By Michelle Christianson
What is more exciting than getting ready to board a train? The crowds, the high ceilings of the train station, the nostalgia for a former era and, of course, the brass band in their bright red uniforms playing a welcome march as we search for our train car.
That was our experience as we prepared to leave Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express in September. Our adventure included stops in Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude in Russia, Ulan-Baatar in Mongolia, and Erlian and Beijing in China. (If many of those names don’t mean much to you, you are right where I was before embarking on this trip. Luckily, I had a guidebook that I read each night before bed.)
We began our trip with two very rainy days in Copenhagen. Because of the rain, we had to forgo our plans to bike the city and spend time at Tivoli Garden, but we saw three wonderful museums and took the Hop-on-Hop-off bus to see (briefly) some of the other sights of the city.
Adding two more time zones to the seven we had crossed, we flew to Moscow, where we joined my sister and her husband. After a welcome dinner, when we met the other 22 members of our “red” group (a subset of the 178 total passengers on the train), we took a bus tour of Moscow at night, including stops at two of the beautiful subway stations and at Red Square.
The next morning, we toured the GUM department store and the Kremlin, and after a typical Russian lunch—always cabbage and often borscht, pelmeni (dumplings), blini (pancakes), meatballs, coleslaw, bread, potatoes, pickles and, of course, vodka—we visited a huge church (where my husband and I each got separated from the group for a short time—scary!), and finally got on the train.
Our car had nine compartments, each for two people, plus two bathrooms, a shower room and space for our two conductors, who cleaned, set up the beds and generally offered support for us, while speaking no English. The compartments were small but efficient, and after we adjusted to the train’s rocking and jerking, we were able to sleep, shower, brush our teeth and traverse the four cars to the dining car. There just had to be a bit of wide-stance bracing and, to be honest, caroming off the walls and doors.
Much of Siberia looks a lot like Minnesota. The steppes are like our flat prairies, and the birch and pine forests reminded us of home. On the other hand, I was somewhat shocked at the dilapidated and abandoned buildings left to fall down in both the countryside and in some of the cities.
But we saw beautiful churches, mosques, opera halls and wide squares. Each city seemed to have its claim to fame—the largest, oldest, best. Each day we left the train and toured a new place, usually with a new guide (three of them Olgas!).
The tour company arranged for us to see several concerts, to have dinner in a dacha and in a yurt, to try foods from various areas and to learn some Russian language from Valeri, our “red group” tour guide. We saw architecture that went from the stately to very rustic (in a recreated Siberian village), crossed Lake Baikal on a boat and, for a short time, rode outside on the train’s engine. The hours in each day were jam-packed with experiences.
As we crossed Siberia, the terrain became more mountainous and the weather (though beautiful) was colder. The churches and mosques were joined by Buddhist temples, and we noticed more and more people in the cities with Asian features.
In Mongolia, nine of our group decided to take the option of staying for a night in a yurt (or ger, as they are called). The gers are in a national park and are meant for tourists, but nonetheless are authentic. We were lucky enough to get a pretty big one, though the door was still low enough for both my husband and I to crack our heads on the jamb more than once as we entered. There was a small, wood-burning stove in the middle of the ger that someone lit for us before bed and again at 5 a.m. Later that morning, the rest of the group joined the nine of us for a Mongolian meal and a demonstration of athletics that included wresting, archery and horseback riding.
The next day, after waking early to see a camel herder in the Gobi Desert and hearing Mongolian music, we crossed the border into China. The border city is Erenhot, one of the “ghost” cities that the Chinese government has promoted to get people to move away from Beijing. Though the center of the city has some people, there are blocks and blocks of empty apartments and streets; it is eerie to see. They are building a Disney-like dinosaur park outside the city to lure tourists, but it was mostly empty. Maybe in a few years the tourists will be there.
Beijing, of course, is also full of buildings, but those buildings are all full of residents, and many more are being built. We quickly shed our warm clothes, as it was in the upper 80s on our first day there. Our Chinese guide was wonderful, but no grass was going to grow under her feet. We saw the Temple of Heaven the first afternoon, the Great Wall, the Ming tombs and the Spiritual Walk the next day, brightly lit Beijing that evening and Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Olympic Games venue the next day. It was tiring, but so interesting.
That last night in Beijing, we had a dinner with all the people from the train. Our host recognized the countries we came from: Germany, France, Portugal, Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S. (Sadly, our friends, the Thai-American doctors, had already left the group. They were such fun.)
In many ways, spending time with the group was the best part of the journey; it was a sort of traveling slumber party. We got to know each other pretty well, and it was an adventurous and well-traveled (and fun) bunch of people. Being in such close quarters and sharing such interesting sites and activities made us quickly form good friendships. I hope to keep in contact with them and find out about their next adventures. Some are already my Facebook friends.
So, there is a short version of my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. If you want to know more, just ask me and I’d be happy to share more experiences (and photos) with you.
Michelle Christianson is a longtime contributor to the Bugle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.