Travel writer, Trans-Mongolia Railway: “I've never felt so distant from the demands of daily life.”

Mark Buckley on realizing that the journey is truly more important than the destination

 

Six and a half days on a train from Moscow to Beijing, albeit with stops in Siberia and Mongolia, did sound somewhat daunting – a departure from the more physically active holidays my wife Jane and I had tended to take in the past.

After a few days in a grey and unfriendly Moscow, our first stint on the Trans-Mongolian was three-and-a-half-days to Irkutsk, in Siberia. We stocked up on pot noodles, tea bags (Lyons if you are interested), and powdered soup, in addition to taking a few bottles of wine and a lot of chocolate. Our home for three days and four nights was to be a small cabin, which was clean and modern, in a carriage was presided over by a flame-haired boot-wearing provodnitsa who kept the water boiling in the samovar at the end of the carriage (vital for the aforementioned hot drinks and pot noodles), and who barked when we needed to get back on the train after our infrequent 10-minute stops to stretch legs, and stock up on provisions from the locals selling their wares on the platforms.

As we passed from European Russia and across the Urals into Asia, the scenery changed from agricultural to vast dark forests. We read, played games, listened to podcasts and played music, with the din of the train ensuring our neighbours weren’t disturbed. But more than anything else we drank tea, with an occasional hot chocolate or soup thrown in for variety. One life-long learning from this trip was the benefit of powdered milk in a world with no refrigeration.

Many people I know who have travelled similar routes tell tales of enjoying cheap Russian vodka with Australian backpackers, stories of missing trains - and losing rucksacks. But for me this was about peaceful escape. Jane and I both have very busy rarely switched off work lives, and our little cabin was like a cocoon, hidden away from the outside world, with no wifi or other internet connection, no television or radio, and no timetable (other than keeping an eye on when we would next get the chance to stretch our legs at an understocked stall on a remote Russian platform). Eat, snooze, make tea, watch Russia passing outside with faces pressed against the windows and tranquil satisfied smiles, and then snooze some more. I’m not sure I have ever felt so relaxed and so distant from the never-ending demands of daily life.

We eventually pulled into Irkutsk, a medium-sized city in Siberia. Our concerns that all Russians, and all Russian towns, would be like unsmiling Moscow were quickly abated, as we explored what we found to be a very pleasant and friendly town. Having wandered the tree-lined streets of Irkutsk and seen the sun reflect off the immense expanse of nearby Lake Baikal (a stretch of water larger than Belgium in area), I realised that never again will I picture Siberia as the freezing snow covered and miserable land of gulags that we tend to hear about.

From there our next stop was another 36 hours away on the train – a place that is up there with Timbuktu as regards somewhere whose name suggests remoteness and roads less travelled - Ulan Bator in (Outer) Mongolia, and beyond that lay China and its cultural and natural riches. But it was those initial 3 days and four nights through the Russian taiga that for me is where the true joy of the Trans-Mongolian lies.#

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