In my previous post, I explained the history behind my love for trains, and how absoulutely giddy I was to board a six-day railway journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.
I was young and naive at the time. Let us begin.
Brendan and I had hoped to buy ourselves a two-person sleeping compartment in first-class for a little comfort and privacy. But since you can't buy train tickets until 45 days before departure and tour group companies get first dibs, all the first-class compartments were sold out and we were stuck in second-class, which only offers four-person compartments. Not that I'm anti-social or anything, but you can imagine how long six days would have been with the wrong bedfellows. So we bought all four beds to have the compartment to ourselves. It actually ended up being about $100 more than two beds in first-class, but better safe than sorry, and we actually gained a bit more elbow room.
Wednesday morning came soon enough, and I went looking for the shower. We had located toilet/sink water closets on either side of our carriage, but couldn't figure out where people went to clean themselves. When I asked one of the conductors, he shrugged at me like I was nuts.
Wait, so no showers?
No showers on a six-day train?
Seriously, no showers?
I strive to be as low-maintenance as possible during my everyday life, and obviously I've had to make some pretty big concessions on this trip already. But I've never even camped for more than a day or two at a time without at least a jump in the river. How does one not shower for six days? How does one survive?
Brendan and I did a lot of reading for the first few days. I'd elaborate if I could, but that's truly all we did. Our senses were a little fried after three major cities in a row, so it was a relief to be forced to relax and admire the Siberian countryside through the window (gorgeous!). Once in a while we'd reach a stop and everyone would get off the train for a ten-minute leg stretch and to load up on goodies. Some stops had better goodies than others, but thankfully no shortage of Russian cup-o-soup (our chopsticks were tragically lost early on).
At some point, the Trans-Siberian Express splits into two routes. Travelers can either keep going due east until they reach the eastern edge of Siberia, or veer to the southeast toward China via Mongolia. The latter is actually called the Trans-Mongolian Express, and that's what we chose.
On the fourth day (Friday), we crossed the border into Mongolia. The huge plus was a new Mongolian-themed dining car (with a sweet tiki bar and free vodka shots!). The huge minus was the border crossing experience itself, which meant we were stopped and quarantined in our bunks for about five hours. You'd think a few more large, warm Chinese beers would help dull the boredom, right? So did we. But here's the problem. When the train is at a station- any station- the bathrooms are locked to keep passengers from flushing their business onto the tracks. Obviously we hadn't really thought that one through. It was painful.
Mongolia must be the only country where a majority of its residents still live in tents (or yurts, as they're referred to these days). We spotted a few guys on horseback galloping alongside the train. It's like the Wild West in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
By the fifth day (Saturday), we felt like we had quite a bit more ground to cover based on our train schedule. When I asked one of the conductors what time we were due to arrive in Beijing on Sunday afternoon, he shrugged at me like I was nuts.
We arrive in Beijing on Monday, dummy.
Seven days without a shower?
I locked myself in the bathroom and washed my hair in the sink in protest. The Korean lady waiting for the toilet was not amused.
On the sixth day (Sunday), we crossed the border into China. The experience was a lot like Mongolia's with an added bonus: since Chinese train tracks are a different size than Russian/Mongolian train tracks, each train carriage must be jacked up about ten feet into the air while a band of Chinese mechanics replaces every single set of wheels before the journey can continue. It's a holdover from the days where either China or Russia didn't want the other country invading them via railway. I forget which country. I forget a lot of things these days.
Anyway, that whole process took about eight hours. The bathrooms were locked. To pass the time I picked a fight with B, who wanted none of it and passed out on Tylenol PM instead.
On the seventh and final day (Monday), we actually got our first glimpse of the Great Wall under a blanket of fog. That incredible view was like getting a Christmas bonus after a grueling fourth quarter. Job well done, Morans. Welcome to China.
So... we made it to Beijing! It's been a little over 24 hours and I'm already in love with the restaurant down the street.
Until next time, I remain,
Sarah "I Survived the Trans-Siberian Express and All You Got Was This Lousy Story" Moran