On the third day, things get time-warpy for me. As we head perpetually eastward at approximately one time zone per day, the disparity between the train’s “official (Moscow) time" and “local time” grows wider. This incremental wear wreaks more havoc on the body than the sudden transcontinental flight. You cannot ignore “official time” as the entire onboard schedule of station arrivals and departures is based on it, and should you need to alight or renew a rapidly dwindling supply of food, this time reference is key. What additionally confounds things is the dining car (the only Russian element on an otherwise completely Chinese train) runs on local time and has very limited operating hours – not to mention limited food, smiles and small change.
Say you draw the blinds and sleep in till noon. If this is the fourth day on the train, it’s effectively 3 p.m. local time. As it’s winter in the far north, the sun’s zenith barely nudges above the horizon and by mid-afternoon, it’s sunset again. You awaken and before you’ve finished breakfast, it’s time for bed.
The predominant feature is the bitter cold. It drowns out the colorful villages and adds glazing to the monolithic oil-and-gas industrial plants around Omsk. Balabinsk is a brisk -25C when we pull in. I purchase some coleslaw and desert (beet salad topped with sliced apples and cream), peanut candy and beer. The food is stored in refrigerated units to prevent freezing; upon opening the lids, a whoosh of warmth emanates.
Our eastward progress finally gives way to the southern fork of the Trans-Mongolian and my most eagerly anticipated passage of the journey. Lake Baikal, by all accounts, is an anomaly. It is the world’s oldest (~30million years) and deepest (over a mile) lake and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater. It is also constantly growing deeper, and some scientists believe it will split the Asian continent in about a million years.
The first sighting is breathtaking. Blanketed in heavy fog, the sky and water form an ominous soupy grey. Pancake ice bobs in sections where the bay offers shelter. Farther out, whitecaps belie the tumultuous bluster beneath.
The train skirts the coastline for the next several hours. I take my coffee in the dining car with a Nantucket native on his way to Beijing to brush up on his Chinese, both of us gazing pensively at the passing lake as we sip at the hot mud in our mugs.
During my afternoon nap, I’m awoken by the Chinese college student reminding me to show up in the dining car for the New Year’s Eve revelry later. I shudder at the thought of whooping it up in the bland Russian dining car under the gaze of its stern staff, but after clearing immigration at the Russian/Mongolian border stop of Suhe Bator – which obliged with a modest fireworks display at the stroke of midnight – I stumble dutifully through the succession of coaches to the dining car, eager to see what this year’s version of the annual ritual will bring.
Pushing through the last door, I’m unexpectedly greeted by an onslaught of red murals with gold trimming, a ceiling with exotic lanterns and beer being served by pretty girls. While I was sleeping, the dining car was changed to a Mongolian one.
Russians, Mongolians, Chinese, Vodka, Herring, Calamari, Soup and Fruit all contribute equally to the festivities. Much goodwill is exchanged. I take it upon myself to arm-wrestle a Buryat miner, originally from Okhotsk but working in Pakistan and elsewhere. With my two arms to his one, he graciously concedes a tie. I sleep at 7 and awaken at 11 with a minimal hangover to a complete change of scenery. We are now in Mongolia.
The wide-open Mongolian tundra is devoid of snow. Instead, odd-looking animals dominate the landscape. Funny stubby horses, furry camels, reindeer-llama hybrids, eagles and vultures catch our eye.
That night, we pull into the Mongolian-Chinese border town of Erlyan to transit for several hours while the train is switched to narrower Chinese gauge. After leaving Erlyan, the train travels alongside the Great Wall for much of the day before the rural landscape slowly transforms to the urban sprawl of Beijing.
While much of Beijing’s outskirts bring back visual memories of 12 years ago when I last passed this way, there is also much that is overwhelmingly surprising and new: three-lane highways filled with cars streaming in both directions and in between neatly painted white lane markers, a skyline crowded with glass towers, cranes and the ubiquitous sparkle of the welder’s torch. Teens with the edgiest haircuts and yuppies with the latest mobile devices share the sidewalk with large groups of constructions workers dressed in their gray outfits and heading to their nightly urban camps.
We pull into Beijing station barely a few minutes behind schedule. After helping one of the Chinese traders with her baggage, I notice the motley crew of companions I’ve had for a week scattered about the plaza. I grab my pack and disappear into the crowd, eagerly anticipating a shower at my friend's pad.