This is the second of three articles I wrote for the Hiroshima Signpost magazine about my overland journey from Hiroshima to Berlin in September 1991. In this article, I board the trans-Siberian train at Ulaanbaatar and travel to Moscow…
The Trans-Siberian At Ulaanbaatar
The party I was attached to boarded the Moscow-bound train at Ulaanbaatar on the evening of 21st September. We had all received packed suppers from our guides and had also secured for ourselves a few other vital supplies from the bar of Ulaanbaatar’s main hotel. Thus fortified against the rumoured shortages of on-board refreshments we settled into our coupe for the first evening of our trans-Siberian journey.
On first acquaintance the coupe does not look particularly inviting, consisting as it does of four bunks, a flip-up table and a pull-down blind. But once you have move in the compartment quickly becomes a cozy place of sanctuary, especially after the guard has distributed the felt bed-roll, sheets, blankets, pillows and pillow-cases. There is plenty of room under the bottom bunks and in a cubby hole over the corridor in which to deposit suitcases and rucksacks; plenty of room, that is, for a group of persons whose portable properties do not verge on the extravagant.
The livery of the train is bottle green, and each carriage bears the emblem of the state to which it belongs on its side. The symbols of communism were still prominent on the Soviet carriages a month after the coup attempt had failed, but one our own train it was the emblem of a Mongol astride a galloping steed which predominated.
The History Of The Trans-Siberian Railway Line
The line itself is now just over a hundred years old, construction having begun in 1891 under Alexander III, Russia’s penultimate Czar, and was completed thirteen years later at a cost of £87,555,760, just in time to play a role in the Russo-Japanese war. It was a single track line stretching approximately 5,000 miles from Chelyabinsk in the proximity of the southern Urals to the far-eastern port of Vladivostock, broken only by Lake Baikal and then only during the summer months when the ice over which the tracks were lain during the winter had begun to thaw. A ferry was employed during the summer to convey passengers from one shore of the lake to the other. From Vladivostock the line was extended to Port Arthur in Manchuria (now Lüshun on the Liadong peninsula of China), a recent Russian acquisition and her only ice-free port.
That Russia had seized Port Arthur after having combined with the other European powers to force Japan to relinquish it was no small contribution to the outbreak of hostilities between those two nations. The Japanese relied on their local numerical superiority to achieve their objectives, believing that the trans-Siberian railway, Vladivostock’s only link with European Russia’s enormous resources, would prove inadequate to the logistical requirements of supplying and reinforcing Russia’s 80,000 strong East Siberian Army. Although the new trans-Siberian rail link did not prevent a Russian disaster it did nevertheless succeed in transporting several tens of thousand men east during the summer months, an operation which was lengthened by the break in the line at Lake Baikal.
After the war the railway offered a route east for another generation of colonists who developed mining interests and put the Steppes to the plough. It also served to ease the journey of petty diplomats heading for a term of exile in far distant Ulaanbaatar.
In the early years of the century such unfortunate officials would have had the consolation of travelling in some style, dining on caviar and having tea served at regular intervals. Sheets, towels and slippers were always provided and the ignominy of the posting could be shrugged off by means of a leisurely soak in the specially designed built-in bath of the first class compartments; specially designed, that is, to retain its water while the train negotiated gradients and curves.
Food On The Trans-Siberian
The food which issued forth from the kitchen is said to have resembled the various gastronomic excursions described in the restaurant car menu so that, I suppose, one could have worked deductively from the evidence on one’s plate to arrive at the appropriate description on the card while the subdued tones of polite conversation in an exotic variety of tongues, the clinking of glass against glass and of cutlery against crockery would have lapped ever so discreetly about one.
I can only report that such happy pursuits can no longer be taken for granted. The most modern of culinary techniques have been employed to render each main course dish similar in both appearance and consistency, an innovation which has enjoyed considerable popular success so that the restaurant car can no longer be honestly described as the haven for decorum it once was. Today’s diner is quite likely to suffer the indignity of a severe jostling as resentful hordes, eager to sample its fare, press in while others, still excluded, clamour to gain entry. This, at least, was the impression I received on my first visit to the dining car the day after we had left Ulaanbaatar. I joined some of my recent acquaintances around a table which, like most of the other ones, was empty of food. Those few who were eating seemed remarkable satisfied with the state of affairs. Meanwhile the waiter was busily pushing his way past the unseated crowd and waved his arms disconcertingly at those of us who sought to provide him with gainful employment by ordering lunch. I rather began to suspect the fellow of having sold a few messes of pottage out of the kitchen window, but rather regret the meanness of this sentiment because, in spite of his protestations, he eventually produced several platefuls of something-or-other doubtless described by the menu but untraceable therein to untrained eyes.
In the meantime we had been joined by a couple of sociable young Russians who were already blotto on home-distilled I-hate-to-think-what. They amused themselves, and sought to amuse us, by calling obscenities at any Mongolians who passed, a habit which seemed to go some way towards explaining a certain deficiency of incisors in the leading wag’s top jaw. His next trick was to proffer some dodgy looking cigarettes to one of my companions, to whose polite refusal he responded by inquiring whether he was a “homosexualist”. A little later they were bundled out of the restaurant car by the waiter who thereby rose yet further in my estimation.
By this time the train was skirting the southern shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest and most ancient lake in the world, much of which has up until now remained pristine. One fifth of the world’s fresh water is here, frozen over between November and April. In September the lake shimmered blue-grey, revealing nothing abut itself or the multiplicity of life within and about it. Then about eighty miles on from where the line first meets the lake you come to Baikalsk and its controversial cellulose mill which discharges its effluent into the lake. A farther fifty miles along the shore the line turns north and leads to Irkutsk where, I believe, our Russian friends got out.
It is also possible for those travelling on to get out at each stop to stretch their legs or go in search of provisions. There would often be a kiosk selling bread, or a few market stalls, but it is usually more rewarding to head for the peasant women who bring freshly cooked vegetables to the platform. At Omsk, half way between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar, I bought some piping hot garnished potatoes from one such woman. While she and her friends were busy spooning out portions of food for the passengers our carriage guard was busy selling sports jackets to the locals. I had time to join the crowd around the station kiosk before the train began to move off, but it had very little to offer beyond a few dusty packs of bubble gum once it had sold out of its last remaining loaves of bread. Suddenly you notice that the train is moving, and it is quite exciting to contemplate your chances of getting back on board as you join a flurry of people around one of the doors. But there is not too much to worry about because it takes a while for the train to develop much in the way of speed, though I suppose it would be handy to have your documents about you in case of a faux pas while endeavouring to clamber back on board.
Life On The Train
At the end of each carriage there is a samovar where, since the days of deferential tea-serving waiters are no more, you have to go, cup or teapot in hand, for your hot water. Opposite this contraption is the lair of the carriage guard; a person with whom it is worth accommodating oneself. Our guard was not only in the fashion business; she also had an interest in processed meats, and each time I had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of her quarters, so to speak, I saw several legs of smoked pork dangling from the ceiling.
In addition to the restaurant car, the peasant women and the guards, there was a peripatetic fellow in a barber’s coat who would suddenly appear with a basket of steaming meals which, though sent forth from the restaurant car kitchen, seemed more appetizing than the fare served up in the restaurant and, moreover, each meal came with a couple of slices of bread thrown in. I suppose it was the element of surprise and uncertainty which made these meals seem so attractive; you never knew when the chubby, sallow countenanced fellow with the air of a fish-chiller about him would arrive. Nor was it ever certain what he would have in his wicker basket, which he always treated with the greatest of respect, placing it carefully on the floor before ceremoniously removing the cloth and pointing out the vast array of dishes (Beef Stroganoff or Boullettes), then carefully extracting the chosen meal and plopping a couple of slices of Babushka’s Pride on top.
In short, if nothing has changed since last September (and, of course, everything has changed), there would be no cause to starve while on the train, though perhaps a few bags of dried fruit would be in order, and, if you can be bothered to cart the crates, some fresh fruit would not go amiss. I did not see much in the way of fruit anywhere between Beijing and Moscow, except for wild berries.
Tea-bags, coffee, dried soups and pot noodles are also a good idea, provided that you take a cup and spoon etc., all of which can be procured in Beijing if you should travel that way.
There are no longer any bathing facilities on the train; in fact there are hardly any washing facilities at all, and there’s usually someone locked in when you decide to go and brush yourself up, so you may as well leave that sort of thing behind (perhaps you could sell your flannel and soap to those who alight as you board). A toothbrush is always a consolation, even if you never get round to using it, and toilet paper comes in handy too,but it seems to me that if anybody is that keen on the idea of travelling on the trans-Siberian then he should be prepared to slough off the cloying luxuries of a pampered life which are as but dross that dulls the soul.
There remains one question: What, once one has slept and filled one’s stomach and knocked on the bathroom door, does one DO? It is a question which I have never really been able to understand; why should one want to do anything? Here is an excellent opportunity to take the Psalmist at his word and “commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still”. While you are lounging on your bed you may feel the urge to read. I would not advise too thick a volume because the rhythm of the train will probably send you to sleep before you reach the bottom of the second or third page, leaving the other five or six hundred unread pages to induce in you a sense of guilt or some other apprehension of your own inadequacy.
A pack of cards, a chess or backgammon set are excellent for striking up friendships and passing the time. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can play the games you take with you because this would be the ideal moment in which to learn. I joined a party of bridge players without the slightest idea of what to do, with only the good Captain Morgan by my side to offer round as a mollifier after a disastrous attempt at finessing. I haven’t often seen the Captain shift so fast, and once he’s gone nobody minds much who wins.
Another profitable pastime is, as I have mentioned, buttering up one of the guards. We had made friends with a Mongolian family a few carriages down, and their carriage guard was quite amenable to the butter, especially when wrapped in dollars (the butter, that is). By this time we were drawing near to Moscow and were going to arrive several hours later than anticipated. The prospect of arriving late in the evening with nowhere to go did not appeal to me very much, especially after having been cocooned against such harsh realities for so long. One of our party, a Canadian helicopter pilot, used all the charm that those types are famous for and proposed to the guard that we all sleep in her carriage in the train sheds that night for a dollar a head. To this she readily agreed and so when we arrived at Moscow we simply got out of one carriage and moved down to another, waited for the cleaning staff to knock off and clambered back aboard again. The train duly trundled into a siding somewhere and early next morning we wandered a hundred yards up the line to one of the city suburb stations, got on a suitable looking train and found ourselves in the centre of Moscow.
I believe I spent four days on the trans-Siberian, but I can’t really say for sure because of the nature of the journey which takes you across seven time zones (eight if you travel from Vladivostock) while the trains run according to Moscow time and I followed the sun. So my breakfast may have been Moscow’s supper and so forth. But whether it took four or five days does not alter the fact that I didn’t once feel it to be a tedious enterprise and would recommend it to anybody looking for an interesting route from Europe to Japan.
I spent a day walking around Moscow and a night on the floor of a station waiting room before rushing to Berlin in search of work.
It was during my stay in Berlin that I discovered another aspect of the trans-Siberian railway’s links with Japan; humanitarian rather than military. In 1939 thousands of Jews fled from Poland to Lithuania to escape the German occupation. To further distance themselves from the Nazis they needed visas to travel across the Soviet Union, which in most cases they did not have. This situation came to the attention of the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who tried to alleviate their plight by getting authority from Tokyo to issue visas. When that authority was not forthcoming he decided to issue visas anyway, whatever the consequences. By this action more than five thousand refugees were able to travel on the trans-Siberian to Vladivostock and then by ferry to Japan. From Japan some went on to Australia, Canada, America or Palestine, but most of them ended up in Shanghai which was an international city under the joint authority of the British, French, and Japanese.
Eventually, of course, Germany overran Lithuania in the early days of Operation Barbarossa and the Japanese launched the Pacific war and took control of Shanghai. The refugees spent the rest of the war in a ghetto, completely isolated from the outside world until liberated by the Americans in 1945.
I discovered all this when I saw a Belgian film called “Survivre A Shanghai” (1990) which happened to be showing at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin on the day that I visited. The narration was in English while subtitles were used for the various conversations. If, like mine, your interests include Germany, Japan and travelling on the trans-Siberian, then you should not miss this film if it is ever shown at a cinema near you.