Even after seven unbroken days on a train from Moscow, nothing can prepare you for the Chinese border. As you pull into the platform, which is lit up in neon colours, a Chinese-tinged version of the Vienna Waltz comes blaring over the Tannoy. Trying to work out the cultural relevance of this is a hopeless task, as the tune soon changes – moving through the works of Richard Clayderman before finishing as you draw away with a stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. As the music fades, the train rolls into a vast shed manned with soldiers and workers in hard hats. Each carriage is then separated and raised on hydraulics, the wheels removed and new narrower ones rolled into place to match the Chinese gauges – the whole process lasting almost two hours. All while the passengers are still on board.
This isn’t the Trans-Siberian railway (which goes to Vladivostok) but its more tourist-friendly sister the Trans-Mongolian, which veers south just after Lake Baikal, stopping in Ulaan Bator on its way to Beijing. The first few days showcase the vastness of the forested Russian landscape, so that as you approach Lake Baikal early on day four, the sight of contours and water is a bit of relief – though it soon gives way to the barren steppe and then desert of Mongolia.
At times the train has quite a party atmosphere, with travellers playing cards, swapping anecdotes or eating and drinking in the restaurant car, which is replaced at each border by a new car serving food from and run by members of the country you’re passing through. The best is the Mongolian, but more for the ornate woodcarvings and wall-hangings than because the food is much to remember.
Buy your ticket in Moscow and it is probably the best-value form of intercontinental transport imagineable, especially if you get one of the two-person “first class” cabins – en-suite and complete with armchair and writing desk. Along the way you can get off at various stations to stock up on provisions sold by women from the surrounding villages. Normally they offer fresh vegetables and fruit from their gardens, dried fish and various homemade rolls, dumplings and cakes.
Cheaper than flying, many times more fun and at a fraction of the environmental cost, the Trans-Mongolian really is the epitome of the adage that it’s the journey that counts.
The best place to start researching is www.seat61.com. The weekly Trans-Mongolian train leaves Moscow for Beijing every Tuesday night. Fares start at around £220 one-way in a second-class four-berth cabin or £345 in a first-class two-berth. You can get tickets far cheaper than this (perhaps from as little as £150) if you buy them in Moscow but you’ll have to be very time-flexible and patient. Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk) is an efficient British/Russian agency that can organize the trip and process visas.