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Trans-Manchurian Railway

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One branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway goes around Mongolia to China and is called Trans-Manchurian railway, and the other branch goes through Mongolia (Ulan-Bataar) to China. The final destination for both is Beijing. Trans-Siberian is the longest railway in the world and probably one of the most interesting and tough: imagine riding in the train for six days seeing various landscapes pass in front of your eyes... Only this way one can see the transformation from West to East (or vice versa) smoothly and feel the distance and the land.

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      06.02.2006 11:44
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      A fascinating glimpse of a corner of the world little visited by Westerners

      Irkutsk station in summer is quite a pleasant place to wait for a train. The terminal building is impressive in a grand imperial style, as is the waiting room, clad in pink and cream marble tiles. Like all Russian waiting rooms, it is crowded and noisy, but we find a place to sit. Rather endearingly, a kitten comes and sits on my younger son's bag. It looks too well-fed to be a stray, but maybe the station is simply a good hunting-ground for scraps.

      Later, when the train is about two hours late, we go out to wait on the sunlit platform. We fall into conversation with another English traveller, a film editor from London called Lucy, and time passes easily. Eventually, in a leisurely unhurried way, our train pulls in. It is the Nº 20 "Vostok", already seventy-seven hours out from Moscow, with another sixty hours ahead of it to Beijing. We shall be taking it as far as Harbin in Northern Manchuria, where we are going to visit my elder son.

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      There is mild pandemonium as we find our compartment. As on the first leg of our journey, we have booked all four berths in a second-class coupé, an extravagant way of buying privacy and extra luggage/sprawling space. The compartment is there, empty and ready. So, no problem?

      Ah, but there is. Somehow, the provodnik - carriage attendant, male - has managed to give Lucy's booked berth in the next compartment to someone else. His solution is simple: that she should come in with us. We've nothing against her - she's pleasant company - but we've paid for the extra berth and we refuse. She, bless her, is supportive; she doesn't want to intrude and has a perfectly valid booking for the next compartment which she wants him to sort out. Heated exchanges ensue, complete with pushing and shoving as he attempts to shift our luggage with one hand and pull her into the compartment with the other.

      I can manage mild confrontation, as with the drunken Germans on the first leg of the journey (see Part One), but facing down an insistent provodnik calls for the heavy artillery, so I leave it to my wife. Eventually, startled realisation dawns on him that this seemingly polite and smiling Englishwoman is the least malleable person in the universe, and that he will have less trouble tackling the problem at source. So at last he retreats next door to shift the intruder to the correct carriage, Lucy is installed in her place, and we all settle down to the journey ahead.

      While this has been going on Russian and Chinese passengers pass along the corridor without paying the least attention. Such scenes are obviously nothing out of the ordinary.

      *


      The 125km of track between Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal are among the most scenic - and most historic - of the entire route.

      The south-eastern shore of the lake is fringed by the Primorski Mountains, cliff-like where they front onto the shore, dramatic to discern in the distance as we have done during our boat-ride the day before, but a formidable obstacle to railway engineering.

      The initial response to this obstacle by the builders of the Trans-Siberian was not to tackle it at all, but to rely on ferries across the lake. Even built as ice-breakers, however, these could not cross throughout the winter, so the engineers fell back on the familiar expedient of laying temporary tracks across the ice. This worked well enough with rivers, but the 45km of trans-Baikal ice hid too many inconsistencies of thickness and strength, and the first locomotive to attempt the crossing disappeared through a sudden crack in the surface.

      This was worse than a nuisance, since it occurred in the early months of 1904, when Russia was at war with Japan. Unable to supply or reinforce its armies in the east, Russia suffered a humiliating defeat, which even the hurried building of the Circumbaikal loop line through the mountains at a desperate cost in money and labourers' lives was too late to avert.

      The line remains though, winding up and down through river valleys clad in pine and cedar, arching across high bridges to enter deep tunnels, and traversing mountain-sides with occasional distant glimpses of the glimmering lake.

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      By the time the train finally reaches the lakeside at Slyudyanka, the shore is a bit of a disappointment - relatively drab. The railway runs about 500m from the lake, and it is said that passengers sometimes race down to dip their hands into its waters for luck during the brief wait at the station. We saw no one attempt it, and contented ourselves with buying food from the customary platform vendors.

      As usual, we confine ourselves to bread, fruit and bottled drinks, but we notice that Chinese passengers, in particular, buy fresh vegetables, which they somehow contrive to cook in their compartments. The drainage grill beneath the samovar in the carriage corridor becomes clogged with peelings and surplus noodles.

      Whether for this or more historic-cultural reasons, the provodnik seems very antagonistic to the Chinese. He keeps the washroom beside his cubby-hole permanently locked against them, constricting them to the one at the far end of the carriage, although if the mood takes him he can be persuaded to open the nearer facility for Russians or selected westerners. Despite - or because of - the fracas at the outset of the journey, my wife is now his favourite passenger, and he will rush out to unlock the washroom for her with a smiling flourish. He even brings her some flowers, peonies standing in an empty baked bean can. Evidently, like me, he admires women of character.

      In contrast to the first leg of our journey, when our fellow-passengers were all either Russians or Germans, there is a wide ethnic mixture on this train. In addition to Lucy there are several other British travellers: Terri, who teaches in a school on the outskirts of Moscow, Sarah who has come out to join her on holiday and two students from Oxford on a summer-vac adventure.

      They drop by our compartment for a chat and a drink and the time passes rapidly. Meanwhile, the lakeshore slips by to one side - more populous and less attractive here than where we first reached it at Listvyanka on the outing from Irkutsk. On the other side, to the south, the horizon is curtained by a range of mountains, the Khamar-Daban, beyond which lies Mongolia.

      *


      The afternoon slips by. We pass the Baikalsk cellulose factory, which looks no more noxious that any other chemical complex, though it is a notorious polluter of the otherwise pristine lake.

      Soon, we are in the Buryat Republic, a small (barely larger than the UK) semi-autonomous region within the Russian federation. The Buryats are ethnically similar to the Mongols, with oriental eyes and dark leathery skin. Here in the area beside the lake and in the forest there is little to differentiate their settlements from those elsewhere in Russia. Later, tomorrow, we shall come out into the steppe country abutting Mongolia, and we shall see them herding their livestock, seated bolt upright in high saddles on small horses and it will be easy to recognise their kinship with the Asiatic nomads across the border.

      As evening gathers, we turn away from the lake, up the Selenga River valley to Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic, where the Trans-Mongolian railway branches off to the south. We continue eastwards, arriving just before nightfall at Petrovsky Zavod, a intensely dull-looking place, remarkable only for the enormous bust of Lenin on the platform. It is noticeable how many Soviet statues survive in Siberia, whereas in Moscow and St Petersburg they have mostly disappeared.

      *


      Night comes and goes. We have passed the highest point of the line, just 1000m above sea level, and are now descending the Ingoda River valley. Nearby is said to be a missile base, with fifty ICBMs still in their silos ready for war in whichever direction it may come.

      Chita, another dusty station with another uninspiring city beyond it, is next, only remarkable for having broken the monotony. The countryside is becoming a blur, though I notice that the landscape is barer, with fewer woods.

      You find yourself waiting, as if for a big event, for the moment when the train will swing off south across the river, parting from the Vladivostok-bound Amur Valley line. At last, 6300 km out of Moscow, the turning finally arrives and we rattle across the steel bridge towards the Chinese border.

      Like everything else in these parts, this takes some time to appear. The last 350 km or so of Russia consists of treeless hillsides, often eroded where the thin brown grass has failed to regenerate after the terrible winter of 2000-2001, when temperatures fell below -60ºC for weeks on end. The increasing signs of human presence are mostly in the form of military bases. Replaying my video of the journey, I notice a freight train loaded with tanks go clattering by.

      *


      The Chinese border is reached mid-afternoon, ahead of time, or so it seems. The train stops whilst a sequence of Russian officials passes through the carriages - border guards, customs, police and who knows what else. Our papers are examined several times, and we sign a declaration to say that we are not taking any roubles out of the country (illegal - we have been advised that any we admit to will be confiscated). Our passports are taken from us without explanation and carried off down the corridor.

      After an hour or so of such formalities, the train rumbles slowly without stopping through the Russian station of Zabaikalsk before entering a vast hanger-like shed. The intention is to change the bogeys on the carriages from Russian-gauge to Chinese-gauge, and I have been looking forward to this moment, interested to see how it is done.

      But we are not allowed to watch. Instead, we are bundled peremptorily out of the carriage by the provodnik, reverting under the eyes of fellow officials to his roughest and most over-bearing manner. The same is being done with all the passengers, and we are marched back along the bare track two or three hundred metres to the station. Why, if they wanted us at the station rather than the shed, they did not simply put us out there on the way through is unclear, but the last thing any official is going to do is to explain anything.

      What is there to do during an indeterminate wait at Zabaikalsk station? Not a lot. There is a cafeteria, which cheerfully accepts the roubles that we have all just denied having, an inconsistency by which none of the officials present seem to be perturbed. There is a customs office into which passengers are from time to time summoned by name over the loudspeaker system. Those summoned all appear to be Chinese. There is a platform to wander up and down, with two fierce-looking dogs chained up behind some bushes. Beyond, there is a landscape without scenery.

      The hours pass. Chatting to other English speakers on the platform we fall into conversation with an Australian whose job is conducting tour parties all over Asia. He tells us that the Russian-Chinese border is always like this. In his view, the two nations simply do not like each other, and the mutual antipathy brings out the worst in their bureaucratic tendencies. We are just caught in the crossfire.

      *

      The evening is well advanced by the time the train emerges from the shed on its new tracks and returns to the station, where we are herded aboard. The compartment has clearly been searched but our possessions are intact. Our passports are returned to us.

      Grudgingly, the train pulls forward again and a few kilometres later we are drawing up at Manchouli station on the Chinese side. The compartment door snaps open to reveal a uniformed Chinese official. He nods politely. "Welcome to China" he intones, and disappears down the corridor. We are just commenting to each other on the contrast in style with what we have experienced on the other side of the border, when a further set of officials follow him, as offhand and peremptory as their Russian equivalents.

      Once our papers have been processed we are allowed/ordered out onto the platform. Opening the door to the terminal building is like breaching a dam; a flood of noise pours out over us. The room is crammed with traders, all clamouring for attention, some with ad hoc stalls offering food and drink, others selling a whole miscellany of ill-assorted goods. Behind a sort of chicken-wire barrier stand money-changers waving handfuls of yuan, roubles and dollars and shouting out their rates. When they make a deal, the notes are passed through the holes in the wire. Why they are segregated is unclear: it is difficult to believe their activities are legal on either side of the barrier.

      The contrast with the desultory vendors found on Russian station platforms is stark. The Chinese are better prepared, better stocked, and more assertive in their salesmanship. On a Russian station we might have bought a loaf of bread from one vendor, a few oranges from another. Here, we buy a full hot meal in polystyrene containers, complete with disposable chopsticks, and a couple of bottles of beer. We could, if we wanted, have supplemented this with an ad hoc string-tied 10 or 20-pack of Harbin-brewed Happi Beer to drink during the rest of the journey.

      The train is still out of bounds, so we sit on the now-dark platform to eat, grateful for the food. The staff in the restaurant car had lost interest in serving at lunchtime (it is changed for a Chinese one when the border is crossed, and they were too pre-occupied with clearing-up and stocktaking to bother with mere customers), and only the simplest of snacks was available at Zabaikalsk.

      Eating perks up our spirits and we wait patiently till midnight, when we are at last allowed back and into our compartment, which has been searched again. By the time the train moves on it is the early hours of the morning; I am too sleepy to check the exact time. The border crossing has taken nine or ten hours.

      *

      We awaken to green hills, but the pleasant scenery is short-lived, since we are already descending towards the flat Manchurian plain.

      This is not pretty country. We have last seen it in early spring, bleak grey and still spotted with ice and snow. Now in the heat of summer it is a bare and sun-baked yellow. It is also busy and populous, with frequent towns, newly built housing and clusters of windowless round storage buildings like brown Mongolian yurts. Even a long stretch of marshland, apparently a nature reserve, fails to dispel the impression of an over-crowded and over-exploited land.

      By the early afternoon, Harbin appears on the flat horizon ahead. It looks shimmering in the summer sunlight, with high modern buildings towering above the surrounding plain, all the more so as the train approaches over the long bridge across the Sungari river, now dried up to half its spring-time width, the huge iceflows we saw on our previous visit in April having long since melted away.

      Once across the river, close to, one sees how slovenly the city really is. But by then we are gathering up our luggage to disembark.

      *


      There is a review waiting to be written about Harbin, but it is not this one. Sprawling, polluted and ugly though it is - almost a match for Krasnoyarsk - the city is not without character and there are many musings on the nature of China today that are prompted by staying there, but they can be equally and more pleasantly prompted elsewhere.

      In the unlikely event that you are tempted to visit Harbin, my advice is: don't. If you ever ride the Trans-Manchurian railway, content yourself with the view across the Sungari River and go on to Beijing.

      *


      Having failed to follow my own advice, it was some days later before we travelled on south to the capital, this time aboard a Chinese train. There are no essential differences in design and layout between the Russian and Chinese rolling stock, but these carriages are brand new and one senses the Chinese pride in their modernity.

      The Chinese carriage attendants are smartly uniformed and stand to attention by their doors saluting to martial music as the train pulls out, a reminder of the regimentation of so many aspects of Chinese life. But China works. The restaurant car is copiously provisioned and the staff quickly rustle up a substantial inexpensive meal. In Russian restaurant cars we were always uncertain whether and with what we might be fed.

      Throughout this journey, the contrasts between modern-day Russia and China are constantly brought home to the traveller. Russia is run-down and ramshackle, seemingly falling apart, its depressed cities isolated in the empty countryside. China is bustling and dynamic, teeming with energy and purpose despite the overcrowding and the squalor that goes with it.

      You could say it's all a matter of personal taste, but - despite the latent bureaucracy - we liked Russia and the Russians more.

      Another dawn. Intensive agriculture giving way to urban sprawl as we approach Beijing. At last, the Chinese music fades away and the incongruous strains of Old Lang Syne sound out over the PA system, the standard oriental signal that the journey is coming to an end.

      After 9000 km - over 5500 miles - of railway travel we pull in to the chaotic cacophony of Beijing station. There is a review waiting to be written about Beijing, but it is not this one. Suffice it to say that there is much to dislike about it, but it is a place that one should see before one dies.

      *


      Fares. We paid £83 per berth second class for the Irkutsk-Harbin leg, £54 Harbin-Beijing. At rather under 6p a mile, this was slightly more than Moscow-Irkutsk leg, but still hardly expensive - think what you'd pay for a fraction of the distance in the UK. These fares date from five years ago. They may well have changed since.

      *

      In the first part of this piece, I said I would travel the Trans-Siberian again, in winter for preference, and so I would, but I'd do the all-Russian route and not bother with the Trans-Manchurian, which adds little except a glimpse of China and the frustration of the border-crossing.

      But, especially to those who have not seen China, I would still recommend it as a once in a lifetime experience. I have done my best to describe the journey, but until you have undertaken it for yourself, you simply cannot imagine what it's like.



      © First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, November 21st 2003

      An account of the stage of the journey from Moscow to Irkutsk can be found at:
      www.dooyoo.co.uk/transport-international/trans-siberian-railway-russia/1019474/

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