Steppe by Steppe
I’m on a train coasting over the Siberian steppe in the middle of the night, surrounded by drunken members of the Russian army and things have just got a bit complicated. Lieutenant Dmitri, baby faced and sweating profusely, mimes stabbing a Georgian as what seems like the entire Russian army crams into our tiny compartment, bearing vodka, cliché busting all the way.
My two travelling companions, old and tested friends, and I boarded the train two days before in Moscow Yaroslav station.
Nothing could prepare us for our first sight of a Trans Siberian train. Striped red, blue and white we were delighted with its quaintness. More grumpy train assistants, provenistas, stumped up the train handing out sheets, and samovars sat squatly at the end of each carriage, full of hot water.
Moscow had slightly underwhelmed us, Russia veterans, the smell of petrol and cold assailing us as we got off the plane, and grumpy cafe and hostel owners at every turn. We got up early the next morning to pay our respects to Lenin, dropping down marble hallways past furious guards to gawp at Lenin’s glowing body, put on display in 1924 as an idol for the bereaved Russian nation. Red Square and St Basil’s impressed, but we were most taken by the food at the appropriately named Propaganda, a bar-cum-club that served delicious Russian-influenced food into the night, accompanied by large bottles of Baltica.
We lived on dried noodles for the next few days, loath to experiment with the food we saw on sale at each stop; whole dried fishes and bottles of unidentified liquid in re-used plastic bottles.
Now, on the train, our bombardment by the army came quite by chance. Sam wandered off down the corridor and returned with a face full of suppressed glee. The crowd of Russian army men who got on at the last stop pounced on him and followed him, appearing over his shoulder waving bottles of moonshine called ‘Sem’. Much revelry commenced, as Russian soldiers played ‘what if God was one of us’ on a not-quite-a-smart-phone, and toasted us in dubious alcohol. Getting rid of them at three in the morning was difficult, to say the least, and they carried on ‘reveling’, and trying to get us to join in, until long into the next day.
The train arrives two full days later at Irkutsk, a town 2600 miles from Moscow. It’s a strange little place, built on the permafrost as a trading post; for years gold, diamonds, and furs came in from nearby China. After the Decembrist revolt, exiles starting coming, banishmed to Siberia. It was one of the bleakest places in Russia when condemned men were one to every two locals. These days, it’s sunny and cold, full of wooden clapperboard houses, with a definite Swiss aura, except for the billboards saying ‘Putin, our leader!’ A common stopping place for Trans-Siberian travellers; our hostel is full of them, going in either direction, exchanging stories of the rail. Our band of three, after the timezone roulette of the last three days, pass out on mattresses on the floor and sleep for hours.
Later on, we wander around, bewildered at the distance travelled and the familiarity of the architecture. With affected cosmopolitan boredom, we opt not to trek out to Lake Baikal in preference for a few more days spent in bed.
Keen for the shock of the new, we get the Ulan Bator train, which is full of Mongolian traders hawking their wares. They go up and down the train, carrying boxes and bags, until it is stuffed full to capacity. At the border, everything disappears, and mischievous tradesmen sit innocently on the fold-out beds and smile at customs officials. It’s been hidden behind samovars and under the floorboards, and the usually haughty provenistas collude joyously.
A mere day later, we arrive in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, where we finally get our first taste of the ‘Orient’, as imagined from afar. The Bogd Khan’s palace and the Gadan Monastery with a huge golden Buddha are mind blowing for eyes glutted with Russian architecture. The Palace is decaying, dusty and little visited, but its past magnificence is still pretty obvious. A statue of Genghis Khan, as wide as it is tall, in the main square makes us realise how far we are from home, where he is regarded as a bloodthirsty tyrant. Reindeer meat is in all the restaurants, and pavements are non-existent.
Heading off into the countryside in a tiny ford focus accompanied by an extremely laconic guide is when Mongolia really starts to get good. The yellow-ish, barren landscape stretches out, interrupted here and there by squatting gers; traditional nomadic tents that many Mongolians still live in. One of these is our bed for the night, so we sit by the fire and see more stars than seemed possible in our narrow suburban gardens back at home.
After a night being lulled to sleep in the womblike atmosphere of the tiny sleeping ger, we are woken up with a jolt by news that we’re off horse riding, a skill neither of us have perfected. It’s with some trepidation that we set out on our steeds, kept safe only by a small boy, who sings and occasionally pokes our horses, provoking them into a gallop. It is one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, and I gain newfound respect for every jockey I’ve ever seen riding a horse as if born doing it. The views, when I’ve got time to look up from the back of my horse’s neck, are wonderful.
We only manage three days in Mongolia, getting on a swanky Chinese train heading to Beijing. In the hotel-quality restaurant car we discover that Vikram doesn’t know how to use chopsticks, much to our (and other Chinese passengers) hilarity. Slightly jaded by this time, our journey is enlivened by our ‘mystery guest’ – the fourth person in the compartment – who turns out to be an articulate and polite Swiss man named Gil, who’s life ambition has been to go to China. As the train draws closer, his excitement infects us, especially as the scenery gets more and more irresistibly ‘oriental’, as we pass out of the Gobi desert and into mountainous China.
We bundle off the last train regretful that the Trans-Mongolian experience is over. Pretty much our first sight in China is the cramped and frenetic hutong of ‘old Beijing’, where a man dressed in a white hanfu shouts about his Peking duck, vendors play hackeesack with tourists and tea shops beckon with a hint of the oriental we expected to find here.
After 3618 miles, five days on a train and uncountable pots of dried noodles, we have finally arrived in China, and that whole country spreads out before us.