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Last updated 10/2/2012
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The Trans-Mongolian Railway

It might seem strange, but I was really looking forward to our five day train ride through Russia ever since that dinner with Ben in Ipoh. (We never did make it to Taiwan, though.) The idea of going by rail through Siberia and crossing from the East to the West appealed to my romantic, nostalgic imagination of what travel should be. Plus I’ve really grown fond of trains during this trip. They really are the best mode of transportation. And, more than anything else, it just felt right. Brad and I were very excited about Africa, but it never fit into our plans very well. I can’t believe we had been planning on covering all of Asia and Africa overland in six months. In retrospect, it was the most absurd idea we’ve ever had. I don’t even think it’s possible. At dinner that night in Malaysia, it just clicked in my brain that the Trans-Mongolian was perfect. Africa will be another trip.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Siberia surprised me. Actually, it reminded me of northern Wisconsin. Most of it was forest, with many birch and pine trees. There were also many purple wildflowers in bloom all over the place. We went along the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake and a World Heritage Site. It holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. I was also surprised by how many people we saw in Siberia. Maybe it was because we were coming from Mongolia, but it seemed like there were people everywhere. There were even a couple of huge cities with busy highways and skyscrapers out there.

The train itself was modern and nice. I’d say it wasn’t quite as nice as the train we took from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, though. At the beginning of our trip, we had two Mongolians as cabinmates. They didn’t speak much English, but I’m assuming it was a grandmother with her teenage grandson. At one point, the boy took out his grandma’s passport to show us that she had gone to America. We asked where in America and she answered, “Washington! Washington!” with a huge smile. As Brad mentioned in his country recap, they shared their delicious dumplings with us when the customs agents wouldn’t let them take homemade food across the border.

The grandma and grandson disembarked on the second day and we never got new cabinmates. It was nice to have our own cabin, of course, but I also would have liked to meet new people. The train was mostly empty, actually, so there wasn’t a whole lot of socializing in general. We spent our time reading, talking, looking out the window, eating, listening to music, watching movies, and playing Uno, SimCity and Tetris. I enjoyed the train ride overall, but a shower would have been nice. We were looking pretty swampy by the time we arrived in Moscow.

I’m glad we took the train. We weren’t exactly like??freight-hopping??hobos??or the
Boxcar Children, but it was still old-fashioned enough to satisfy my sentimental side.??If you’re thinking about taking it, here are Brad’s tips and things to bring:

  • Coffee mugs with coffee, tea, or hot chocolate packets. The samovar provides an unlimited supply of boiling water.
  • A big plastic bowl, plastic cutlery, and instant noodle packets.
  • Several loaves of sliced bread, sliced cheese, Nutella, and sausage are great for lunch and breakfast.
  • Eggs. To make hard boiled eggs with the samovar, add the eggs to boiling water for 15 minutes. Then drain the water and put in fresh boiling water and leave for 15 more minutes. After that pour a little cold water on them to make them easier to peel.
  • A watch. Set it to Moscow time, since the train and stations run on Moscow time everywhere in Russia. We took the train in the summer, and for our daily routine we didn???t really follow the time, rather the sun. It would be hard to force yourself to Moscow time.
  • A Kindle with 3G. Get plenty to read, and if you have 3G, you???ll be able to pick up the Internet for free while passing through the towns and cities. Some large stations do have free WiFi that you can get while stopped.
  • If you have electronics that need to be charged, there are power outlets, but they???re in the hallway. Bring a splitter, ideally with universal outlets so people from other countries can use your splitter, and a small extension cable to run under the rug to your compartment.
  • Plastic bags for garbage. You don???t want to run to the end of the car every time you need to throw something away.
  • Eye shades, especially during summer months.
  • Sandals.
  • Playing cards, UNO cards, or a chess board. Something to pass the time.
  • A Russian phrasebook. If you don???t know the Cyrillic alphabet and you???re planning to spend time in Russia or Mongolia, you???ll have plenty of time to learn it on the train. It does come in handy.
  • Warmer clothes for the train. The temperature on the train fluctuated considerably, and sometimes the air conditioning was blasting so hard we needed a long-sleeve shirt.

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