Posted: 12/06/2008 7:40 pm Post subject: รถไฟสายทรานไซบิเรีย ช่วง ทรานสมองโกเลีย
On a roll
A three-day adventure on train from Beijing via Ulan Bator to Siberia and all the way to Moscow
Horizon - Bangkok Post - 12 June 2008
[All Images: Bangkok Post]
It was a bit of everything: boring, exciting and unpredictable, this journey on the Trans Siberian railway that cuts through three countries and eight time zones for a distance of 9,288 kilometres, traversing great plains, a barren desert and lush mountain scenery also the Sino-Russian border.
For me, the journey began in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Arriving at the railway station with my luggage in tow, the place was teeming with travellers queuing up in long lines waiting to go through the X-ray scanner.
Would I make it? A sense of insecurity took over as my attention kept returning to the long line of passengers ahead of me. When my turn came I let out a huge sigh of relief, collected my ticket and rushed past merchants, porters and passengers to the platform where my Chinese guide pointed to me the train I would be boarding.
The train with dark green carriages was devoid of signs in English - just Chinese, Mongolian and Russian - and since I was boarding it in Beijing, I assumed it must have read "Beijing-Ulan Bator-Moscow". Immediately I hopped on the train noted for its punctuality.
The Trans Siberian line is the world's longest railroad connecting Moscow and Vladivostok. My journey would take me from Beijing via Mongolia to Siberia in eastern Russia where we would be joining the main route.
My carriage was not bad indeed if you compare it with trains in Thailand. It was neat and clean. I was booked in a second-class four-berth compartment, each bunk with a fan, reading light and a small desk. Not long after I had hauled my luggage on board the train departed, right on time.
From the train Beijing looked busy in stark contrast to the peace and calm of our compartment that gradually turned dull and finally boring as we drifted farther from the city. Tourists attuned to city life - of television, Internet and other comforts - would surely be hard pressed finding a way to kill boredom under the circumstances if they're not carrying a book or MP3 player.
I spent the afternoon yawning as the train drifted deeper into the countryside but my friend did better - he stole a few winks - because the barren plantations and dry mountainous landscape did nothing to lift the mood, and it remained that way until I heard somebody yell, "The Great Wall!"
Looking out the window I could see the crumbling ruins of the Great Wall and its guard posts, built by former Chinese emperors to ward off Mongolian invaders, in the distance.
The Wall and the falling ruins were a sure sign we were approaching Inner Mongolia. Next, the train traversed a stretch of the Gobi Desert that straddles Mongolia and China, and again there wasn't much to see or admire - just sand, sun and swirling dust.
There was some excitement at dusk when the train reached Erlian, a lively border town, where Chinese immigration officers came on board to collect our passports, after which we were instructed to proceed to a building. Immigration formalities, I told myself.
Most passengers, however, seemed to care little about immigration formalities for they headed straight to a supermarket in the building to stock up essentials such as rice, snacks, vegetable oil, instant noodle, beer and fruit etc. Everybody shopped like crazy as goods here were much cheaper than on other side of the border.
Returning from immigration I froze in my tracks, shocked that my train was rolling out of the platform, with myself without even a semblance of a chance of covering my ground. The gap kept widening as I stood watching, helplessly. A sense of panic set in. What next? I didn't entertain the idea of spending a night lost in an alien land.
My frayed nerves were calmed by a station officer who explained that the train had gone to get its suspensions changed and it would be back inside two hours because Mongolian railway runs on narrow gauge while the track in China is broad gauge.
He advised me stay calm and wait. When the train was back those who had chosen to stay on board recounted that it had visited a railway yard where all the carriages (some 20 of them) were lifted one by one, during which passengers were airborne, while its suspensions and cables were replaced.
"It was bit like a ride in amusement park," recalled one passenger. The returning train came with another change as well, its Chinese dining car was replaced by one with Mongolian menu and decor, and I looked forward to it because the food so far had been bland.
It was about noon when I went to the car for a meal only to be told by the attending officer that they were closed from noon to 2pm for staff lunch. I returned shortly after 2pm and found the dining car beautifully done, its ceiling and walls adorned with fine carved wood more fitting of a luxurious resort.
Like a luxurious resort, it was pricey. My friend ordered beef steak which set him back 400 baht, while my small beer cost around 140 baht, a sharp rise from the 13 baht or 2.50 yuan I had paid for the last one at the Chinese border. But the food was indeed more delicious, complementing the picture-perfect scenery we admired watching out the window.
Approaching Ulan Bator, as the train snaked past mountains and valleys, the natural landscape got better and better, dotted with tents that Mongolians call ger with cattle grazing leisurely while roaming the prairies.
Capital Ulan Bator proved even more unpridictable. I had assumed it to be a quiet town of nomads, but I found it vibrant complete with hustle and bustle of a modern city full of tall buildings and busy traffic.
Leaving the capital, the view was much more beautiful as the train weaved its way through a lush valley nourished by a stream around which were pitched tents, while villagers guarded their livestock riding horses.
Braving cold breeze, I moved from one window to another to get the best angle for my camera. The pictures tell me I should return to this timeless land and spend a few nights experiencing the nomadic lifestyle, living in tents and riding horses.
It was around midnight that we hit the Russian border where the train stopped four painful hours during which we subjected to all sorts of customs and immigration hassles before receiving the clearance to enter Russia.
Russian officers checked every nook and cranny, waking passengers up to look into every piece of baggage and locked them out of toilets while the train was in transit, denying them the chance to even answer nature's call. The toilets opened directly to the railway track underneath; they apparently felt at pains dealing with the mess left by transiting tourists. So did the passengers that night, holding their bladders in Siberia's freezing temperature.
But we kept our cool and the following morning were rewarded with a wonderful view of Siberia and its snowcapped mountains rising to serenade Baikal Lake, the world's deepest freshwater lake.
I disembarked at Irkutsk, Siberia's capital, and felt glad to be back on land. Then followed a sightseeing tour, after which I took a six-hour flight to Moscow.
[Elegant and expensive, best describes the Mongolian dining car.]
Thai Airways International operates regular flights from Bangkok to Beijing and Moscow. Tourists can begin the journey in Beijing and end it in Moscow or vice versa. For flight schedule, visit http://www.thaiairways.com/
Global Union Express (02-308-2104, http://www.guetravel.com) specialises in Russian destinations. It soon plans to launch package tours between Beijing and Moscow.
Thai tourists require visa to enter China, but not to Mongolia and Russia. The train plying the Trans-Siberian route is quite convenient, although you can't say the same about the toilets on board, which are rather small and cramped for space. Water flowing out of the taps on board does not leave you room for a shower. Every car is equipped with a boiler. It is advisable to carry your own coffee and instant noodle as food on the train is rather expensive.
There is a socket in every carriage for passenger to plug in your electrical devices.
Signs on the train are marked in Chinese, Mongolian and Russia, but most staff speak some English.
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