Taking the Trans Siberian train conjures up images of gently rolling across the Siberian countryside, watching life go by as you sit back on your bunk and relax. The reality before you reach that point is a lot more chaotic!
Getting onto the train at the start was an event in itself – a lot of Mongolians running on with bag upon bag, standing in the corridors, looking into every cabin and shouting to each other as they loaded up what seemed like an entire department store onto the train. The Mongolian trains, which run from Moscow directly to Ulaan Baatar, are a travelling market, full of Mongolian traders and all their goods to sell. However, the majority don’t pay for tickets and there was a running battle between the Russian police and Mongolians, with the Mongolians trying to hide away and the police trying to find them – we even had a woman who folded up under the bottom bunk in our cabin – a space of maybe 2ft square, no mean feat when done at speed!
The first morning on board, after a cup of coffee (the samovars at the end of the carriage are a godsend, but they are switched off at every station and take a good half hour to heat up again) we had our first day time stop at a station – really looking forward to stretching our legs. It wasn’t to be though as our travelling Mongolian market was in full swing, the platform was crowded with local Russians (I don’t quite know where they had come from as there had been no houses in sight for the last hour) and we couldn’t even get anywhere near the steps of the train. Frenzied selling for 20 minutes and the train pulled off. The selling is incredible; at one station the window in the restaurant car was taken out completely (frame and all) so enable better selling space and then replaced again and at a later station we were asked by the Mongolians in our cabin (who didn’t speak any English) if we would sell their trainers to the Russians (who also didn’t speak any English) – we politely declined as our sign language was not good enough to cope with a Mongolian/Russian trade!
Settling into the train life can be hard, there is definitely a feeling of cabin fever at the start, with no need for a watch, no need to eat at a particular time and no real idea of the time and no need to go anywhere or do anything. It takes a while for everyone to settle into life on board and slowly the Westerners seem to venture out of their cabins and explore – not that there is a lot to explore, mainly just the restaurant car. The station stops vary from 10 minute chaos to an hour long opportunity to stretch out and for some on our train, the chance to get out their multi purpose cleaner and clean the windows on their cabin!
It is certainly an amazing journey with a wide mix of nationalities and cultures, but that’s what makes it such an eclectic and entertaining adventure.