Destination: Moscow. Setting out from Beijing, I had the choice of two passenger railway lines to connect to the famed Trans-Siberian. One of the lines, the K19, goes through the border town of Manzhouli, while the other, the K3, arrives via Mongolia.
Beijing-Manchuria: familiar, strange and quiet
For most Chinese railway passengers, it is a familiar scene — the crowded carriages, even the corridors and toilets are packed with people. The smell of instant noodle mingles with the scent of passengers. There are also sounds of those selling various small novelties, lighters and snacks, mixing in with the cheerful voices of the train station broadcaster.
But when I showed up expecting to take the K19, my surprise was complete. In front of me is a Russian train with fancy wagons; and not only is the train Russian, so are all of its attendants, who speak neither English nor Chinese. Instead of the bustle of passengers trying to squeeze on, the scene around the new train was calm — in part because this line costs nearly the same price as an airline flight.
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A K-19 train in Irkutsk, Russia — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
At first, after we rolled out of the station, I was not at all accustomed to the quiet. Still, the “clickety, clack” sound gave the familiar feeling of train travel. Indeed, the mixed feeling of familiarity and strangeness became more and more obvious as the train headed north.
Outside the window, small familiar stations flickered by one-by-one. Though I was still within the borders of China, the carriage with its exotic features reminded me I would be travelling far away.
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Outside the window — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
Manzhouli–Zabaykalsk: border control, and wait, wait and wait
Manzhouli and Zabaykalsk are respectively China and Russia’s entry ports. It’s after crossing these two control points that the train really rolls into the Siberian Plain. The two border towns are just ten kilometers apart — however, passing through the two checkpoints plus changing the rail-gauge will wind up taking more than 10 hours.
Because the width of the rail track in China is different from that in Russia once the train enters Russian territory the wagons of the train are lifted and placed on standard Russian standard chassis. Meanwhile, all passengers are summoned to the waiting room of Zabaykalsk station, where the real wait begins.
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Inside the restaurant carriage of a Trans-Siberian train — Photo: Bernt Rostad
This is one of the few chances to see who all of your fellow passengers are, and perhaps to strike up a conversation. Five hours later, the train slides out the station again while the Chinese scenery outside the window has been quietly replaced with a Russian one. It’s autumn. The white steppe is dotted occasionally with little villages. Wild animals gallop in the cold wind. The scenery of shepherds under a clear blue sky whizzes by, and sinks into the darkness of the night.
Zabaykalsk-Moscow: The lost glory
Although it has only been 10 years, for most people it’s difficult to imagine that this passenger service once lived a glorious moment. A decade ago, the train was packed with the two countries’ businessmen trading consumer products. Not only was every corner of each wagon filled with goods for sale — even under the bed sheets were laid layers of smuggled wooly carpets. Due to the Sino-Russian bilateral trade norms and continuously sinking airfares, the train has largely fallen off the merchants' map.
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Never a dull moment — Photo: Anthony Knuppel
Before embarking on the Trans-Siberian line, I had imagined that I was going to see nothing but frontier landscape. The Trans-Siberian Railway is, at 9,289 kilometers (5,772 miles), the word’s longest railroad line. Starting from the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok, it extends all the way to Moscow.
In my mind, the journey was going to take seven days and be filled with boredom. I’d have more than enough time to ponder all the big issues gnawing at my life before arriving on the other end. The reality is that the time passed so quickly that I can hardly recall just what happened. There was no clock in the train — and there was always someone willing to have a chat, or ready to play a game of cards.
There are three to four stops each day. At each one, the passengers are given some 20 minutes to stretch their legs or buy the various local foods available in the station. Of course, there’s also a dining car on the train. Between Beijing and Manzhouli, it serves Chinese food while after crossing the border the dining car menu changed to Russian food.
Moscow: similarity and contrast
After crossing the Ural Mountains and the European land boundary, it takes only one more day to arrive at the terminus, Moscow. This is where the European railway network begins. One can choose to go southward into Ukraine, westward toward Germany via Poland, or northward to Santa Claus’s home in Finland.
Strangely, I thought to myself as I looked around, the Soviet-style gray hard-line architecture reminded me of home.