It is no secret that most people think that the Trans-Mongolian route is the most beautiful train route from Russia to China, although the Trans-Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok), Trans-Manchurian (Moscow to Beijing through Russia and China) are older more established routes. But it is the Trans-Mongolian that gives you the most variety in culture, experiences and scenery. It was this variety that appealed to me, that filled me with the inspiration of wanderlust to strike out and follow in the footsteps of the great European travellers whose only choice was to take the long road overland. So after an out-of-the-way excursion to St Petersburg, I picked up the trail towards the Trans-Mongolian line that would eventually take me through Siberia (including Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk), and crossing the border of Mongolia into Ulaan Baator, through the Gobi Desert and coming to rest in Beijing two countries later. For now I need to catch you up with our journey through Russia.
The next stop on the line for us was Yekaterinburg, and the first real taste of how cold a Russian winter really could be. In Moscow and St Petersburg I had seen plenty of compacted snow and ice; usually a couple of inches thick on pavements and drainpipes. But now, on a train steadily and remorselessly trudging its way through the Russian countryside, the waves of snow were piling 20 to 30 feet high alongside the tracks in big drifts penned in by the evergreen trees. Occasionally the trees would disappear and a wide-open vista would flash into view with odd ramshackle buildings and single story huts fighting to stand against the onslaught of winter.
This section of the train journey between St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg was to be around 38 hours stopping at some really rural stations, sometimes for a few minutes sometimes a couple of hours. One thing for certain was the further east we went, the colder the station thermometers got. The images of white snow outside, and knowing the temperature was dropping below -20C and then -30C you would think it would be freezing on the train. Far from it, it was absolutely surreal; being sat on a train full of hardy Russians whilst I was wearing a vest, shorts and flip-flops watching the temperature hit -40C outside. It seems to be a Russian point of pride that the trains are kept sweltering hot in winter and freezing cold in summer, the exact opposite of the world outside!
Although if you step into the end compartments by the doors, it’s like a scene from any apocalyptic Hollywood film, with thick ice that you can physically see creeping up the walls and doors.
There seemed to be a never ending battle against the elements, every station we stop at has an army of workers who come out jogging across the snow with 6 foot long metals bars. They use these to start attacking the under carriage, to break off the ice formations so the train is able to continue. Even inside we see the same. Every hour, like clockwork, the Provodnitsa took what looked like a hot water bottle and rubber pipe down to the other end of the carriage. Eventually the Russian man across from me, who I had been having a conversation with (well, we exchanged messages over Google translate), leaned across and said in a thick Russian accent ‘Hot water, toilet frozen.’ Imagine that folks, trying to use a toilet that is so cold it has frozen solid!
I may be laboring the point, but I just want you to know it was cold, even for me!
Let me back up for a moment though, Provodnitsa you ask? Who is she?
She is the carriage attendant. Every individual carriage has its own and they are usually, but not always, female. However, they always do have the most striking and eccentric haircuts you have ever seen, a real contrast to most of the Russian nation. The train carriage is the Provodnitsa’s fiefdom; she can be your greatest friend or worst enemy if you upset her. She will wake you up in the middle of the night so you don’t miss your stop, will keep the train clean, she sells food, keeps the samovars (hot water points) warm and full and will put people back in their place when needed. No-one upsets the Provodnitsa!
As it is winter the days are short, and what daylight there is, is a white blur of passing country, taking a break from this means your attention focuses on the inside. The carriages quickly become home for people, most trains are continual multi-day journeys and its easy to pick out those there for the long haul; bags are stowed away, food lovingly arranged on the table, and then out of nowhere the snoring begins! What else are you going to do on a winter’s day when you are stuck inside?
Slowly word seems to get around that there are foreigners on board, and people start drifting by in ones and twos to come and have a look at us. I know we are a curiosity travelling in Platzkartny (3rd Class), as most westerners go to the comfort of Kupe (2nd Class), which provides a cabin with a door. Whereas we are essentially in a 54 bunk dorm, we thought that we should have a real taste of how the locals travel. After spending the first few hours trying to get to know our bunk mates, a man called Dmitri and an old Grandma whose name I still can’t pronounce. The ice had been broken and we had been accepted, I spent the next 36 hours being continuously fed by ‘Grandma’ with everything from mashed potato through to cooked pigeon, she would not take no for an answer.
Trying to sleep on the train was the hardest part due to the heat, which doesn’t add up as it’s so cold outside. I had to lay on the bunk with just a pair of shorts and my back against the cold wall to try and cool down, eventually it worked but I woke up again in the middle of the night with ‘Grandma’ next door tucking me in with a blanket; sweet and kind of her but my god was it hot, not to mention a little bit weird.
We arrived in Yekaterinburg after 38 hours of restless sleeping, eating smash and noodles (anything that could be cooked with free hot water!). The only problem was the 4am arrival time. The place was empty; no taxis or public transport. With only a mile and a half to go to get to the hostel, walking was the only option. It was in this time that I discovered one amazing thing about myself. I am absolutely shocking at walking on ice, like trying to walk on a bouncy castle after doing a full day of spin classes. Put it this way, I have walked better after an Ironman than I did the early hours of that morning. I have so much thanks for my walking polls for helping keep me upright!
Yekaterinburg was a reasonably compact city with some great feats of Russian architecture in the sculptures and monuments spread around. The main reason for visiting though, is Suzie’s obsession around the Romanov family, and the history that happened here after their exile. We explored as much as we could in two hour bursts, that we discovered was our limit against the cold, within 30 minutes the batteries on our phones and cameras died from full charge. Even the hand-warmers we brought along with us froze instantly.
Overall, it was a great stopping point for the Trans Siberian, especially if you’re into your history, and especially if you don’t want to spend 7 days straight on a train!