Sun 30 Jun – day 50 This was the start of week 8 and the last day of the first half of my trip.
I awoke at 05:10 hours having had (for once) a good night’s sleep on a train; there had been a couple of short stops when I had heard people moving around, but nothing to really disturb me.
As it was early I dozed off again and eventually got up at 06:00 hours. A flannel wash and shave in cold water, then cleaned my teeth and I am good to go.
We were already 750km from Beijing and having headed east during the night, were now travelling in a north-easterly direction towards Harbin.
I was surprised to see no smog, but presumed that it was dispersed by the wind from the sea which was off to the right, but too far away to see.
The train had passed through Shanhaiguan in the early hours of the morning and this was where the Great Wall reached the sea. I had not managed to catch a glimpse of the Wall on either of occasions that I went passed it.
It was a bright sunny day with just a few high clouds and this was such a difference from the smog of Beijing yesterday.
This was obviously a very fertile area with crops being produced on an industrial scale as well as in people’s back gardens. I saw a few houses with ladders up against the back wall where the occupants had climbed over in order to cultivate the small patch of land between the wall and the railway tracks – so no land is wasted.
There were the occasional low hills to the left (inland) with small clumps of trees, but no big forests.
There were lots of coal trains on the move feeding the massive power stations that we passed every 100 miles or so. These are the biggest source of the smog that lies over great parts of the country.
We made very few stops and where we did stop it was only for a minute or so, so no time to get off and have a walk.
The Provodnista came and collected my passport and when she returned it she had completed the Russian immigration card although I don’t know why.
It was great having a compartment to myself as I could close the door and snooze, or just sit and look out of the window without being bothered by anyone else. Unlike all the other trains that I have been on where the compartment doors are let open for the majority of the time so that people can see out of both sides of the train, here they were kept shut.
The Provodnista reappeared and asked for my passport as she realised that she had put the wrong arrival date on the form, so she completed another one and I then signed it.
All the way from Beijing the new high speed track has been paralleling the existing line and in places it was very visible as it marched across the countryside on an elevated track. As well as the new high speed line, every station we went through was being modernised, expanded and improved. It was as if the Chinese are doing 50+ Reading’s all at the same time and the truth was they probably were. I am also pretty certain that the regular track had been upgraded recently as the permanent way with its CWR gave a very smooth ride and the old bridge supports and embankments could been seen to the left of the train.
Harbin was the only long stop before the border so I made certain that I had been to the loo before it was locked. Our arrival was on schedule as always and once the door was opened and after the hand rail had been cleaned I went down on to the platform for a walk. Up to the front of the train, then an about face and walked right to the back, 15 carriages plus the restaurant car. Five Russian carriages, then the Chinese restaurant car, a further five Russian carriages, with five Chinese carriages at the rear; these carriages were only going as far the border city of Manzhouli and the passengers were not allowed into any part of the Vostok, including the restaurant car.
All the carriages on the Vostok were of the refurbished standard and in the new livery with the words ‘Moskva to Pekin’ in local script on the side; how one these carriages got on to the Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar service was anyones guess – not that I was complaining.
I bought a couple of bottles of coke from a vendor on the platform and they were three times the price that I had paid in Beijing and more than in Tesco’s!!
Back on board and still no one sharing – great.
We set off and the train crossed the Songhua River, a tributary of the Amur, soon after we left the station and a bridge for the new high speed line was being constructed alongside the existing structure. The construction of the new line continued onwards so I presume that the Chinese intend to build the line right up to the border at Manzhouli.
I decided to have a late lunch so made my way to the restaurant car where I was immediately became the object of curiosity as not only was I the only customer, but the only non-Chinese and everyone else was in a uniform of one sort or another except for 3 people.
The menu was written in 3 languages, Chinese, Russian and English, so I ordered stir fry beef in black bean sauce with boiled rice and a local beer. One of the 3 people not in uniform heard me speaking and asked whether I was English, answer “Yes”. “An Englishman” he exclaimed to the whole carriage and I became the centre of attraction as the 3 people in civilian clothes were reporters from the Harbin Daily News; so while I had lunch I was interviewed about my trip. I answered their questions and had my photo taken (more than once) as well as helping them with their English – “What is this word?” “How do you spell?” “What is meaning? The journalists were on the train gathering info for a feature about train travel in China in the papers weekend supplement so I was an unusual catch.
While I was having lunch it started to pour with rain and together with a very low cloud base made for a gloomy vista.
It certainly made for an interesting meal and what would have been a ½ hour lunch stretched out over couple of hours, so more time used up; the food and beer were very good.
Having paid the bill I returned to my compartment for a snooze and wondered how much longer that I would have it all to myself?
When I awoke the weather was much improved, but it had started to get dark.
The Provodnik came around and with a few hand signals and pointing to the timetable I told him that I knew that we would be arriving at the Chinese border in the early hours of tomorrow morning.
I went to bed early as the train was due to arrive at the border at 03:28hrs.
Mon 1 Jul – day 51 This was the start of the second half of my trip and I woke early as I wanted to have done my ablutions before the toilets were locked.
The Provodnik came around at 03:00hrs to wake everyone up and I think was surprised to see me up and ready to go. It was pitch black outside and he drew a picture of a cloud with raindrops and wrote 17 by the side – so it was 17° C and raining in Manzhouli; who needs to speak?
We rolled into the station on what looked like one of only two tracks in operation as there was a major refurbishment programme underway and they were working when we arrived. The Chinese officials were all at attention, but no martial music this time.
All of the passengers in the rear (Chinese) coaches got off and the train shuddered as those coaches were uncoupled and shunted away. As it was getting light you could now see the platform on the left, with the construction site that was the old part of the station and then the city beyond to the right.
At all the borders you have to sit in your compartment and let things happen around you; the security checks involved opening everything that could be opened and this even meant that the floor panels in the corridor were unscrewed and removed – nothing was found. The immigration lady in uniform and with a briefcase handed me a form to complete which I quickly filled out, the passport photo and visa were examined and off she went taking the passport with her. Another wait and then security again, they just look in and then move on, they were followed by the customs man, “Anything to declare?”, “No” and he’s off. So being the sole Englishman and non-Russian western European must mean that I was not considered suspicious.
After the officials had left, the train was shunted around to detach the Chinese restaurant car and then reattached the Russian carriages that were behind it. Back in the station the passports were returned and the Provodnik gestured for me to follow him; so I grabbed my passport, wallet and camera and off we went. He showed me where the toilets were, about as far away as possible, and a couple of small shops. The train staff were buying things that they could sell on the journey and the cashier also acted as the moneychanger.
I was having a snooze when the compartment door opened and a Chinese gent was shown in by the Provodnik, “Chita” he said and money passed between them; so buy a cheap ticket and do a deal for a berth. My solitude was ended. Lots of people were now boarding the train, but thankfully no more in this compartment.
We departed at 07:01hrs and just after we left the station there was a large building away on the left hand side which might have had many uses; on the right hand side was the now almost obligatory old steam engine.
At one point I went to take a photo of an interesting building but the Provodnik pushed my camera down as it appeared that I was just about to take a photo of the Peoples Liberation Army Northern Area HQ.
The journey across the border was done a very slow pace and the tracks were fenced in on either side; again it is like a scene from the Cold War with guard towers and electrified fences. Just before we crossed the border there was a large x-ray machine so that containers can be examined without opening them.
There were 2 flagpoles which were exactly the same distance from the border, exactly the same height and flying exactly the same size flag for each country.
Once on the Russian side of the border we went through a gate which was closed behind us and the whole train was now in a wired off area. Zabaikalsk did not look much of a place and none of the guidebooks gave it much of a reference and so it was to prove.
Security were the first officials to board, all compartments opened, floor panels up and basically everything that can be opened was. Then the immigration lady who looked stern “Stand up – face me”, you obey, she looks from your face to the passport and back at least 5 times, then “Sit down”, you obey. The Chinaman’s documents were examined by two different people before they were happy; they then departed taking the passports with them. Customs arrived, “Money?”, I hand him a list of everything I had, “Yen?”, “Japanese”, “Da”, he handed the list back and I lifted the berth, he glanced in and was happy. He then turned his attention to the Chinaman, made him lift the berth while gesturing for me to go into the corridor, he got the man to empty his suitcase and two small bags before he left. Everything was packed away and then Security returned, to me “Bunk up”, he looks in and was happy; he said something to the Chinese gent and was not happy so all the bags were emptied again before he moved on. After more repacking it was the drug search, bunk up, dog sniffs “Da”; the Chinese man was made to empty his bags for a third time before they were happy and left. I was beginning to feel sorry for him, but you can’t say anything as it was just a case of grin and bare it.
Hurry up and wait, so had a snooze, then the Provodnik gave me a shake, the immigration lady was back “Stand up – face me”, you obey, she looked from your face to the passport and back at least 5 times, then “Sit down”, you obey, she was happy so the passport was returned.
I was always being addressed first and the Chinese gent made to wait, racism? I don’t know.
Went back to relaxing, but no, everyone had to get off and as this was rushed I only had time to grab my wallet and camera. The Provodnik gestured towards the clock and town, back Moscow time 1000hrs, OK. Everyone one assumed that this was the latest time to return, how wrong we all were.
The station building was being refurbished, so dust and noise everywhere including the seating area, where there were few seats. The toilet was being refurbished, so I looked into the disabled toilet (squats) and it stank, so just had a pee and got out before I choked.
I went into town even though I was still wearing my flip-flops I walked the whole length of the main street and back again. I bought a bar of chocolate in one shop on the way out and then a kit-kat and an ice cream as I returned. I tried to find a barbers so that I could waste sometime having a haircut, but no go.
This was a one horse town and the animal was either dead or had left!!
I started to walk towards the border in order to take some photos but discretion kicked in and I return to the station.
We were not allowed back on the train and now realised that 1000hrs Moscow time was the earliest we could get on, so another 3 hours to wait.
None of the passengers were very happy and at least Manzhouli on the Chinese side of the border looked a lively place. Why was it that the Chinese border towns were booming while those in Mongolia and Russia were basically dumps?
Finally our train was shunted in the bogie changing sheds and I started to walk down to watch the operation, but a group of lads ahead of me were chased away, so it was back to walking up and down the platform.
A train on the other side of the station building was getting ready to depart to a place whose name I can’t find any reference for. A lady was waiting to board this train and she had a huge pile of luggage.
Black clouds appeared but thankfully they passed to the north, however there were a couple of short sharp showers.
When the train came out of the shed it stopped so that the luggage wagon could be filled up and then reversed to attach the restaurant car and another coach. When it arrived back at the platform the Provodnista got off by clambering down the side and headed off into the station.
We were all resigned to having to wait until 10:00 hours MT, but when she came back I think that she took pity on me and let me on board. She promptly refused access to others with a loud “Nyet”. I was grateful to be back in my compartment, so changed and got my blog up to date.
When people were allowed to board and we finally departed it had been 11 hrs 29 mins since the arrival at the Chinese border town to our departure from its Russian equivalent and in that time we had travelled a distance of 3 kms!! With some planning and a bit of cooperation this could be cut down to a maximum of four to five hours.
I don’t think that people minded the long time before departure, what they objected too was being made to leave the train for five hours with little or no notice and at a place that had nothing for them to do. I discovered this was normal practice.
Having finally got on the move again I decided to go and have a meal, so having gathered up my books and camera I walked from the second carriage from the front, to the second carriage from the rear, quite a hike. This was probably the best layout of all the Russian restaurant cars I went in and it certainly had the most up to date fixtures and fittings. I sat down and the waitress seemed to be amazed that she had a customer; a menu was produced and I ordered chicken breast stuffed with peaches, boiled spuds and veg along with a local beer. Lots of potatoes and the veg was cucumber and tomato, but the chicken was particularly tasty and the beer very good. The whole meal was very filling and with a tip cost 550 roubles. Not really worried about value for money as time in the restaurant car was a pleasant way to watch the world go by and took up an hour or so of the long journey.
It was raining heavily while I was eating, but the skies had cleared, the sun come on and it was now a pleasant evening.
Just before we reached Borzya the railway line to Choibalsan in the east of Mongolia swung off the main tracks and headed southwest. This line was used to carry coal and minerals (but no passenger trains as far as I could establish) from the vast open cast mines that were being opened up; inside Mongolia there was great concern about the possible ecological damage that may be or was being caused. The Presidential elections had taken place while I was in the country and one of the major issues was using the wealth generated from the mines to benefit the whole country and not just a few people; the incumbent finished a poor third (of three) over allegations of cronyism.
Our Mongolian guide had told us that in the mid 2000’s following 2 years of extremely bad weather during which over 80% of the nomads animals died, Russia had offered the country a loan but only on condition that the railways were given to them. She said that to their credit the Mongolian parliament voted against the proposal and with loans from China and the USA bought tens of thousands of horses, goats and sheep which were transported into the country by rail and then distributed in convoys of trucks. Now that would have been a sight.
At Borzya the locos were changed and we went from diesel to electric as the line to the border was still not yet fully electrified, although it looks as if the work was underway but making slow progress. Crowds of people have boarded the train, but no more in my compartment (as yet).
The Chinese man was sleeping, probably trying to get some rest before getting up in the middle of the night to leave the train when it reached Chita.
The views to the south were stunning as the sun was setting, but then I saw a huge bloom of black smoke and it was a huge power station built near a small town and so dominated the skyline for miles around. Definitely a blot of the landscape.
As the train made its way northwest to join the main line to Vladivostok at Tarskaya, every time the line crossed a river the tracks were on 2 separate bridges which were surrounded by wire fences and occupied guard points. It was almost as if this part of the country was on a high state of alert.
A lady from the family in the next compartment came in and climbed up in to the bunk above me; she didn’t look happy about having to share with two men. She must have dropped off to sleep directly after making her bed as there was silence from the berth. The Chinaman was grunting away in his sleep and it sounded as if he was clearing his throat before spitting.
There were a number of Asian looking Russians who boarded the train in either Harbin or Manzhouli, but since we crossed the border the train has filled up with European looking Russians who were probably descendants from the eastward migration in the late 19th and early 20th century.
I stayed up until after we reached Mogoytuy at 22:59 hours (local) where the train had a six minute stop.
Tue 2 Jul – day 52 I kept getting woken by the Chinese man opening the curtains every time that the train slowed down as I was sure that he thought he would miss his stop. The Provodnik gave him a shake 20 minutes before we reached Chita and after putting on his jacket he sat in the dark until it was time to leave. I helped him lift and secure the bunk, bags out and then he’s off. Although it was a 25 minute stop I got back in to bed. The door opened and another man entered and promptly occupied the berth that had just been vacated; at least it would be warm. The Provodnik brought in the bedding, sorted out the ticket and then left; while the man made his bed I drifted off back to sleep.
I woke a couple of times as the train jolted or juddered, but kept my eyes closed and went back to sleep.
Then it was 07:10 hours and the carriage was like a grave with not a sound to be heard. So I put on a polo shirt and headed off to the toilet with my washing kit. The first thing that I did was to open the window and that was before I had even shut the door. Having stripped off and to my absolute amazement hot water flowed out of the tap, very hot water in fact. So it was a wash all over and then used the flannel to rinse; there was a drainage hole in the toilet floor so not bothered about splashing water about. Having shaved and cleaned my teeth I now felt refreshed.
Having put the washing kit and towel back in the compartment and as everyone was still asleep I stood in the corridor to escape the smell of the great unwashed and last night’s meal.
People were so gadget obsessed that someone had plugged an extension lead in to the corridor socket and there were other extension leads running off this to charge their computers and phones etc. How the fuse didn’t blow with all the power that was being drawn I do not know.
As we got close to Khilok the Provodnik appeared and shook my hand to say good morning; having locked the toilet he then proceeded to open all the curtains in the corridor and I gave him a hand. He also unlocked and opened all the upper windows so fresh air started to flow – great.
The platform was just a strip of gravel and as we were sandwiched between two long freight trains I just stood in the doorway.
Since Borya the number of people who boarded the train in China has been steadily decreasing and I don’t think that anyone was doing the whole Beijing to Moscow trip.
A low mist had descended and as there was not much to see I returned to my compartment and worked on the blog. The sun was trying to break through was not having much luck. The temperature at Chita was 14°C, so cool, but it had been steadily rising as the day drew on.
The lady arose and a pair of legs appeared over the side of the bunk, but as she climbed down her trouser legs dropped into place, so she has slept in her clothes all night. She had to wait to go to the toilet as the train was still in the station, but once she had been, she just took her handbag and went next door.
The gent in the other lower berth opened his eyes, said something to me in Russian, so I just pointed to my chest and said ‘English’ – “Da” and he pulled the sheet back over his lead and went back to sleep.
People were stirring and the children had started to run up and down the corridor, so life returned once again to carriage No 2.
In China the Provodnista and Provodnik hardly wore their uniforms at all and the first time that I saw the Provodnik properly attired was as the train approached Manzhouli because official duty was imminent. After the formalities at Zabaikalsk he was back into scruff rig and I had not seen the Provodnista in her uniform at all.
All of a sudden the mist had lifted and there was a clear blue sky with barely a cloud to be seen.
The scenery was very Siberian with pine forest and wooden houses. For the most part the line was running on a ledge above the Khilok River and the scenery was very reminiscent of the Scottish highlands, but here the railway was electrified; with the sun out and clean air the views were great.
The speed of the train was not very high and it was easy to see that the original builders took the line that would present the least difficulties in laying track. There were very few tunnels on the Trans-Siberian route because of the expense and difficulty in building them in this terrain, especially in the winter.
The gent got up and having reached for his towel and cigarettes & lighter headed off to the end of the carriage to kick start his day.
There were a number of small villages on the river plain and the very occasional small town, most of which were in the lumber business. The sidings contained wagons filled, or waiting to be filled, with logs or sawn planks.
Eastbound freight trains passed every ten minutes or so, some were empty and this included all the car carriers, but others were hauling ISO containers bound for either Vladivostok or China.
This mist had descended again and so too had the temperature, now feeling cool.
The gent returned and delved into his bag to produce a mug plus all the makings and a packet of biscuits; so a trip to the samovar to get hot water.
The mist lifted as quickly as it had fallen; as the sun was very bright I suspect that it was warm outside, as the air-con in the carriage seems to be working overtime.
Much more habitation was becoming evident as was the strip clearance of trees from whole hillsides.
Everyone one was up and about now, but as we moved back a time zone to MT +5, I decided to have a snooze and was out for ¾ hour. Having already stripped the berth and returned the bedding, I just took my shoes off and laid on the seat.
The Provodnik in his casual rig was counting then folding the bedding before bagging it ready for the laundry; I had not seen the Provodnista for some time.
The toilets were busy as people were carrying out their ablutions and this now feels like a real Russian train as all the compartment doors are left open.
It became apparent that we are nearing civilisation when I saw a petrol station.
The Provodnik returned my ticket so it was nearly time to leave the train; we passed under the line to Ulaanbaatar which I had travelled down 19 days ago and so much has happened since then it felt like a lifetime ago.
We arrive in Ulan-Ude right on schedule and as we arrived I saw a posh looking building with hotel in Russian on it and wonder whether that is where I will be staying.
The corridor was packed as most of the passengers were getting off, but not the gent who was fast asleep nor the lady who it transpired was nothing with the family in the next compartment. Because people were not in their allocated berths, the Provodnik was putting passengers where he could. It should sort itself out now as all the passengers from the border and beyond were leaving.
Lots of people disembarked, with crowds more waiting to join the train and I was one of the last to get off. The Provodnik helped me down with my bags and I tipped him $10 which he was reluctant to take at first, but agrees in the end; he had been a great help. There was no sight of the Provodnista.