Horseman, Mongolia. Typical sight on the Trans-Mongolian train.
  • Horseman, Mongolia. Typical sight on the Trans-Mongolian train.
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Russia is one of the most challenging countries in which to travel on a budget. Oh sure, your ruble might still go a pinto’s puff further out on the street than your yen, but you’ll have spent the equivalent of an entire emergency fund just for the privilege of stepping onto said street.

Visa fees, invitation letters and courier charges for original documents can set you back over $200 for a collection of stamps and embossed paper. And then come requirements for proof of accommodation bookings & pre-purchased air or ground passage as part of the visa application and the stern warning to register the visa at any police station within 72 hours of arrival.

It’s almost enough to make me forsake my plan to take the Trans-Mongolian train in the Siberian winter and go lie on a Thai beach, but then I hear about the transit visa.

“Certain Russian consulates (they don’t say which ones) have been known to issue transit visas of up to 10 days,” reads the travel blog I’m researching. Calling the consulate in Cairo is no help. They’re open but two mornings a week, and each time I call I get a different answer. The beauty of the transit visa is it requires neither invitation letter (an arduous and costly step, given suspect mail service in Cairo) nor post-arrival visa registration. I go to the consulate armed with a pile of papers demonstrating I'm not “visiting” but merely passing through Russia on my way from Cairo to Beijing. A tense afternoon later, I have the rare visa in hand.

As luck would have it, I have two full days in Moscow between the arrival of Aeroflot 342 & departure of Train 004 – though this is only reflected as one calendar day on my application and passes unnoticed by the normally vigilant Russian bureaucracy. That SU342 is, at slightly over $200, only 1/3 the cost of the next cheapest airline, and my Trans-Mongolian train ticket is purchased directly from a Moscow train station for less than $200, meaning I will spend 10 days transiting Russia and Mongolia for about $400 + meals.

But first I have to close an eye to the Tupolev’s starchy blue vinyl seat backs not staying up, toilets looking and smelling like a 3rd-world bus station, black dishwater passing for coffee, lumpy soggy macaroni, tough stringy chicken and overhead lights staying on throughout the redeye. Everyone claps and cheers when SU342 lands.

Moscow is below freezing when I arrive on Christmas Day. Cyrillic is so close to being decipherable but alas. James, the hostel manager who bought my train ticket, is a Brit who’s lived in Singapore and Brazil each for years. Other hostelites include the Chus, a Brazilian family of Italian-Chinese descent and Dragan, a Serb employed at BMW Beijing, traveling with his buddy, Goran.

Red Square and the Kremlin are maddeningly restricted in terms of traffic flow, though we (Dragan, Goran and me) manage to sneak into the soon-to-be-closed iconic Russia Hotel, thanks to a conniving waiter who lets us bypass the security detail through an adjoining café side door. Hundreds of police line the driveway outside the hotel, and we exit only to find ourselves surrounded by 3-star generals shaking hands vigorously with each other.

After taking a few stealth photos, I definitely feel a trifle nervous standing where we’re clearly attracting militsiya attention.

Evening is spent wandering watering holes, getting lost and hoofing miles in the bitter cold, relieving our bladders into Moscow river from atop a bridge and meandering through the social outcasts congregating at Kurskaya station. Dragan has his cigarette snatched away and furiously snubbed out by a robust, screaming Metro babushka, while Goran almost picks a fight with an inebriated security guard. We take refuge in a "recommended" bar and are beset upon by working girls.

Just when we decide to cut our losses at 2:30 a.m., we hear muffled basement trance and enter the warm sanctuary via an unmarked doorway, blocks away from the brilliantly lit Basilica, magnificent in the empty square against the light snowfall and deep night. The basement party has groups of friends in different rooms and various states of undress. One comely lass teases Goran by revealing her “combat attire” and whispering sweet nothings. All in all, the warm revelry is the chilly evening’s savior.

Second day is spent sleeping in, ambling around and preparing for the week-long train journey. Relish my final shower of the week and head off to Yaroslavsky train station. Stock up on extra beer and cigarettes at the platform and at 2130 sharp, Train #004 leaves as scheduled.

My cabinmates are a Swedish couple, and the friendly Chinese conductor quietly agrees to try his best not to fill the fourth bunk and allow us the extra breathing room. Most everyone in the coach is Chinese and a trader: this journey is essentially a tri-monthly commute where all the Chinese goods they’ve sold in Moscow are exchanged for Russian fur coats, hats and other desirables for sale in the markets of Beijing and elsewhere. Fast friendships are made onboard, and passenger quotas are evened out so no one is liable for excess customs duties.

We spend the first days gazing out the windows. In the evenings, the Chinese play cards while the few of us travelers read and chat. I become better acquainted with two neighbors. One is a working class trader who peppers me with questions about earning power in Western economies. He is most generous with his food and cigarettes, but I am reluctant to get drawn into much money talk. The other is a Chinese college student graduating from a Russian university, on the train with his girlfriend, an Uzbek-Korean Shotokan Karate champion. Between him and me, we translate between the Russian and English speakers on board, Chinese being the intermediate tongue.

As a matter of familiarity, I’m initially startled at an Asian face speaking Russian (until I see them all over Russia), while they and the Chinese are more taken by an English-speaking one!

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.

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