Reports and Travelogues

9,000 kilometres of impressions

Travelling by rail need not be monotonous. A journey on the Trans-Siberian railway is an adventure.

9,000 kilometres on the longest railway line on the planet means more than travelling through several time zones; the stretch between Beijing and Lake Baikal is a journey through history as well.

Chinese music drones from the loudspeakers. It’s a wake-up call we’re getting used to, nine and a half hours after starting out from Beijing. Day one on the journey towards Lake Baikal, on the longest railway line in the world, the Trans-Siberian. We’re still in China. In Inner Mongolia the sky is still a radiant blue.

The smog bank of Beijing is 500 kilometres behind us, and the culture shock as well. The hectic capital with its noise, the masses of people, and the passion for plastic art in every shape, colour, and form is still having an effect; memories of unforgettable moments in the Forbidden City, of emperors’ palaces, heavenly temples, the Square of Heavenly Peace. It’s hard for all these dimensions to fit inside one head.

A whole lot of land, and not a lot of people

On the run northwards we have time to take stock. As Lao-Tse said, “One who travels, does so in order to open their eyes and ears, and to unburden the soul”. The “Transsiberian” special train, which the Berlin travel company “Lernidee” organizes on the 9,000 kilometre run between Beijing and Moscow, makes retrospective meditation easier. Between plush and brass, cast back in time to the standards of comfort of Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950’s, travel becomes a more relaxed experience altogether.

Thoughts flow by, the view, the light is clear, the landscape too. The monotonous clickety-click of the rails matches the sparse surroundings. Isolated trees, every 20 minutes a herd of sheep – and a whole lot of land without a single person. Out of the sheer endless nothingness there suddenly emerge the outskirts of the restless border town of Erlian: Raw, and clearly straight off the drawing board. 40,000 people live here, and the tendency is rising.

Socialist prefabs testimony to gold digger mentality

Featureless socialist prefab blocks are springing out of the ground, indicators of the new gold digger mentality, of economic growth on the threshold of the autonomous Republic of Mongolia. The people here have something of the emblem of their town, the dinosaurs. Because of the many dinosaur finds in the Gobi Desert, they have established a museum in honour of the monsters.

On the other side of the border the greatest wasteland in Asia begins – green as far as the eye can see. Hours go by, and the steppe gives way to a landscape of low hills. In the mornings the dew lies like a magic carpet in the valleys, and the clouds form snakes before the gently sloping ranges of hills. Genghis Khan, national hero of the Mongolians, is said to have raced across the steppe on his pony; in the plushness of the old-style compartment aboard the “Transsiberian by Private Train”, all that rushing about seems far away.

Suddenly the music is back, and thrums through the on-board loudspeakers. Tour leader Wolfgang Eggers wishes us a pleasant morning. The signal for a collective rise to our feet. 180 people are now up and moving about in 18 coaches. And at least as many nationalities are meeting in the narrow corridors or in the dining car, Olga’s kingdom. The waitress immediately makes it clear, with her Russian charm, just who’s in charge here.

Not a word in opposition is allowed between pirogen, borsch, salmon, and vodka. But nothing can change the mood. Everyone on the train has been living their dream of “being one of the last adventurers in the world”. For Martha from the USA and Mr. Singh from Indonesia, everything is simply wonderful, fascinating, breathtaking, marvellous. Much better than the dream.

A giant yurt camp heralds our arrival in Ulaanbaatar. Impoverished nomads have pitched tent on the periphery of the capital and hope to scratch out a living. In the south of the country there are mineral reserves of immeasurable variety and inestimable value.

It lies there like glass, the lake of superlatives

Gold, silver, uranium, copper, oil, gas, coal. “Mongolia has great resources and a great history.” Gero Bone, a German teacher who lives here, is convinced that “conditions could actually prevail here as in Dubai”, but “3000 people in Ulaanbaatar are living off rubbish dumps” in Bone’s estimation.

The gigantic building boom in the capital is benefiting mainly Chinese investors, who are sending money and workers while 15 to 20 percent of Mongolians are unemployed. Their unloved southern neighbour is dominating the country 20 years after the end of socialism.

Living in the rhythm of past centuries

Just 60 kilometres outside the capital the life of the nomads still appears to follow the rhythm of centuries gone by. In the Terelj National Park herds of ponies doze in the sunshine, yaks graze, and behind the next hillside stands a yurt. To the left of the entrance the owners have dug a well, and to the right a hole: Washbasin and toilet.

A minimalistic lifestyle? Wrong. When Gerelt, the father of the family, gallops up on his pony with his mobile phone at his ear, it becomes clear that the modern world fits in perfectly in this most remote corner of the earth. In the yurt, next to the altar, a flat screen television sits enthroned in pride of place.

The “Transsiberian by Private Train” is waiting in Ulaanbaatar. Hans Engberding, founder and proprietor of “Lernidee” has put together a programme of his own: Going to watch Mongolian horse racing, talking to Russian Old Believers, and dining on the finest “Peking” duck.

Onwards, further north. Direction Siberia. On day seven from Beijing, suddenly it lies before us, flat as glass: Lake Baikal. A lake of superlatives. The largest body of fresh water on earth, the deepest lake, and the only one to provide a habitat for seals. From the window one can see the shore. At Port Baikal we take our leave of the “Transsiberian by Private Train”, of this spectacular journey. Of wonderful impressions – and of memories which never fade.