A World on Rails

A journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway offers inspiring sights, from snowscapes to wildlife

trans-siberian railway
trans-siberian railway Corbis

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.

In Mongolia on the fifth morning, we had a new dining car, on the other side of several unfamiliar cars. Laquered wooden carvings of antelopes, rams, goats, pelicans, mountains, clouds and flowers covered the walls. Wooden dragons with dog faces held up each table; bronze dragons stared down at us from the walls. A 'horse head violin' with three strings hung on the wall. "It's beautiful," I said to the waiter. He shrugged. "It's Mongolia." Even nicer was how clean the windows were: I spent the day eating dumplings and watching the Gobi desert go by. Peter came in and we counted camels, antelope, yak, bison, and giant vultures. Round yurts spotted the desert sand, under the sun; only when you looked closer did you see the snow and realize how cold it must be.

We reached the Chinese border that night, our last. Huge red lanterns swung from the station's entrance in an icy wind, and “Fur Elise'”played from the station's loudspeakers. In the border town for a restaurant meal while they changed the trains, it felt strange to be on solid ground.

The final morning of the trip, I woke up to a brown hillscape, from which brown brick villages emerged, almost organically. The red banners and lanterns of Lunar New Year added the only color. This landscape gave way to industrial towns and huge coal plants, where trucks kicked up dark gray dust. Red lanterns marked the landscape everywhere, swaying in the wind.

After  a delicious lunch in the unadorned new Chinese restaurant car, it was finally time to pack up. I stripped the sheets, returned the mug to the attendant, and got some final last minute advice about navigating China without speaking the language . Then I sat back and watched the dilapidated factories go by outside my window. Beijing—and thus the end of the trip—was approaching. But I had one thing to comfort me: I would have to take the train again, because I slept through Lake Baikal.

The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a fantastic source of information about this trip. http://www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm

Tickets can be purchased directly from any Moscow train station; at 9,100 rubles for a bed in a 2nd class cabin with four berths or 13,074 rubles for 1st class berth in a cabin with 2 beds, this is the cheapest option.

Bring a towel as you can take sponge baths if you add hot water from the samovar to the ice cold water in the bathroom sink. The 1st class cabins have shared showers.

Tea bags and instant soup are good to have; however you can buy these at the stations during stops.