichtenberg. I asked a couple of charming smiling women in high viz orange and they pointed across the suburb and waved and danced the information that I could catch a bus two streets over. Schliststrasse? Schillerstrass? So I wandered out of the station, into a nice park, saw a bus stop that did not list Lichtenberg and wandered two more streets, past a skateboard park with no graffiti and a man in his fifties practicing his skate moves in his dark blue raincoat. The yellow leaves made sharp contrast with the grey concrete curves.
I saw a promising orange bus. It did not list my name so I
went to the other side, just missing another. Then I returned to ask a oncoming
driver of the first side. He pointed at the other side. Why did I cross the
road? To make sure I was facing the right direction. Finally a bus arrived. I
asked for my station. He shook his head, staring ahead. Oh, dear. But then, in
the nick of time, he remembered! Yes! Get on, get on, so I did.
The couple in front of me looked worried and turned back to
examine me. Lichtenberg, they muttered to each other and shook their heads. I
had no-where else to be but time was ticking on. I would get somewhere. I
looked out of the window at the grey day. The blocks of flats were either grey
or cream or off-white or taupe or beige and the paint was flaking but the parks
were always present with their glowing gold and orange tints growing bolder
through the greenery. People in the streets wore olive green, brown, black and
We arrived at a large carpark with a small bike-stand array (why are there so many cars in Berlin?) and there was Lichtenberg station.
It was quiet. Shops were shut. Informative signs in German guarded the stairwell. I found my ticket machine, chose the Union Jack and looked for a pre-paid ticket option. I patted and tapped all around the choices open to me. I couldn’t find it. Luckily, I was standing right next to the information desk. I went to stand in the queue stretching out into the hallway. There seemed to be an invisible forcefield around the workers’ counter. Only one person could fit into the shop in this queue. At least two metres separated our first contender from the desk. Purposeful German chatter filled the air as the two assistants organised tickets and directed people. I took deep breaths.
I got the old guy with a white beard. I apologised for speaking only English and he stood up, as if to go, and on second thoughts towered over the printed information I offered him. English? What is English? Reluctantly, quickly, he read my journey details and told me to go to platform 16. I indicated no, not now, tomorrow. And tried to explain I needed to print the ticket. He shouted, ‘Machine! Machine!’ and pointed with vigour at the place from whence I’d come. I said, ‘But I can’t … ‘ He said, ‘Machine!’ and turned to go.
He swung back to look at the next person in the queue. You can bet I was saying Bitte and Danke all I could but, really, this guy was working in the information desk? In Berlin? In an international station? Are all their patrons German? I went to look at platform 16. At least there were no barriers across it. I took deep breaths and headed to the WC for extra calming. A little queue in front of the shut doors looked worried and held money and one guy at the front had even managed to print a ticket. But it was closed. A large woman wearing a floral scarf around her neck and a taupe jacket stretched across her front marched to the machine and talked to the young man commandingly. Perhaps he had broken it? No? That was that. She had enough and left. The WC, the entire station, was not functional today.
Considering my options I thought the best thing to do was return to a place where I had once found kindness so I returned to the air and went to find U. Finally, worked out how to get to Alexanderplatz on my path to return to Berlin Hbf (of which I had fond memories). Alexanderplatz is where that big tall landmark tower is.
On my way to find the S I saw an information booth and stood in a queue there. After a while the lovely smiling woman showed me a photo-card of the correct options in the machine. You have to choose ‘All Offers’ and ‘Bahnof tickets’ and then you are given a choice to put in your number or voucher. Job done. It had taken me nearly two and a half hours to print my ticket.
There were a lot of people sleeping rough, especially around the train stations.
I won’t go into the struggle to find a café, although there was one, my decision to head towards the Brandenburg Gate to take a tour regardless of lagging vim and joyfully, on the way, by chance, finding a brand new café called ‘Beets and Roots’ where they really do treat you like a rock star (my name was Bradley Cooper) and the food is delicious. I sat outside in the silvery sun and had an ongoing discussion with three kamikaze wasps. I believe all three survived in the end. Greedy things.
The Brandenburg Gate was familiar from much film and tv. The lady with the chariot and prancing steeds was apparently once called ‘Peace’ but after Napoleon stole her away to the Louvre and the Prussian return, she is now known as ‘Victory’ and carries the German Eagle to show her people fresh resolve. (How did Napoleon and indeed, the Prussian victors, get her on and off the gate? Were there cranes?) It memorialises war, victory and ownership.
My guide was called Susan Grouchy. She had a masters in archaeology and had returned to uni to study memorials. Berlin is the obvious place for such an endeavour. She was not originally from Berlin but urged us to find not only physical memorials but people who lived here. They would be sure to have some interesting stories. What do they remember?
As well as the roads steeped in history, from 1250 onwards, there was a group of vibrant red Extinction Rebellion protestors gathering, silently swaying, palms skywards, flags fluttering, white faces grim, making a bold statement against the grey imposing structures around them.
Can such a people-based movement rise up once more in this city of peaceful protest? When the Berlin Wall came down thirty years before hundreds of thousands of suppressed people took to the streets to come and see for themselves if the travel restrictions had been lifted? And the guards did not open fire. There were not enough bullets to shoot everyone and the time had come for the German people to come together again. The walls came down.
Now the fight is not so tangible. You cannot see climate change. You cannot smash it or break rocks from it. You cannot paint it with colourful visual poetry. Is the time right for people to see a change in how corporations use fossil fuels? Can we shoot the typhoon headed for Japan?
Susan took us to the great and sombre grey block Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are other memorials to different minority groups singled out for extinction elsewhere but this Jewish memorial is imposing, belittling, awe-inspiring. I can see how politicians might feel when they take a break from the nearby Reichstag, with its glass dome to symbolise transparency, and visit this neighbour. You must interact with it. You must consider the shapes and individuals and be overwhelmed by the height of it. Lost cities. Lost dreams.
Our guide, as student of memorials, encouraged us to consider these effects. She explained what the artist Peter Eisenman stated; that it was designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and not stated; that any numbers or shapes were symbolic in any way, in his presentation to the city.
In the end each individual’s response is personal and how I wish everyone in the world in power had to come to this place to consider their responsibilities. People making, negotiating and dealing in missiles, arms of any kind and tanks with a view to harm and destruction should come to this place. The humans on the UN Security Council, they should come here.
Marching along the remains of the wall, so weak and thin, she told us of Amplemann and obeying the pedestrian signs, or else.
She took us to the car park over the bunker where Hitler ended his life. She showed us the work-places of Goebbels and Himmler. The great grey sideways skyscraper where the Lufftwaffe was based, now the taxation office. She took us to the cheery tourist ridden Checkpoint Charlie, overlooked by KFC and Macdonalds and other brazen honeypots. She showed us the cobbled reminder of the wall but she did not point out the small brass squares, brightly (recently) polished that we walked past.
The German and French Cathedrals (copies rebuilt by the East Germans to show what Berlin used to look like) stand on opposite sides of the Konzerthaus. Nice they are brought together by music.
And the Konzerthaus had a red carpet pleated up the tall stairs to the grand entry. Exciting events during the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down.
All is building, barriers, perhaps in preparation for a thirty-years party – or the Festival of Lights – but many buildings under construction or renovation and of course, the S-train is to be improved. About time. There is surely room to improve the signage! Many police officers and cars in evidence – if it was for the Extinction Rebellion they were over-prepared. The people had not come to the streets in any great number. Why not?
Never made it to Spree but my taxi driver in the morning was a Berliner. He spoke English extremely well, having grown up in the West. He’d visited Australia when he was a kid. He said he feared he was a rare oddity in this international city. I assured him there were plenty of old white German men who did not wish to be part of the tourist flood, most of them working for train stations.
He remembered when the wall came down. He was twenty and ready to party. He hated David Hasselhof for stealing the moment. He thought Paul Weller should have come. He was still waiting for Paul Weller.
Walls come tumbling down
You don’t have to take this crap You don’t have to sit back and relax You can actually try changing it I know we’ve always been taught to rely
Upon those in authority But you never know until you try How things just might be If we came together so strongly
Are you gonna try to make this work Or spend your days down in the dirt You see things can change Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down
Governments crack and systems fall ‘Cause unity is powerful Lights go out walls come tumbling down
The competition is a color TV We’re on still pause with the video machine That keep you slave to the H.P.
Until the unity is threatened by Those who have and who have not Those who are with and those who are without And dangle jobs like a donkey’s carrot Until you don’t know where you are
Are you gonna realize The class war’s real and not mythologized And like Jericho you see walls can come tumbling down
Are you gonna be threatened by The public enemies number ten Those who play the power game They take the profits you take the blame When they tell you there’s no rise in pay
Are you gonna try an’ make this work Or spend your days down in the dirt You see things can change Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down
Speaking to another young Berliner, she said, ‘It is a city to make memories in.’
Another of the questions Susan asked us to consider was, ‘Why are so many Berliners DJs?’
I was sitting next to a young fellow on the train on my way to Warsaw. He was editing some music on his computer – listening intently to his headphones. Maybe I’ll ask him.