Arrival

The Russians play a cruel trick on the jet-weary traveller. In a country where queues would at one time form at the drop of a hat, with the incumbant queuers often being unaware of what was in store at the end of the line, the first thing that greets incoming arrivals at Moscow airport is... a queue.

Two flights have arrived simultaniously, and there's only four customs cubicles open to deal with the increasingly tetchy crowd. After over an hour's slow shuffle, I'm finally face-to-face with a woman whose profession obviously offers her little joy, and hand over my passport. She takes her time. She coughs, thumbs laboriously through the pages one by one, looks up and holds my gaze for a good ten seconds, mumbles something, checks my rear profile by way


of a strategically placed mirror above my head, grumbles one final time, sighs, stamps my visa so hard my passport receives a welt, and lets me through. Welcome to the former Soviet Union.

Moscow

Moscow is a strange place. Highlights of every guide book and tourist reel are The Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral and some of the most striking architecture you're ever likely to set eyes upon. In the shadows of these imposing structures, however, are distinct signs of poverty, from babushkas who beg to soldiers sleeping in doorways. On the South side of Red Square sits the vast GUM department store, housed beneath a spectacular trio of arched glass roofs, and featuring all the names you'd expect to find in Milan or on Madison Avenue. Frederick's Of Hollywood, anyone? Unsurprsingly,


these stores are empty apart from window shoppers and the occasional tourist. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Moscow is determined to present a modern, successful, free-market face to the west -- and visibly, at least, the city does have a very modern European feel -- but has neglected to look after it's own population, instead choosing to offer millions of dollars in incentives to foreign franchises to exploit this brave new world. As a result, the highest profile retail outlets are places that the locals simply cannot afford to shop at.

Elena

The company who orgainsed my trip have a system of "buddies" in Moscow, local people whose job it is to show you the city on your own terms. If you want to sit in a bar all day that's fine, if you fancy the Russian version of Tomb Raider or a gig that's


OK too - your buddy will make sure everything goes smoothly. My companion is Elena, Moscow born and bred and fiercely proud of it. She takes me on a whirlwind tour of the city, filling me with an incredible amount of information on the way. She's full of stories of Tsars, Presidents and Princes, sieges, insurrections, uprisings and great battles. Hugely entertaining, she has a story related to almost every building we pass, and when her shift is over I want to tip her, have no idea what sort of amount might be appropriate, so don't bother and feel guilty about it for the rest of the day.

Overheard

I'm sitting in an Italian restaurant on Moscow's equivilent of Camdan High Street, filled with traders selling a combination of of typically Russian souveniers, from matrioshka dolls to "I'm with the


KGB" t-shirts. Opposite me is an American gentleman with an attractive local girl and her young son. I shouldn't be eavesdropping, but I am. It appears that the he's travelled from the US to meet this woman, having previously only encountered her online. The news that she has a child has only just been revealed to the visitor, but he's accepted the shocking truth with good grace, and all three are getting on like a house on fire. He's labouriously attempting to explain how the boy looks like a young Michael J Fox, but the blank stares suggest that this is really where the cultural divide kicks in. A long and fruitful marriage awaits back in Oklahoma no doubt, and I feel blessed to have been there at the beginning. I decide to leave them alone and wander off to buy a jews harp. It's pouring with rain.


Escape

The chaos at Yaroslavlski station is of absolutely Medievel proportions. It's almost as if the city is under siege, and everyone is desperately attempting to board the final train to safety. People are shouting, policeman are shoving passengers away from the entrance to the platform, and everywhere there are huge numbers of Mongolian traders frantically striving to stash vast quantities of goods aboard the limited space available on the carriages, most of which they'll attempt to sell during the long journey back to Ulaan Bataar. Sharing my compartment is Yoko, travelling home to Tokyo after spending three years in Leeds completing a fine arts degree. She brings a much needed degree of zen normailty to the surrounding chaos, and I figure we'll get on just fine.


Toilet Nazi

Spending five days on the Trans-Siberian isn't exactly like spending five days on the Jubilee line. The compartments are sparse but comfortable, the restaurant car serves food that, whilst perhaps not measuring up to the standards of many of London's finer eateries, certainly puts to shame anything I've ever had on a British train. Life onboard is actually very entertaining, especially when the train pulls into a station for ten or fifteen minutes, usually four or five times a day, and the traders leap into action. The range of items they're selling is staggering, from fake adidas tracksuits to crystal chandeliers and quite grotesque children's dolls. It seems that entire towns turn up to greet the train when it arrives, and for a furious quarter of an hour deals are made and prices haggled over until, without


warning or whistle, the train jerks into action and everyone scrambles back on board before it gathers too much speed. You realise how important the train must be to shoppers in the town (and how little is available locally), when you pull into a station in the middle of Siberia to find a quarter of the population wearing Titanic t-shirts from a previous train. The only serious problem we face is with our provodnista, the woman responsible for attending our carriage. She sleeps in her own compartment, and keeps the door to one of the toilets permenantly locked for her own personal use. The other toilet swiftly descends into a state of of questionable hygene, developing a floor coated in 40 different kinds of human hair and urine, but it's all we have. Meanwhile the provodnista stalks the corridor, glaring at us for any number of


imagined indiscretions, occasionally breaking into furious staccato Chinese if she's really unhappy about something we've apparently done wrong. She scares me. Just before we arrive in Ulaan Bataar I catch a glance of the inside of her own restroom, and am amazed. It is clean. It has soap. A shower head. Most miraculously, it has toliet paper. It is the lovliest room I have ever seen.

Wheel-Tapping

There's a disconcerting practice that takes place at every stop, where an employee of the railways walks the length of the train, hitting each wheel in turn with a sledgehammer. I expect that it's some kind of safety measure, as if the train is fit to continue if nothing falls away from the wheel assembly. It seems to work.


Kilometre 4239

We're approaching Zaozernaya, and to the north the sky is holding an exhibition of Walt Disney style sunsets above the Siberian forest. I start playing a game, where I close my eyes for ten seconds, then guess what colour it'll be when I open them again. Every time I look back it's another shade of purple, orange, red or blue that I've never seen before. It's incredible, and the thought occurs that changes in the light often provide the most scenic variation of the journey, as the landscape itself really doesn't alter. Before I Arrived I half expected Russia and Siberia to be bleak and barren, but they're both green, mile after mile after mile of birch, oak, linden and pine, and the occasional breaks in the treeline bordering the track are often the only changes in the view.


05.08.01

As we leave Irkutsk and the train begins to vear towards the South-East and Mongolia, the evasion process starts. Traders start swapping goods around so that individually they're not over the customs limit for a particular item, whilst in reality they all are. Outside our compartment a previously unnoticed hatch in the floor has been opened, into which is being lowered a hessian sack containing spare parts for motorcycles. It's obviously a familiar routine to most on board. The border arrives in the early hours and the crossing itself takes hours, during which time the toilets are kept locked and we're not allowed to leave the carriage. This creates a new problem, as the change in diet has left me with a severe case of diarrhea, and the ensuing hours are the most uncomfortable I've experienced.


The Ger Camp

By the time we reach Ulaanbaatar, our numbers have increased. There's a motley selection of travellers on the train, Australians, English, South African, Hong-Kong Chinese, and we've bonded over late night beers in the dining car. Now we get to spend two days in a Ger Camp on the Mongolian Steppe, in what is without doubt the most tranquil place I've ever been. The scenery seems bigger here somehow, with the sun shifting the hills into different shapes as it crawls across the sky. The first morning we walk a mile or so across the valley floor to a pair of nomad camps, where we're offered fermented mare's milk and home-made cheese and yoghurt. We stay with the nomads for a couple of hours, swapping stories and sharing snuff, before heading back to our camp. The first part of the


evening is taken up with a performance of traditional Mongolian music, the musicians performing outside as the sun settles below the horizon. The entertainment includes examples of khmööei throat-singing, traditional long-song, a contortionist, and a duet sung on horseback. It's truly remarkable. Events take a turn for the surreal as the evening progresses, as the staff lay on a party featuring a Mongolian waiter singing light Italian opera. We've added our own entertaimnent with a melon filled with vodka, and things swiftly degenerate. We experiment with alcohol till the early hours, and the promise I've made to myself to remember every moment of the day becomes an impossibility. Soon I can barely remember my own name, and stumble back to my tent, tripping over guy-ropes and waking the dogs.


On the final day we leave the camp and, as the bus lumbers out of the valley, four horsemen in traditional garb gallop alongside, shouting and waving. As goodbyes go, it's about the best I've had.

Another Border

After a night in Ulaanbaatar, we're back on the train, crossing the Gobi Desert to China. The border crossing is at night, and once again takes hours, especially as the railway guage changes here and every carriage has to be lifted into the air and new wheels slid in underneath. The oddest thing is the station building on the Chinese side. It looks immaculate, with beautifully trimmed hedges, gleaming paintwork, and a platform that seems to have been vacuumed. Inside it's a different story,


with crumbling walls, broken furnishings, and a toliet floor covered in stagnant water and sewage. Strewn around the floor are pamphlets detailng China's human rights record which, contrary to reports in the West, is actually near flawless. Pinch of salt, please. Soon the train is on the move again, passing through the Great Wall, where the tracks are lined with acres of wild marijuana. The train cirlces slowly down towards the river basin, stopping only to cool down the brakes, but no-one is brave enough to get out and grab a handful of plants, and it's factionally out of reach from the windows. Eventually we reach the valley floor and the train picks up speed, heading towards Beijing and an evening meal which serves about ten courses of delicious food (no dog or rat, sadly) and numerous drinks for about $1.50 per person.


Beijing

It's hot. I want to see Mao's tomb, but by 8am the queue in Tiananmen Square is over a mile long, so I settle for the Forbidden City. It's vast, and although I'm probably inside its walls for four or five hours, I reckon I only see about twenty percent of what's available. I spend the rest of the day wandering aimlessly round the city, ignoring the guide-book and exporing Beijing's nooks and crannies. It's a lot more Western than I expected - people here obviously have money to spend, designer brands are everywhere, and it reminds more of Tokyo that any other city I've visited. People are excited about the Olympic's coming here, and more than once a bar owner lifts a glass to me saying "come back to Beijing in 2008!" I suspect the city will do the Games proud.


Home

My flight from Beijing is delayed by an hour, which means that I'll be able to make my connecting flight to London from Amsterdam, but my baggage won't. The airline are most apologetic, and upgrade me to first class without any prompting, promising to deliver the luggage to my house the following day. This seems like an ideal solution, and I spend long haul home stretched out in front of a personal video screen that rises magically from my armrest, sipping Champagne and trying to build up enough nerve to ask for a massage. I never quite get there, and eventually fall asleep, my head dancing with images of Mongolian horses. Waking up, I want to turn round and head straight back. One day I will.


Links

The Russia Experience - this is the company who organised the trip. I'd recommend them unreservedly.

Tour Intinerary - day by day guide.

Bridge The World - the travel agent I booked through. Been using them for years, no complaints.

Leave a comment - tell me what you think.

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