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.
Find Stage One of this travel saga or, if you’re brand new and want to read about the whys and wherefores in planning this trip, here’s Part I.
The Moscow Metro is similar to other metros in my experience. You buy a ticket. (There’s often an English speaking window at the station.) You wave the ticket at a machine. You find your line. You get on the train. You get off and change to the next line. You get off at your stop. You find your way to the surface, point in the right direction and walk towards your destination.
BUT! Moscow Metro IS different! The stations are the People’s Palaces! They are GORGEOUS!
Advertising came along with the World Cup. The video screens were put into each train so that it would be possible to see every game even if you were commuting. In fact, you could sit in the warm trains and watch if you wanted. Now there are ads. And funny cat videos. And screens are appearing in the middle of the platforms in the People’s Palaces.
The station names were unfamiliar and written in a different alphabet. I was deeply grateful that underneath the Cyrillic the familiar (to me) Latin alphabet spelled out those words or I do not think I could have found my way to my hostel. The streets were quiet as I walked the 10 minute stroll, houses and buildings set back from the road. Little traffic. Autumn leaves clinging on. People in warm coats, scarves and gloves. October. It was nearly winter. Nearly dusk. Mid-afternoon.
Strawberry Duck was a lovely building. Like the city I had experienced so far from the Metro, and the little park on the way, it was quiet and orderly. The interior designers had been given free rein and the flavour was elegant, quirky Prado.
Deep blue walls transitioned down the long hallways into mulberry, then into a kind of mustard, giving an impression of opulence and soft dignity. The art pieces scattered around were light-hearted, an origami duck lampshade, a collection of watercolours showing inviting places to sit with your friends perhaps and many prints and paintings featuring ducks in amusing poses.
Downstairs, the kitchen and common areas were hard-hit-back designer brick inlaid with cool shapes and atmospheric dim lighting.
As well as the deep colours throughout there were wallpapers of bold florals that matched the decorative noveau splashbacks in the bathrooms. You could pay for 45 minutes of private bathroom but the shared spaces were cleaned regularly – in fact there was no time when I didn’t see a cleaner somewhere nearby. The reception staff were very kind to me – the oldest woman they’d seen in Strawberry Duck ever, I imagine! Most of the girls in my shared room were young and, as I went to bed, they fussed over their make-up and outfits preparing for a night on the town. The beds were curtained off with a deep green faux velvet, adding to the quiet style. Everyone had a locker but many of the girls seemed to be between houses, bringing suitcases, hangers and boxes of clothes. There was a lot of packing, repacking and some emotional phone calls going on. But quietly. Real owl and sparrow divide. Definitely in the sparrow tribe, me. Though, solitary. Just an unidentified LBB, then.
Thought I was lost for a moment. I walked around their block, not making sense of the map and their street not coming up on maps.me. I asked one lady who pointed me off in the wrong direction (we were actually just near the building) and another who steered me correctly with lots of words but we nodded and smiled and I said, ‘Spasibo’ a lot. Another young woman looked at my crumpled piece of map and, fearing I wanted money, I suppose, cut me dead and steered away. Made me think how I have treated people in need in the past.
Lena and the two girls gave me my ticket with a small ceremony. ‘Do not bend the ticket!’ And they let me charge my phone. I would not bend the ticket.
Back to a little cafe near my hostel
and a walk around the pond.
There were beggars, people with their hands out in the shopping strip and in the tourist area, just by Resurrection Gate. This is modern Russia. I gave some coins to a man with no feet and there was a strange circular place like a coin fountain, where if you threw money over yourself, presumably depending on where it landed, you would get the wish of your dreams. A random man picked up some of the coins with a collecting stick. He wore no badge of accreditation. Could just have been his turn.
On our walking tour we heard the story of a young woman who did just that, and as she stood and contemplated her wish, a young man, bearing an armload of long-stemmed red roses raced to kneel before her and propose. ‘Of course,’ said the guide. ‘We can only hope she knew him beforehand.’
Our lovely Free Tour of Moscow guide, Iryna, happened to be late. I spotted her preparation at the bus stop in front of the meeting place, the sculpture of the two fellows who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. She put on her red scarf and microphone and bouncy stage presence. Then made an entrance as she swept up the steps and called us all together into a group with such merriment she sounded like she was twelve, giving an Eisteddfod speech. She was well into it by the time her assistants arrived with the red umbrella. Perhaps she was on edge because everyone had chosen to be late that day?
I found it difficult to engage for some reason. It might have been my state of mind, the tone of her voice or even the subject. Russian history in a nutshell was incredibly hard to digest; overwhelming and unsatisfying. I guess it was me. We went up to see a beautiful swirl of green, white and red old church that is usually unavailable for tourist viewing. But today the street was open.
This site has been haggled over ever since Stalin wanted to build the Eighth Sister there. (Guess he settled for Warsaw?) Now, after years of debate, it is a place for the people, entertainment, museums and cafes.
We walked through the roof garden to the observation bridge that is not a bridge. It is a lookout, a hang out, a stretch over the River Moscow that does not go to the other side.
Irena told us of the Romanoff Museum and the Moscow History Museum side by side in the little valley and assured us a visit to either of these small places would be very rewarding. Next time. There is a LOT to see in Moscow.
Once in Red Square, the tourist area felt unreal and arranged so conveniently it was difficult to take seriously. I began to feel I was in a theme park or a film set. It’s possible I have been a tourist too long.
The square itself was packing up what had been a gastronomic festival, many little stalls and bright pot plants were folded with a bang and pushed away towards trucks. Beside the super shopping centre full of high level labels is a street already decked with sparkling Christmas twinkles, getting ready for the winter markets I suppose.
Stalin was removed from Lenin’s mausoleum. There’s now a bust nearby. Our guide made a couple of daring remarks about Stalin that would have had her arrested for making them and us arrested for hearing them. She showed us the unbalanced front of the Four Season’s Hotel, the architect apparently too frightened to check which design Stalin had signed off on. Now either side of the building is noticeably different. (But you can’t really tell from the photo below!)
She added the tale that when the Metro Engineers met with Stalin to discuss the different options the lines would take he left a coffee stain on the map. Which is why there is a brown circular line.
It may be a joke but the terror he inculcated was certainly real. They say not to speak about Stalin to a Russian for you do not know what their family stories may be. That sounds like Franco in Spain. At least there has been a reckoning with Stalin – Moscow has been de-Stalinised.
Red Square is surrounded by history and story and I found it really is overwhelming to be there.
I was keen to join the Metro tour. As a train afficionada – or at least a fan of tågskryt – I felt my journey onward should be my focus rather than history. We all had receivers with ear pieces which meant our guide could speak quietly and keep us all connected without having to wave flags or chickens on a stick. Of we went, down into the metro system to hop on and hop off the trains.
Alex showed us photos of some of the murals that used to include Stalin. The big Mother Russia with a plea for peace around the world is impossible to imagine with Stalin up in the middle of that, where the big MUP is now, don’t you agree?
The Moscow Metro was one of the last to be built in a major city. Mainly, according to Alex, because the people were religious and superstitious. Why would you choose to dig down closer to the devil? Finally, there was a dramatic day of gridlock in the city. No horse, tram or car could move so it was decided to build the People’s Palaces. Read this excellent blog post for more information.
The tunnels were built just in time for WWII. Each station was used as a bunker and each had a different purpose. The first one Alex showed us, Bibliotecka Lenina, was used as a library. He showed us pictures of people sitting at desks, studying or attempting to continue with their work while the bombing raged overhead. The economy does not stop with war.
Revolution Square Station features sculptures notable for their shiny patches. Each group of sculpture was repeated four times across the platforms. There was the family, the sports people, the man with the dog – and each one had a part to rub to bring good luck – the dog particularly. Before I heard this I carefully patted the mother’s shiny shoe. This would bring either love or heal a broken heart. Perfect.
Apparently when sitting exams, students must exit their train, pat each of the four dogs over the platforms and enter the train going the other way and they will pass their exams. For sure. As we admired and rubbed our bits, the commuters definitely did reach out and pat the dog or rub the golden rooster, everyone smiling as they did so. It was not that they were superstitious! They did it for fun, for habit and maybe … Alex pointed out it paid to be careful which bits you rub. Some might bring you bad luck. Not superstitious at all, then.
I am sure these magnificent spaces must influence regular commuters. I loved the peace and tranquility there. Apparently buskers have to undergo a strict audition process. Once granted space, they have that time to themselves. There is no competition setting up amplifiers nearby and they are unmolested in their performance. Is that the best way for cut-and-thrust, the best will rise above, life-hurry-scurry and bustle? Or does it show respect for the artist’s value?
We finished the tour near the theatre district. Unmissable. The Bolshoi.
I found it hard to believe I was in Moscow! And next, on to Beijing. Wow. That idea felt fabulous and awe-inspiring. It felt like I’d entered the portal of hard-drug travel. Went through the gate in Warsaw, I reckon. Comfort zone got a bit smaller. Went back to hostel. Time to get organised.
Tatiana, my Warsaw-Moscow train companion, WhatsApped me to ask what else I intended to see in Moscow. I told her I’d done the walking tour and the Metro looksee and added I didn’t really feel the urge to run around and see everything. She asked, then what was the point of my visit? I said, ‘To get to the other side’. My main aim was to stay calm, make everything as easy as possible for myself and get to the train on time. Moscow was the first place where I hadn’t managed to find a post office, nor post cards. Signage outside shops was indistinct. I think it would probably be worth a few language and cyrillic lessons before visiting next time. But for two days sight-seeing? I made do.
I did a load of washing, fed myself and aimed to finish two blog posts before I left the land of wifi. Poor young lady from Korea, just arrived and bleary lonely and tired, wanted to chat. Turned out she had recently been to Taichung, one of my impending destinations. She showed me her photos where she looked happy and alert. She did not seem happy now. I said I was very sorry but I really had to push on with my work. She listlessly turned away but kept drifting around. I typed, uploaded and corrected as fast as I could. Sorry for the mistakes that got by!
I managed to extend my hostel stay by half a day. My train left at 23:55. I could stay in my room, have the use of all the facilities (shower, wifi) until 21:00 at which point I packed up and went to reception. I took some time to observe the beautiful full moon. How auspicious was that? Dasha remembered to give me the all-important form to show the police where I had been staying. And I remembered to get her to print me the little hand-drawn map of my hotel in Beijing. She then wrote out her phone number and email and invited me to visit her and her family in Saint Petersburg! What a darling. We exchanged Instagrams so I hope to see her in that platform. Once I leave China, of course.
Luckily, the Avocado Café, just around the corner, was open to 23:00. Back I went for poppy seed rolls and mango coco icecream with a double espresso to keep me on my toes. I gazed happily at the pretty coloured lights changing over the flat Clean Pond before heaving up the packs and strolling ten minutes up to the number one metro line, Chistye Prudy, three stops to Komsomolskaya, the nearest to Yaraslavsky Train Station.
It was almost too easy. I congratulated myself on clever hostel booking.
Quite a few folk in the waiting area. I surreptitiously interviewed them in my mind. Was she going to China? Would I have to share a compartment with him? Did she look like an intrepid traveller? As soon as my platform number was announced, I left the stinky banana on a chair and whisked off to platform three and Pekin!
First impressions. Cold. Coal dust. I’m the first one in my carriage. The beginning of six days, one hour and four minutes on the train.
Once I established my travel would be by train and sea, I turned, with some trepidation, to The Man in Seat 61. The Man lists each step of the travel.
I hasten to add the trepidation was not due to any doubt about his veracity and, in fact, I wrote him an email thanking him for making even imagining this journey possible. He wrote back, saying, ‘Enjoy your trip!’ I felt a long way away from actual travel. I didn’t even have a ticket or a visa or immunisations or those … unknown unknowns … like a destination.
First things first. Following his suggestions, I was almost
certain I would be travelling from Singapore to Australia by freighter ship.
These ships are cargo carriers; they’re already going this way, there’s no song
and dance, it’s a working transporter. They take few passengers and those
passengers are left to themselves, pretty much. Sounded ideal. The carbon is
already spent before I got involved. I would just hitch a ride. (For something
like $4,000 Australian dollars).
To begin, The Man advises getting in touch with these lovely
Reading through these websites reassured me that freighter
travel was safe, comfortable and within my physical capabilities. I sent emails
to all concerned and within a week had four quotes from Singapore to Australia.
They were all within much of a muchness but there were certain differences. It will depend on what you want to do and where you want to go as to what you choose. Yes indeed. Just where did I want to go in Australia? Fremantle? Adelaide? The next stop, surprisingly, was Sydney. Then the ships seem to loop back to Melbourne after that.
The Man in Seat 61 blithely recommends travel through several Asian countries to arrive in Singapore. So many different languages, borders and currencies – I imagined basic survival was going to be taxing – especially as a vegan!
I found it difficult to visualise where I would be going. I needed support. I went to the library.
Then I called in to international company, STA travel, a travel agency that helped me plan my initial Gap Year – three and a half years ago in Australia. Way back then I booked a flight from Melbourne to Madrid via Hong Kong (to revisit my childhood). A simple year away in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago and working in a school in Catalyna evolved over time, not only because I was reluctant to return south by air, but also because after the Camino I decided to develop a writing project. This project eventually needed research across France, England and Belgium. So much travel, so little time! The Gap Year stretched and stretched …
And then, so did the novel! But that’s another story …
Back to the freighter cruises.
STA travel could offer me a package deal on the TransMongolian (even suitable for old people such as myself) which would take all the worry out of planning and give me some expensive friends to play with along the way. Did I mention my budget?
The kind representative proffered the fat, glossy brochures
of both European and Asian holidays – which gave me a plan. Taking them both, I
proceeded to the nearest large bookshop and bought a map of the world. I pinned
it to my uni-accomodation wall and proceeded to chop up the glossy brochures,
liberating pictures of landmarks and cities the train would visit on the
TransMongolian Express! Office-craft with destination in mind.
Starting at the UK, I pondered how best to get to Moscow. I loved the Eurostar and I had travelled by ferry between Dover and Calais and also between Santander and Plymouth. Humming and haaaing and using the ecosia search engine often, I saw it was time for a new ferry. This time from Harwich (pronounced ‘Arrrich because it’s England) to Hook of Holland. I’d already visited Amsterdam, time for Rotterdam.
Three years ago I journeyed with a Eurail pass to many of the bigger cities, such as Paris and Munich. Now I particularly wanted to visit Hamburg – on the Camino I had met many argumentative people who told me that Hamburg was the most beautiful city in the world. Really? I was nonplussed. And what about Sydney harbour? You can’t tell me a little old German town can beat the home of the Eora people? Really? THE Harbour Bridge? That Opera House? Oh, they insisted, it could. What of the glory of the two rivers, the artificial lakes, the churches … I wanted to go to Hamburg and see this magnificence for myself. Sticking up more little signs I added Berlin and then Warsaw. There was a nice direct line beginning to happen. Straight ahead to Moscow and just under a week to Beijing. Simple. Then I had to get to Singapore.
Soon I had a neatly-labelled wall of the world. I could see for myself where I was going. It made a big difference to my thinking. No longer a world away, here were colourful representations of these places right in front of me. I examined the route with interest. Only, as I stared at the journey, it began to look very complicated. I did not want to be a tourist. I wanted to be a commuter.
I watched YouTube videos of the train journey to China and, thence, most particularly, the border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia. What a shemozzle. It sounds as if a new trainline has now cleared that particular blockage but it did cause me more than one second or third thought. Thailand. Vietnam.
She thought it nothing to cross half the planet by train. ‘It’s easy,’ she said.
Another intrepid Australian woman, Narelle, told me, if in doubt, one should just pretend to be invincible. ‘And you will be.’ She reminded me of my typing teacher from the early 80s in Sydney. She was a small elderly lady with terribly died hair. One day as she attempted to straighten my paper or point out some error in my typing ways (there were many) I noticed the tattooed numbers on her arm. I paid attention to her. She told me to sit up straight, hold my wrists correctly and pretend to be a typist. I was an acting student at the time and she thought I should make the most of this experience by ‘acting like an efficient secretary’. It would probably work. In these mindful days she would probably say, ‘Be the person you want to be.’ I sat up straight.
Okay. I’m an efficient secretary and an invincible traveller. If I can walk across Spain then I can sit on my bum in a train for a few days!
Yet, I was not sure I wanted to go to Cambodia without seeing Ankor Watt or the Bayon Temple and I did not want to buzz through Thailand without exploring … aaaaaaah the world is so BIG! There’s so much to see. Budget. Time.
Somehow the messages I was getting from the freighters became mixed up as I dithered over routes and final destinations. I started to see that if I really wanted to be in New Zealand in January what was I doing going to Sydney or Fremantle? There were curls and twists in the different itineraries. Every day at sea gets more expensive. I began to imagine landing in Fremantle and catching the Indian-Pacific train across the Nullabor to visit my sister in Adelaide. That would add a mere twelve hundred dollars to the budget. But how cool would it be …
I got more and more confused until I contacted the company
that most of the agents seemed to be quoting about directly.
I would no longer be travelling UK to Australia via Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore. I would be going straight from China. And I would be travelling to New Zealand.
I had a plan. I paid the deposit. I filled in the forms.
I just needed to organise a medical certificate. Pop in and see a doctor.
I couldn’t get past the guardians of the various reception areas. Or email enquiry forms.
‘Not in this medical centre.’ ‘We don’t do that here.’ ‘Our doctors don’t do certificates.’ ‘Not here, sorry.’
I couldn’t even pay for it. One surgery gave me the NHS forms to fill out, then when I returned them, realised I was only a short term visitor and gave me the short form. She took it, smiling and nodding. The next day I popped back in to hear her say, ‘The doctors are not prepared to fill in the certificate,’ as she handed me back my carefully filled out NHS forms. She would not register me in this surgery.
How was I going to be able to see a doctor in Brighton?
I could not proceed with my ticket purchase until I had that certificate. I tried writing to my Australian family doctor (they do not use email) with no reply. Long shot. After all, I had not seen them in over three and a half years.
Access to the vessel is dizzying [préciser la hauteur pour les grands navires], the passenger shall be able to climb the access gangway with luggages on his/her own.]
Some passages in a container vessel are narrow or hard to access. It is essential to ensure the passenger has full mobility. The passenger may have to promptly don an immersion suit if need be.
If the passenger is on regular medication, the latter shall bring on board medication in sufficient quantity for the length of the journey increased by fifteen days taking in account the uncertainties of the sea passage such as weather conditions, maritime accident, deviation.