Baikal Explorer - Travel to Siberia in winter - Article by Bill Cain
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"The Trans-Siberian Railway affords beautiful views, varied cuisine and a chance to make new friends"

Lake Baikal Article: The Trans-Siberian Railway  By BILL CAIN     |     Published:    Concord Monitor: April 29, 2007

Tour by Trans-Siberian Railway

"Opens at noon" was the message that came through in broken English from the Russian dining car attendant. That meant no breakfast. Fortunately, I had come prepared with plenty of snacks. Life on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and its two major branches - the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian lines - can be inconvenient now and then, especially by those expecting western standards. But the experience of riding the rails in this part of the world is well worth an occasional frustration.

There are train rides and then there's the Trans-Siberian Railway - the world's longest rail system and considered by many to be the pre-eminent journey of its kind. Sure, you can purchase a trip from one of many tour operators that offer private tours with luxurious dining and sleeping cars on the same par as the famed Orient Express. But the more authentic way to experience the Trans-Siberian is to take local trains on your own, where chance encounters with everyday people in these distant lands is always a possibility.

The route I recently chose encompassed all three of the aforementioned major branches, beginning in Beijing, China; traveling north through Mongolia; stopping in Irkutsk, Siberia for four nights; and then continuing south back into Manchuria, China. The two legs required two overnights each, and a total of three border crossings - just enough to get the flavor of rail travel in this otherwise overlooked part of the world.

Seating and facilities

Although there's only one dining car to accommodate 10 to 15 passenger carriages, seating is never a problem. The food is not necessarily bad, but most riders choose to bring their own on board and, for long journeys, supplement it by making purchases from local hawkers at various stops. At every border crossing, the dining car is changed to one whose cuisine matches that of the country being entered. The Chinese dining car serves large quantities of rice, but unless you have the foresight to bring your own silverware, only chopsticks are available. Trips to the dining car can be a chilly experience during the winter, as passage between cars requires short bursts of exposures to outside temperatures at least as cold as -18 degrees Fahrenheit, as recorded on my January trip.

Private two-passenger compartments are slightly cramped but otherwise comfortable and offer about 50 square feet of space, with just enough room for a small table and two window seats that convert to narrow, rock-hard beds at night.

Temperature control in the compartments, especially when it's below zero outside, is mostly uncontrollable and can fluctuate wildly. On the first night I had to sleep fully clothed to keep warm, but during the second I was sweltering in my skivvies.

Those expecting private bath facilities are out of luck and would be better suited taking a group tour. Showers are nonexistent on local trains, but each passenger carriage is equipped with two toilet rooms, one at each end of the car, which are shared by up to 18 passengers plus two provodniks, or carriage attendants. Once in a while, a wait is required, but more important, trips to the lavatory must be timed to not coincide with station stops, when the doors are locked by the provodniks. This makes sense when you realize there is no modern plumbing or even chemical toilets on these trains, and that flushes are a direct shot to the tracks below.

The duties of the provodniks are keeping the carriages as clean as possible, catering to their passengers' needs as best they can and providing a constant supply of boiling hot water - essential for the food do-it-yourselfers - from the samovar at one end of each car. Just remember to bring your own plates, utensils and cups.

At the border

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking and time-consuming experience aboard this polar express is the border crossings. It's no exaggeration that the crossing from Siberian Russia into Manchurian China takes 11 hours. This is partly because of the bureaucratic immigration formalities with the accompanying forms and red tape, and partly because of train mechanics.

At the exiting country's station, stern-looking border guards decked out in military garb demand passports, which are taken and returned hours later, as well as forms. One particular form was in Chinese on one side and Russian on the other, with nary an English word to be found. Compartments are occasionally searched for contraband, and passengers have to vacate, regardless of the time of day or night. Then the whole process is repeated again a short ways down the tracks at the entering country's station.

During the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 1960s, the Chinese government decided to thumb its nose at tradition and adopt some of its own rail specifications, regardless of the standards established by the Russians decades ago. This included narrower train tracks. Consequently, carriage wheels now need to be changed every time a train passes between China and Russia, requiring hours of labor. If you choose to remain in your compartment, during these "bogie changing" events, you're subjected to 5-6 hours of violent shaking and shuddering.

Time spent on the train affords opportunities to meet your fellow carriage mates if language barriers can be overcome, or you can simply watch the ever-changing countryside between small villages and larger industrial cities from the comfort of one's compartment picture window. At night, the constant clickity-clack and gentle swaying of the carriage is enough to induce a reasonable night's sleep.

It's sometimes said that the journey is more important than the destination, and if the inconveniences can be tolerated that adage rings true when traveling locally on the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian Railways.

Bill Cain during the tour by Trans-Siberian railway / stopover at lake Baikal

For the Monitor

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