One train, many lives

A week can seem a long time on the train from Beijing to Moscow. Fortunately for Lena Corner, the Trans-Manchurian is packed full of oddball characters
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The Independent Travel

Strange things start happening when you spend a week on a train crossing Siberia. Passengers wander around in thermal long johns. A group of elderly Russian women exercise to deafening Euro-pop in the narrow corridor. Most male passengers give up shaving; one stands in a pair of oversized shoes examining the timetable for three days. Cabin fever isn't the phrase for it. Asylum-on-wheels might be more apt.

Strange things start happening when you spend a week on a train crossing Siberia. Passengers wander around in thermal long johns. A group of elderly Russian women exercise to deafening Euro-pop in the narrow corridor. Most male passengers give up shaving; one stands in a pair of oversized shoes examining the timetable for three days. Cabin fever isn't the phrase for it. Asylum-on-wheels might be more apt.

This is off-season on the Trans-Manchurian, the lesser-known of the two trains that shuttle between Moscow and Beijing. It follows the Trans-Siberian railway from the Russian capital across the world's biggest country. But instead of taking the southerly (and more direct) route through Mongolia to China's capital, it continues east almost to the Pacific before turning through the province of Manchuria, and arriving in Beijing nearly a week later.

I am heading the other way, east to west. It is mid-February, when temperatures have been known to drop as low as -20C. There are no holidaymakers here. At this time of year, you're travelling with the people of Asia going about their business - crossing continents to visit family, or doing thousand-mile commutes in search of work. Few speak English, there's a couple of young Chinese loggers heading to a job in Irkutsk, and Diana, a Ukrainian tap dancer returning home after a seven-month contract in Beijing.

Greater Beijing, so I'm told, is roughly the size of Belgium, so as train No 19 departs from Central station just after 11pm on Saturday night, the rows of brightly lit red lanterns in people's homes, a hangover from the Chinese New Year celebrations, continue to dot the sprawling urban landscape for hours.

On board, it's straight down to business. Tickets are carefully checked, and sealed bags containing sheets and towels are delivered to passengers within minutes of boarding. The four-berth compartments are of solid Russian design, all sturdy chrome fittings and red leather banquettes, with a vase of plastic flowers on every table.

Staff hierarchy is strict. Each carriage has its own attendant who vacuums and polishes daily. They all hold master keys, so can lock toilets or open compartments on a whim. Further up the train is the captain - he has an expensive row of gold teeth, and, for the right amount of hard currency, can issue whatever ticket you may need. Another plum job is that of restaurant attendant - on the Chinese leg of the journey, at least. Ours doesn't bother himself with anything so menial as serving food. For the first three days, we live on noodles and pickled eggs.

By morning, the flat, brown, treeless landscape has given way to something more mountainous and snow-covered. Miles and miles of white land is broken only by the odd cyclist riding over a frozen lake or a tractor rumbling through the snow. We are woken by a noisy coal delivery that will keep the stoves burning all week. It's freezing outside, but on board it's T-shirt temperature.

On Monday we reach Manzhouli, the last Chinese station before the border with Russia. It's 5am and there's a flurry of activity in our compartment - someone takes our passports, someone else gives us a migration card, and another searches our compartment. All I care about is getting another five minutes of sleep. Still, I'm glad I'm not the people in the carriage next door. They've had to empty every one of their many bags, each bulging with Dorse & Gaddana "designer" goods. No wonder they'd been feasting on caviar the previous evening.

Due to differing gauge sizes in China and Russia, there's a two-hour wait at Zabaikalsk station, the first stop on the other side of the frontier, as each carriage is lifted off, one by one, and placed on a different set of wheels. There's a staff change-over, too, and back on board, the smoky restaurant-car of old has been taken over by a new regime, headed by a golden-haired waitress in a frilly apron. She serves us a smoked sausage-and-salad starter followed by delicious garlic chicken and chips, all washed down with a Baltika beer. We're getting into the swing of life on board. By now, I've learnt how to wash in the tiny sink without toppling into the toilet, and I've even started sharing a civilised afternoon tea with Diana the tap dancer.

Outside, the Siberian landscape is all birch trees, undulating hills and fairytale log cabins with smoking chimneys. Occasionally, an enormous power station flits by, belching out smoke into the cloudless sky. There are numerous clusters of oil rigs, presumably just like the ones that made Roman Abramovich his fortune. It's a forbidding landscape - you can see why the Soviets chose it as the perfect location for their gulags - but from the warmth of our carriage, intensely beautiful.

By the time we reach Ulan Ude, deep into Siberia, the local delicacy, omul - a tasty smoked fish - seems to be everywhere. It's a smell that will remain with us all the way to Moscow. In the restaurant car, we meet Helena, who is on her way back to the Siberian capital of Irkutsk after doing a language degree. It's her friend's birthday, so she has been drinking since 7am, "but it's only beer, not vodka," she protests a little too strongly. There's also another Russian returning to Irkutsk. He speaks English with an American accent as he has been studying management in Maryland. By now, we're skirting the magnificent Lake Baikal. "If the world was ever to run out of water," he points out, "this lake could supply water to the entire planet for 40 years." Baikal is over 400 miles long, the proportions are impossible to imagine. At present it is frozen, and around the edges great slabs of ice are stacked on top of each other, like immense Arctic sculptures, where the pressure from within has got too much. "In the summer there are places where it can reach 24C," he says. "Sometimes you can swim in it."

Having blown a sizeable chunk of our budget in the restaurant car, we decide to alight at Irkutsk to replenish our funds. So far, our four-day journey has cost less than £100, and, despite warnings from travel companies that it's advisable to buy through-tickets, we easily bought a ticket for the train leaving in two days. Although there's now a Benetton on Irkutsk's main drag, Karl Marx Street, there are few other reminders of our Western consumer culture, and McDonald's certainly hasn't arrived yet. Here, women stand at bus stops in fur coats drinking cans of lager. Wild-looking dogs roam the streets, vodka is a breakfast staple. Scorpion, the German metal band, played here recently, and you can see why this would be a town that likes its rock music heavy.

We meet Marsha Barkhatova, who says that her name translates as Mary Velvet, outside the art gallery. She's a student of English who comes from a place 2,000km north of here, where temperatures can drop to -50C. Today in Irkutsk, it's only -3C, so for her, it's virtually a heatwave. She takes us to the Museum of Decembrists, the pretty wooden cabin that was home to a group of 19th-century aristocratic revolutionaries. She takes us to the market, where she insists we try the asparagus salad. She shows us the stall selling bottles filled with a thick white substance. "That is fat of dog and bear," she explains. "We have a spoonful two or three times a day, to cure TB." We buy cheese, fruit and bread, and then a Calvin Klein carrier bag to put it all in. "Is it true that in England all the girls are on diets?" she asks. "And that they all have blonde hair and blue eyes?"

Two days later, we board the No 9 train to Moscow. It rolls out of Irkutsk across the magnificent Yenisey river, where a tractor sits on the frozen surface as workers mend an iron bridge. We continue past vast piles of timber and mountains of coal. An elderly Russian couple move into my compartment. They do puzzles, eat smoked fish, and barely move for three days.

The temperature is dropping, and when you step out on to the platform you can feel the moisture around your eyes and nostrils begin to freeze. In the restaurant car, they're showing a badly dubbed version of Pretty Woman, and there's a drunk face down on the table. Even the guard with a gun in his holster can't move him along.

We head into Western Siberia, and then the Urals. By now, the smell of smoked fish in our compartment is overpowering, and everyone's getting restless. Novosibirsk passes by, and then Omsk, where women wearing aprons over their fur coats sell ice creams on the platform, and skiers glide past on ancient-looking wooden skis. The food supplies in the restaurant car seem to be dwindling. The garlic chicken portion is now a quarter of its previous size, and in the sausage omelette, there's no sign of meat.

As Moscow approaches, there's a flurry of activity. The toilets are hijacked by Russian women with heads covered in rollers, and the Dorse & Gaddana counterfeit is dragged out to block the corridors. Just over six days, numerous time zones, and 8,986km (5,623 miles) later, we pull into Moscow station, 10 minutes early.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE: TRANS-MANCHURIAN

BUYING TICKETS

Conventional wisdom maintains that it is difficult to travel on the Trans-Manchurian railway without booking ahead for the entire journey. Rather than encouraging people to buy individual tickets locally, most travel companies offer packages including flights and stop-offs, but these can have mark-ups of hundreds of pounds. Lena Corner bought a ticket for a "hard" sleeper (which proved to be far from uncomfortable) in Beijing, travelling to the town of Chita in far eastern Russia for 851 yuan (£50). Once on board, she decided to continue on to Irkutsk and so booked the relevant ticket with the train captain for $47 (£30). In Irkutsk station there is a foreign-language booking office where a ticket to Moscow can be purchased for $85 (£53). The total for the trip was £133.

If you prefer to plan in advance, contact a specialist such as The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; www.trans-siberian.co.uk) which can fix everything for you, from connecting flights or trains to Moscow, to en-route accommodation and visas. The price for a basic Beijing-Moscow itinerary, including one night in the Chinese capital and two nights in the Russian capital, is £599. The company can sell flights from the UK out to Beijing and back from Moscow for around £500, which is likely to be a lot less than you can procure locally. In addition, Russian visas require you to have proof of booking through a company in Russia.

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