6000km, sausage-eating Russians, countless birch trees, warm Siberia, spectacular Altai Mountains
I like sitting on the train. I always have...despite the totally dysfunctional German railway system. But generally, sitting on the train for a few hours and looking out the window is a very relaxing and calming experience for me, a chance to escape the constant rush of everyday life and collect my thoughts.
After making our way from Munich to Moscow with all means of transportation, often via hitchhiking, we were very much looking forward to the Trans-Siberian adventure. A 6000 km train ride ahead of us from Moscow to Eastern Siberia and eventually Ulan Bator in Mongolia.
To keep it in perspective, it is a regular train, similar to a western European night train. With the difference being, that when you travel third class like us, there are no closed cabins and you are sleeping in a wagon full of snoring and sausage eating Russians.
For clarification, there is no single Trans-Siberian train. There are several trains going everyday and it is a normal means of transportation for the average Russian worker and family. If you really wanted to, you could sit on the train 100 for 9 days and you would reach Vladivostok without leaving the train once. Not very tempting… Since we didn´t want to plan our trip beforehand we decided to always buy tickets for the next destination where we want to take a break. Sitting on a train for 24 hours, always traveling east, passing one time zone after another and feeling the steadily increasing distance from home, is difficult to put in words. You sit, you read, you talk, you eat, you sleep, you think, you write while a quite unspectacular monotonous mostly flat landscape filled with birch trees is passing by. After more than 20 hours, however, when your nostrils can´t ignore the foul reeking mixture of sausage, sweat and sleep anymore and your lungs are screaming for oxygen, then you know you are ready for a break.
Our first two stops where Perm, a city of 1 Mio people on the edge of the European continent and Yekaterinburg, a city of 1,5 Mio. already on the Asian continent. The Ural Mountains, one of the world´s oldest mountain ranges, form part of the conventional boundary between the two continents. Let me ask you a question: How many Russian cities apart from Moscow, St. Petersburg and maybe Vladivostok, do you know? We felt quite ignorant discovering that one big city after another would expect us on our journey to the east, none of which we have ever heard of. But 140 Mio. Russians must obviously live and work somewhere – and it´s definitely not between the birch woods…
It feels quite unreal to realize that we are traveling through Siberia and it is nothing like we pictured it. Not that we had any certain expectation, but as a naive westerner, you just have this picture of Siberia always being cold, dark and totally disconnected from the „normal“ world. How far from the truth! It´s May, summer is about to begin. When we arrived in Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and the 3rd largest city in Russia, we were welcomed with 17C° degrees. Looking at the architecture, the stores and labels, and how people dress, you can see and feel a mixture of old eastern traditions and modern western influences.
Nonetheless, we desperately needed a city break, so when arriving in Novosibirsk, we decided to spend a few days in the Altai Mountains that are nearby. Nearby meaning 800km to the south – a 24 hour trip – which is indeed a stone´s throw in Siberian standards. The Altai mountain range is divided between Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The places that are difficult to reach are often the once most worthwhile. This proved to be right once again. We arrived at the base camp of the Aktru glacier just before season start. Stunning nature, superb hiking, spectacular views, breathtaking silence and meaningful conversations about life with a retired programmer who found peace and belonging in the mountains, made up for every kilometer of this strenuous journey into the wilderness. The pictures speak for themselves.
This morning, after a quick one-day stop in Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia, we left for our last long train journey on the Trans-Siberian. If the oxygen on the train will last and we indeed wake up tomorrow morning, we will have reached Irkutsk, at Lake Baikal, where we will spend the last days in Russia before heading to Mongolia next week.
A summery day of 28C° degrees is expecting us. Siberia keeps surprising us.
…and no Russians do not drink Vodka on the train. We were the only ones…