In the two days between buying a ticket at a remote Russian Railways office in Moscow's Belorusskaya station and boarding the 7-day/6-night train to Beijing this winter, I received troubling advice. A Russian acquaintance, who said he thought the trip sounded fine when I asked him months before, nearly dropped his cup of tea when I mentioned I had my ticket. "You're actually going?" he said. "You are crazy!" A friend of a friend said she had thought it was a bad idea from the beginning. I must ally myself with the train attendants, grandmotherly types who understand what it means to be a woman traveling alone, she said. Also, I should sleep on my boots: somebody's mother had had hers stolen. It's not the thieves, said someone else, it's the drunken men you have to watch out for.
By the time Tuesday night rolled around, I was having doubts, which could explain how I managed to arrive at Moscow's Komsomolskaya station approximately six minutes before my 9: 35 p.m. train left. It was the first week of February, and the station's outdoor platforms were covered in a thin layer of ice and snow; in the darkness, men in fur hats stood in clusters. "Run!" shouted my friend Stefan, who had come to see me off.
As the train started moving, I made my way down the dimly-lit hallway with Oriental-patterned carpet, through a crowd of jocular young men drinking at the end of the hall, where I forced open a metal door. The train swayed, and I caught the door for balance. Between cars, snow caught in the train's metal hinges and I could see the tracks running by below. The train shuddered and my second thoughts about the trip did not disappear as the floor of the coupling car heaved up and down underfoot. But when I stepped out of the next dark connecting section into a brightly-lit car with old-fashioned paneled walls and inviting, golden yellow curtains and tablecloths, things began to change. A man in a white shirt smiled at me. He lifted his hands. "Welcome," he said. "You are hungry, please. I invite you to come here."
A wonderfully minimal routine takes hold on the 4,735 mile Trans-Siberian journey and moving through the train is one of the major daily activities. Each time, it felt like an adventure. After the Russian restaurant came the Chinese cars, and traversing this coupling was like crossing a border. The train was running during the Lunar New Year, and simple, blue and gray cars hung with red paper printed with gold good luck characters replaced the frilled curtains and faded opulence of the Russian cars. The first class Chinese cabins, occupied by British, Scandinavian and Australian tourists, as well as a Mongolian mother and daughter going home for the New Year, had a faded opulence of their own, paneled floor- to- ceiling in faux rosewood, with blue carpets. My 2nd class car, near the very front of the train, was clean and simple. A friendly attendant handed me clean sheets and a blanket, and, when I asked, a mug for hot water from the 24-hour samovar at the end of each car. Alone in a 4-bed cabin, I settled in for the night.
At breakfast, Alexander, the man in the white shirt in charge of the restaurant car, recited the menu for the next four days: "Meat and potatoes, chicken and potatoes, or sausage and egg," all of which turned out to be surprisingly good. I drank three very strong instant coffees, and met Peter, a 24 year-old medical school graduate from England on his way to a stint in a hospital in Beijing. Neil and Richard, both engineers who work with the London Underground, came in for breakfast and struck up a conversation.
"That's a dodgy set of points," said Neil, as the train rattled over the tracks. He drew a diagram of track switches. "Resulting in bone-shaking turbulence."
"I rather like that shaking," said Peter.
"And that," said Richard, as the train's rattling turned into a kind of rhythmic shudder. "Is called 'cyclic top'—when the natural resonance of the train corresponds to the natural resonance of the track."
For four days, all we saw were snow and trees. When we stopped, open-bed trucks of coal made their way along the train, fue ling the stove fires at the end of each car that provided heat for the cabins. Sometimes, as we moved through the snowy landscape, electric poles were the only sign of civilization; more often there were rooftops in the distance, or wooden houses with gingerbread shutters just along the tracks. There was a smell of coal fire, and invisible soot turned our hands gray. In the Chinese cars, the attendants, all men, cooked elaborate meals using only the coal fire and the hot water from the samovar.
A small number of things took up entire days: reading, making instant soup, napping, disembarking for 10 minutes at one of the increasingly cold stops, walking to the restaurant car.