Of course, it seemed like a brilliant idea from the warm comfort of our spacious home. ‘Let’s take the Trans-Mongolian Railway!,’ suggested my friend and travel companion Rob (Rinder – that judge). ‘Let’s do it in winter,’ I enthused, always upping the stakes. ‘It would be an adventure! One of the greatest train journeys in the world. We started dreaming about magical Dr Zhivago landscapes, the beauty of crossing frozen Siberia and how epic it’d be to travel 4,863 miles from Moscow to Beijing by train. The week before we left, as we rushed around buying thermals, we still hadn’t really digested that we’d signed up to spend two weeks sharing a cupboard in -30°C.
We started our adventure in Moscow. For a frenetic 72 hours we ran around consuming all the culture we could, conscious we were heading into the wilderness. In barely three days, we watched bird-like ballerinas perform The Nutcracker on the Bolshoi’s pock-marked stage, from a shabby red velvet box. We toured a frosty sculpture park with its white busts of Lenin spotted with red-lipstick kisses. We crunched down icy pavements past babushkas in floor-length fur coats. I smugly whirled around in the inherited mink I was wearing courtesy of my fiancé’s deceased grandmother. (God rest her glamorous soul).
Right now, Moscow is fascinating: a city where Communism has given way to hyper-capitalism and you can watch history juxtaposed on the streets; standing at Lenin’s solemn mausoleum looking over to the designer shops of the fairy-lit Gum Shopping Centre. On the roads, individuals sit inside shiny Mercedes in a city where the beautiful stained-glass Metro was a famous Soviet project. We walked passed Moscow’s first McDonald’s as we headed to dinner at The Ritz, where oligarchs drank cocktails on the roof terrace overlooking the floodlit red Kremlin.
At the supermarket we stocked up for our trip: three litres of vodka, a bottle of Champagne, caviar. Although we minced the exchange rate. I turned around at the till to see that Rob had gone white through his usual perma-tan. He’d just calculated we’d spent almost £1,000 buying booze and fish eggs.
We enthusiastically told locals about our trip. ‘We’re here to take the famous Trans-Mongolian Railway!,’ we said. They were variously stunned, horrified and concerned. Don’t people do that in summer? Did we know taking the plane would be quicker and cost us less? ‘Yes, yes,’ we told them, repeating our line about having an adventure, each time feeling slightly less convinced.
It was almost midnight when we arrived at Yaroslavsky station. From the platform the looming steel train, with its Russian signage, looked ominous. Then we climbed onboard, saw our cabin – the size of a walk-in-wardrobe – and reality hit. I looked at the dense pile of Russian literature I’d packed and wondered which would kill us first: the boredom or the claustrophobia.
‘I’ve had the best weekend of my life in Moscow and now I’m being punished for it,’ Rob wailed. A man who gets claustrophobic in a honeymoon suite was running his eye over the two bunks, tiny table and luggage rack that was our cell block. He reached for a bottle of vodka, hit his head on the luggage rack and wailed, ‘I’m going to die!’ ‘I’m going to get done for murder on the Trans-Mongolian express,’ I snapped back, already irritated. How would we last two weeks?
In the cabin next to us was a Russian student travelling the length of the Trans-Siberian line. In the next cabin was a businessman, always on his phone. Beyond him, a mother and daughter. They kept to themselves – Russians do not indulge in meaningless small-talk like ever-embarrassed Brits.
Watching over us all like a stern mother was Elena, the provodnitsa (conductor), installed with her husband Igor in a cabin at the end of our carriage. Igor mostly ran around looking stressed, fixing toilets and vacuuming. Clearly the real power lay with Elena, who looked like an angry pug. At first, she seemed stern, punctiliously checking our tickets, but turned out to be rather sweet, bringing us chocolate and pretty silver Soviet cupholders – to make tea from the boilers at the end of the carriage – returning at bedtime with apples for us.
I fell asleep that first night rocked by the train. Rob screamed inwardly. The next morning, I woke to Narnia: forests of slim silver birches and ever-green trees, branches heavy with snow. I lay in bed watching for hours, while Rob snored along.
WE LOST TRACK OF TIME AND DAYS AS CITIES AND TIME ZONES FLEW PAST
Our first run on the train would last four days. Despite our initial complaints about space, our cabin was modern, with wall-mounted TVs and super-fast Wi-Fi. The showers were clean and hot. We lost track of time and days as cities and time zones flew past. We put on onesies, did face masks, watched the BBC’s War and Peace. Rob, stir crazy, fashioned a prison workout performing chin-ups from the luggage rack and triceps dips from the bed while I tried to read Anna Karenina. We got used to each other’s circadian rhythms, recognising when our cellmate wanted to chat and when they wanted to take a Valium and sleep. Rob decided he could tell how irritated I’d become by how charming I was. When I started calling him ‘my lovely sweet friend’ he knew trouble was coming. Mostly, we just watched the view.
Outside the monochrome similitude constantly changed. In this kind of landscape, the light is important. In early morning the sky stretched, grey-blue like the belly of an elephant. By midday the sun bounced bright off the snow. Later it fell flickering through silver birch trunks, turning their bark orange. At sunset it blushed red on the horizon, before burning out. Then we opened the vodka for pre-dinner shots.
HOW HAD THESE PEOPLE GOT HERE? HOW DID THEY SURVIVE?
Sometimes dense forests scuttled past the track, sometimes the land yawned out to white valleys and vast frozen lakes. We discovered different types of snow: sleet, skift, neve, slush. Occasionally a whirl of chimney smoke appeared then a cluster of cabins – and it felt like spotting a human on the moon. How had these people got here? How did they survive?
I loved walking through the train. I noticed most people kept their cabins spotlessly clean, folding their beds away in the daytime, dressing properly to sit neatly at tables reading books. By contrast, our cabin was a cluster-bomb of clothes, books, tea, vodka and beer cans.
We wandered around in our PJs, heading to the restaurant wearing slippers. Getting there was an ‘experience’. It meant heaving open the steel door at the end of our carriage to a shaking, shivering vestibule where you could see the train tracks rushing beneath. It was cold as a walk-in fridge and sprayed with snow, and the contrast between this and the warm modern cabins couldn’t have been more pronounced. It was the difference between two Russia’s – the modern city and the snowy abyss.
WE ATE PLATES PILED WITH HERRING AND ONION, WARMING BOWLS OF BORSCHT AND DELICIOUS, HOT, FLUFFY PANCAKES
At first this walk was terrifying. (Although we realised the frosty corridor was an excellent place to keep our vodka cold). But it was worth it. On our first trip to the restaurant we were met by male and female staff who looked like two tax inspectors who had each chewed a wasp. Does being happy interfere with making borscht? We sat at a plastic table expecting the kind of turgid microwave meal you get on the train to Manchester but instead got a banquet of fresh food. We ate plates piled with herring and onion, warming bowls of borscht and delicious, hot, fluffy pancakes served with sour cream and caviar, as forests clattered past. We went back to our beds, fat as matryoshka dolls. Soon the restaurant staff, used to us turning up in our onesies, devouring the menu and wine list and leaving happy and fat as our tip, even started smiling at us.
We got excited about station breaks. A timetable pinned to the wall showed stops at spiky-sounding cities: Omsk (above), Perm, Yashkino. Some just for minutes, others almost an hour. As the train pulled in, we’d scrabble around pulling on layers: – thermals, ski-gear, Moonboots, fur – hopping down to the snowy platform like fat toddlers trussed up in layers only to find the Russian men outside wearing shorts. We chatted to military boys smoking on the platform in -30°C with their skinny legs out. They travelled in the shared cabins further down the train, carriages of bunk beds filled with bodies and smelling of warm fish, where they stayed up at night playing cards.
On some platforms sweet, scruffy dogs begged at the train doors for food. We stood in our Moonboots giggling at how our breath billowed in the freezing air, like a kettle giving off steam. Women wrapped in thick layers approached us selling strange frozen-solid food – rock-hard caviar rolls, icy fish, milky drinks – hustling us around the back of kiosks to make their illegal sales.
In Ulan Ude we rushed off the train to see Lenin’s gold statue. In Omsk, we ran and bought KFC, screaming back to the train with our fried chicken wings just in time to see Elena’s worried face. We arrived in Perm at night, where the neon-lit kiosks sold things we didn’t recognise. We bought what we hoped were milk and bread. And a beer called Baltika 9, which Russians recommended to us. Later we discovered this was been a sarcastic joke; Russian’s humour is drier than Brits. Baltika 9 is the Russian equivalent of Special Brew. It’s thick as toffee and laced with vodka. I tried a sip and almost vomited. Rob, however, keen to prove he was as hard as Russian men, started getting through three a night, becoming progressively more relaxed company as he drank.
IT WAS SO COLD MY EYELASHES FROZE, MY IPHONE TURNED OFF AND MY NOSE ERUPTED IN BLOOD
We had our longest stop in Siberia’s cultural capital, Irkutsk, visiting cold churches with frescos of gold-haloed icons. It was so cold the trees looked like ice-skeletons. So cold my eyelashes froze, my iPhone turned off and my nose erupted in blood. When we got to Lake Baikal it was too cold for the ski lift to operate so we hiked up beside the lake. We were the only tourists there. ‘No one really visits when it’s this cold,’ our guide explained. I wiped blood off my face and understood why. Still, I was glad as we stood alone looking down on the clouds floating over the lake, surrounded by trees fluttering with multi-coloured ribbons left as shamanic prayers.
Rob, who’d been drinking Baltika 9 for days, was now convinced he was a fully fledged Russian. In the market he bit the head off an omul fish, surprising even the fishmongers, and sending them into fits of giggles. He drank vodka shots for lunch, then insisted we found a banya, throwing himself naked into the ice-cold lake.
Rob was in his element in Russia. In Mongolia, I found I was in mine. We knew the Mongolian border was coming when, back on the train, a woman snuck into our cabin and pulled a wad of money out from her pants; apparently operating an illegal strip-booth bureau de change.
In Ulaanbaatar, after buying an obscene amount of cashmere, we made our way out of the city to a snowy-nowhere to spend the night in a traditional hand-painted ger tent, kept toasty warm by a pot-bellied stove and protected by a fluffy crew of mountain dogs. We ate fatty mutton cooked on hot stones called khorkog. ‘It’s like Glastonbury,’ I said to Rob. ‘That’s why I don’t go,’ he replied, shivering.
READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN CONDÉ NAST TRAVELLER: https://www.cntraveller.com/gallery/katie-glass-on-the-trans-mongolian-railway