The Trans-Siberian Railway!
The backbone around which I planned our 2006 trip was the Trans-Siberian Railway, which - at almost 10,000 km - is the longest passenger train railway in the world. I mean, seriously: WHO DOESN'T WANT TO BE ABLE TO SAY THEY'VE RIDDEN THE TRANS-FREAKING-SIBERIAN RAILWAY?!
The TSR (as I'm going to call it, because I've ridden it and we're pals now and such) stretches from Vladivostok in the East to Moscow in the West, as this helpful map shows:
This map is also helpful in pointing out the part of the TSR that David and I actually traveled. You see Irkutsk there, in big capital letters in the middle of the map? And then Ulan-Ude just a little to the right of it? And then the blue line cutting down to Beijing via Ulaanbaatar? We went from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar.
The on-ground distance between the cities is about 1000 km, because it has to curve around Lake Baikal. (The route by air is about half the distance.) It's a relatively short section of the route, and it would take about 10 hours to drive. By train, however, it took 36 hours.
"Wait - WHAT?" you might ask. "How can it take more than three times longer to get somewhere BY TRAIN than by driving??"
"Ah, my friend," I would reply knowingly, having wondered exactly the same thing myself. "It's because the train moves so painfully slowly most of the time - so painfully slowly, in fact, that you could jump out the window and jog along it for a bit to stretch your legs if you were coordinated enough to jump back in the window again. But that's not all! It also stops for no fewer than nine hours at the Russian/Mongolian border. First you wait for five or so hours at the Russian border, then you move down the track about twenty feet and wait another four or so hours at the Mongolian border."
(Ok, I exaggerated a bit there - it's actually 20 kilometers between Naushki, where you stop at the Russian border, and Sukhbaatar, where you stop at the Mongolian border, not 20 feet. But sweet Lord, you'd think one multi-hour stop to cross a border would be enough!.)
"Do you at least get to spend your 36 hours on the train in Orient Express-style luxury?" you might ask, trying to find the upside.
"Not quite," I would have to reply if I were being honest (which I generally am). "That's another thing about this particular segment of the TSR: it's distinctly no-frills."
Just how no-frills are we talking? Here is description of this segment of the trip from the a RUSSIAN travel site that is trying to GET YOU TO COME TO RUSSIA AND RIDE THEIR TRAIN:
"Each carriage features 9 compartments, 2 toilets, a boiler for hot drinking water. The train is solid, clean, and well looked after by the attendants, however do not expect any luxury or higher level of service. There is no dining car or 1st class compartments."
(I am not fixing the comma splice in the second sentence to show that I did not write this description myself. I would also like the do the math for you and point out that 9 compartments at 4 people per compartment is 18 people per toilet, which is rather a lot when everyone's waking up and/or getting ready for bed.)
If you look at the site, you'll also see some claustrophobic photos of the extremely narrow corrider down the side of the carriage, the extremely janky-looking hot-water dispenser, and the toilet.
I'm not going to lie: the most serious moment of panic I had on our entire month-long jaunt was not when we drove past military barracks and were deposited at the 'Oriental Exchange Training Facility'. It was not when our plane taxied down the tarmac in Irkutsk past another plane that was STILL ON FIRE. It was when we walked onto that train.
I'd ridden on plenty of trains before, in the US and England and Europe, and I thought I knew what I was signing us up for. But as David and I sidled sideways down the corridor towards our compartment (which - and I haven't even mentioned this part yet - we might well be sharing for 36 hours with two total strangers), I felt like I couldn't breathe. What was I doing? How was I going to survive this for the next day and a half??
Fortunately, my 8 year-old child was ecstatic about finally getting to the train part of the trip. If the week on Olkhon Island had been my idea of fun, the train trip was definitely David's cup of...peach juice. (He wasn't a fan of either the ubiquitous tea or the instant coffee that served as our main drink options, but he was a huge fan of the peach juice that we'd found at a small store while stocking up for the train ride, and he had been looking forward to diving into our bag of food-goodies all day.)
Once we found our compartment, he delightedly clambered up to the top bunk on our side and stretched right out:
Seeing him so happy helped me breathe, as did the fact that our compartment was in fact big enough to stretch out in. It took me some time to acclimate to going up and down the corrider to get to the bathroom or hot water dispenser, but hey - we had literally NOTHING BUT TIME for the next 36 hours.
(David took this photo out our window before we left the station at Irkutsk while I was still reminding myself to breathe in, breathe out...)
It also helped me regain equilibrium to find that the only other person in our compartment was a friendly (and quiet!) 23 year-old Estonian woman named Kadri. After a week of pounding Russian techno-music and holiday parties on Olkhon, I'd been trying hard not to picture sharing the four-berth compartment with two large Russian men on vacation - which, of course, had basically guaranteed that I'd imagined this so clearly that the men even had names (Grigori and Vasa). Kadri was a welcome alternative.
Kadri hadn't realized that there would be no dining car, and so she hadn't brought two days' worth of food. In fact, the only food she had with her was a birthday cake her friends had sent her off with to celebrate. Fortunately, I'd stocked up with lots of food "just in case", and so we shared our bread and cheese and hard sausage and crackers, etc., and she shared her cake, and we drank instant coffee from the mugs I rented from the hot water dispenser. (Or, rather, Kadri and I drank instant coffee and David drank his peach nectar. If you ask him what his favorite part of that entire trip was, he will talk about that peach juice. After a week of nothing but fish bread and fish soup and, well, fish on Olkhon Island, he was practically in heaven with his new diet.)
In the end, that segment of the trip turned out to be marvelous. We'd been constantly on the go since we'd landed in Beijing three weeks earlier, and now we had 36 hours to just sleep, and read, and play cards, and look out the window at the Siberian and then Mongolian countryside, which looked like this:
and sometimes this:
David was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time and loving it; I was reading Simone deBeauvoir's The Mandarins and finding it absorbing. The time blurred in a pleasant way, and by the time we'd arrived in Ulaanbaatar, we were ready for our next adventure.