2007 – Trans Asia By Train

This trip began with a little drama, right from day one. Before departing Melbourne the temperature was both warm and mild. We boarded the flight wearing little more than jeans and t-shirts. Our destination was the Scandinavian city of Helsinki, with a quick stopover in Bangkok to change flights. The plane was delayed on-route to Bangkok, and we had to basically sprint from one end of the terminal to the other, to make our Helsinki connection. During all the commotion our luggage was not transferred onto the onward flight. So there we were, on the streets of Helsinki, with totally unsuitable clothing and no luggage. The temperature was what the locals would call cool, hovering somewhere around 2 degrees celsius, but to us it was freezing. Finnair apologized for the delay, and issued us with a 70 euro voucher to allow us to buy some more appropriate attire, before our bags arrived on the next flight from Bangkok. I flagged a taxi and we ventured downtown, going straight to our hotel, before heading out shopping. On return a couple of hours later, we opened the door to our room and there were our bags, so my premonition of us spending our time in Helsinki wearing the same clothes, day in and day out, thankfully did not come true. Our time in Helsinki was fantastic, and we also took a day trip over to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Tallinn has changed so much since I last visited in the early nineties, and has a real touristy feel to it.

After spending a few days, checking out the sights of Helsinki, we boarded an overnight train and headed north to Lapland, and into the arctic circle. Whilst in Finland’s north we crammed in many activities, including a couple of days skiing at Levi, and a long day snowmobiling out to a husky dog farm, where we spent the afternoon trying to learn the skills of controlling a sled, with 8-10 hypo huskies at our command. Once again the dancing light show that is the Aurora Borealis eluded us, this being my second visit to the arctic circle without seeing, this somewhat rare phenomenon. We had what were considered favourable conditions to see them, but no luck (we will get to see them, one day. I hope). After nearly a week in the arctic circle it was time to head south. We hired a small car, equipped with ice and snow tyres (the tyres are a special rubber compound and fitted with metal studs for traction), and began to make our way back to Kemi. Liza did the driving, as I navigated. I picked a route that diverted us through some smaller back roads along, the now frozen river that makes up the border of Sweden and Finland. This was a very picturesque route, and we stopped along the way several times to take some photo’s. We also stopped to have a chat to some of the locals that were ice fishing, although they weren’t catching much. We were basically driving on ice the whole way, and we also saw many points where locals were driving across the now frozen river and therefore the border. We contemplated, taking the hire car across one of these makeshift border crossings, but decided not to as if the ice cracked (and if we survived!) I don’t believe we would have been insured.

Kemi is a smallish port town, on the northern most point of the Gulf of Bothnia. Whilst in town we had to book a room in the illustrious Kemi Snowcastle. Liza had read about it many months previous, and before arrival she pre booked a one night stay, in one of the frozen chambers. A peculiar experience, although it was not as cold as I thought it would be (it was actually much colder outside than in). Whilst in Kemi, we also arranged a day trip on the Sampo ice breaker, that is stationed at the port. The Sampo has now been taken out of regular service, and is primarily used to take tourist’s on day cruises out into the bay.

It was incredible to be standing on the bow of this ship, as it smashed it’s way through the frozen ocean, with large slabs of ice being churned up and tossed aside, by this 3,500 tonne beast.

What was even more memorable, was when the ship came to a halt wedged up onto the ice pack, and we all disembarked and started to walk on the ice alongside the ship. We also donned the ships survival suits and took our turns floating in the freezing water. It was a fantastic day, and we highly recommend it to anyone in the area, during the winter months.

Over many years of overland travel, I have always stated that the most enjoyable form of transport when covering any great distance, is definitely riding the rails. If time is on your side, then there is no doubt that you are going to get more out of this form of transport than any other (especially over large distances). During our travels we have both taken some amazing train journeys, but there was one that had eluded us for all these years. That is, the mother of all train trips ‘ The Trans Siberian‘. I must admit from the get go, that we did not take the complete journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. Instead we took a variation to the route that branches off from Irkutsk, and down through Mongolia (this route is called the Trans Mongolian), before heading further south on the China Far East system, down to Beijing and ultimately Shanghai. The Trans Siberian proper starts at the Yaroslavl Station in Moscow, but we actually made our way to Moscow, also via train from St Petersburg. I had visited Russia many years earlier but this was Liza’s first time, and although a hardened traveller, she was amazed at the poverty and was not expecting it. It is by no means the kind of poverty you would find in Africa, or parts of Asia, but to imagine the effect the harsh Russian winter would have on people living in these run down wooden shacks, we felt fortunate that we were looking out rather than looking in. This view of Russia, is not apparent when strolling the downtown area’s of the magnificent cities of St Petersburg or Moscow, but is definitely visible whilst travelling by train through the rural area’s.

St Petersburg for those who have not been there, is a must for any trip to Russia. The city has the beauty to rival any of it’s more famous counterparts from Western Europe, although with a slightly run down feel to it. We spent a few days strolling the streets and checking out the sites. We also spent an afternoon at the Hermitage Museum, a magnificent building on the shores of the Neva river. From St Petersburg, we made our way to Moscow. To our surprise, Moscow is now one of the most expensive cities in the world, and for a tourist it was deadly (at the time of writing Moscow was No.1 on the list of the most expensive cites in the world, it has recently been knocked of the perch by Tokyo once again).

We even paid $10 Australian, for a cup of coffee at one of the city hotels. Not unheard of  in Western Europe I hear you say, but this was a 3 star hotel!

Due to the exuberant cost, we were forced to stay in a cheaper hotel out in the suburbs (if you call $230 per night cheap). We would make our way into town each day on the Moscow Metro. From our experience, the Moscow Metro is one of the best sub-way systems in the world, with only a 2-3 minute wait between trains and stations on every city block, once you worked out the layout, it was a breeze to get your way around. The appearance of the Metro stations ranged from the drab, run down look of the outer suburbs, to the magnificence of the down town station of Komsomolskaya-Koltsevaya, complete with its massive chandeliers. This station has to be seen to be believed, and pictures just don’t do it justice. Of course whilst in town we spent our time evenly between the sites, including the Red Square and the Kremlin. The day we toured the Kremlin, I predicted a nice patch of weather as it was looking good in the morning, but by mid afternoon the snow was beginning to fall heavily. Liza, still gives me shit about my prediction on that day, and will not trust my meteorology skills ever again.

We pre booked our private cabin for the Trans Siberian journey, via a small tour company at home in Melbourne. We did pay a little over the odds for the tickets, but if we didn’t go this way, we may have been facing the total 8,000km journey in 3rd class. The day before leaving we did a bit of shopping and stocked up on all the necessary goodies. There is a dining car on the train, but the food was said to be bland, and sometimes non existent. So lots of instant noodles were bought (each carriage is fitted with a boiling water urn) as well as chocolates, biscuits and of course the most crucial ingredient for a Trans Siberian journey, Vodka!

This Russian staple flows like tap water on this journey, and kicking back in your cabin, sipping on a vodka as the train pushes its way through a blizzard, is a memorable moment.

Life aboard the train, was allot more relaxing than we imagined. The first leg of our journey was the longest lasting 3 days and 4 nights, where we would have a 2 day stop over in Irkutsk. The town of Irkutsk is quaint, with a bit of rustic charm, with it’s run down 19th century wooden buildings. Most visitors to Irkutsk use it as a stepping stone to the mighty Lake Baikal, a mere 70km away. We ventured down to this massive lake, one very cold and windy afternoon. Lake Biakal is massive in every sense. It’s the worlds largest freshwater lake, its over 600km long and up to 80km wide, with a depth of 774m, it holds over 20% of the earth’s fresh water. We were there at the end of a harsh winter, and the whole lake was completely frozen over, and the wind chill wiping of the lake was freezing. The following day we were treated to a great view as the train rounded the south western section, with the tracks hugging the shore.

After leaving the wind blown, frozen shores of Lake Biakal, the train begins to make it’s way south from the town of Ulan Ude. After a few hours we came to a halt at the Russian, Mongolian border. The border formalities were pretty straight forward but the train was stationed for quite a number of hours whilst this took place. There was a Mongolian man selling steamed mutton buuz from the boot (trunk) of his car, and although we weren’t supposed to leave the platform as it was in lock down during the border crossing, I just followed a few locals through a hole in the fence and purchased a bag full. Once the border crossing was complete and we were legally in Mongolia, the train then continued further south. The Russian dinning car was removed and the Mongolian car attached, as we proceed on our journey to the nations capital, Ulan Bator.

The food on the Mongolian car was much better than the Russian car, and from all accounts they saved the best for last when the Chinese car is attached.

Ulan Bator has a cold, hard edge to it, no doubt the Russian influence coming through. Living in this city must be extremely difficult during the dead of winter where the temperature plummets to -30c and beyond. Whilst in Ulan Bator we spent a couple of days checking the sights around town, before organizing a trip into the Mongolian steppe . As winter had only just finished, it was still quite cold, with daytime temperatures hovering around or just below freezing. For our trip to visit the steppe, we hired a private 4WD as well as a driver, and translator. Due to the time of year there were very few tourists in the country, and we had the run of the major sites, mostly to our selves.

Driving in Mongolia once you leave the capital is quite unconventional, and roads seem to become non existent except for the main highway only. Our driver would often push his own path through this unforgiving landscape, veering around mountain ranges and basically just heading in the general direction, we needed to go. Our base was at a small ger camp situated 10 or so kilometres from the main highway, hidden in behind a small mountain range. From this camp we made day trips to visit the Erdene Zuu Monastery, as well as taking some short walks in the area and visiting some other historic sites. On the return trip we stayed a night at the Khustain Nuruu National Park . The park is famous for its small population of the Takhi or Przewalski’s Horse . The Takhi was almost extinct in the mid 1900’s with the last sighting of one of these rare animals in the wild, occurring in 1966. From the late 1970’s various zoo’s around the planet began an intense breeding program of the wild horse, and the Khustain Nuruu has been a direct benefactor of this program, with wild Takhi numbers now over 200.

Returning to Ulan Bator, after our short time on the Mongolian steppe, we boarded the train once again and headed south east, and into China. Before crossing into China, the train had some minor modifications made to it. The carriages were driven into a large shed, where they were raised on hoists and the bogie’s were changed to suit the Chinese track gauge. This process took a few hours, but was interesting to watch, as the workmen slowly made there way from carriage to carriage completing their task. When finished, we were moving once again, with the sound of the joints in the tracks, clicking and clunking through the night, as we pushed our way onward to Beijing.

Arriving in Beijing after a poor nights sleep, due to the midnight bogie change was a wake up call, like a strong shot of Cuban coffee.

The sheer number of people at the station, all trying to board trains, buy tickets or meet people was intense. Our time in China would be short, around 9 days in total, so it’s always best in these situations to organize an onward ticket the day you arrive. At a busy Beijing railway station, this sounds easier than it looks. Although I believe that after the Olympics, the amount of signage in English would have changed dramatically, at the time it was pretty well non existent. Without the help of a couple of students wanting to practice there English, I think we’d still be there. They pointed me to the correct line and told me how to pronounce sleeper carriage, I put two fingers in the air and shouted Shanghai on the end and gave the attendant my money. She through me back a couple of ticket’s. I thanked the students and went back to where Liza was minding the bags. It was a short taxi ride from the station to the hotel, where we would rest up for a few hours before heading out to see some of the sites.

Beijing was completely different to what we had imagined, the mix of century’s old architecture with the modern shopping centres and tall buildings just seems to work. We spent our time here visiting the main sights of the Forbidden CityTienanmen Square and of course the Great Wall . One thing that we really enjoyed in Beijing was the food, and due to it’s expense at home we indulged in Peking Duck on a few occasions. One place you have to visit if in Beijing is the Quanjude restaurant . This restaurant has been serving Peking Duck since 1864, and is considered one of the best in the city.

A restaurant spanning five levels and serving one main dish, you reckon they might get it right after nearly 150 years.

From Beijing we made our way to Shanghai, and we thought Beijing was a large city, but this place has to be seen to be believed. Arriving early morning, we were treated to a great view of the city as the train passed, what literately seemed like hundred’s of 30-40 storey apartment buildings scattered across the horizon. With Beijing taking the role of the historic and cultural heart of the nation, there is no doubt Shanghai is the engine room of the new Chinese economy. Shanghai is ultra modern, with the glass towers of the Pudong district, to the happening cafe’s and rooftop bars that line The Bund, this city is a must visit for anyone heading to China. One highlight of our visit to Shanghai was to take a trip on the Maglev Train that runs between downtown, and the international airport. The construction of this train is somewhat a statement to the world that Shanghai has arrived, and is a modern city on a world scale. Although the Maglev technology was in no way a Chinese invention, it is still very costly to develop and therefore only the world’s richest nations can afford to build it. With a top speed of 431km the 30km trip between downtown and the airport takes a little over seven minutes, and was more like taking a ride at an amusement park, than public transport.

Our last, but certainly not least destination on this trip was a short stop in Hong Kong, before flying home. After only a few days in the hustle and bustle that is downtown Hong Kong, I was sold. There is no doubt that Hong Kong , is one of the worlds great cities. The way I judge whether or not a city is worthy of a statement like this, is to picture myself living there for any length of time. There is no doubt that Hong Kong has all the things that are needed for this. Liza loved the shopping, and we both enjoyed the food. The Octopus Card that drives the public transport system, is a joy to use and it was great to relax around the busy harbour area taking in the sights, including the spectacular sound and light show the brings the night skyline to life each evening. Whilst in Hong Kong we also took a short ferry ride over to Macau for a day trip. Macau is a place I see booming in the next decade or so. With it’s proximity to Hong Kong and Las Vegas style casinos, it was worth spending a day here, but in comparison to Hong Kong, it seemed somewhat dull.

To anyone thinking of taking this journey, our advice is simple, Go! We thought the time on the train would be drawn out, and a little boring, but it was quite the opposite. We met some interesting people and except for the border crossings, the time on the train was relaxing. Just load up your iPod with the latest songs or movies, grab yourself a couple of good books, and the most important piece of the puzzle is a few bottles of Russia’s finest. Since this trip we have discussed doing the complete journey in reverse, from Vladivostok all the way over to Europe at some time in the future.

Places Visited Map

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