Ten nights on a train with no shower, dwindling cheese supplies and a hole in the ground for a toilet, it was, a totally Trans-Siberian experience.
Me and a couple of mates boarded at Waterloo and with one final beer we waved goodbye to London as our lovely, modern train took us through Brussels and onwards to Moscow and the start of one of the world’s fiercest train routes, the Trans-Siberian.
We knew that by the time we finished our journey we’d have covered almost 6000 miles of track and crossed the whole of Russia but nothing really prepares you for the real thing.
That said: we knew that there was a hot water tap at the end of our carriage and so we came heavily armed with supplies of porridge oats, dried noodles and coffee. Yeah, we were ready for anything!
Moscow was dark in every sense but the chance to see Saint Basil's Cathedral and those incredibly coloured globes made our fear of ‘stranger danger’ pale as our excitement levels rose. I managed to redevelop a limp that I’d previously practised on the streets of Amsterdam and, before long, all three of us were dragging our pretend club feet around to deter potential Nikita’s or Nicolai’s from engaging us in hand-to-hand combat. Note: Russian Vodka, reading Gorky Park and a fertile imagination makes for lots of excitement, especially in the cold depths of January.
Anyway, our carriage was waiting and after our extended stay in the bowels of Moscow’s underground system we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express and entered the four-berth room which was to become our home for almost the next two weeks.
For the astute amongst you, you’ll have worked out that as there were only three of us in our travelling party, we were one bunk light of a full compartment. Thankfully, we were joined by one of the sweetest travelling companions that you can ever imagine. His name was pronounced One-to-Go (seriously) and for the next ten days we swapped our English language for his Chinese and even indulged in some cultural exchanges where I made a complete twat of myself by singing the Beatle’s Hey Jude in a Chinese accent. Because that’s how One-to-Go would recognise it right? Urrm, no!
Anyway, aside from my *ahem* idiot abroad moments we all got on exceptionally well and as we passed by frozen lakes and snow-covered forests we quickly adapted to our day-to-day cohabitation.
As we were travelling in the winter, days were short and so making the most of natural light became essential. Whenever we stopped, about once or twice a day, we’d get out and wander around on slippery, snow-covered platforms as guards chiselled large blocks of ice from the underbelly of our train. Stops were long enough to stock up on supplies and we’d often buy beer, boiled eggs and unidentified snacks from a gang of gnarly looking, but sweet (ish), babushkas.
Aside from our occasional station stops we all got into a daily routine and it wasn’t long before we were nodding and integrating with our fellow passengers as we walked down the corridor and used the hot water tap to heat our Pot Noodles and packets of Oat so Simple – mmmm oaty.
Our European cheese supply lasted about 3 days and we kept an ever-decreasing block of Cheddar relatively fresh by storing it next to the inside of our frozen window sill. Apart from wishing we’d been more frugal with our dairy consumption whilst in Belgium, we mainly passed the time by reading, writing, chatting and playing cards and chess.
There was a dining carriage which was fairly basic however, once we crossed the border from European Russia to Asian Russia it changed hands and became a Chinese restaurant, literally offering our first taste of China.
After ten days we finally reached Beijing and thanks to a combination of friendly fellow passengers, spectacular snow-covered scenery and my dad’s thermal underwear, I survived as sane as I’d left, notwithstanding occasional bouts of ‘cabin fever’.
What struck me most about the trip was being able to observe the physical and social changes in people as we crossed continents. For example when it became clear that we were staying on the train all the way to China, our fellow passengers became a lot more sociable and many a beer, cigarette and language lesson was shared along the way.
If asked whether I’d do it again I often say that I would, but the other way round with more stop-overs in places like Mongolia. Real Gap does a trip that I’ve got my eye on. It’s called, rather imaginatively, the Trans-Siberian and Mongolia
and is the ideal adventure to end any round the world adventure or year spent teaching in Asia. Give it a go and if you bump into a bearded Russian in the dining carriage then don’t offer to play him at chess after drinking Vodka because you’re liable to lose your ten-game undefeated run in spectacular circumstances.