EDITOR: Today, Ian, a good friend of mine has written a guest post about our awesome journey through Siberia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia – he blogs about his travels at borderlesstravels.com
The Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Moscow is by far the longest overland journey I have ever taken. Not only that, but the 18 hour bus detour to Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, followed by a 20 hour train to the old capital of Almaty has brought me to the longest leg of the trip. That being said, Almaty to Moscow is an 80 plus hour train ride, the equivalent of half a week.
This trip has taken me across four countries, three of which are in the world’s top 10 largest. So far I’ve been through China, Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan the culmination of which has landed me here, sitting in the dining car of a soviet era train looking out the window at the Zailiysky Alatau Mountain range.
The smoke filled dining car is air conditioned and a welcomed change from the sweat box that is my third class accommodation. In third class, passengers share an open car that is broken up in sections of six beds, three above and three below. Unfortunately, if you’re an unlucky passenger you’ll find yourself sandwiched into the mini bed located along the aisle. This special bed pops up transforming it into a quaint dining nook comprised of a small table and two seats.
Third class has a unique smell, a blended concoction of cigarette smoke, cheese and sausage that the locals bring to nourish themselves on these long train journeys. Although it’s not the most comfortable third class train travel is real. Beware though, in some countries third class can mean seats, and travelling by train for a day or two without a bed to lie down on can be extremely daunting.
Travelling by train in third class, although there’s little privacy and sometimes comfort, allows you to meet real people. On my journey I’ve enjoyed time spent with Russian soldiers, a Uzbek family, and one bad ass Kazak dude who fed me perogies, bread, and tea until I was about to burst then bought my friend a “Deer Club” t-shirt.
These train trips aren’t the easiest but after every leg of the trip you feel a sense of accomplishment, and each time the train journey lengthens you begin to compete with the other rides thinking, “what’s the longest I can ride this iron dragon”. There’s something special about a train journey, watching the world pass by you, stopping to explore along the way, knowing that after a day or two you’ll be on the train again moving towards your final destination.
The train offers you more than a plane, bus or boat. You get to see your progress, feel the locomotive under you as it wakes you in the morning or lulls you to sleep at night. When you stop vendors appear as if out of thin air selling everything from three foot long skewers of smoked fish to bread, perogies, eggs and cheese. As you sit in your bunk reading, men and women carrying clothes imported from China offer deals to passengers as they cruise the second and third class train isles looking for a sale.
The train seems alive; it’s a mobile cross section of humanity, and in the words of the famous author and train rider Paul Theroux, “In planes the traveler is condemned to hours in a tight seat; ships require high spirits and sociability; cars and buses are unspeakable. The sleeping train is the most painless form of travel.” I’d have to agree, although to save a buck, the night bus is a great option.
A long train journey is great experience and one better shared with a couple of good friends. Friends to chat with and play cards, friends to laugh with and enjoy a meal of salami and cheese, – friends to watch your back and you theirs, and friends just to be there because there’s nothing more lonely than sitting in a train car by yourself waiting for someone to keep you company and shorten the ride.
Like many, it was hard for me to leave the comforts of home in search of something different. Thankfully, my travels have taken me to places I had only dreamed of visiting. On this particular train journey I’ve spent nights sleeping under the stars in Mongolia’s Mini Gobi Desert, drank vodka with Russian Soldiers, and experienced the new and old cultures of Kazakhstan.
However, this journey has turned out to be more than just a train trip with stops along the way because I’ve been able to share these experiences with two good friends. On top of that, I’ve gotten off the beaten track to see what the world is really like, broken misconceptions of the countries I’ve visited, and shown my family and friends at home that dreams can come true because for me, travelling has become a lifestyle more than just a trip.
*Travelling and teaching English overseas since the age of 19 has taken Ian to 25+ countries around the world. His travels have brought him mountaineering in the Himalayas with the Indian Ministry of Defense, scuba diving with whale sharks in the Philippines and surfing in Indonesia. As a travel blogger Ian shares his adventures and travel expertise at www.borderlesstravels.com.