Moscow to Taiwan
It is a long journey. From our home to Taipei is an estimated 12438 kms (c.7730 miles)
Taipei is nearly 8950 Kms from Moscow to be completed in 2 stages – first to Beijing (7826 kms), second, by air, to Taipei.
One person challenged our decision to travel to Taiwan – & was literally silenced when I said it was by train (I did not mention our return was by air).
The environmental impact of air travel is a concern – but not one we lay claim to. The human inclination to move about the planet is not recent & concern & management of the means by which we (humanity) travel was not a driver for this journey (but we are happy to receive plaudits regarding our moral superiority)
Moments of Idle Speculation:
During the journey across Siberia there was time for ‘idle speculation’ & these highlighted by text colour – as here… and thus easier to avoid.
‘Its the journey not the destination that shapes us’
(Jura Whisky container: as carried on the whole journey)
The Trans-Siberian route to Beijing follows the classic route to Vladivostock as far as Ulan Ude where it branches off to cross Mongolia.
It also crosses several time-zones, eventually being 5 hours ahead of Russian time. This final zone includes Mongolia, all of China & Taiwan (and as I discovered, even Western Australia)
Departing Yaroslavsky station on time we attempted sleep – and woke to a grey prospect.
We had travelled swiftly, a hurried rattling along sort of speed (at times, quite literally) passing through Nizhny Novgorod – and crossing the Volga River – covering approximately 600 kms before a gloomy daylight developed.
The poor quality of the pictures creates a realistic impression of what becomes the normality for most of the journey through Russia.
As we travelled across Russia and into Siberia (on Day 3), the snow increased – but was never particularly deep. Occasionally there were flurries of white dust and one one occasion there was snow falling – but until Day 5 the weather remained an almost uniform grey.
The train rolls along, juddering occasionally, snow filled landscape, river turning to solid ice.
Very relaxing (apart from my inability to have effective internet connection). Industry seems to be largely timber related.
When travelling through places we tend, not surprisingly, to notice difference and surprising similarities (‘I didn’t expect to see….’). This journey is doing both.
Today the difference is simply that of the largely unchanging vastness of the country. This may be very mistaken as what we are seeing is a landscape almost without colour. The sky has been grey-white, the trees are largely colourless, individual massed projections linking the sky and white landscape. The evergreen firs are covered in snow so provide very little contrast.
One day’s journey and after 20 hours (to Perm) we have covered nearly 1500 kms (over 900 miles). Yet we have barely started.
No doubt there are regional differences but the overall sense of a single type of landscape emphasises the the small scale nature of Britain.
The other element in this is and for me, is not new (given nearly 30 years of travel across post-communist Europe) – the industrial complexes, product of the centralised soviet system.
In style & appearance they are the same here in Russia, as in other parts of communist controlled Europe. Identikit structures. A standard format – for all types of buildings, for social facilities, health centres, housing. People were also expected to be developed in a standardised manner – each individual was to strive to become, like the buildings, a living example of socialist perfection.
The underlying thought behind this was broadly common to most late C19th societies, encouraged by the engineering achievements of the Industrial Age.
The progressive modern industrialising society – working towards a glorious future. Humanity had reached a ‘high point’ & those who were at the forefront viewed most of the rest as low level primitive beings. The task was to convert. Under the guise of ‘social concern’ much time and effort went into the process (at ‘home’ as well as ‘abroad’) – & which was also hand-in-hand with simple exploitation.
In the soviet system the belief in the potential of ‘realising human success, achievement & perfection became ossified. The power structures provided complete social control to a central authority with its formalised andformalising structures – and with usually one person. Change & uncertainty (ideas that were developing just as the communist triumphs in Russia were being formalised) was difficult to even contemplate..
Travelling through societies that had communism imposed, one sees decayed and abandoned industrial buildings of one sort or another – often sitting, forlorn, alone or next to modern developments.
Clearance of the past systems (and its physical structures) is slow. Change takes time.
But these differences are what makes a journey interesting & stimulating – and ‘variation’ is important. The snow blanket covers both the new and the old, the train whizzes along providing only the briefest of glimpses at any particular place – and thus makes difficult the gleaning process upon which judgements may be made.
Am I learning? Is it necessary?… and if so, what is being learned?
Recognising some of those curious differences (and reflecting on them) is, possibly, important for our general well-being (well… it is for mine). Primarily I’m only learning that regarding social, cultural & economic issues I cannot learn very much.
I am on a line, with a destination – no time, whatever my desire, to concern myself greatly about the context across which the line is placed.
“To that great inconvenience which comes on the one side by immoderate and unseasonable exercise, too much solitariness and idleness on the other, must be opposed as an antidote, a moderate and seasonable use of it, and that both of body and mind, as a most material circumstance, much conducing to this cure and to the general preservation of our health.
The heavens themselves run continually around, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth and decreaseth, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us that we should ever be in action”
Robert Burton ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ 1621
But in the exercise of movement there are benefits to be gained.
Of no great significance – but an interesting curiosity – the manner in which railway level crossings protect the track with raised barriers. Are they significantly better at protection than occurs in the UK. of are they simply a means of avoiding the expense of building a bridge?
Before we reached Moscow (where there is no snow and apparently there is the warmest December for 130 years) ‘Onion-domed’ churches featured. Today (day 2) – nothing but small scale housing with some large scale new apartments/offices in Kirov.
By having had time staying in Moscow – in the centre, next to the Kremlin – and talking to locals in the hotel, restaurant etc – a sense of a Russian View on issues. By chance we met some Turkish academics by the Kremlin wall and again in Red Square (by Lenin’s Mausoleum). There was brief exchange about international politics – they were in Moscow discussing Soviet:Turkish relationships.
Now, we have moved from the stimulation of a capital city & are beginning to experience the Russian Winter.
With the time changes occurring (2 on day 2) it rather speeds up the whole process…… its dark early and there is nothing much to do on a train which seems to have almost no passengers – so having time advance itself regularly has a good feel to it.
We slept through our middle-of-the-night stop at Yekaterinburg and entered Siberia during Day 3.
DAY THREE Thursday 19th
Tyumen: over 1200miles from Moscow and in Siberia
We rouse ourselves at 08.00 as daylight begins to reveal that the weather is exactly the same as previously – grey on grey enveloped in white.
We are learning what is a Russian Winter.
We also can now confirm that there is another passenger. The occasional cough which we’ve heard has this morning become symphonic – we’ve been provided with a varied composition of several movements, in this case largely percussive in form.
However it is possible that he is Mr Stripey Trousers – a member of staff.
[we were incorrect – the Symphonic Cougher was one of the provodniks who had occupied a spare compartment. However we did discover at a later point that there were others on the train – but at this stage they were well hidden]
Maybe later today we will make an expedition to the front of the train (we are in coach 9 & the restaurant is 12 at the rear. So we may discover on our expedition that there are other life-forms existing between ourselves and the engine.
At 11.23 on 19th December we had our first glimpse of the sun: Gladilovo… apparently not far from the town of Vagina
The one piece of information leads to discovery of further little known facts: the (highly unlikely) possible Saxon origins of Genghis Khan
This part of the journey is different from most of the rest. The views are more open – and the ground very level. It is known by some as ‘steppe’ and beyond Omsk becomes The Great Vasyugan Mire.
There is a general summary with useful pictures here.
We cross the area in the dark.
In crossing this central area Shoemaker quotes from a local professor, whose words seem prophetic in their intent (and one wonders how concerned he might be today)
“Our country affords shelter to all,” says Professor Kashchenko, “we are here living in a time which in Europe has long since passed away. Central Europe, with respect to its fauna, held a similar position about two thousand years ago, at the time of Julius Caesar, and the central zone of Russia, eight hundred years ago, at the time of Vladimir Monomakh. At present, however, evolution is more rapid, and the time is drawing nigh when the primitive but rich condition of our country, which now seems to the stranger to belong to far distant days, will in fact exist no more. Special attention must be given to this rapid transition from past to present, which is now going on, in order that it may not deprive us of the many advantages of our wild nature, possessing a charm of her own. All her living creatures should be carefully preserved, not only because they are useful, but also because they adorn nature equally with ourselves.”
Excerpt From: Shoemaker, Michael Myers, 1853-1924. “The great Siberian railway from St. Petersburg to Pekin”. Apple Books.
One of those places names known since childhood – just a name on a railway line, like ‘Thirsk’ but very much larger & further away (my specific memory was ‘Omsk, Tomsk & Verkhoyansk’)
“We left Omsk by the post train which ought to have started at 0.30 p.m., according to the time table. It was only four hours late, a mere nothing in Siberia, where time is not money. As we sat waiting at the station the good news was brought us that Mafeking had been relieved. The bearer of these tidings was the Finnish Pastor, who had only an hour before received word by telegram from Finland. The Finns have all along shown great sympathy with the English with regard to the Transvaal war. Pastor Erikson met us with a hearty handshake and a beaming face. A burst of military music close at hand seemed very opportune to our English ears ”
Excerpt From: Annette M. B. Meakin. “A Ribbon of Iron”. Apple Books.
A coaling point for the train – and the 2 Russian staff who are travelling have a duty to ensure the process occurs swiftly and efficiently (its very manual). The cinders and ash are carried out by the carriage attendant and placed in a special bin on the platform.
Great sense of ease and relaxation as we climb aboard from the platform and know that despite having covered over 2500 Kms from Moscow we will be comfortably ‘travelling on’ for another 4 and half days – we simply having nothing to do but observe & read….. And neither are we having to be sociable….. Its a train all to ourselves (almost & at least for another day or so)
We now have a very simple life….. Somewhat cramped but lacking any complexity. Reasonably cooked food is available (though flavouring could be added to enhance the basic quality). Its evening and is very dark outside…. But we have a sense of what is there and our train presently glides along at a reasonable pace. The only major annoyance is the variable internet access – but given that on journeys on trains around even the urbanised areas of Britain there are considerable inconsistencies, the quality of service in some very remote rural distracts through which we pass, is pretty good.
So we eat nuts and raisins, sip whisky and consider carefully what time we should set out on an adventure to the restaurant. That short journey is becoming increasingly interesting – the links between the coaches are gradually filling with snow and the temperature outside means that handling the snow and ice covered metal support rails inside is inadvisable without hand covering….. Losing a layer of skin is a possibility.
Other notes from later in the day
We have just arrived in a Siberian town ‘Babarinsk’….. the whole journey marked by the simple fact of steady pace over great distance.
Difficult to describe the sheer internal wonder of being able to enjoy the grey landscape (there is no ‘landscape’), the process, which has a sort of eternal feel.
We expected western ‘travellers’…. ‘journey of a lifetime’ stuff
None….. we’ve just discovered 2 Russian passengers and know that there is another person hidden away in his compartment.
This is sheer joy
Bit of preparation (we overdid ours….. as we expected less food) and an ability not to be wanting to do anything except watch and muse…. but curiosity about what goes on at the various (bleakly empty) stations (I see the other trains…. all amazingly long distance internal ‘sleepers’).
It’s like walking across the Fens (which I’ve done a couple of times)….. Jacqui has just agreed
But rather (by a factor of thousands) bigger!
The American writer, Michael Shoemaker (previously quoted), travelled the line in 1902 and wrote
‘the outer world has rather limited notions as to what Russia does for her people’…. but then stated (of the city of Samara) ‘There is more enlightenment, more knowledge, in an American village than in this city of many institutions. Where does the fault lie? What is the reason?
Having just passed through Belarus, spent nearly 2 days in Moscow & now having travelled over 2K Kms beyond the capital, the same thoughts apply…. only made the more complex by the whole intervening actions of the C20th.
Shoemaker finishes his chapter:
‘The night descends as we glide off into the limitless spaces of Eastern Russia, and I look out into the shadows, wondering why things are as they are and wherefore are we born’
The night time journey beyond Omsk remained, as with other days, unobserved. There was no great feeling of ‘missing out’. We knew that travelling at this time of year would create long periods of darkness. We also were fairly certain that the temperatures would be low. It was surprising to have no snow in Moscow (we had prepared – unnecessarily – and disappointingly) but we also felt that the journey would be less crowded with western tourists (we were wrong – there were none – even after meeting other travellers later in the journey).
What a glorious time we were having – undisturbed, sole occupants of a train travelling from Moscow to Beijing. This experience became more and more valued as the journey continued.
Given that we were experiencing low external temperatures it was interesting to compare our position with ‘home’. In Russia we followed a line broadly relating to the 56th parallel – roughly equivalent to the Isle of Jura (highly appropriate given the ‘necessary supplies’ I had included in our baggage) & central Scotland (specifically the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh).
There were Good Reasons for our delight at being (as we thought) sole passengers on this nearly 8000 km journey. One major aspect being immediately clear during the journey & another understood as the journey entered its 4th and 5th days.
First aspect: sanitation & associated practices
Second aspect: supplies available in the restaurant
Closets, Comfort Stations & Comestibles
(Such matters being always the key issues for modern travellers, on the TranSib the following remains, for the moment, crucial)
At regular intervals (at least once a day) coal was loaded onto our carriage.
The reason: we were powered by coal – though not driven. The whole route has been electrified for many years: beginning in 1929 & completing in 2002 – fortunately ‘modernist fixations’ had already included electricity by the time the communists took power.
There are vast reserves of coal (high and low quality) along the railway route & they still power the industries (transporting iron ore in one direction – coal in another – steel making at both ends). The line may appear to pass though vast areas of empty space but it is incredibly busy with both passenger and freight traffic.
Our train is heated by coal – as is the ever hot samovar in each carriage.
Storage space is limited – so supplies are regularly provided and the ash is removed.
The operation is skilfully and swiftly managed – provodniks and provodnitsas are required to assist and one of the task of the travelling managers is to oversee the efficient delivery and loading to each carriage.
Of all the activities associated with the journey, the coal delivery stands as the most impressive. We knew that coal supplied our heating – and the walk along the platform to the train in Moscow was filled with the smell of sulphurous fires (all fully fuelled even though there were no passengers).
Memory from childhood tells me the smell was of good quality coal. In witnessing several of the coal deliveries I begin to grasp some of the technical issues that sustain the life of the ‘Express’. There is no hesitancy, each person involved in the process takes up their ‘station’ as the train arrives and the coal delivery wagon, carefully positioned, immediately begins its task. In one station the wagon was supplying 2 trains at the same time. The work, for everyone, is intense – I experience a style of manual working that has largely departed our present lives (though my farming neighbours would understand the importance & intensity of the whole process).
We’ve been travelling for 8 days. Such continuity of movement towards our destination (unusual in these modern times for most people who travel to a specific place) creates a degree of reflection on related matters.
It is about ‘lines’… in our case a ‘rail-way-line’. A ‘ribbon of iron’ (Anne Meakins). A gentle term about connection. Bruce Chatwin, who as much as anyone, saw humanity as a species on the move, expressed this in ‘Songlines’ (‘his universal human rationale for the nomadic, self-sufficient lifestyle’)
In sculptural form Richard Long begins with A Line Made by Walking
The railway as a ‘ribbon’, – it does appear as such, stretching across Eurasia. A route used by many for some form of personal gain – and maybe even ‘understanding’.
We chose the line
– are we ‘singing’ our way? (‘yes’ this is a route which has been in the head, heart and mind – its a dream line from childhood and in social culture),
– are we walking the line? – not literally – but as we travel, we pay attention (as best we can) to the route – not repeated as Long did – but with an intentional focus (beyond the casual ‘bucket-list’ purpose), that made the journey something of a ‘mark’ for us.
It is the line, our personal osmotic absorption/reaction, … it is the here and now, the ‘present’…. those are basis of what matters.
‘The Line’ provides time for reading and though the internet connection is not allowing the blog to develop with pictures it is sufficient for searches.
I am puzzled by terms encountered by those describing the landscape we are experiencing.
There appear to be 2 terms frequently used – and depending on the writer they seem to apply to the same landscape. I believe that this is because after crossing the Urals we traverse land which moves from one into the other.
Maybe it would be easier to understand the nature of the land if it was not blanketed in snow.
Steppe & Taiga
A Steppe is defined as a large area of flat unforested grassland in south-eastern Europe or Siberia.
Taiga (a Russian word) is not quite so easily summarised – but it always seems to include forest and to relate to what we are experience during this journey
Much of Day 3 seemed to be closer to ‘steppe’, whereas much of the rest of the journey seemed to be ‘taiga’ (until Mongolia where the land is most decidedly of a very arid ‘steppe’ type).
DAY FOUR: Friday 20th December
“At one end of the cheerful dining car was a Bechstein piano, and opposite to it a bookcase stocked with Russian novels; doubtless it will contain plenty of French and English books in time. On the fourth day we had an agreeable concert. Amongst the performers were a gentleman with a good tenor voice and two lady pianists of no ordinary merit. ”
Excerpt From: Annette M. B. Meakin. “A Ribbon of Iron”. Apple Books.
Not quite our experience!
Daylight is increasing.
Not much point in looking out of the window because I know what will be there…. Grey, snow, birch, pine and cedar. ‘What’s the weather like today’… the same.
The writer Michael Shoemaker had a similar but slower journey. His account was published in 1903 and his judgements provide interesting reading for those who may believe societies cannot suddenly change:
“It was somewhat picturesque in the Urals, and for me the steppes possess a decided fascination, but for most people the monotony would be appalling. For three days past we have jogged along between scraggly birch forests, shutting in the prospect save here and there.
This morning a variation occurs and we have pine forests. You who object to the journey from Richmond to Palm Beach because of its monotony should come here, or rather should never come here, where you would find monotony worse confounded, in a distance greater than from New York to San Francisco.
Personally I have enjoyed the trip, being an old traveller and always greatly interested in new countries; but, so far, I should not care to repeat it for many years, which with any other nation save Russia would mean a vast change, but I fancy a century hence will see little change in Siberia. To my thinking nothing can help this country save an absolute throwing open of her portals, a thing impossible to the Russian Government.”
Excerpt From: Shoemaker, Michael Myers, 1853-1924. “The great Siberian railway from St. Petersburg to Pekin”. Apple Books.
We’ve travelled one thousand kilometres since darkness descended at around 17.00 yesterday. We’ve had 3 stops since Omsk (2712)
Barabinsk (3040) Novosibirsk (3335) and Mariinsk (3715)….. And nothing much has changed. Though I sense, through the gloom, that the landscape has become undulating.
Kozulsky District of Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. Population: 7998
Krasnoyarsk Krai (Russian: Красноя́рский край, tr. Krasnoyarsky kray, IPA: [krəsnɐˈjarskʲɪj ˈkraj]) is a federal subject of Russia (a krai), with its administrative center in the city of Krasnoyarsk—the third-largest city in Siberia (after Novosibirsk and Omsk). Comprising half of the Siberian Federal District, Krasnoyarsk Krai is the largest krai in the Russian Federation, the second largest federal subject (after the neighboring Sakha Republic) and the third largest subnational governing body by area in the world, after Sakha and the Australian state of Western Australia. The krai covers an area of 2,339,700 square kilometers (903,400 sq mi), which is nearly one quarter the size of the entire country of Canada (the next-largest country in the world after Russia), constituting roughly 13% of the Russian Federation’s total area and containing a population of 2,828,187, or just under 2% of its population, per the 2010 Census.
The lack of any other experience other than that provided from the train would make nonsense of any judgments about the places through which we passed.
In considering the nature and context of railways it further adds to this necessary caution.
All railways have been associated with industrial development – even at the most rural level. In approaching any place via a railway is almost always to arrive through the least attractive area. In the UK routes provide views of C19th industrial housing, storage yards, railway engineering workshops, factories requiring rail links, container yards. In Edinburgh for example, where a different townscape could be viewed, the main line north manages to settle itself low in what was once the North Loch & so close to the rock bearing the castle that no view occurs. Durham is famous for its townscape view partly because it is so rare.
So – to expect anything different in Russia would be unreasonable. However there are some pointers – occurring in part through comparison with other large towns such as Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst most rail routes into cities in UK are grim, they are for most ‘western’ countries free of direct industrial pollution. Not so in Russia where chimneys still produce a very obvious unfiltered smoke.
We passed through many large cities during darkness – but with Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk it was daylight and the ‘smokestacks’ (chimneys) were busy performing their tasks – height creates ‘draw’ and increased furnace temperature plus wider distribution of flue gases and pollutants – sharing their poison with a wide group of recipients.
Closets, Comfort Stations, & Comestibles
We had read that the significance was well beyond that of providing food.
The restaurant car provides a unique social base for your train adventure. Day or night it is a place you can relax with a drink or a coffee and try to communicate with other travellers.
The above may be the case for many trains – but until Irkutsk we found ourselves, at whatever time of day, dining alone.
The socially uninterrupted nature of the journey through days 1 – 4 was a considerable blessing.
This was an attached extra to the train – and changed at national boundaries.
The Russian car therefore stayed with us for most of the journey – as did the staff.
On our first morning (technically ‘Day 2’) we decided to find out who else may be on the train and made our way along the train to the restaurant at the rear. We neither saw, nor heard, nor found any evidence of other passengers and arrived at a completely empty dining car.
An empty space with 2 members of staff on duty. One seemed to be the formal waitress and the other….?… probably the cook.
This situation was simply astonishing – it was so different to everything we had researched. I guess that I was quietly desiring that such a situation could be replicated in the other more regularly used services at home (very occasionally that does happen).
There were other Russian staff members who used the restaurant – 2 men who seemed to supervise the progress of the train, check tickets, passports & ensure efficiency of platform management at stations – and this crew also had its own provodnitsa.
We were warned (largely by web based writers) that the food available on the train was likely to be of poor quality.
Reading menus was also mentioned as a major difficulty.
So careful preparations were made with purchase of ‘cup-a-soups’, porridge, noodles & other meals capable of being created by addition of the boiling water from the constantly available supply in the ‘samovar at the end of the carriage.
Breakfast was to be our first culinary adventure – what strange delights awaited us – and would we be able to understand the menu descriptions if any such were provided?
As with other aspects of the journey, it would seem that much has changed in a comparatively short time.
The menu is an indicator of the wider changes noticed.
Fairly recent photos and descriptions have been superseded: trains are now timetabled in local time (not ‘Moscow’ time), new trains and engines have appeared (the ‘talgo’ train is not just special to the Moscow – Berlin operation), the Russian Railways web site is available in English and usable for reservations, engines and carriages have been renovated and no longer is there a ‘kaleidoscopic’ approach to carriage paintwork – all seen exhibited the new brand image.
So – far from being puzzled & confused, we easily ordered food (pointing at the Russian version of the menu)
Omelette, called in the English translation ‘scrambled egg … and quality is fine – much better than reports have suggested (on reading the Russian its clear that what they advertise, in native language: омлет is what we get: ‘omlette’)
Then back to compartment for our own made porridge…. Glutinously grim, grimly glutinous
We become regular visitors to the restaurant – and until Irkutsk, seemingly the only customers.
The menu is extensive
– but what is available is less so.
There are whole sections of the menu (as above) that are irrelevant to this train – but its the style that for once, impresses. Whatever may be the reality, the introduction of new branding, inside and out, is encouraging of the spirit – both for staff and customers (well…. at least these customers). The worst that can be said for the food is that it was somewhat bland. The style – and presentation (in some examples sizzlingly hot cast-iron platters) surprises us and clearly pleases the staff presenting it.
There was also a very decent Kuban wine available to accompany meals. However it was of limited quantity. Thankfully there were no other diners and the supplies, supplemented with very limited numbers of bottles from Spain and France, were sufficient for the whole Russian section of the journey.
The contrast in appearance with a meal being served, at the same time as one of ours, to the grandchildren in Scotland, reflects very positively on the Trans-Sib restaurant (though we lacked the bananas & the flavour of ours was bland)
Our regular appearances at the restaurant, combined with the lack of other passengers, led to the development of very friendly relationships with the staff. As in any British pub, we became ‘regulars’ – and benefited from such.
There were two specific incidents. One was surprising – but something of a revelation as to the working conditions of the staff (who stayed with the train until the Mongolian border at the end of day 5).
We arrived for breakfast shortly after the official opening time & to everyone’s surprise I managed to catch one of the staff at their ablutions: the dining car benches, it seemed, were also their overnight sleeping accommodation. There was considerable embarrassment for us all. I retreated rapidly and did not return until well after 10.00 by which time I’d used Google Translate – and went directly behind the bar & into the restaurant kitchen – stating to the 3 ladies assembled there (the Russian provotnitsa had joined the others), at once and without pause:
“мы были слишком рано, примите мои извинения”
There were immediate friendly smiles (not the expected quizzical response) – I’m surprised, was my Russian pronunciation sufficient for no further attempt to be made (was I simply being ‘humoured’?)… were they simply ‘charmed’ at being ‘attended to’?
“We were too early, please accept my apologies”
I retreated to my usual seat – and breakfast was duly served.
Maybe incidents such as these can help build relationships. A friend from York, many years ago said: ‘its always good for morale when people you are working with see you make a mistake’. I guess that my genuine concern expressed through the apology, helped create a positive relationship. Given that later in the journey we had the waitress teaching us Russian, we may assume so. но я такой медленный ученик
[but I’m such slow learner]
The second incident occurred at Naushki, the last station before Mongolian border and at which the Russian restaurant was detached. We had made our final visit to the restaurant car in the kilometres approaching the border.
aving, over the past few days, consumed all the Russian wine (it was a very limited supply) had become aware of a half bottle of Cotes du Rhone & Chianti. These we (the ‘we’ being now supplemented by a German student and 2 other Brits) consumed with our final meal.
Having (over previous days) consumed all the Russian wine (it was a very limited supply) & having become aware of half bottles of Cotes du Rhone & Chianti, we (the ‘we’ being now supplemented by a German student, Katy and 2 other Brits) consumed them with our final meal.
At this point, a fellow dashed (staggered) into the carriage (we realised he was someone we had seen previously – but not recently)…. he had a rolling gait – clearly the result of considerable alcohol consumption – and within what seemed like seconds had departed again, grinning in triumph, clutching a large bottle of French brandy (the only one on the shelves – as I well remember)
My companions followed him…. I went to pay & deliver what we’d agreed was a reasonably generous tip for the staff. How to calculate a 5 day tip?!… difficult to calculate, easily achieved – but what followed was not.
On arrival at the connecting door to the main portion of the train I discovered that it had been sealed. I was now ‘detached’. The restaurant was being removed from the Chinese train.
Fortunately, our friendly relationship with the staff became important – and the waitress and others managed to raise the awareness of the official personnel outside and the passageway was re-opened just before they severed the connection – and I escaped – with much waving of ‘thanks’ and on my part, a considerable sense of relief.
All change – not as a train but in style. The arrival in Mongolia was late night & departure from the border after 01.00. The restaurant car was attached at Ulaan Baator and by mid morning we were customers. There were changes – a much more friendly family feel. This was in part due to the increase in passengers – many with children. At last the train seemed to have a purpose.
Throughout Russia we had seen evidence of Christmas decoration – but were quite fascinated by the manner in which Mongolia (and later China & Taiwan) had borrowed aspects of the seasonal festival.
The dining car, without seasonal extras, is a well known decorative item on the TranSib – but festival opportunity was not ignored.
And the somewhat limited menu provided food with more flavour than that of the Russian restaurant.
Chinese restaurant: A failure
Though we were provided with a good quality free lunch & despite the general bonhomie of staff and the increased numbers of passengers (largely from Mongolia), we took no photos.
We have many taken during the 12 hour journey from the Mongolian border to Beijing – but not one of the dining car.
Krasnoyarsk did not present a particularly enticing ‘face’ (but as noted elsewhere, neither do many places – eg Paris from Eurostar), entering were large ?redundant? blocks – or being redeveloped?…. as other sites are
What could be seen seemed fairly standard for any large modern city.
… but the day was gloomy and our window increasingly dirty (some blogs have the authors managing to clean them – in once case by one person riding on the back of another…. but thbose attempts were not in winter when water would simply freeze). Temperatures were now around minus 10 degrees and lower at night and the smearing would be likely to make matters worse.
Throughout the journey a variety of individuals and groups were working to ensure that the train was functioning correctly. Here is one technician making his way along the train – and engaging occasionally in the once regular activity of ‘wheel-tapping’. A correct ringing tone indicates all is well.
This almost unnoticed technical examination is another indicator of the complex system that is a ‘railway’. This example may seem old fashioned – but for a train that is covering in one single journey nearly 8000 kms, whatever other sophisticated systems operate (and they do) to ensure the train passes on its ways in safety , the role of a professional technical expertise that is based on detailed knowledge of one single aspect of the train being examined, is extremely important. We travel successfully thanks to such unseen experts
In leaving Krasnoyarsk we travelled for several kilometres through a largely ribbon of industry
Closets, Comfort Stations, & Comestibles
The Alternative Restaurant
‘An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, any good thing to make us merry…..’
Staff and passengers need to feed. We were warned that food on the train was not of good quality. This may be a reflection of the less significant trains that travel lengthy distances but only part of the route.
Russian staff were fed in their restaurant – but the Chinese provodniks had developed a very efficient process using what seemed to be good ingredients and sharing the food preparation tasks amongst themselves. There was, during the late morning a buzz of movement as the preparations involved using several carriages.
Cooking was easy – the coal heating boiler providing a multi-function purpose
Several carriages ensured that there were several cookers
We considered suggesting to the staff that they set up a small private enterprise – as a restaurant – food delivered to the compartment door. We suspect that our idea might not have been readily understoo
There were some marketing options for such a venture. The official restaurant was at the end of the train – and as the temperature dropped the journey within the train became more hazardous.
These are old style carriages with passage between each carriage of a traditional nature – ie they are essentially linked by an outside bridge. Train movement makes crossing the space difficult – but as we travelled the space became filled with snow – and we were warned it was perilous to hold the metal handbars (one might find oneself immediately glued to the bar by ice – whilst at the same time being rattled around by the platform beneath).
This difficulty could therefore be used to advertise the benefits of the equivalent of home delivery of hot freshly prepared quality food.
The appropriate style for crossing the unpredictable movement of the passageway between carriages is
- hold the carriage door of that being left (they are plastic covered),
- make a ‘leaping stride’ in a forward movement & whilst avoiding using the metal support bars,
- immediately grasp the door handle of the carriage into which one wishes to enter.
It is appreciated that not everyone will have the physical capability to enable such a movement.
For such people, if gloves are not available, then, during the leap, it would probably be safe to quickly rest one’s hand on the upper part of the bar IF, as in the picture, there is sufficient depth of snow to prevent direct contact with the metal.
Caution must be exercised for such a manoeuvre as the unpredictable nature of movement created by the speed of the train round tight curves and over track switches (‘points’) can easily result in the unsuspecting passenger from automatically grabbing the support bar.
All passengers should have learned, before travel, the necessary action to take when assisting others who have found themselves in the unfortunate position of having their skin attached by freezing to a cold metal surface.
essential for any alternative cookery
This provides constant hot water and thus allows the passenger/chef to develop a range of exciting menus (provided the food they use only requires hot water to expand)
– though another marketing option to suggest to the provodniks might be the hiring, to passengers, of equipment & access to the stove ( provided appropriate & sufficient skills at managing open stove cooking on a rattling train have been demonstrated there is written evidence of a thoroughly reliable insurance policy)
Our Samovar ensured that we had decent coffee each morning & allowed us to use food from our (unnecessary) survival kit
Executive style dining for the Trans-Siberian railway. A Polish salami sausage added flavour to the mix.
The journey continued over an undulating landscape – more snow, more grey, more pine…
… on and on… and to twilight and all enveloping darkness
“A parting of the ways” – from the northern route
A focusing on that parting of ways.
We are travelling through Siberia.
…..its a name that for almost everyone to whom it has been mentioned has recognised it dread, dark, negative implications…. a horror.
A northern branch of the Trans-Siberian route was created from Tayshet.
The BAM: Its construction had a complex history involving forced labour (so called ‘criminals against the State’), prisoners of war & young volunteers, as well as issues of its future relating to environmental degradation (a potential warming of permafrost)
The railway is there – and its dread history is now recognised. Solzhenitsyn, who was one of the political prisoners held in this locality, wrote about the forced labour camps in Gulag Archipelago. There were approximately 300 of these used in the construction of the line.
Solzhenitsyn’s argument was that the underlying issues relating to such camps lay at the heart of the communist revolution:
Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations… Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
In Tayshet, as we pass in the dark, I am struck by the cold and horrific realisation that ‘Siberia’ was not what I imagined – a distant disconnected, empty Artic Circle sort of place but was here…. places such as this, connected, yet ‘beyond’ using the emptiness through which we’ve travelled, along a line which is now featured as a holiday destination with luxury trains
A Wikipedia article has considerable researched details. The map below is extracted
“the camps were essential as the nucleus of a system that destroyed individuality and dissolved all social bonds. Thereby, the system attempted to eliminate any capacity for resistance or self-directed action in the greater population.”
Versions of this system were used across the communist soviet world; their impact is still considerable on the societies and individuals engaged for the past 30 years in attempting to evolve something different. It is not easy.
The reality (of the negative) is emphasised by details in the guides of C19th & C20th…..
but slowly I remembered, re-engaged, deepening the shallow memory to understand that ‘Siberia’ was for me more than just ‘history’
We had neighbours (in 1974) whose children (6 in total) had died on forced marches to ‘Siberia’ (it was not permitted to feed them) & whose eventual release & travel to ‘the West’ had occurred only 20 years before.
I know not where in ‘Siberia’ they were placed…. neither do 1 know where in ‘Siberia’ were sent the relatives of colleagues with whom I’ve worked in the past 25 years.
The stories of such people emerge almost casually during informal conversations (the latest story being told me just over one month ago, in Romania, in late November 2019)
Our journey was easy. There was no struggle, no disconnection. We comfortably travel ‘the line’ connecting Mid Wales to China. It was not ‘beyond’ but ‘a part’. Metaphorically I am ‘walking the line’…. this written text becoming my ‘song’ of the line.
I travel the route, used to brutally suppress and control – established by Tsars and their successors – and until Tayshet have forgotten that this route (as track, road & railtrack & railroad) is part of what I have shared through hearing lived experiences. Suddenly it becomes not just observation but is part (distant, unfelt, casually disregarded, mere ‘story’) of my own personal history.
This realisation took time to understand…. the feeling was there as we moved through… but the full personal grasp of that of which I was becoming aware has been slow to crystallise.
Its on a line… a railway line… what of that line imprints itself on me? – or is that that I am, just now, recognising the imprint was made many years ago – a causal factor – that I am, at last, physically engaged with it?
We leave the BAM by turning south: a significant moment and thus requiring a retreat to the restaurant.
It was, as we were to discover in the morning, the last time we had the place to ourselves.
The train covers the 600kms to Irkutsk during darkness. Tayshet apparently means ‘cold river’ and another place passed in the night, Zima: ‘winter’.
My notes state:
As we paused at one of Irkutsk suburban stations the temperature was displayed
It was to become colder.
Irkutsk: There was a half-hour stop at the main station during which we observed passengers joining the train – and then occupying a compartment next to ours! Further – they were also using the train to travel to join a family member in Hong Kong – having started in Edinburgh – somewhat further away than Craven Arms (but in Siberian terms not by very much).
This place is now an important stop for tourists (Lake Baikal being 70 kms distant). It was in the C19th and early C20th a rather different sort of town – being a place where those criminalised by an oppressive Tsarist regime (‘exiles’), mixed with others less concerned about their general behaviour
“While in the station we had the Chief of Police and four men with us all the time.
That sojourn in Irkutsk marks the only instance up to date in all the dominions of Russia when I have not felt absolutely safe, but I discovered later that a like state of affairs exists to the eastward.”
Excerpt From: Shoemaker, Michael Myers, 1853-1924. “The great Siberian railway from St. Petersburg to Pekin”. Apple Books.
Tyumen was the first major centre that we passed in Siberia and a place at which those banished were held or passed through. The name ‘Siberia’ (as in ‘being sent to’) has, as mentioned above, a ‘resonance’. For those living in the ‘shadow’ of the name it was also frightening reality of a depth that westerners are unlikely to appreciate. The ‘exile’ traditions established by the Tsarist regime, evolved under Soviet control into something even deeper and darker.
“The class of exiles, playing an important part among the population of Eastern Siberia, comprise the following divisions: (i) convicts; (2) exile-settlers deprived of all civil rights; (3) persons banished for a certain period, deprived of all personal and civil rights; (4) exiled by the administration without trial. From 950 to 1000 convicts are annually forwarded by the Tiumen exile board to Eastern Siberia, to the penal settlements of the Irkutsk Government, where they are kept in the Alexander Central Prison, in the Nicholas Iron Works, and in the salterns of Irkutsk and Ust-Kutsk. The daily contingent of hard-labour convicts varies from 1400 to 2000 in the Alexander Prison, from 50 to 200 in the Nicholas Works, and from 45 to 50 in the Irkutsk State saltern.
The Irkutsk private saltern employs from 25 to 30 convicts and the Ust-Kutsk from 40 to 50.
In 1894, a considerable number of them were employed in the construction of the sixteenth section of the Mid-Siberian Railway, comprising a distance of thirty-six versts between the rivers Belaya and Kitoi. This experiment was attended by marked success.
The exile-settlers who have passed the stage of hard labour and those exiled by the Administration retain their criminal propensities, and are a heavy burden upon the local population of Siberia, which they constantly demoralise.”
The UK had similar places to Tsarist Russia – the American Colonies, especially such as Virginia, Maryland etc (as in Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’), replaced after the American Revolution by Australia. The weather was warmer but the use was similar.
Removing people from their homelands has a very ancient history & has always had the same purpose – destroying connection, community & culture.
cf the ancient Babylonish Captivity of Judaism: ‘Now, how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
The stop once again allowed for a variety of activities – largely relating to clearing ice from the wheels. This is a very necessary process – the ice increases the uneven ‘ride’ of the carriage – and from which, at times, we suffer.
The provodniks had clearly stoked up their fires before setting about their required tasks.
Daylight arrived during our time in Irkutsk – and it appeared to be opening our first day of real sunshine. Excellent news as the day includes on of the few ‘sights’ of the journey – Lake Baikal.
Originally the railway did not progress beyond Irkutsk due to the engineering complexities. Passengers were ferried across to rejoin the tracks. The winter journey was a fascination.
Shoemaker describes the crossing in detail
“THE day is clear and cold and brilliant as we get out of our train in the early morning on the shores of this famous lake. A long pier extends quite out into the water and our steamer lies at its extreme end, affording us a brisk, fresh, and very welcome walk after the confined air in the car.
A descent into the cabin and several glasses of hot tea place us in better condition to enjoy the day. Bundled in fur we are seated on the top deck with the great lake all before us.”……
“We are not on the great ice breaker Baikal. She is off up the lake clearing a pass for us, but this ship is of like construction, though smaller, and of course of less power.
We meet on this ship an English engineer, Mr. Handy, whose explanations are most interesting and who gives us some interesting photos of hereabouts. As we start I ask where we are to find passage, and he waves his hand directly towards the apparently perfect field of ice. The little ship takes on full headway quickly, and as we near the ice I notice what appears to be a broad belt of jagged ice apparently frozen solid once more. Into this our ship rushes at full speed and we hold on fast in anticipation of the coming jar, and a jar it is, but the boat is equal to the occasion and the ice parts before her. It is a wonderful sight, and most thrilling. The ship moves steadily onward, turning up great blocks of deep blue ice fifty feet long and three feet thick, which pile up on either side as high as her deck, and then fall back with a sobbing sound into the densely blue waters in our wake. One never tires of watching the churning and tearing up the vast blocks of ice. This ice is sometimes forty-eight inches thick, and then it is too much even for the great breaker, but she has cleared this pathway, breaking through some thirty-six inches and more.”
“It is a singular experience, this debarkation in the middle of the lake. The gangplank is let down and we pass out onto the ice, forgetting entirely the fathoms on fathoms of water below us.
There are a hundred or more sleighs awaiting us, some with one, some with two, and some with three horses. They are crude structures made of wood bound together, with the body of plaited straw, filled with loose straw, and covered with a robe of fur.
Into this I am bundled with my small things and, the driver mounting his post in front, we start off to the jingle of bells, not forgetting a last look at the animated scene around us; the big puffing steamer apparently frozen in solid, the pushing passengers descending from her, the crowd of men, horses, and sleighs all around, with the babel of voices, the whole surrounded by the glistening white surface of the lake. ”
“Drawn by three sturdy little horses, we fly silently along save for the bells hung on an arch over the middle horse; the two outer beasts run loose with their heads turned so that they can see the driver out of one eye. He flourishes constantly a short whip, all the while giving utterance to an encouraging cry, “No, no, no, ovah,” repeated almost constantly.
The troika is a tarantass on runners, and my mind reverts to far different scenes in Central Asia.
This air is wonderfully clear and the shore appears but a mile or so away, but we do not cover that mile for a long time. The ride is delightful and sunny, though one must keep bundled up in furs. Every now and then with an extra flourish and shout the ponies are sent forward at greater speed, and pass with a jump one of the many crevasses, sometimes a foot wide. As I look downward, I can see the black waters and feel glad that all are safely over. These crevasses are sometimes six feet wide and thus become a serious obstacle to winter traffic.”
The icebreaker: ‘Baikal’ was from Newcastle on Tyne (UK) made by Armstrong Whitworth and assembled on site at the lake. After the railway route was completed she became a general purpose ferry until a sad demise in 1918. The Czech legion, needing to keep clear their route to safety (ie the railway to Vladivostok), seized ships, loaded them with armaments and attacked the main port under Red Army control. `The ‘Baikal’, also being used as a military vessel was severely damaged. It may be that parts of the ship still rest under the lake.
For the present Trans-Sib we have a constructed rail-way. It requires climbing over or through hill ridges with ‘tunnels’ – a very unusual feature for this railway which has covered most of Russia without any burrowing at all.
After one such climb and descent, the railway reaches Lake Baikal, the oldest, largest in volume, deepest freshwater lake in the world.
A further section through the hills occurs before the railway returns to the lakeside
At Irkutsk we are joined by other passengers (5: 4 of them are British. We also discover that someone who had joined at Novosibirsk was from Alton in Hampshire. She was a wandering professional engaged in translation work employed by German agencies and her own contacts. She was using the train for preference – having travelled across from the Ukraine and intending to visit Hanoi and Vietnam. She will stop in Ulaanbaatar to obtain a Chinese visa. Two others were also using the train as a means of travel – from Edinburgh to Hong Kong to visit a brother who lives there. All 7 of us almost immediately shared a sense of being refugees from a country that no longer felt to be a suitable home.
The other passenger, Moritz, has been with us from the start. he was the wandering young person who seemed to have disappeared from the platform in Moscow. Well…. he did in a sense. He was in 2nd class and it seems, had fallen in with some Russians who were ‘drinking’: enjoying alcoholic beverages, throughout the journey. We met him during the day – and he became a regular member of our group (3 of us!) who closely associated with the Edinburgians.
Since Yekaterinburg we’ve been following the route occupied by the remarkable Czech Legion in 1918. Having become separated from allied forces after the Russian revolutions of 1917, the Legion, were to be evacuated from Vladivostok. On being threatened by Trotsky, they took control of the Trans Sib line and captured all the major cities on its length. It was in part, from fear of the approaching Legion to Yekaterinburg, that the order to kill the Russian Royal family was made. The Legion arrived one week after their deaths. External support (largely American and Japanese) was sent to Vladivostock but by the time they arrived the Czech troops had completed their move – and simply welcomed them.
Closets, Comfort Stations, Comestibles
One of those who had ‘encouraged’ me to produce a report on our journey had written:
Keep us updated on your progress and good luck with the cold – the food – the general lack of sanitation, etc, etc.
This account therefore attempts to address those issues – and what follows deals with the final part.
The curved spike of ice is the frozen liquid that occurs as a result of flushing – thus preventing the system from operating effectively.
One of the provodnik’s duties is to ensure that this blockage is removed. In order to maintain clean tracks within the station the lavatory is locked for an extended period before arrival at a station.
We discovered, through use, that our lavatory cover presented a smiling face. It had been noted by others (see video in previous section) and had been named in honour of a leading local & global politician
The following 2 pictures are of the most pleasantly scented gentlemen’s convenience encountered on the whole journey (and possibly ever). The prize for being such a pleasurable experience goes to the lavatory in the lobby of the Kolegiacki Hotel in Poznan. Congratulations!
The final section of Russian track, leading to the Mongolian Border passes through frozen countryside & the city of Ulan Ude.
In the presenting the approach to Ulan Ude I have ignored some of the usual ‘smoke-stack’ photographs which can be taken on approach to any of the towns we’ve passed.
Thoughts as we approached the town returned assessing the formulaic style of communism. Solzhenitsyn’s assessment sums up the situation:
“Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”
Now having passed through so many communist era towns in several post-communist countries I have a continual sense of tedious similarity. What I first experienced in Romania in 1990 is seen again and again – there is a planning pattern and architectural similarity that has removed any sense of ‘locale’. In France, Britain, Germany etc etc there are still some pretty ugly, dirty and unrestored industrial zones but in each case there is a local quality to the structures. Even as filthy smoke-covered eyesores they can betray something distinctive (not necessarily pleasant), something that can be used to create an interesting local feature. But in the lands in which systematised development occurred, there is simply a common shape pattern and even colour. This form of development unfortunately has now become much more common – the standardised high rise office blocks – symbols (everywhere) of the ‘new’ commercial order are replicating the failed systematised processes.
But does that matter? The cry against standardised housing developments was popularised in the ’60s: ‘Little boxes… all made out of ticky tacky… and they all look just the same’ (one of those tunes that tend to ‘stick in the ear’ – it always felt rather limp and wimpish – but does raise the issue of ‘taste’, ‘style’, ‘culture’…. and maybe seen, along with my comments above, as somewhat glib & superior)
On leaving Ulan Ude in the darkness the train climbed to the Mongolian Border – and the lengthy & tiresome process of entering Mongolia.
A Corner for the Enthusiast
One of the requests made before we left was to send pictures of locomotives.
There were many more than those I tried to capture and many of those are simply blurred images. There are steam locos that have been placed in decorative positions along the route, but usually I failed to even see them as we passed by. In one case I had read that there was a ‘strategic reserve of steam locos’ – but I missed them completely.
We have travelled south and are now approximately on the 50th Parallel north:
English Channel, Lizard peninsular, Vancouver island, Bayreuth, souther Prague, southern Krakow
The day’s route is southerly focused.
We depart the border town of Sükhbaatar approximately 3 hours after arriving on the Russian side. It is 00.15 on Day Six.
Daylight does not arrive until after we have left Ulaanbaatar at 07.30… but with its arrival we can see that everything is very different from our previous 5 days journeying.
First: its a fully sunlit day
Second: the landscape has changed – during the day, after climbing up a long valley, away from Ulaanbaatar we see very few trees.
The colours have gone from grey to a light sepia.
The above site was a considerable surprise – what seems to be a suburban British house (c.1980). There were other smaller examples
A requirement on more traditional railway systems. It was the duty of the station mistress/master to formally ‘salute’ (the baton is signalling) as an express train passes through. What does the ‘salute’ imply?
The gradual ascent, taken in a series of loops continues until levelling out – probably at around 1600/1700 metres (5000+ ft)
The ground is very dry – and with only a little snow (it looks wind-blown but apparently winters are simply very dry)
………and so it continues for approximately 200 kms
… we strolled to the restaurant and took tea (Mongolian style)
and watched this bit of the world continue to pass by
or rather we watched, as we passed this bit of the world
On several occasions, before during and after , people have expressed surprise, even admiration, at our journey across Europe and Asia.
Yet here we are in what may be regarded as the most remote part of our journey – sliding across part of the Gobi Desert, almost bored (though, in reality, never) having to make a crucial decision about how we manage the next hour or so before lunch.
The most difficult period for this chosen ‘trajectory’ was having to fulfil all the preparatory mini-trajectories that were necessary.
This musing is occurring at almost exactly the same time (UTC + 8), 2 weeks ago that we made our way to the restaurant car for a cup of tea.
After satisfying the various visa authorities (by purchasing such) the only thing left to do was to get on and get off a train at the correct places – and in the case of the train to Beijing even that aspect required no thought – join at the beginning, get off at the end.
We are well protected & fortune seems to have smiled down on us
We arrive at Choyr (temperature -14 degrees) & in the gaps between a Eurasian container train, another way of living is viewed
“Choir, about halfway between Sainshand and Ulaanbaatar, is a town with one foot in the past and the other in the future. Unfortunately the present is pretty grim…..
Around 15km north of the town is the village of Lun Bag, the site of the largest Soviet air base in Mongolia.
The Russians departed in 1992, leaving behind an eerie ghost town of concrete buildings and statues of MiG fighters. Some of the flats, which formerly housed military personnel, are now occupied by Mongolian families, but many sit empty, the windows broken, the plumbing ripped out and the walls scrawled with graffiti. The Russians left behind something else: the best paved runway in Mongolia.
To promote rapid economic growth, Choir … was declared a Free Trade Zone. Nothing much was done to promote the area; development was postponed after the change of government in 1996 and is unlikely to take place in the near future.
Nowadays Choir is the one of the railway station based small town.”
Another example of what we did not see….. presumably most people make the journey in warmer weather and consequently report the presence of platform hawkers. Apart from the Apple Hustlers of Belarus, this was the only mobile trading that we experienced on the whole journey.
Shortly after leaving Choyr there were distant sightings of animals once very common over much of the territory we’ve travelled.
If the camel we saw are ‘Wild Bactrian Camels’ then we were looking at the 8th most endangered species in the world. There are approx 1400 in Mongolia. It is more likely that we were seeing wild-ish bactrians.
The second sighting is also a rarity – though we had several sightings during the day
The Saiga Antelope: populations have fallen by 95% in the last 15 years
Unfortunately for the saiga, the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s had a disastrous impact on the rural economies of all the countries in which it is found. Widespread unemployment and poverty lead to increased hunting for food, and for trade. The opening of borders for trade with China only exacerbated this. China has a huge appetite for saiga horn, for traditional medicine.
Saynshand: a coal mining area
My notes for the day included:
The difference from yesterday is huge. So different that one stares in wonder at the altered landscape and settlement patterns. Whatever I may have considered this journey to be, at this point and presumably for the rest of the Mongolian section, I’ve become a ‘sight-seer’. The most interesting section is that taking us onto the plateau/plan that one assumes is the Gobi desert. On the plain there is so little – cattle, horses, some large goats (or are they deer?) that once again we become ‘those who pass through the land’… peregrinii.
Since aprox 09.00 we have been crossing, at steady pace, this unchanging, tree-less terrain. It is now 14.34
The sun has shone continuously & been sufficient (despite external temperatures of around mins 20, to have thawed the internal ice between the carriages.
Lunch was jolly – families and others…. And beef and chicken, very well cooked and presented.
Slight change in landscape after stop
No trees…. Just dry steppe
As daylight departs we are still in the treeless steppe…. But spot one tree at 17.20
As the sun goes, the ice creeps up the window – & temperatures drop awards -20 degrees.
Dark again – and for the last time on this journey we are put into darkness.
The darkness raises questions.
“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’ “
‘Preached before King James, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCXXII.’
Why make this journey at this time of the year when darkness so frequently envelopes the land and even when the daylight is upon us everything is covered in a blanket of snow?
Until we reached Mongolia there were very few passengers. The route, regarded as the ‘classic’ route has been ignored by international (ie non Russian/Mongolian) travellers (except ‘the 5’). Travelling is presumably preferred in more verdant times – but in place of envelopes and blankets there would be veils – as trees in leaf line the route.
But now, whatever is seen in the low grey light above the white blanket is laid bleak and bare – at times skeletal.
What a darkness it is, it feels very deep and unyielding – yet each day we’ve settled pleasantly into its arrival.
It hides so much and thus is potent – a filled space in which we move but beyond our predetermined track, into which we cannot peer – we may not know, we cannot tell.
We are embraced.
The train, charging through the night ‘encompasses’ us, it protects from the harshness of the mysterious dark, carrying us on and on. We feel that movement and whatever we may not see, have a great confidence of our progression.
We have a destination and the train, much more than any airplane could achieve, gives us a sense of our movement within & through space, passing by others – we are a humanity impelled to move.
Thus the dark also provides understanding for what is the most important aspect of this journey:
– not the sights, nor the sounds, nor the people, nor the places…. but movement & awareness of the distance we have moved.
It is maybe the experience of all travelling on such trains hurrying through the dark:
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam [snow!] over her shoulder, …
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses. ..
We travel on to the border (and unlike the ‘night mail’, no swift crossing for us) – where Mongolian officials enjoy their brief exercise of power (directed at their own). After trundling into China and the town of Erlian, we have a very long wait whilst the wheels are changed (by lifting the whole carriage off the ground and fitting new wheels) to the usual international gauge (Chinese trains also travel on the left track – as in UK)
The Chinese sensibly have set up a full entry process – and we therefore leave the train with all our baggage and are processed in very pleasant and welcoming manner by the staff.
In the long wait children play furiously – and slowly collapse. We managed to purchase a bottle of wine – and a Mongolian hero has the strength to pull the cork (which we’d all failed to do)
Our train returns at approximately 01.00 (we had arrived at the Mongolian border at 20.35 & Erlian around 21.15)
It sits on track that is arranged to allow 2 gauges to operate.. All the ice has gone – having been in warm sheds…. but not for long, the temperature is now below -20 degrees.e
Monday 23rd December 2019
(On this day we moved into our present house 43 years ago. This is the furthest we have been & the first time we’ve been away from it at Christmas)
The journey to Beijing completed in fine sunny weather.
Erlian/Erenhot is part of the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia and shares similar meteorological conditions – such cold arid winters. Though we have descended from the higher steppe/desert country the area is around 950 metres high (3000+ ft). The route to Beijing (elevation 43 metres (140+ ft) is one of gradual descent.
We are now as far south as the SE French Mediterranean Sea, Tuscany, Vermont, Oregon, Milwaukee, Georgia, Hokkaidō island.
The journey to Beijing is one of fascinating contrasts as the industrial dynamism that has been China almost ‘shouts’ at the passing train. There are the well publicised highly polluting aspects set directly alongside high tech production. All of these aspects are fitted into a landscape that demonstrates aspects of its ancient rural character – which was, until comparatively recently, the predominant aspect.
Our train is a mobile example of the early stages of that shift – but now a dated conveyance when set against the latest examples of railway development in China.
A section of the Great Wall became visible across the valley – viewed, as ever, through a dirty window & across a tangle of wires and pylons for they, the pylons, not The Wall, are the masters now.
In the C18th William Stukeley apparently suggested that it would be visible from the Moon… a view still repeated. Given the difficulty of seeing it from the other side of a valley I suspect this to be a considerable error (Test: try finding it on the satellite images used in maps)
Of pylons, love ’em or hate ’em, I have an understanding…. I would not be viewing The Wall without them…. The Wall however contributes nothing to my following this line (Line – trajectory travelled, mused over, ?sung, )
The Wall – who, what, when? Its old, a lot of people seem to want to visit it (but do they only go to the most romantic bits).
Its a wall – ok, it is in its various stages and phases, remarkably old and extremely long… what else should be expected? I’ve seen it… so what… should I walk on it? Why? What do I know about it (its built a long time ago – but `I don’t know when)? Presumably it defended a kingdom – but whose? What do I learn from having a visual encounter with it from a train? What impact does it have on me…. I can tell people I’ve ‘seen the Wall’ (but given the length – which bit?) it may impress some: why? – and why should I want to impress anyone?
Is The Wall then just a reminder of the ultimate failure of a different people at a different time, to protect themselves (though in its various forms it did function for a very long time). Why should I or anyone wish to ensure that this arrangement of stones is ‘presented’ without interference of the modern…. but I did take many photos and have tried to find one that does not have modern ‘interference’ – and failed.
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
It is, for the whole of this rail journey (starting on the day of an election in the UK, completing in authoritarian Beijing & passing through a region containing memories of much suffering) a particularly interesting question.
Old Wall – New Line…… the High Speed railway line sweeping into view
From the old
we travel to the new
as someone once wrote (for a hymn)
The new line is in part designed for the Winter Olympics. Trains begin using it on 30th December (’19) and will be driverless with speeds of up to 350 kms peer hour. It will link Zhangjiakou (which we passed just after seeing the Wall) to Beijing in 45 minutes (170+ kms. Our train continued on the old route – the course of the first indigenously constructed railway in China. The British had been pioneers – competing with most other western powers. Its a real sign of the changed role of the UK that we now have ownership of many business & high tech solutions (such as Atomic Power stations) constructed by the Chinese. This morning’s journey towards Beijing simply underscores the huge geo-political changes that have occurred in the last 20 years – and at a time when the UK has seemed to wish to continue to withdraw into itself.
The final section of the whole journey is through the most dramatic scenery on the whole route from the UK. Maybe in the darkness of Siberia we missed something equal to this – but I suspect not.
A fine and dramatic ending to the Trans-Siberian journey. The holes in the hillside above seem to indicate other routes. Our line was part of the first indigenously constructed line in China – a Celestial Effort as this article from 1935 explains
On leaving the gorge the landscape rapidly becomes urban – an extension of Beijing.
Just been told we have to strip our own bedding and put it on a rail outside the compartment – ah! Clearly a traditional ‘service-culture’…. Which is no prob, just amusing …. We were given a few sheets at the start and had to work out how to make of beds…. Not difficult as there were only 2 sheets and some ‘blankets’ already in the compartment which eventually I realised were , apart from one larger blanket, intended to be used as ‘mattresses’!
We travelled – the 7 nights seeming, at the end, too few. There are certain conclusions regarding our choices that we can quickly establish.
If we ‘ve had to travel 2nd class with others in the compartment the journey would have been pretty miserable…. No seating, just a bunk bed & very warm compartment when the doors are closed…. We were fortunate, largely empty train and able to travel with our door open to corridor throughout the day. Moritz who was positioned in an upper bunk bed found himself, after Ulaan Baator sharing with 3 others – all of whom seemed to stay in their bunks all day. He became forced, for a time, to be something of a travelling ghost, haunting the corridors seeking companionship. I cannot imagine how I would have felt – but my spectral presence in the corridors would have been very annoying to all who encountered me.
Having learned the basics of this journey I would like a second attempt…. Especially getting the internet access correct. I’ve 3 sim cards – they all seem to have run out of cash… but were supposedly well loaded to allow me to work on the web.
Maybe, despite the older train, if possible , I’d still go with the Chinese – less formal & controlling than the Russians…. All restaurants were fine. We came to know the Russian staff very well because we had several days when we were their only customers… but the Mongolians were more relaxed – a family atmosphere – and the Chinese very jolly & both had better flavoured food.
And the sanitary conditions – if it is an older ‘flush onto track’ lavatory & if it is winter then it almost certainly will block…. ours did…. but only once and we have a travelling attendant to deal with such matters. Maybe in a busy 2nd class matters would not be quite so easy – both for staff and passengers.
There are particulars to this journey (all journey have heir own ’specifics’) that added complexity – equipment , food, clothing (ours made more complicated by having to travel through temperatures down to -25, then arriving in a place, Taiwan where it might be +25). We didn’t really need the cold weather clothing as the train is always warm (short and T shirts)… but last night, being reasonably well accoutred I was able to spend time wandering around outside in a temperature of around -20).
We were overly concerned about the food… the tone of many of the blogs we read was negative – many clearly written by individuals who have minimal experience of camping type activities (or who wish to make such activities sound like ‘High Adventure’). We were excessively influenced by such writing. There was sufficient available (though maybe a crowded train would have produced shortages – as occurred with the Strizh towards the end of its journey) but our supplies were useful, allowing us to ‘cook’ and eat in our compartment.
We could have had some red wine – the temperature were not so high as to damage the quality… and given the low freezing, snow filled spaces between the carriages, during the journey I devised a secure method for keeping white wine cool (though we lacked the wine to implement it)
That I did not consider this possibility before the journey is one of my greatest regrets
We pulled into the station on time. That might seem remarkable for such a lengthy journey – but there were no difficulties – and our last stop had what might be called very generous extra allowance (we were loaded and ready to depart from Erlian an hour before the official departure time)
It is not Journey’s End – a night in Beijing and then flight to Taiwan.
As with Moscow, we had a very centrally placed hotel – close to the Forbidden City.
On Monday it is exactly that – and on Tuesday we were due at the airport by midday, so apart from a general stroll around the area, we visited nothing.
Email note to friends on arrival in Beijing:
Visiting was also made difficult due to the seemingly manic fear that the Chinese authorities have in relation to people management. It seemed that if they could create a check point, with barriers & searches, then they would.
This is not intended to deter tourists (Ha!) but rather to control their population.
We thus experienced a very curious set of circumstances – an open free-flowing city centre with large Shopping Malls containing every known expensive brand name & completely relaxed access and atmosphere but one that, in regard to any significant public building, was very formally & excessively controlled.
In such circumstances it was interesting to test the attitude of the military and police. Photography is one very obvious tool to be used… so I did.
The very sight of a camera had the forces of Law and Order twitching. No one moved to stop me carrying and displaying the camera (though they paid careful attention) – but when it was raised and used I was immediately required to ‘move along’. The military were even more sensitive and would approach (politely) and tell me that they were ‘not to be subjects of photography’ (expressed rather more briefly than that).
Curiously there seemed to be no great concern re. the use of mobile phones.
In this case, as is said: ‘I beat a hasty retreat’
The impression given by our journey to Beijing, of a very dynamic society in rapid change was reflected in other ways – such as the chaotic procedures pertaining to busy road intersections. We quickly realised that if you were facing a red light preventing movement forward it did not seem to apply if your intention was to turn right. Also motor bikes, scooters and bicycles seemed not to be governed by any regulation and simply continued their crossings in stages and as and when gaps appeared.
The other, immediate and lasting, impression was atmospheric pollution. Sufficient & above any other factor, through its physical impact on breathing, to discourage a further visit.
At the airport the mania for formalised control was paramount. Quite what this young chap could have achieved if required, is puzzling – it is as if he has been protectively surrounded by barriers. He is trying very hard to perform correctly – as demonstrated by the strain on his neck.
The Destination: 24th December
We arrived in the early evening and our hosts, probably guided in their actions by No 3 son, had decided that, as it was December 24th we should start by having an activity straight from our culture.
It was very strange – to be driven along motorways, through the high rise affluent bizzzziness of Taipei and then to be left alone outside a Cathedral (a small Episcopalian affair – this is China, Christmas does not feature except as a Santa based marketing opportunity)
There was a Christmas Eve service – in Chinese
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him
They did – and we were made very welcome.
After a long journey (12 days) and in a completely different religious culture (as I was to discover – more different than, at this moment, I understood) the service, was probably the most unexpected & surprising (and most strange?) of all the events we experienced.
(as I’ve made clear elsewhere – getting on and off trains in countries far distant from the UK, is not, for me, unusual)
We entered the Church as they were singing “O, Come Emmanuel”….
….. well that was the tune and its what we then sang in English – ‘nice voice’ said a member of the congregation from behind me.
The travels, during a period of the year when western countries are all in their slightly different ways, engaged in a social celebration called ‘Christmas’, was made the more curious & interesting by the manner in which the christmas theme occurred.
In Taiwan we were able to observe a local use of the theme largely for marketing purposes, because, we assume, many commercial interests saw a marketing opportunity. This opportunity only ever presented Santa Claus/Father Christmas, reindeer, fir trees and associated elements – never, except in the few churches that exist, was there a religious reference. Tunes were played in Shopping Malls – but again not choral and not ‘carols’ (except as tunes mixed in with random others.
No doubt in ‘faraway’ places (hotels etc) which westerners visit during their seasonal holiday ‘Christmas package’ will feature….. but culturally ‘Christmas’ does not exist.
We do not consider that we ‘celebrated Christmas’.
We find it strange, now, to be asked ‘did you have a good Christmas’ and for our answer ‘we did not ‘have’ Christmas’ to be so confusing to those who asked the question.
Are we (humans) so embedded in our own cultural norms that we cannot understand that it is possible to move outside them?
We engaged in a variety of Christmas related events (regarded with amusement by the locals who participated) but we were in a society that had no holidays, had a normal working week and which was largely preparing for the international & Chinese New Year.
Since the C19th the celebration of Christmas has grown from being an almost entirely religious event (Scotland maintained the solemnity until late in the C20th). It has gathered in traditions associated with New Year and evolved into a ‘family’ centred festival. It was fascinating to share traditions in Taiwan, which as a society is metaphorically ‘nodding its head’ in acknowledgement of this western (largely American) tradition. Given that all living traditions evolve and re-shape themselves, one may wonder how the syncretism that is now occurring will develop in future.
The Romanticised modern world has imbued some core essentials for survival, with a quality of their own. ‘Journeys’ are one of those. Travel has been made easier and can be enjoyed for its own sake. Journeys become physically goal-less. They were primarily practical visceral actions (and frequently difficult and painful). The word ‘journey’ suggest something which lasts for a day. One day is enough – to have to spend more in performing whatever task is required, is to greatly increase the effort. One day going away usually implies two (because most of us return).
Now – as increasing numbers of people make increasing numbers of journeys, the journey is often chosen for its own sake & for pleasure.
There is a particular category of popular journeying which intends to create difficulty, stress, hardship. These to be overcome – and the purpose and ‘goal’ is for the ‘traveller’ (a word from the French for ‘work’ which in English implies the need to ‘overcome’ – ‘travail’) to complete the tasks and revel in the result is the internal pleasure of ‘personal satisfaction’.
This journey to Taiwan with its lengthy section by train, was seen by some as being something within that category – one in which there is personal ‘overcoming’ of self imposed difficulty
It was not so.
The journey was a means of reaching Taiwan – it was not taken by the fastest possible means – or route. There was a sense of curiosity regarding the places, people, events that might, given the potential vicissitudes that always attend any venturing, occur en route.
That the journey was regarded as ‘testing’, slower than possible and with 6 days on one train, was of no particular concern. Many people spend time locking themselves into such journeys – and call it ‘cruising’. This journey was one, (given the very limited facilities & refreshment available) of ‘camping on a moving train’.
Camping is very difficult for some people – but not for us; it is part of what we do (when visiting grandchildren for example, we sleep in a greenhouse – one on a camp bed the other, for preference, on the floor).
We have engaged in a degree of mutual discussion & speculation arising from views & encounters made during the journey – but not much. We created a journey that would hold more interest than a 17 hour air flight provides – but that is all.
The one aspect of it that has left a considerable impression (ie beyond expectations) was the physical destination.
There were 2 elements:
- The place: Taiwan
discovering that Taiwan is both a place of ancient tradition as well as being a dynamic commercial culture described at times by the word ‘tiger’.
- The people: our new family
being engaged with their background, ideas and activities (which was the intended purpose of the visit)
The end of the journey allowed time for experience of a culture very different in many ways, to our own.
Rafi (son), in talking about how he struggles to understand his own language (Chinese) suggested that the structural differences between western and Chinese languages produced a wholly different way of conceptual thought.
Rafi was formally named ‘Raphael’. An interesting choice by his parents as what we experienced in talking to him had a sense of the original meaning of the name.
Raphael is, in the western faiths, the Archangel associated with healing (origin: ‘god who heals’).
Given the discussions we had in which we briefly were trying to understand difference, it seems a very appropriate name – the words ‘healing’ and being ‘whole’ (which is the purpose of healing) have a common linguistic origin.
Later I chatted to him about Feng Shui…. and the presence of 2 forces of movement… wind and water…that had to be balanced. We did not get much further, though he explained how one might move a plant within a house, dependent on the ‘life intention;’… ie making money then having a family (those choices interesting enough in themselves….where is the ‘societal’ – how do they combine with others?). I had not time to follow up… it was the last night and we were heading for a family ‘Peking Duck’ meal.
Our journey was as in the older sense of the word, Traditionally a ‘progress’ took time, requiring, en route, examination and assessment – as with a ‘Royal Progress’ – reviewing territory & possessions; A Judicial progress – dispensing justice.
‘It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it’ (Andrews).
We progressed – and in taking our time in covering the great distance required, gave ourselves time, we trust, to deepen our own understanding of ‘there’.
We had no further discussions with Rafi, maybe never will have….. for now I am left looking as it were, into another place… looking in at a window (yet not even close enough to see inside).
At the end of the year we travelled back, flying for 17 hours (cf 12 days outward).
It was a journey of no interest, confined to a sealed box with blinds down – and towards the end, considerable boredom.
Then back to a decent mode of transport
Across a Continent, through the snows and desert
“What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?”
The Journey was made because No 3 son & partner (they have names: Christine and Rhodri) considered that it would be very valuable for us, his parents, to visit and learn something of the background and culture of our new extended family (hugely extended… from Singapore, Sarawak, Taipei to San Francisco). To visit their home, briefly share their lives (as they have already done in visiting UK – and Sarn).
There is much more to say about the discoveries we made, so many thoughts, questions, ideas
…. but at this point just two words are sufficient to summarise Christine & Rhodri’s initial suggestion:
And a journey to celebrate this, is cause enough