TRANS MONGOLIAN-SIBERIAN-MANCHURIAN RAILWAY
Traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway — the 5,770-mile rail line between Moscow and Vladivostok in Russia, which takes 6½ days and seven time zones to cover — is a trip that a lot of people dream about taking, but in the end don’t do because it is too difficult to arrange. Russia is not an easy country to maneuver around in if you don’t speak Russian, and getting a Russian visa and buying a ticket for the Trans-Siberian train are often no simple matters.
And then there is the problem of getting back home once the journey is completed. Buying a one-way ticket to Moscow and another one-way ticket back from Vladivostok can be very expensive. Other options — like flying round trip to Moscow and flying back from Vladivostok on a flaky Russian airline or taking a 6½-day train back from Vladivostok after taking a 6½-day train to get there — don’t seem so good either.
I traveled on the Trans-Siberian this past summer and got around these problems by flying to Beijing and incorporated into a loop the three main routes of the rail line: 1) the official “Trans-Siberian” main line route between Moscow to Vladivostok; 2) the "Trans-Mongolian" route, which breaks off from the main line and passes through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert before terminating in Beijing; and 3) "Trans Manchurian" Route, which breaks off the main line at a different place and travels to Beijing via Manchuria in northeastern China.
The advantages of this trip were that I could begin and end my trip at the same place, and have more varied travel experience. People that take the official Trans-Siberian often complain that the forested taiga scenery they see day after day gets monotonous. On the route I chose I got a good look at northern China and Mongolia, which are quite different from Russia, and traveled through the most beautiful part of the of the Trans-Siberian route — the area around Lake Baikal, the world's oldest, deepest and largest lake. The main drawback of this trip is I had to endure three excruciatingly long customs and immigration stops at the three international borders I crossed.
I arranged my trip through Monkey Business Travel, a Belgian-run, Beijing-based outfit that specializes in Trans-Siberian trips for backpackers and has good connections for obtaining tickets in Beijing and Russia. Getting Trans Siberian tickets in Beijing without the help of a travel company is difficult because there are only two Trans-Siberian trains a week from Beijing, the ticket-buying process is cumbersome and the seats are often bought up by Russian traders who load up on cheap goods in China and sell them in Russia.
For around US$600 Monkey Business obtained all train tickets I needed for the different trains I took, plus they got me a letter of invitation from a Russian travel agency which I needed to obtain a Russian visa. The Chinese visa I got on my own. Americans don’t need a visa for Mongolia. The only drawback with Monkey Business, for someone like myself who normally likes to travel independently, is that you needed to purchase at least one of their two-day or more tours in Russia, which cost about US$125 a day.
China to Mongolia
My 2½-week Trans-Mongolian-Siberian-Manchurian trip began at Beijing Station at 7:40am. The carriage I was in was completely filled with foreign travelers like myself. The fabled Russian traders were nowhere in sight. They must have been at the other end of the train, which looked as if it were a dozen or so carriages long. I shared a four-person compartment with a Belgian school teacher, his American wife and their son. They were returning to Europe after a year teaching in China and were loaded down with a collection of 700 pirated movie DVDs which they had obtained for about 50 cents a piece while in China and were nervous about slipping through customs.
The compartment was quite comfortable. There were four beds arranged bunk-bed-style in pairs against the sides of the walls. Most of the time the four us sat on the two lower beds, each of which was like a sofa, wide enough to accommodate four people even though only one or two people sat on it at any given time. There were reading lights, overhead lights, a small table to eat on, and plenty of space to store stuff out of the way. We were provided with pillows and clean sheets after we boarded.
There was no air conditioning on first train I took (later ones would have it) but there were fans and windows we could open with some effort. Even though it was sometimes quite hot outside there was never a problem being hot in the compartment. Each carriage had two toilets and two sinks and a samovar-like hot water container which we could use to get water for tea or instant coffee. Making sure the carriage was clean and tidy was were a pair of attendants known in Russian as provodniks. All an all, the arrangement was so cozy that when I arrived at a destination I didn’t want to get off.
An hour or so out of Beijing the train passed the Bandaling section of the Great Wall, the touristy segment of the famous landmark visited by Nixon and the American ping pong team. It is arranged in a square on the slope of a mountain and looked more like it was set up for tourists to walk on than for soldiers to defend Beijing. A few hours later we reached Inner Mongolia, which is still in China. I was hoping to see some traditional Mongolian tents and horses but none were visible. Most of the Mongols that lived here, it appeared, lived in brick houses and were corn farmers, just like the Chinese.
Many of my fellow travelers on the train were teachers. There was one teaching couple that was traveling with there two elementary-school-age girls all the way from Japan to England. The weirdest guy in our car was an Australian sheep farmer who was obsessed with taking photographs of sheep and complained that the train moved too fast or the sheep were too far way to get good pictures.
Thirteen hours out of Beijing we arrived at Erlian on the Chinese-Mongolian border. This was the first of the long border stops. Stopping here, however, was kind of entertaining because were got to see the changing of the bogies (the undercarriages and wheels of the train cars), which had to be done to accommodate the train tracks in Mongolia and Russia, which are 10 centimeters wider than the tracks in China and most other parts of the world. Travelers passing from Europe into Russia by train often have to go through the same ritual.
Inside a large shed near the station at Erlian — with all the passengers still in the train — the carriages were separated. Each one was placed between four hydraulic jacks, with a jack at each corner of the carriage. The cars were then simultaneously lifted up by the jacks and each bogie was detached by a crew of men and women with bolt guns. When all the bogies were detached they were collectively pushed from underneath the suspended carriages and new bogies with a wider sets wheels were pushed in and attached by the crews.
Why are the Russian and Mongolian gauges wider than other train gauges? According to one story, the wide gauging was designed to thwart a military invasions (the idea being that trains carrying troops and weapons would not be able get into Russia if the train tracks were wider). The wide tracks did slow down the Nazis in World War II (they eventually regauged the lines all the way to Moscow) but were originally built the way they were simply because wider gauges are considered safer than narrow gauges.
The section of the rail line between the Mongolian border and Beijing originally had Russian gauge but the Chinese converted to a narrower gauge in the 1960s when tensions were high between China and the Soviet Union. Portugal also has wide gauge tracks. But instead of changing the boogies, the carriages there have spring-loaded axles that allow the wheels to be moved into different positions with a minimum of fuss.
In any case, all together we spent about nine hours at the Chinese-Mongolian border. The bogies for the entire train, amazingly enough, were changed in a couple of hours. Another two hours were spent doing passport checks, immigration and customs. The remaing five hours was spent sitting on a side track for heaven knows what reason. Fortunately this delay took place in the middle of the night so we could sleep through it.
Train Ride in Mongolia
While I was sleeping the train start rolling again. I was able to sleep pretty well. I brought earplugs so the various noises didn’t bother me. Security wasn’t a problem like it is on the trains between Moscow and Leningrad so I could rest easy about that. By the time I awoke the train was in the middle of the Gobi Desert, an expanse of barren rolling hills covered more by pebbles, stones and grit than by sand. At the stations, which were mostly in small mining towns, were a few cement buildings and large, hairy, double-humped Bactrian camels.
As we traveled north the camels gave way to horses, and more and more gers (traditional Mongolian tents) and patches of green appeared. In Mongolia. there is no shortage of domesticated animals. The total ratio of livestock to people is roughly 12 to 1, with most of animals being sheep and cashmere goats. There is no shortage of gers either. About half of all Mongolians live in them, including 35 percent of the residents of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.
Gers are known to many people as yurts, their Russian name. Used by the armies of Genghis Khan and found throughout Central Asia, they have a distinctive circular shape and are relatively light and portable. The walls are supported by a collapsible willow frame that resembles the fences used for vines in gardens. The roof is supported by poles that run like the spokes of a wheel from the top of the walls to a single pole that rises from the ground in the middle of the ger.
Gers are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and resist the fiercest winds. The walls are made of felt pads covered with white canvas which provides insulation and wind protection. In some places, the felt is still made the traditional way by dousing fluffed wool with water and rolling it around a pole inside a freshly killed yak skin and then dragging that around behind a horse.
Depending on how good the grazing is, nomads move their gers once a month or every few months to new pastures for their animals. To dismantle or assemble a ger takes about three hours. In the old days gers were carried by camels, ox-carts or horse carts. These days they are carried mostly trucks and tractors. People in the cities live year round in ger suburbs.
[Source: the time we neared Ulanbataar there were gers with large herds of animals all over the place. There were also some ger camps, with neat rows or gers set up for tourists. The tourism scene in Mongolia revolves around ger camps and organized jeep trips. Most of the people on my train were signed up for a stay at a ger camp as part of their tour. I personally hate organized tours so I arrived in Ulanbataar with backpack full of food, a tent and sleeping bag, ready to head off on my own.
Hiking in Mongolia
Mongolia is an ideal place for people who like the outdoors and roughing it. The country is filled with snow-capped peaks, wild lakes, virgin forests and deserts. There are only a handful of paved roads in the entire country and the only reasonably, reliable ways to get around are by jeep, Russian-made helicopter, horseback, or camel, or on foot. The few long distance buses that exist may take a week or more to reach a destination that is several hundred miles away.
But you don’t have to go far in Mongolia to find wilderness. Just outside Ulanbataar are mountains with bears, marmots and moose and few humans other than trappers and hunters.
I arrived in Ulaanbataar on Sunday afternoon. Short on time, I hired a taxi at the train station for US$5 and had the driver take me straight to a small town about 15 miles outside of the city, where I started hiking along the Tuul Gol (a river) that would eventually take me to Terelj National Park, about 60 miles from Ulaan Bataar.
Along the riverbanks were groups of partying Mongolians, drinking heavily, swimming, and listening to Guns and Roses and Mongolian and Russian pop music. By evening I had outdistanced myself from them and set up my tent on a hill. Here, as they sun was going down at 10:30pm, I experienced the kind of stunning vista that I came to Mongolia for: a big sky with low clouds racing by, and mountains covered by forests on their leeward sides and grass on their windward sides, with a few ger encampments scattered here and there along the river.
The next morning I woke up to rumble of thunder and approaching black clouds. Not wanting to get drenched or struck by lightning I headed to the nearest ger for some shelter. As I approached I was besieged by dogs. The customary greeting when entering a ger area is “Nokoi Khor!” which literally translates to “Hold the Dogs.” A woman who was doing chores saw me and invited me in her ger for some salty, milky Mongolian tea and some rock-hard, yogurt-flavored cookies.
Inside a traditional ger there are separate men’s and women’s sections. The ger I was in had beds, with children still sleeping in some of them, organized around the walls; carpets hanging from the walls and vinyl flooring on the ground. I sat with an elderly woman on foot-high, four-legged stool around a table set near a Tibetan Buddhist altar. On a dresser was a television connected to a car battery.
Terelj was the first national park established in Mongolia. It is a lovely and wild place with rock formations, evergreen forests, mountains, rushing streams, and lots of ger camps, some of which have karaokes and discos. I stayed at a ger camp and hotel where a BBC crew was also staying. They were in Mongolia filming a Passion-style film about the life of Genghis Khan, with Mongolian actors speaking Mongolian.
The day I ran into the crew they had been shooting the birth of Genghis Khan in a ger that was set up in a forest about a kilometer from the hotel. While they were filming they were hit by a nasty storm, a tornado they said, that caused animals and equipment to be hurled into the air and the ger they were filming in to collapse. The first crew member I met said that 20 or so cattle had been killed and a girl had been seriously injured. A second one I talked to later said about six horses were killed and a girl was slightly injured. A third crew member I met after that said he thought that only couple of ponies had been injured and that was it (I can see why the BBC had been having some credibility problems in recent years).
Altogether I spent two days in Terelj. The hiking was great. Because much of the park — and Mongolia for that matter — is covered by grasslands you can walk anywhere you want. Without a lot of trees blocking the way you can see for miles and miles. After hiking to the top of a couple of mountains that had wonderful views, I hitched a ride back to Ulaanbataar with a Dutch couple. The woman was a parole officer. She told me about a Dutch government-run program in which bureaucrats purchase heroin on the black market for junkies.
The next day I spent the morning and afternoon sightseeing in Ulanbaatar before catching the train in the evening. The city was a nice enough. There were Stalin-era buildings built with Soviet help and new buildings financed with Korean and Japanese aid money. The traffic wasn’t bad. The weather was surprisingly cool for the beginning of August. And the residents were surprisingly urbanized. I saw lots of died hair and young men in Internet cafes playing Korean Internet games.
I did all my sightseeing on foot. In the Museum of Natural History I saw an impressive collection of dinosaur eggs. In the National Museum of Mongolian History there were ancient deer stones (stone sculptures with animals and writing carved into them) and a stunning collection of traditional clothing worn by different Mongol tribes. Inside one room of the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan, the home of Mongolia’s former Dalai-Lama-like leader, was a ger made from pelts of 154 snow leopards.
Train to Russia
On the train to Russia, I shared my compartment with a Swiss teacher, her father and a student from England. In the compartment next to me was a group of retired British schoolteachers that did nothing but complain and wouldn’t shut up. The train traveled through the night so we didn’t get a chance to see much of northern Mongolia. In the morning we arrived at the border town of Sukhebataar, for the beginning of a 12 hour border crossing that was particularly unpleasant because there wasn’t really anything to do or see.
After entering Russia, I felt as if we had abruptly crossed from the East into the West. The gers, free-roaming animals and the round Asian faces of the Mongolians were replaced by wooden Russian houses, vegetable gardens, babushka head scarves and weathered, vodka-aged European faces. After few hours we were connected to the main line of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is not only the longest railroad in the world it is also the busiest. Trains pass each other on the parallel tracks at a rate of one very five minutes, transporting oil, coal, gold, lumber, machinery and trucks as well as passengers. The 800 or so stations in cities, small towns and outposts along the route are serviced mostly by local trains. The famous long-distance trains skip the vast majority of the stations and generally only stop four or five times a day.
The Trans-Sib, as some call it, was originally conceived as a way to unite the vast Russian empire, expand foreign trade and exploit Siberia’s resources. Regarded as the greatest engineering feat of its time, it was built a rate of about 400 miles a year beginning in 1891 by 70,000 workers, exiles, soldiers, prisoners (offered reduced sentences for their help) and Chinese laborers along a muddy, Cossack-guarded coach route that took from several months to a year to traverse on horseback. The workers moved 77 million cubic feet of earth, chopped down 108,000 acres of forest, built bridges over half a dozen major rivers and prevailed over bandit raids, landslides, floods, poor planning and shoddy materials.
In 1904, the Trans-Siberian was completed except for the stretch around Lake Baikal and a few other sections. During the Russo-Japan War in 1904, when it became vital to move large amounts of goods eastward, rails were laid down on Lake Baikal’s three-foot thick ice. The first train to travel over the ice plunged through it and left behind a 15-miles long hole. After that a new track was laid and the railroad cars were pulled by men and horses rather than heavy locomotives. That worked. In 1916, the entire route from Moscow to Vladivostok was opened up when a bridge was built over the Amur River. The line through Mongolia and China to Beijing was built in the 1940s and 50s.
In the early years of its operation, the Trans-Siberian Railway opened up the Siberian frontier to settlement and exploitation the same way the American railways opened up to the American West to pioneers and cowboys. In World War II, it was used to transport entire factories out of range of the Nazi advances. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ticket prices and hauling rates skyrocketed and the number of passengers fell from around 3 billion to 1 billion a year and the amount of freight fell from two billion tons to less than one billion tons.
In recent years the Trans-Siberian train has revived. More Russians have money and can afford to take it. More goods and raw materials are being transported along it. There is even talk now of connecting it to South Korea via North Korea to transport goods from Japan. The train also carries its share of foreign travelers. Environmentalist recommend long-distance travelers to take it because it uses up less energy on a per person basis than flying in a jumbo jet.
As the sun was going down I arrived at my next stop, Ulan Ude, an industrial with about 1 million people and the home a major repair facilities for the Trans-Siberian. For many years access to the area was restricted. My two days here was taken up visiting Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, one of which was visited several times by the Dalai Lama, and walking round the city. There were lot of nice wooden houses and some onion-dome churches.
In Ulan Ude I did a homestay — organized through Monkey Business — with a Russian woman who owned an aged, nearly blind dachshund that attacked me every time the women left the house. Once it cornered me in the kitchen and I had to use a chair like a lion tamer to make my way to my room. Even though the dog gave me problems and the women me fed a fish dinner that left me retching and sick for two days I enjoyed my stay there. The woman was generous in a brusque way and her efforts to make conversation in English were amusing.
One night in Ulan Ude I went out drinking with a Buyat woman, who was part of cultural show I attended, and some of her friends. The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. There are about a half million of them. They are closely related to Mongolians (many historians believe that Genghis Khan was a Buryat not a Mongolian) and practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. They live in the Lake Baikal area and are more assimilated to Western ways than Mongolians.
The Buryat woman I met had a college degree in mathematics but worked mainly at a gas station because it was the best job she could get. She told me that her sister was off in China being set up in a mail-order marriage with a Chinese man she had never met.
My next stop was Irkutsk. The section of the Trans-Siberian between Ulan Ude and Irkutsk passes right along the shore of the Lake Baikal and is regarded as the most scenic section of the entire rail line. I didn’t see any the lovely scenery, however, because I traveled along this section at night.
Lake Baikal is crescent-shaped lake, 395 miles long, two to 46 miles wide, and 5,371 feet deep. Sometimes called the "Pearl of Siberia" or the "Sacred Sea," it contains 5,500 cubic miles of water, or one fifth of the world’s fresh water (more than all the Great Lakes combined). The water is so clear and pure and mineral-free that visibility in some places the is over 600 feet and samples taken from the middle of the lake and studied in a laboratory become tainted by the glass beakers they are is stored in.
Lake Baikal is situated on the world’s deepest land depression, a five-mile deep rift produced by the interaction of three tectonic plates. Nearly all the world's lakes were formed less than a million years ago by volcanos, ice age glaciation or dammed valleys. Lake Baikal, by contrast, was formed at least 20 million years ago when the rift began being pulled apart by tectonic forces. The region around the lake is still very geologically active. In 1861 a huge earthquake sank 310 square kilometers of a river delta into the lake. The lake itself is still growing. The rift widens and the water level rises by about a millimeter every year.
Lake Baikal is also one the planet's most unique ecosystems. About 60 percent of the lake’s life forms (1,100 plants and 1,500 animals) are found nowhere else on the planet. Among these are fresh water sponges, worms that live around geothermal vents, and a large-eyed, jellyfish-like fish called golomyanka that live in the deepest parts of the lake and turn into a greasy blobs when they are brought to the surface (the grease is prized as a fuel for lamps and as a rheumatism cure). Fishermen haul in grayling, pike, perch and omul. The latter, an arctic whitefish related to salmon and trout, accounts for two thirds of the annual commercial catch. Sometimes it seems like local people eat it in some form or another at every meal.
Lake Baikal’s most famous creature is a freshwater seal known as the nerpa. It grows to a length of almost six feet, weighs up to 286 pounds and changes from yellow-green to white to grey in the first months of its life. Based on a census of seals taken by counting air holes in winter ice, scientist estimate that there are 60,000 seals in the lake. No one is sure how the nerpa originally found its way to Lake Baikal (the nearest sea is 2000 miles away).
Wildlife seen on the shores include wolves, bears, deer, beavers, imperial eagles and breasted mergansers. The concentrations of these animals is low and many travelers never see them. Moreover the place you can find them are mostly in reserves that no people except researchers are allowed into.
I stayed for two days in a village on the shore of Lake Baikal in a homestay with a local family. I spent one day hiking to the south as far as I could and hiking back the same route and a another day doing the same to the north. To the south there were a lot of partying and picnicking Russians. To the north the landscape was more isolated and rugged. Along most of the lake there were walking paths but occasionally you reached a cliff face that dropped into the water. Here if you wanted to continue on, the easiest way to do so was to hike in waist-deep water in the lake.
Lake Baikal is quite cold even in the middle of the summer. Swimming in it is supposed to bring long life and good health. Once when I waded in to get around a cliff, I quickly submerged myself and leapt out, hoping that qualified enough increase my life span. The water was so cold it was painful. Russians I saw later swam in it as if they were in the Florida Keys.
In the area where I took a swim I’m pretty sure I saw some nerpas. They were too far in the distance to tell for sure. But I don’t think they were birds because they didn’t fly away. I don’t think they were the plastic bottles the fishermen on the lake use because they occasionally disappeared, with what looked like a tail popping up behind them, and reappeared a short distance away.
Back to China
From Irkutsk it was three days by train via the Trans Siberian and Trans-Manchurian line back to Beijing. This part of the trip was much closer to the Trans-Siberian experience that I had imagined. Many of the people on the train were traveling from Moscow to China in one go.
The train stopped in Irkutsk in the morning, so this time I could enjoy the scenery along Lake Baikal. The rail line hugged the shore much of way. In the distance, along the Mongolian border, you could see some of the highest mountains in Russia. Along the tracks were small towns and bucolic pastures. As the train approached the Chinese border the landscape became progressively drier. The 12 hour border stop was annoying on the Russian side because there wasn’t that much to do, but not so bad on the Chinese side because there was a place to get some good food and cheap beer. Chinese immigration officials here were on the look out for, what appeared to be, Falun Gong and evangelical Christian literature. In my compartment they seized a Russian gossip magazine.
There weren’t as many foreigners on this train as on the previous legs. Squeezed into some of the compartments were large groups Russians and Buryats, drinking and feasting on sausages and salads. I shared the compartments with a Russian guy in his twenties and a Buryat woman and her young daughter. The Russian guy spoke pretty good English. He was currently studying Chinese in Harbin. Before he had worked illegally in the United States before on a student visa he was able to obtain for US$2,000. He spoke pretty good Chinese too and helped me avoid getting ripped off by Chinese moneychangers.
Before I took this trip I wondered how people kept clean when they were on the train for several days. I’m not sure what other people did. What I did was lock myself in bathroom and repeatedly filled up a bicycle water bottle in the sink and splashed water on my myself, then shampooed my hair, soaped down body and rinsed off, using the water bottle. The left over water drained out a hole in the floor.
The trip through Manchuria was uneventful. We stopped in the half dozen or so cities with populations of more than a million. Each had a downtown with some flashy new buildings and lots of construction. We also passed through lots of corn fields and one of China’s main oil-producing areas, with hundred of oil derrick pumping away. Again the train compartment was quite cozy. This line had air conditioning and a good meal car. When it arrived in Beijing I didn’t want to get off.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020