Six days on a train is most definitely for everyone, if you are fidgety and in need of outside stimulation this is not for you. Also if you are used to the luxury of good quality hotels you will probably be a little dissatisfied, as even someone without particularly high standards I believe the shower there in first class was the worst place I’ve ever been! Despite that I got used to it and really enjoyed the trip, mainly because I needed some pure relaxation at the same time as detoxing myself day by day from the strict society of the western world.
Catching the train itself isn’t too difficult as it arrives at the station about half an hour early, Yaraslavsky station which I recognised on the tube station as ‘KomoComo’ as it looks similar to that in Cryllic. When you’re there you don’t need to go through the inside of the station as it’s round the back by some small shops with about 4 platforms. The area around the station isn’t great so with time to kill a restaurant/ café was our best bet.
On the train we had first class, which is far from the bourgeoisie it sounds. With just two people travelling we were happy to spend the extra rather than be in a confined compartment with two strangers for six days, apart from a shared shower between each two cabins the main other difference was more space and privacy. Oh and also some nice Chinese style fabric on the furnishings. We had air conditioning in the form of a fan but I’m not sure if this was in second class too but it was definitely a necessity round the border region of Russia/Mongolia which was roughly forty degrees.
Food was probably my worst part of the experience, due partly to my own lack of foresight by not taking Roubles in cash with me thinking the whole world accepts dollars, of course not babushkas from a small town in the middle of Siberia. This was a little foolish. Before getting on the train we had about 3 days worth of dried noodles to add hot water to but these got boring very quickly and the fruit and bread being sold reasonably cheaply on most platforms was far more appealing. Getting to the point where we had run out of dried noodles, or Big Bon, as they said on the packet (which happened to be out of date from every shop we bought them, like most other things in Russia) we went scouting more from the restaurant cart shop. After initially being told no we were taken to somebodies dorm in a back carriage who sold us some out of a big box, it felt somewhat underhand.
The restaurant cart changes for each country, the Russian one wasn’t particularly appealing but I had ham and eggs there, we had breakfast at the Mongolian one which was an omelette, as I think a lot of the meals there are. We were given free vouchers for the Chinese cart, perhaps because it was a Chinese train so we had lunch there which was some pork meatballs and vegetables, which was quite tasty. The restaurant cart isn’t particularly well and will set you back about £6-9 (which if that is your main holiday is fine but if you’re at the beginning of a large backpacking trip is quite over budget).
We soon realised that the highlights of the day were any stops which lasted longer than about 8 minutes and everyone quickly flooded the platform, saw if there was anything to photograph or buy and trickle back on. The person in the cabin next to us seemed to live for this and continually paced the corridors checking the time boards.
The scenery out of the window was spectacular and definitely the main point of the entire trip. From seeing the most isolated rural villages to stampeding wild horses, Siberian forestry to the Gobi desert. The window played out like watching a movie of civilisation (who needs Tree of Life) and gives you an amazing sense of the vastness of land and how much empty space there is, seeing absolutely nothing either way as far as the eye can see at some points. This is quite unbelievable for someone coming from England which has villages and cities nearly every ten minutes by train.
The border crossings were uncomfortable, as they always are. Between Russia and Mongolia you have two hours to wander to the supermarket and hang out in some fresh air, this was extremely hot when we were there and had some very strange large beetles flying around, but it’s good to stretch your legs. The border to China takes a long time but this is partly due to changing the wheels on the train for the different track size. When you’re finishing on the Chinese border waiting for the rest of your train to reconnect to your carriage they play classical music on speakers outside for you, when everything is ready to go there is an amazingly novel celebratory march played out, which is a great touch. In the morning when it’s light again the transformation from desert to mystical mountains is breathtaking.
The type of travellers on the train varied vastly between backpackers, families and retired couples so is definitely suitable for anyone. If you want a peaceful lazy holiday that’s not on the beach this could definitely be for you.