The Trans-siberian railway, seen by Stanislas Giroux
Now that you know a little more about the Trans-Siberian railway, follow Stanislas Giroux on a trip from Moscow to Beijing. He set out on his own with one very specific idea in mind: to immerse himself in the cultures he encountered and make contact with local people. And he met the challenge brilliantly!
[Hiking on the Moon] Why the Trans-Siberian railway?
Stanislas Giroux: During a journey in India, I realised the magic of travelling by train. I was looking for something new and had studied several rail itineraries and of all the historic railway lines, it was the Trans-Siberian Railway that stood out.
[HKG] How many consecutive days did you spend on the train?
Stanislas Giroux: In total, I spent 7 days on the Trans-siberian railway, including 4 without getting off, in other words 4,000 km. You end up feeling very much at home! The trip had barely started and it was flip-flops or slippers all round, depending on personal preference. The journey was punctuated by hundreds of stations with stops lasting from one minute to several hours. It was like being stuck in a time capsule where time moved in slow motion. The official time in every station is Moscow time although the local time can vary by 5 or 6 hours. Each carriage has a coal-fired tank of boiling water which you can use whenever you want. This is where people filled up their tea, noodles and freeze-dried puree and is a good meeting place. There’s no fine dining on the train but there’s no need to stock up on supplies because you’ll soon be invited to share your neighbour’s kolbasa (type of Russian sausage); and the guy you chatted to on the platform earlier on, who’s three bunks further down the carriage, will be happy to give you some of his ogurek (pickle)! !
[HKG] Can you describe some of the scenery that you saw along the way?
Stanislas Giroux: I travelled in early autumn, in September, when the sun’s low in the sky, and was dazzled by what I saw. At the start of trip, I expected the landscape of the steppes to be rather dull – big mistake! Vast birch forests rolled past, with an array of colours ranging from green to orangey-yellow and bright red; it was magical. On the other hand, I was really disappointed to discover, mid-journey, that I’d missed Lake Baïkal – Russia’s crown jewel – which we’d travelled past at night.
But the Mongolian steppes were exactly as you would expect: short grass without a single tree in sight and an infinite landscape of rolling hills, where you can see herds of galloping, wild horses. From time to time you’d see a yurt; there was such a sense of freedom – it’d definitely be worth spending a week or so, exploring the area. It was one of the best parts of the journey. It was here I got to discover Oulan-Baton, the sprawling, ultra-polluted capital of Mongolia, where half the population lives, a real health hazard after 20 hours but, paradoxically, extremely friendly. Living on the land, all year round, is no small feat here as life is incredibly tough. The night sky, seen with the naked eye, in the middle of nowhere, was one of the most beautiful things that I saw during my entire trip.
[HKG] So it was a journey of numerous and varied and encounters?
Stanislas Giroux: Complètement ! Absolutely! I travelled in platzkart carriages (Russian 3rd class, open space area with 54 bunks) so saw lots of people traipsing past! It was a fun, cosy place where you’d come across students, soldiers, militiamen, local grand-mothers (babouchkas), and entire families etc. Some use the Trans-Siberian railway for just short stretches while others stay on board for several days. As we moved through the different time zones, one of the few constants was the “prodovnitsa,” (the carriage attendant).
I was bowled over by the hospitality of the people: when I set out on my journey the image I had of Russians, informed by the Western stereotype, was of an inhospitable nation; however, as time went on, I found my small notebook filled with addresses, mobile phone numbers, strange drawings, odd words and phrases scribbled by pro-Russian separatists, students, omul fishermen (famous fish from Baïkal), people with dubious blood alcohol levels, and many more!
As the train advanced, skin tones gradually became darker and features more drawn; if you listened closely, you could detect a change in language and accent. I quickly realised that Russians from Moscow don’t necessarily understand Russians from Perm or Krasnoyarsk but, fortunately for us, they’re very good at miming!
[HKG] Is this experience anything like you imagined?
Stanislas Giroux: Not at all! And thank goodness for that! Everyone experiences travel in a different way, depending on their personality, wishes and expectations. Generally speaking, I had high expectations of the Mongolian landscapes, but despite their beauty, I was bowled over by the Russian scenery. I also had many adventures, outside of life on the Trans-siberian railway, which only added to the trip, such as doing karaoke in a Moscow taxi at 3 o’clock in the morning.
[HKG] What did you feel when you reached the terminus?
Stanislas Giroux: It wasn’t obvious that we had crossed over into China. But then we entered a world where everything was too fast and too noisy. The heat was overwhelming and the pollution in the place made the atmosphere suffocating. I was torn between a feeling of euphoria and disappointment. That said, the gigantic scale was also a source of good memories. We had fun getting lost occasionally, in the small, working-class neighbourhoods, between the vast blocks of flats, but we always felt reassured and safe, both by day and night. When we arrived at Beijing airport terminal, I even had a tear in my eye. At that moment, I wanted to take the train in the opposite direction so I could re-experience the intensity of emotion!
Finally, what advice would you give to readers wanting to board this train?
Stanislas Giroux : On a practical level, get your tickets on the spot, if possible. A Russian visa is only valid 3 weeks which leaves little room for leeway. For the journey, I obviously recommend 3rd class which is cheaper and more conducive to meeting people (€300 in total for 8,000 km) The best places are at the bottom, facing each other; you must remember to ask for them; the top isn’t as good for seeing the countryside.
Finally, if you travel through Mongolia, I recommend that you get a Chinese visa on the spot; it’s easy and inexpensive; you just need to be a little patient at the ticket office. A multi-socket will be useful for life in the train as well as a compass so you can wander around at each stop-off point! Finally, a small back-up antibiotic treatment could be useful when investigating Mongolian cuisine! Have a good trip!