I arrived at the train station beyond excited to begin the Trans-Mongolian. From the start, just the engine attached to the train excited me. I was riding in 3rd class, which is like a normal sleeper car on a train, but eliminate the doors and add more beds in the hallway. Everyone had told me to expect pandemonium and chaos, but I didn’t find it that bad and enjoyed the experience.
The only thing I didn’t really like was that everyone got off at every stop, smoked, and then came back on the train smelling like cigarettes. Ew. However, the 2 guys smoking most in my section had no bags, so I knew they weren’t staying on long. An elderly lady came on with a ticket for the bed above me and asked if we could switch, which I didn’t mind, because it also meant that everyone wouldn’t be using my bed as a seat during the daytime.
Each train car has a jug of drinking water and a hot water pot, so most people bring food that can be made by adding hot water (ramen noodles, soups, etc) or sandwich stuff. I got a recommendation on some vegan soups from the crew at Loving Hut, so I came armed with my protein bars from Austria and a bunch of mushroom-flavored noodle soups.
I was literally the only person in my 50-passenger car who didn’t speak Russian, so I ventured to the dining car looking for other travelers/someone who could communicate in any of the 5 languages I speak varying degrees of, hoping for someone to talk to. Chips & a soda later, no such luck.
When I woke up, the lady was gone, and some other elderly had replaced her. Both of the smoker guys were gone.
The first day had been a path through the woods, which was turning into rolling hills on the second day. The cabin attendants were playing music over the speakers, which had been traditional Russian music on day 1 but turned into American pop music on day 2, including Pink and also the most profanity-laced hip-hop I’ve ever heard. I was laughing so hard, just knowing that no one understood how profane the lyrics were.
Around the 24-hour mark, the lady left, and I got another one. She wasn’t friendly at all. I took a nap from boredom and woke up when some people with dogs were getting on the train. Yes. I have no idea, but someone had a Boston Terrier, and he jumped on my lap at one point, and I got so incredibly happy.
I tried venturing to the dining room to look for kindred spirits again. File this under “things that only happen to me”: I bumped into the table where the employees were sitting, the table had a broken leg, so it fell over, dropped their phones and money and snacks on the floor, and I knew that I would never go back to the dining car again.
I decided that I would sleep after passing Ekaterinburg, which is good that I was still awake, because I was still using the top bed I had switched to for the elderly lady, and the girl who got on was FIRED UP that I would dare have my stuff on HER bed and yelled at me a good bit in Russian. I didn’t really care and gladly moved my stuff, but she was having none of my incredulous belief that the beds weren’t really that important.
I woke up a lot from people making noise, bumps in the train ride, whatever. The unfriendly lady also chastised me, as soon as I woke up, that I had dared to place my folded flannel shirt on the table when going to sleep, rather than keeping it on my bed or in my bag. How dare I, right? It wasn’t infringing on her ability to eat breakfast with my shirt still on the table; she was just rude and glad to yell at someone. I was glad that she left at the 48-hour mark, and I got a couple, which made 4 with me and “use the bed on your ticket” girl.
I watched the Terminator Genysis movie on my laptop and plugged my nose while the couple ate a bunch of fish, and my laptop died about 30 seconds after the movie ended. I had finished reading “The Alchemist” about 30 minutes into day 1, I didn’t want to kill my phone battery (so was leaving it off except for awesome picture opportunities), so I was now out of entertainment. Great. With no one speaking anything but Russian, my entertainment became laps through the train cars & staring out the window. And naps.
When we crossed into Siberia, there was a beauty in the quiet foresakenness of the countryside. I could tell it was colder and windier outside, but I really liked the view from my window.
At midnight, we stopped in Novosibirsk, and some gymnastics or cheerleading team of 12 year-olds got on with their giant trophy and filled every remaining bed in our car. Great. I tried to blend in with the walls and covered my tattoos, because I didn’t want to be some object of interest as the “foreign guy with tattoos.”
The couple left early in the morning, then the team left before lunch, so the train car was now less than 50% full. It was gray and raining outside, but I still got off at every long stop, just excited to stretch my legs, breath some fresh air, and still holding a small amount of hope to see some kindred spirits. I never did, and I got quite bored after a while, but I also knew that I was on the last day.
I re-organized my bag, in order to have my cold weather clothes on top and swim trunks, shorts, etc. on the bottom, then I went to bed. Once I woke up, I’d be getting off.
We arrived in Irkutsk on-time, and I was pumped to feel ground under my feet and be off the train for a bit.
Trans-Mongolian leg 1: complete! If I did it again, or if someone asked me for advice, I would definitely say to vary your food, stock up on entertainment (don’t plan to charge anything, because the outlet in the bathroom was intermittent and had a line almost all the time, so I never used it), and take a break somewhere like Ekaterinburg. This would be 2 days, then 2 to Irkutsk, then 1.5 to Ulaanbaatar, then 1 to Beijing. Nearly 4 full days was a little intense, especially with no one to talk to. However, don’t let that detract from the fact that it was an amazing experience I’m glad I’ve had.
Next post: Arrival in Irkutsk & Lake Baikal.