Ni hao, Beijing!

I woke up at the Datong station. I’d slept about seven hours, but decided that I wasn’t going to miss crossing this part of China. I was in a new country, and be darned if I’m not going to witness this!

Datong station

I could’ve slept longer — it was pretty dull until we got close to the mountains near Beijing. These are natural barriers over which a somewhat fairly redundant Great Wall was erected. As of yet, Chinese engineers haven’t made a massive tunnel to speed trains through to the capital. To get there, you need a second engine for the operation. The grade runs to about 4% in a few places, but that’s not the whole reason. The train actually has to reverse direction like a switchback to make it down the mountain. I’m not entirely sure why. The second engine then becomes the lead all the way to Beijing.

Finding our hotel usually ends up being a bit of a misadventure. Except in Moscow (where it was hard to miss) and Ulaan Baatar (where we were picked up), we’ve always had some difficulty finding where we were staying. Sometimes signs aren’t visible or the map isn’t clear. In this case, a whole new language, an unclear map, and no signs pretty much conspired to lead us to a nearby Novotel where the French concierge was kind enough to give us specific directions.

One of the massive roads near our hotel

The area is nice — we’re even near a rather large mall. We partook of an early dinner of noodles (and beer), which ran about Y80, or about CDN$14. I think it was a bit pricey, but Amy contends it was suitable. Having some time, we scooted over to Tiananmen Square to check it out in the setting sun.

Amy thoroughly enjoying her first meal in China

We hadn’t even gotten out of the subway when we bumped into the two folks we talked with at length during our 10 hour crossing of the Russia – Mongolia border (the girl and I recognized each other in passing; she has a distinctive nose ring). Apparently, we were on the same train, but hadn’t crossed paths this time. (Instead, we ran into two guys from University of Western Ontario’s Ivy Business School, who’d been teaching for three months in Irkutsk.)

Until now, we’ve been afforded the luxury of being the foreign tourist to completely ignore. Not here. My Canadian shirt (there’s a maple leaf emblazoned on my left shoulder) attracts a lot of attention. Within moments of trying to take a picture of one of the massive gates (huge buildings, not at all like the one in your chain like fence), a young Chinese couple came up and asked if I was Canadian. He was an English teacher, and wanted to talk to someone who spoke English, I guess. They were wonderful people, even giving us directions to an excellent dumpling restaurant that Amy and I will likely track down tomorrow. (They also told us to avoid the Peking Duck restaurant on our map; it’s well-known, but a poor value.)

Flag lowering at Tiananmen Square

Later, as we tried to watch the daily flag lowering, a young girl asked Amy and I to pose for a photo with her and a friend. Why do I suddenly feel like Brad Pitt?? About 30 minutes after that, as Amy and I tried to walk back to the subway, another couple asked if we were Europeans (we corrected them) and got into a conversation on how to get to Europe from China by train, and information about the buildings at Tiananmen Square.

We’re here. We’re tired, but we’re here. Now we just need to figure out what to do next.

Crossing the Mongolia – China border by train

Attention Lonely Planet! You might want to update your information for the next run of your Trans Siberian Railway book, ‘cuz a few things have changed.

According to Lonely Planet, the crossing from Mongolia to China takes about seven hours, during which time you can get off, change money, eat at the restaurant, and so on. However, they seem to be only covering the case that you’re crossing the border during the day. If you take train #24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing, things are a little different…

So you’ve survived the journey across the Gobi desert. It’s desolate. It’s not exactly the most interesting thing to see. Even three days of birch trees was better. You arrive at Zamin Uud, the border city in Mongolia. You’re about two hours late due to various delays along the line getting there. (Unlike Russia, Mongolia has only a single track through most of its area, and exceedingly few sidings with which to stagger train movements.) Due to late arrival, the exit process runs a bit quicker than the book suggests.

Although there is still the mandatory banging around of cars as the train is arranged for shuttling to Erlian, the Chinese border city. By the time you finally cross the invisible line, it’s dark. You can’t even see it. Arriving in Erlian, things happen pretty quickly, again. You’re still a bit behind schedule, but the shortened process in Mongolia has made up for a large portion of that time. The immigration officers come in, do their thing (one form in triplicate, two others are one-offs), and you’re tickety-boo.


One problem remains (here’s where the train stuff comes in): the train you’re on can’t run in China. Russia, for some odd reason, has a wider track gauge than pretty much everyone else (not counting narrow-gauge railways, that is) — including China. However, someone planned for this, and the process to adapt the train is fairly simple, if esoteric.

Instead of letting everyone off the train (which is what is supposed to happen — note to Lonely Planet), the entire train is backed up to a large building about a half kilometre from the station house. The building is itself about 400 metres long and at least 10 metres high (there’s a large overhead crane in there, though it wasn’t in use). The cars are divided and set next to tough-looking yellow devices firmly implanted in the thick concrete floor, four per car, one at each corner (about a metre in, actually).

Jacks used to lift cars to change bogies

The car bodies are then jacked up off of the bogies that connect them to the track. (If you’re not sure what a bogie is, look at a rail car — the bogie is the part with the wheels and the bracket that holds them in place.) The wide bogies are then pushed out in favour of narrower ones. The car bodies are then lowered back down, and you’re good to go. The process took about an hour and a half, all told, for the 10 or so cars that had to go through the process.

According to Lonely Planet, you’re supposed to be allowed to get off and watch. We had to setting to view through dirty windows. Only when the train was reformed and brought back to the station were people finally let off — 100 yard dashers don’t run that fast.

Without question the coolest thing, albeit weirdest thing, I’ve seen done to trains yet.

Crossing the Russia – Mongolia border by train

We knew this was going to be rough. We knew this was going to be long. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, but it was still long.

We took Train 364 (formerly 264) from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar. (The train itself runs Irkutsk to UB.) As we would find out, the whole train doesn’t go to Mongolia — only the cars that contain passengers going to Mongolia. We found this out when we got to the Naushki station, on the Russian/Mongilian border.

The Russians started shunting our car around. I think this was mostly to kill time. Why else would they continually back up, go forward, back up, go forward, and so forth for about an hour? Incidentally, Russian cars (as Amy and I decided) are not built for the harsh conditions of operation in Russia. They’re built to withstand the abuse from the engineers. I thought they were going to shake the whole car apart!

We finally ended up, alone, completely separate from the rest of the train:

All alone, sitting out in the open

As we would also decide later, this was because our car was the only one going to Mongolia. The other cars were part of the train that terminated at Naushki, and would return to Irkutsk with new passengers.

And so began our wait. And wait we did. It would be a few hours before we saw anyone official-like board our train. At first, it was just someone to check our passports and make sure they were in order. That was a quick check. It was easily two more hours past that before the real officials came out. (When they did, soliders closed down the platform — you couldn’t go out there until you were supposed to be out there.) While we waited, we amused ourselves by watching a pile driver:

How do these things work, anyway?

Yes, we were that bored.

With the final forms filled out (the exit customs form) and our passports, stamped, we resumed our waiting.

Six hours after we got there, we finally left, a single car towed by a lonely diesel locomotive out to Sukhbaatar, 21 kilometres inside the Mongolian border.

The station at Sukhbaatar

To wait some more.

After a couple of hours, the Mongolians started to let us in. This involved three forms (entry/exit form, health form, and customs form). After the health form was signed, we got scammed into US$10 health insurance. I’ve heard this is bogus, but we were too tired to care at that point. In between the official stamping of passports, we received a barrage of people who wanted to exchange our rubles for togrogs — which we’d already done in Naushki. They kept at is, the same people asking many times, despite us saying (more and more loudly every time) that we have none!

Finally, passports stamped (using their hands as the table for stamping, despite one being in the cabin), we finally left Sukhbaatar for Ulaan Baatar.

Total crossing time: 10 hours. Ish.

Luckily, mostly done during the day. The other way, I gather it’s mostly at night. Ugh!

More Russian train stuff

Okay, quick update…

So CWR doesn’t exist coast-to-coast. After we left Ekaterinburg, we went to jointed rail. CWR exists in patches along the line, but the most of it is the ol’ clickety-clack variety.

Lots more freight trains, too.

Russian engines are huge, but have the wimpiest horns you ever heard! Sounds like those little steam whistles on old-fashioned popcorn makers.

Fun with border crossings, part one

On May 19, we boarded train 264 from Ulan Ude in Russia to Ulaan Baatar.

Train 264

We had read that the border crossing would be an intolerable 10 hour process, typically performed in the middle of the night. To my surprise and delight (if one can be delighted at sitting on a rail car for 10 hours without moving), we cleared Naushki in only 6 hours and made it to Sukhbaatar with a decent amount of daylight.

The station house at Sukhbaatar

As Geoff already posted, sitting in the car could be painful at times… for him. I was perfectly cool, comfortable, and able to knit. So I did. I knit about half of a shawl. And it kept me pretty darn happy. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the mild weather and the train windows that actually opened! You think I’m joking, but we’ve had some fairly uncomfortable train journeys that could have been vastly improved with a bit of a breeze.

Ulan Ude, Buryatia

Well, we are here for our last non-mobile night in Russia in Ulan Ude, the capital of Russian Buryatia. We arrived last night after a too-long 7 hour daytime scenic train ride, exhausted and happy to be in a room with beds and a hot shower.

This morning, we met up with our guide from Baikal Naran Tour to head to Involgsk Datsan, the center of russian Buddhism near Ulan Ude. The Datsan (monastery/temple) was beautiful and very peaceful, and I unfortunately only took film and 35mm photos there, nothing on digital to post. I’ve been inside various Buddhist temples in Japan and Thailand and North America, but the Russian flavour was quite different, with high ceilings, quilts on the ceiling, and skylights. It was beautiful and well worth the time and effort in getting there.

After our tour ended, around 1, we walked around the downtown core of Ulan Ude. A city of almost 500,000 now, 380,000 in 2001 when our guidebook was published, Ulan Ude is large and spread out, but the downtown core is fairly compact and easy to walk.

We stopped for quite a bit at this spectacular opera and ballet theater. It reminded me more of something to be seen in Spain or Austria than in Siberia.

The main theater in Ulan Ude

Walking up Ulitsa Lenina, we strolled along another pedestrian mall and through the central market (disappointing compared to Kazan) to this church which sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.

Main Church in Ulan Ude

And of course, no tour of Ulan Ude would be complete without a visit to Russia’s largest “Head of Lenin”, dominating the central square.

Largest Lenin Head

We’ve been particularly blessed with weather. While yesterday, on the train, was dreary and rainy, today was beautifully mild and sunny.

Hot enough for sunglasses

After this quick post, we head back to the hotel to get our food and packing sorted for tomorrow’s VERY EARLY train. Leaving just before 1am Moscow time, 6am local time, it’s earlier than we’re used to on this trip. But at least we should have hot showers in the morning!

This train, I am particularly nervous about. We’ve booked the entire 4 bunk compartment, but we’ve also heard some stories from other travellers about mongolian traders trying to take over every available space in every compartment, whether or not they actually are staying in that compartment. We’re hoping to just keep the door locked and secured and hope it’s more calm than that. OK, to be honest, we’ve only heard of one traveller with this problem, a lady from Wales we met in the hotel today. Our Aussie acquaintences in Irkutsk never mentioned this problem. So, here’s hoping! Either way, I will be very glad when our guide meets us in Ulan Baatar.

Amy, communications superstar!

So, sitting in the only internet connection in all of Krasnoyarsk (or seemingly so), Amy dove into one of the sites she used extensively for planning this trip: There, she found that there was a train hitting Krasnoyarsk (roughly translated as “ass end of Russia”) in about an hour and a half from then, which could whisk us away from the cultural wasteland that is Krasnoyarsk.

(As a note, someone actually told us that Krasnoyarsk is the cultural centre of Siberia. This leads me to conclude that the person is lying or vastly misinformed, or Siberia has no culture whatsoever. Personally, I find the latter very hard to believe.)

Arriving at the train station, we bolted upstairs to the ticket office and tried to figure out which ticket booth to go to. It took a moment to realize that the four displays showing the lists of trains were for different days. We lined up for the booth selling tickets for … well, yesterday, now.

Actually, not entirely true. Amy stood in line. I went to get the bags we’d put in storage for our 18-ish hour foray into town.

Thus began Amy’s Herculean task: trying to buy train tickets without speaking Russian. Krasnoyarsk is the first place we’ve been where English is more-or-less unknown. The major catch here was to make sure that Amy and I were in the same compartment. (Neither one of us really wants to get stuck in a room with three drunk Russian men, Amy least of all.)

Try and explain the need for that when you don’t know Russian, the clerk doesn’t know English, and our handy phrasebooks don’t cover that scenario.

But Amy did it. A small notebook became a place for certain keywords (written in Russian) and drawings showing the four bunks in a room. The clerk caught on fairly quickly that we didn’t speak Russian, so did her best to try and tell us that there weren’t two bunks in second class — at least not in the same room. (If you’ve ever played charades, you’d probably have done well to decipher what went on.)

I really should have video taped this. Though not nearly as funny as Amy’s experience trying to buy yarn in Kazan, it was an amazingly frustrating thing to watch — I still don’t know how Amy did it. (I doubt I could have taped it, though, since I doubt Russians like having cameras in their ticket areas.)

Finally, after about 10 minutes, we learned that two berths in the same compartment were available — but in First Class. Certainly more money than we would have cared to spend before we left North America. However, the pain we felt in Moscow still lingering, we didn’t want to rot away in a city neither of us had taken a liking to, and the prospect of moving on earlier to Irkutsk just seemed like a far better solution.

Besides, we’ve been keeping it pretty lean with expenditures.

The #10 train is quite nice, and the First Class great if for only one reason: no-one else for us to bother, or to bother us. It’s much more relaxing.

Birch trees -- there are a *lot* of these in Siberia

Amy in the Pectopah (Restaurant) car

So Amy comes to the rescue again, and we’re now safely in Irkutsk. All we need to do is hook up with our homestay guide. This should be interesting, since his email automatically replied saying he was out of town…

Sleepy in Irkutsk

Yesterday afternoon was frantic. We caught the first bus back to the train depot and hustled to the ticket hall. Over each pair of the 8 or so “kacca” windows was an LED display listing upcoming trains and, presumably, the number of vacant seats. One such LED display listed only 1 seat in Kupe (the 4 bunk rooms we’ve been travelling in thusfar), and another said 8, so we queued up under that Kacca window.

5 minutes later, and with the baggage storage room closure time fast approaching, Geoff went to collect our bags in hope that we’d get on the train at 13:55.

10 more minutes, and the lady in front of us finished her business, leaving me to try to communicate with the ticket clerk. I had written down the train number, time, date, and number of passengers and had our passports ready. I indicated Kupe and she said something long in Russian that we chose to translate as “there aren’t two bunks in the same compartment available in Kupe, but Luxe is available.”

Luxe, another name for S.V., is the “first class” sleeper compartment, comprised of 2 beds. We said “Da!” and she wrote down the price. 6600 rubles for the two of us, about $150 CAD each. I only had 4000 on me, so I ran around the corner to the Bankomat (ATM) to grab some more cash and then back to the window to purchase our tickets with about 20 minutes to spare.

I fear that this relatively calm entry doesn’t fully express the sense of panic and adrenaline we experienced yesterday afternoon. We wanted out of Krasnoyarsk, and we wanted out BADLY.

So, with a lot of relief, we were pleased to find a pristine cabin with two bunks instead of four, and a useless flat screen tv. 2 bottles of Baltika later, we were feeling Mo Betta.

We spent the afternoon chatting and daydreaming out the window as Siberia flew by. I don’t think I’d realized how stressful and… maybe tense isn’t the right word… but quiet it can be with strangers who don’t speak the same language. But with just the two of us, it was time finally to totally relax for 18 hours.

Train 10

And in 18 hours, I didn’t knit once. I didn’t read one page of Dostoyevsky. I just snacked and talked and did a backbend on my bunk and looked out the window at the small villages and backyard farms and birch trees. Lots of birch trees.

Birches, birches everywhere

Of course, it’s not all birch trees. Sometimes you have cute wooden villages between the trees.

Cute wooden village in the distance

One of my luxury items that have proven MORE than worth their weight are my loose LuluLemon yoga pants. These have proven to be 24 hour wear on the trains and a comfortable (and comforting) slice of normalcy for me.

Shameless product shot

So now we’re in Irkutsk and needing to find a phone to call Jack about the homestay since we’re about 9 hours too early still. I just sent him a quick email and it was returned with an autoresponse saying he’s out of town. But the email isn’t dated, so I’m really hoping it’s old and he forgot to turn it off. Because otherwise, I’m not sure where we’d be sleeping/showering tonight.

Oh, a word on that. My last REAL shower was on the morning of May 9 in Moscow. The hotel in Yekaterinburg didn’t have hot water at night, and I couldn’t figure it out in the morning, so I did a quick once-over with the spray hose and washed my hair the first night. And I think I washed my hair in the sink a few times in Krasnoyarsk and on the train last night. Still, I am grimy and gross and am really looking forward to a proper shower. Considering I am not much of a camper, it’s a miracle I can stand myself right now. Or that Geoff can stand me.

How to get OUT of Krasnoyarsk

We’re in Krasnoyarsk.

Went in one museum and the babuska shooed us out the door before we could go in, even though the sign said “open”. (We think.)

Heading to the train station now to try to get on faster, earlier train. Otherwise we’re here until 1:30am tonight. Yikes.

Hopefully, I won’t post again til Irkutsk!

Russian trains

A few of you are probably wondering about the Russian train system. (Okay, I imagine not really wondering about the system, but about why I haven’t posted anything about it yet.)

I never really got an appreciation for the trains back in 1989, since we were let around by guides. Now that we don’t have the luxury of someone pointing things out, we’ve had to figure it out on our own. It’s not nearly as hard as it might sound, though.

First, the Russian train system has become quite efficient — even though they’ve got not even twice the amount of track that Canada has, and a lot more land mass to serve. Schedules are set up so there is buffer time, allowing the trains to meet their scheduled stops regardless of delays. They’re not high-speed, either — I think we’ve topped out at about 100 km/h. (There is a high-speed train, but I have no idea where it runs.)

The first train we took was the ?????? ?????? (pronounced “krazny strelya” — Pavel, please correct me if I got this wrong), which is Russian for “Red Arrow”. It’s Train #1 on the schedules, and runs direct from Moscow to St. Petersburg (and vice-versa, of course, since that’s how we took it) without stops. It’s as close to a luxury train as exists here. Since then, we’ve been on a commuter train (three-person bench seating), Train #28 (Moscow – Kazan), and Train #378 (Kazan – Ekaterinburg.

The quality of the trains goes down as the train numbers get larger.

Generally, trains are several cars long — the longest has been about 19 cars, with the average about 16 or so. There is one electric locomotive at the front that does all the work. I have no idea what the horsepower is on these things, but they do a pretty decent job of hauling.

The cars are all quite heavy, which leads to a decent ride. It’s helpful that the Russians have replaced tens of thousands of kilometres of track with CWR, which offers a pretty smooth ride. Much of the replacement looks fairly recent, being within the last few years. There are still lengthy stretches of jointed rail, giving the familiar “clickety-clack” as you roll down the line.

Each car is divided into about 10 compartments, each with four bunks. The compartments are roughly 5.5 feet wide, about 6.5 feet long, and 9 feet tall. The bunks are less than two feet wide — not a lot of room to move. One set faces forward, the other reverse. One bathroom (that we’ve seen), next to the prahdavista’s (attendant’s) cabin, has a toilet that dumps onto the tracks with a sink. There’s a samovar for hot water nearby. If you’re lucky, you can convince the attendant to lower windows to keep the temperature down in the cars.

Amy in the Red Arrow

Bedrolls are rented when staying overnight for between 30 and 60 rubles, depending on phase of the moon (or some such unrelated factor). Sheets, thankfully, are delivered (upon paying the fee), clean and sealed in a plastic bag.

The attendant will notify you when your stop is coming up, in case you’re not going to the end of the line. Handy, since sometimes it’s hard to know where you are. Kilometres are marked, but unless you’ve got a rail chart (which we don’t), it’s hard to know where you are.

And for some goofy reason, all the trains run off of Moscow standard time, even though the stations are local time. I will never understand that one.