See Beijing, Mongolia and Russia from the greatest train journey on earth
The greatest train journey on earth is not an easy feat, especially when it comes to deciding on the ideal route, purchasing train tickets online while considering five different time zones and applying for visas. The raw adventure of taking a route less travelled fascinated me; the hubbub of Beijing, the mystical Mongolian culture and the wild forests and steppes of Russia bewildered me enough to embark on the Trans-Siberian railway journey.
My trip started in bustling Beijing where old meets new. I was overwhelmed by the rapid development in the city, its towering skyscrapers, a sense of smoggy chaos in the air, and perpetual traffic on its roads. But amid all this, I was delighted to find history in the enchanting and luxuriant Forbidden City and in the massive austerity where Tiananmen Square stood. I explored the city’s courtyards shoulder-to-shoulder with swarming crowds of tourists. This is China, after all.
A trip to the Great Wall is imperative when in Beijing. I spent a few days at Mutianyu, a booming hamlet 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing. As I set foot on the wall, I was reminded of stories my grandmother told me about the valiant labourers whose sweat, blood and tears stained the walls. Many talk about the grand magnificence of the wall, but if the wall could speak, I am sure that it would echo the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in its construction.
I was ready to escape Beijing’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility and board my first train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The train station was a frenzy of mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles and people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff. The gates opened and there before me, the oddly familiar dark green train was parked. Looking around, I saw selfie sticks poking into the air and massive grins. A tangible mutual excitement hung in the air, almost forceful enough to push the train along.
My humble four-bed cabin had a tiny coffee table mounted next to the window and a rotating wall fan. When the summer heat was too much to bear, I escaped to the first-class cabin or the dining cart to enjoy the cool air-conditioning. At the Chinese-Mongolian border, the train’s bogies (wheels) were changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolian and Chinese railway networks. I sat in the dark as each carriage was raised individually followed by violent shaking and banging to get the new bogies in. This took two hours before our train continued on its journey into no man’s land.
I was greeted with dramatic landscapes the next morning. Mongolia’s main draw is its rugged countryside, vast grassland stretching far into the horizon with wild horses galloping with unrestrained freedom and tiny ger (felt-lined tents) encampments dwarfed by enormous undulating hills. This nomadic land, where many people still lead traditional lives, herding cattle and hunting with eagles, held a certain mystique.
I stayed with a local nomad family in Terelj National Park, 80 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar. My host family spoke very little English and we communicated with a lot of dramatic hand gestures. I was ushered into the family ger, propped up by beautifully decorated beams rising up to the ceiling. The centerpiece of the ger is a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking out that doubles up as a fireplace.
The ger was constantly filled with the delicious aroma of khuushuur (fried mutton dumplings) and mantou (white fluffy steamed bread) served with mutton soup. A steady selection of tidbits – aaruul (dehydrated yak curds) and dried milk chips – was constantly available. My host, Chan’gkhan, sold mares’ milk for a living. I watched and marvelled at her strength as she diligently milked the horses every two hours, a task that’s both tiring and time-consuming.
Back in Ulaanbaatar, I had a glimpse of the country’s patriotism at the annual Naadam Festival, the biggest festival of the year. Over 35,000 wrestlers, 40,000 horse racers and 1,500 archers compete in traditional competitions. Ulaanbaatar was abuzz with people on the streets till late, traditional dance shows and fireworks displays. In the national stadium, there was a parade of people dressed as ancient warriors, men and women in embroidered robes called del and elaborate headdresses, along with burly wrestlers clad in blue and red briefs, soldiers and traditional throat singers. The atmosphere was electric.
Finally, my rail journey took me into Siberia, the largest land mass stretching across the Trans-Siberian railway. Ulan-Ude is a relaxed city and the population is made up mainly of Buryats, who forsook their nomadic lifestyle and adopted a simple agricultural life. A giant statue of the head of Vladimir Lenin sits in the city’s central square, built in 1970 for the centennial of Lenin’s birth.
Further west, I stopped at Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, formed millions of years ago. I spent the day basking and soaking my feet in the lake’s clear waters, so clear that I was told it is safe to drink thanks to numerous types of sponge living in its depths. I enjoyed a picnic of tomato rice and smoked omul, a salmon species endemic to Lake Baikal.
Back on the train for another overnighter, I arrived at Krasnoyarsk, a vibrant city nestled among commanding hills and cliffs along the Yenisei River. The main attraction near this city is the Stolby Nature Reserve, famed for its towering stone formations reaching up to 100 metres in height. It is said that Stolby was once a hideout for secret political meetings. Today, the park is a favourite among rock climbers.
The longest and most arduous leg of the train journey was from Omsk to Moscow, a 40-hour ride with occasional 20-minute stops for a stretch and some food shopping. I was tired of pot noodles by then and was delighted to find roast chicken and caramel waffles at one stop. The landscape gradually changed from larch, pine and birch trees to factories and brick houses. I was inching closer to modern civilisation.
Soon, I was in Moscow, which has long held a reputation as one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. Revelling in the glamour of the city, I checked into the luxury heritage Baltschug Kempinski, boasting unobstructed views of the Red Square, the Kremlin and the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful spiral domes.
As I tucked into my hearty bowl of meat dumplings and watched the hectic buzz of the city, it dawned on me that the hours of solace in my small train cabin were the single greatest thing I would miss from the world’s greatest rail journey. It was the perfect place for reflection, rediscovery and rejuvenation on life’s long journey.
Malaysia Airlines operates daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, where the train journey starts. For more flight information, visit malaysiaairlines.com