Spanning seven time zones and miles of surreally beautiful scenery, the Trans-Mongolian Railway journey remains one of life’s great travel experiences. Our writer Lee Hubbard undertook the incredible journey which took him to the beguiling countries of Russia, Mongolia and China…
In this age of budget airlines, where international travel is no longer the preserve of only the wealthy, maybe we have forgotten that the journey can also be the destination. When I was a kid a flight was a huge event, the dream of somewhere exotic, a day to look forward to with excited anticipation. Nowadays, we can book a quick jaunt to a European city with scarcely a second thought or preparation. In a way, a proliferation of cheap and easy flights has meant we have lost a little of the joy in the journey itself. Why take a lengthy rail trip when the journey can be done much faster by plane? This is something I have pondered a lot, and when a chance to embark on the longest train journey on the planet came along, all I could think about was the journey itself, not the eventual destination. This is a trip where the journey IS the destination.
And that journey started in St Petersburg, sometimes called the Venice of the West, and home to friendly locals who seem to ride horses home from the nightclub (well, at least one I saw did that), one of the best hostels in Europe (Soul Kitchen Junior), incredible churches, beautiful canals, and the Winter Palace, better known as The Hermitage museum. The Hermitage museum is a place where I found myself literally gasping at the gorgeous opulence of some of the rooms and amusingly it almost became a joke as each room tried to outdo the previous one.
I could’ve happily stayed in the city a few more days, but the train was calling. I began my Trans-Mongolian journey, my gently rolling mobile home, settling in for four solid days on the train – plenty of time to practice my faltering Russian using a mixture of my translation app, wild hand gestures and photos of my family.
My cabin mates, Sergiy, Boris and Yulia, were all middle-aged to elderly Russians, heading back east to see family members, and seemingly baffled and delighted in equal measure that a lone Brit would be on the same journey. We shared vodka (no surprises there), food (thankfully their lovingly home-cooked offerings were far tastier than my instant noodles), and laughed all the way to Siberia. Enroute to a place synonymous with cold and harsh living, the Russians I encountered were the biggest and most wonderful surprise of this perplexing country – warm, friendly, kind and generous (and Sergiy even tried to set up me up with the ‘provodnitsa’, the female train conductor!).
In Irkutsk, I marvelled at Lake Baikal, the world’s most astonishing lake (it holds enough water to provide drinking water to the entire planet…for the next 40 years) and ventured to the far north of Olkhon Island (upon realising I had to pay double for the trip there, due to lack of fellow passengers, I mentioned to the receptionist that it wasn’t the end of the world, to which she replied “no…although it kind of IS the end of the world!”, in reference to the stark beauty of the terrain).
And yet if I thought Siberia was remote and unforgiving, I clearly hadn’t been to the Gobi desert in southern Mongolia, my next destination. “Mongolia is like a sandwich between Russia and China!” says Sagi, my guide and translator for the next six days, and what a sandwich it proves to be. By the end of my week there, I’d almost forgotten what a tarmac road looked or felt like, so long did we spend driving across the endless dirt roads from ger to ger (the local name for yurts, where the nomadic locals live).
I encountered more monks in one week than I have in all my other travels combined, found joy in the face of children who unwrapped their very first Kinder Egg, drank enough salty tea and ate enough mutton dumplings to last me to the end of this and any other lifetime, slept in probably the most remote place I’ve ever slept, and even managed to climb inside a gigantic statue of Mongolia’s most revered son, Chinggis Khaan. Sometimes Mongolia felt short on “sights” but compensated in authenticity (questioning one’s sanity while getting lost at night driving through the Gobi…), and that’s an increasingly rare feeling.
This kind of trip may not be everyones cup of (salty) tea, and indeed most of the people I met had already got a few miles of travelling under their belt, but for those curious about the planet, and the ways in which we journey across it, discovering how the locals interact with their landscape, I can’t recommend it enough. You’ll never see it all on one journey, and even a ride as long as this serves as a mere hors d’oeuvre for the countries you pass through. One minute you’re tracking the only remaining wild horses in the world, the next you’re drinking moonshine with a Chinese pensioner at 8am, or listening to a 4 year old Mongolian girl perfectly belt out every word to Let It Go.
At the end of the line, the charms of Beijing and Shanghai were as incredible as I remembered from the previous years visit. Having seen the major sites before, I ventured to Beijing’s hip 798 Art District, and the beautiful canals and wondrous gardens of Suzhou, the so-called Venice of the East, about 30 minutes from Shanghai. The sumptuous Summer Palace was an even more impressive sight than the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, landscaped with a stunning central lake, boats made of marble, pavilions and temples bursting with colour, and a gorgeous 17-arch bridge – it adds up to a real-life work of art. By this point, the train journey may have ended, but the memories of this genuinely ‘epic’ trip will live on..
All words and images by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.