There is nothing quite like waking up to the bright blue morning sky and the hum of the train engine. The constantly rolling back and forth as we slide between the tracks making our way further and further East. Large pine trees filled the landscape and the snow had got increasingly deeper the more east we went. Today we would make the turn south leaving Russia behind and entering Mongolia. Admittedly I longed for the route to be just a few more days longer. I’ve officially decided I adore train travel, long train travel, though next time I will either save up to be able to buy the second birth to have the suite all to myself, or ideally bring a boyfriend/husband on the journey. This is just too amazing of an experience to keep all to myself.
Despite waking up at the various stops throughout the night, my suite door remained locked. The night and the morning I would have to myself. Maybe the rest of the journey? Shortly after awaking, we passed by the largest fresh water lake in the world (per Alex). Incredible. He had showed me pictures yesterday though seeing it in person was spectacular. The snow capped mountains surrounding it, the lake so large and so vast even after we hugged it for over two hours, I still never saw the end of it. Had I any extra time, this is where I would have stopped, Slyudyanka. Spending a few days tucked away in a cabin on the shores of this enormous lake with pine trees and mountain draping the background. A little piece of heaven on earth.
The first two days of the journey were flat expanses of land that seem to go on for infinity. Yesterday and today have been mountainous with pine trees and rolling hills. Small wood homes tucked into valleys with chimneys spewing smoke. It’s like I’m inside a postcard or puzzle box cover it’s so beautiful. The shimmering snow gives it the feel of Christmas and makes me want to continue this moment for so much longer. Admittedly, I have been continuously surprised that the train runs incredibly on schedule. Every stop, within minutes of when it’s scheduled, no issues, no delays, no slow downs. It’s like clock work.
If I think about it, everything so far has been clock work. It’s hard to imagine a journey this long that is executed flawlessly. Every hotel had my reservation and checked me in without waiting. Every flight (there were 3) were on schedule, no issues with my seat reservation or tickets, all was good. Every bus (there were 3) was on schedule and similarly no issues with my reservation it was perfect. Then most surprisingly every train (there were 6 so far) have all been punctual, starting, stopping, and terminating all on schedule, every time. Obviously the Trans Siberian with 6,600+ kilometers and more than two dozen stops takes the cake for flawless execution with it’s exactly 22 min stops to refill the water, maintain the engine, swap out engineers, and get back on the track. Ok some stops were 13 min, some 45, some 2, etc.
As we left the beautiful lake behind us and entered into flatter lower ground, the landscapes changed back to large expansive prairies with dry yellow and green shrubbery and the occasional patch of fluffy deciduous trees. The villages became smaller pockets of tiny wooden houses and further and further apart. In the distance rolling hills like those you would see in Northern New Mexico lined the horizon. The snow was a distant memory and the sunlight heavy in the train car which started to feel a bit like an oven as I was desperately waiting for the next stop to step out in the cool air and remind my body it wasn’t an ingredient in a long slow cooking recipe.
The rivers were frozen over with patches of dark and light ice signaling winter was still edging it’s way in despite the absence of snow. Blue October played on my cell phone as I watched the scenery pass us by, the hundreds of lives tucked inside the little wood houses, and the occasional live stock grazing or basking in the sun. My mind diving in and out of trying to make sense of the last 4 years in New York – was it worth it, am I better for it, will it have tainted me as I return back to ‘normal’ society, will it have bled into me more than I wanted, will I have changed too much I’ll never be able to get back to the ‘me’ I used to be. So many questions, so little answers, but the time, the quiet, the space, and the music helped guide me through trying to make sense of it all.
Don’t get me wrong not all of New York was awful, it was really in the last year that a few very enlightening things happened. The most impactful was being in a toxic relationship, one that was suffocating and demeaning in a way that leaves you no longer recognizing yourself. Gutted and raw it forced me to look for something, anything to re-balance, and it was in that pain that I started finding other parts of New York that I’d never seen in the prior four years, parts that fit me. It’s funny how just when you give up is when you see a little bit of light, though it was too late, and I needed the light to be bigger. Really, I needed a rebalance at a magnitude I’d never needed before, something only this sabbatical of solitude could offer.
As the train pulled into the Ulan Ude station, the city scape appeared at the base of the mountain. The train station was a stucco two story building and no vendors were outside, not even kiosks. A good portion of the remaining passengers disembarked. The stop was 45 minutes, allowing coal replenishment for each carriage and a complete replacement of our engine – unhooked and off it went, without us, shortly to be replaced with another. Men in large coats and metal shovels banged away at the ice that had taken home underneath the train carriages. I took the opportunity to enjoy some fresh air and get out of the sweltering heat of the train car. Stray dogs bouncing back and forth on the platform in search of scraps and the sun shining bright and high.
After the much needed break, I re-boarded the train to what I suspected might happen over the course of the journey, I had the entire carriage to myself. How lovely is that! As the carriage manager tidied up each of the suites, I typed away on my iPad to the complete silence. The engine pulled us up a hill just on the other side of the city only to bring us to a complete halt, not sudden, and the carriage manager didn’t seem to be alarmed. We were just a few short hours north of the Mongolia border. Verizon coverage had already ceased and my ability to connect with the outside world had been shutdown completely. I was 100% off the grid. It wasn’t long before we were churning away again, heading East.
Having been a rather keep-to-myself passenger, I figured after day 4 I was allowed one ask and walked over with my Google translate – ‘can you please turn the heat down, I feel like I’m being cooked alive’. As the only person in the entire carriage, the heat finally went down and I started to feel human again. Now my current conundrum…online it said I didn’t need a visa to cross into Mongolia, however, having had many border crossings over land in my years, I’ve experienced a multitude of needed bribes in order to pass. What is the conundrum you might ask? Well, I have just enough money left for one last lovely meal OR enough to bribe an officer if it’s required. Do I plan for the worst or enjoy the present?
As the train made it’s turn to the south indicating our slow decent out of Russia, the sun shined bright through my suite window, the bliss of Siberia was becoming a distant memory. It is strange to say, but four days through Siberia was not long enough. I miss it already. With the sun gently setting in oranges and yellows on the horizon, I decided for you my fellow readers, to venture out of the wonderfulness of my own private carriage.
The dining car was in the very last carriage and given the archaic nature of the train, passing between cars was a bit precarious. Open and close the main carriage door. Open and close the outside carriage door. Straddle carefully the tiny wobbly plank between the two cars. Open the outside carriage door of the next car. Breath in relief. Open the carriage door and enter into a whole new universe of how the rest of the train lives.Immediately it’s 2nd and 3rd class births, people scattered everywhere, the smell, oh goodness the smell, people piled on top of each other in their four person bunks, extension cords everywhere, and noise. As the cars progressed so did the stench and the noise. By the time I reached the dining car I wanted only to take pictures, place an order, and scurry back as fast as I could without falling through the crazy cracks between trains and into my quiet, safe, odorless carriage.
I had read previously it’s best to buy all four bunks of the 2nd class cabin as it’s cheaper than two bunks of the 1st class cabin. Having just walked through the train, I would say, it takes a certain personality to roll with the punches of 2nd class even if you have your own private suite. Being the only person with an entire carriage to myself, I of course would vote for 1st class – even if it meant waiting a bit to save more money. There’s a distinct difference. People were in their PJs wandering the halls, some half naked. Very different feel. My cabin was respectful, well-mannered, well-dressed, and did not frolic in the hallways.
The restaurant guy who is quite jovial and always makes some random Russian smiles and jokes with me in passing, brought the chicken dinner I ordered. It was the only thing on the menu I could afford giving up any chance of bribing to get into Mongolia. Fingers crossed. The chicken was cut into chunks and sautéed with butter, along with chopped potatoes and some tomatoes and cucumbers for garnish. Paired with a glass of wine, I was a happy camper. A great final meal.
The ladies were shutting down the carriage cleaning and closing out all the other suites and locking up one of the bathrooms. The main manager came in asking for my passport for the border crossing and noticed I had a bottle of wine, which she inquired about then left with my passport. I went to plug in my cell phone only to notice her scurrying back with a glass all giddy. The excitement in her eyes was something I couldn’t deny, I filled her glass full, said cheers, and she was on her way happily. Given the train only served beer, no wine or alcohol it’s probably considered a bit of a novelty.
Around 10pm we reached the Russian border where we stopped for almost two hours to go through various controls. First a man walked through and checked my passport. Then a woman walked through and made me open the bunks and all my luggage. Then another man came through with a dog sniffing around (for drugs? bombs? weapons? who knows?). Then another woman came by and checked my passport, ran my visa twice through some sort of fraud detection, even made me take off my glasses to confirm the picture was me. Then another guy came through and asked me to leave my suite while he checked inside and out every nook and cranny. About 20 min down the track Mongolia did a rinse and repeat.
Tattered and exhausted, it was time to sneak in a few hours of sleep before the early morning arrival in Ulan Bator. Despite all the discussions with folks on the train saying I’d get to Ulan Bator at 1:30pm (6:30+7 hours), while reading the schedule closer I noticed that it showed the Russia border and the Mongolian border being 20 km apart and 7 hours transit time. In other words, time recalibrated and the information I’d received on the train was inaccurate, I would in fact get to UB on time, on schedule.