Reports and Travelogues

7,923 kilometres from China to Moscow

On the longest railway line in the world from China to Moscow.

The mythical Trans-Siberian railway is more than 9,298 kilometres in length, the trains stop at 80 stations, 160 hours of pure journey time, from Moscow into the distant eastern outpost – Vladivostok on the Pacific. I shall be travelling in the opposite direction, from Beijing. And there’s just on 8,000 kilometres ahead of me.

It’s ten o’clock at night. After an eventful three days in the 13 million inhabitant metropolis of Beijing, it’s time to board the “Transsiberian by Private Train” special train, which will be taking me from China via Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow.

In Beijing, even the station is decked out with these typical red lanterns. In the “Forbidden City” in the centre of the city we marvelled at dragons on the roof pinnacles and the temples adorned with gold. Up until the revolution in 1911 this was the home and seat of power of the Chinese emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. All entry was prohibited to the common people.

I’ve already got over my jetlag – China is six hours ahead of us. Now I can look forward to the journey from the modern to the traditional and back. My journey covers 14 time zones, three countries, 7,923 kilometres, and 16 days.

The compartment in the “Transsiberian by Private Train” is somewhat old fashioned in its fixtures and fittings: Wine-red velvet upholstery on the bench seats, mahogany-clad walls, and in between a table bedecked with a bowl of fresh fruit and two bottles of vodka. The double cabin, with its slightly old-fashioned air of nostalgia, is my kingdom for the next two weeks. Then the engine gives a loud whistle, and we’re off into the night.

I slept deeply with the rhythm of the train.

When it comes to taking a shower in the roomy washing cabin, it’s important to follow the shower schedule that’s been put up. There are four dining cars, divided according to travel class. Now, in the daylight, I take a look at my fellow passengers. Most of them come from Germany, others from the USA, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. The “Transsiberian by Private Train” is reserved for holidaymakers, and no ordinary passengers come aboard. Announcements are made in German and English.

The kilometre post shows 850. Erlian, the border town between China and Mongolia, and our first stop. The town is as big as Berlin, but only has a population of 200,000. Fat jeeps cruise on empty streets. The principle is clear: The name of the game is growth. And, after that, there’s nothing for quite a while.

The Gobi Desert goes by, like a vegetable field that’s been shorn of its crop in the autumn.

On the sixth day and after 1,574 kilometres we stop in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. Here, in the land of Genghis Khan, five times the size of Germany, children learn to ride when they’re two years old.

No sleeping compartment for me tonight. I’m spending the night in a yurt (or ger), the traditional Mongolian tent. Deep in the green mountain meadows, surrounded by gentian and edelweiss, the “Buuveit” nomads’ encampment is almost 2,000 metres above sea level. “Yes”, Navtschaa (54) explains to me in fluent German, “German mountain plants grow here too.” When night comes they light the wooden stove for me in the yurt, until it’s almost as warm as a sauna.

For railway fans, after 2,875 kilometres and on the ninth day, there’s a dream come true: While the train rumbles along the old track at 30 kilometres an hour directly on the shore of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, 1,637 metres deep, we’re allowed on the locomotive. At the lakeside there’s omul to eat, fish from Baikal, that tastes like white herring, and in the evening bands play cool Baikal beats in the “Herat” pub.

Then the train has to get stuck in. In order to get across the vast wastes of eastern Siberia, yesterday we had one of the few days on board without an excursion. Only on day twelve, and after 4,725 kilometres, do I have time to ponder over the many impressions I have encountered, in my cosy compartment. Bloodwort and daisies, cedars and larch, wooden huts beside small lakes, lynxes and wolves.

The final part of the journey is the quietest. The countryside flies by.

On day 15 it’s leisurely time to pack. In Moscow we say goodbye to the “Transsiberian by Private Train” for a last day of excursions. More impressive than Red Square for me is the colourful extravaganza of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The 7,923 kilometres have passed quickly, but the impressions will remain with me for life. Clickety-click, clickety-click went the train, 20 coaches, 600 metres long. Will I be able to sleep again without its lullaby?