From Saint-Petersburg to Shanghai along the longest railway in the world.
According to American travelogue-ist Ian Frazier, Siberia is so big that it is almost more an idea than an actual place. European portrayal of the Orient is unmistakable fed by historical framing, ignorance and the fact that James Bond is always chasing a Lenin or Mao comrade. Intrigued by Chinese history and Putin’s Kremlin show, Dries Hiroux and his friends decided to travel the longest and most notorious train track of all: The Transsiberian. Their journey takes off in Saint-Petersburg to end seven weeks later, in China’s financial heart, Shanghai. Buckle up, it’s gonna be a real rattlesnake.
Text: Dries Hiroux. Pictures: Bilge Kahraman, Dries Vaesen & Dries Hiroux.
"This is a city of half-crazy people... there are few places where you'll find so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of a man as in St Petersburg." Besides his fear for women, I also share with Dostoyevsky the ambiguous feeling towards the city of Saint Petersburg (Saint-Petey for friends). Although various sources guaranteed me Saint Petersburg is the definite winner in the never-ending competition with its rival Moscow, the city didn’t really meet my expectations. Ignoring the cool vibe at New Holland and the never-ending Saint-Petey showers, I can’t see how the capital’s monumental beauty and vibe can lose from its smaller brother. But I must admit, it’s not always easy to see through the rain.
On the Transsiberian, in the middle of nowhere.
The official Transsiberian line kicks off in Moscow, so the 10-hour train ride from Saint Petey to the twelve million people-capital is just a warm up. On this trip from Saint-Petersburg to Shanghai, we spent more than 120 hours on 7 overnight trains covering more than 10.000 miles. The procedure is about the same in every station: you buy some instant noodles (every carriage has a water boiler), slide through security checks and go to the platform. Every carriage has its own attendant, the providnitsa, usually a crusty old lady who will provide you with linen and disapproving frowns from time to time. The third class plakartsny carriage doesn’t have compartments or personal space and is one big sweaty organism. A coupé is a fancy word around here, and not just because it’s French.
After Moscow, we make a two-day stop in Kazan, the holiday-feel capital of Tatarstan which is home to the beautiful Qolşärif mosque. The third overnight train bobs through the amazing empty Siberian scapes and drops us in Tyumen, one of the first Siberian settlements and now an oil and gas metropole. It’s rich and clean but won’t make your heart pound faster. Lonely Planet will encourage you to hop on a bus and quickly visit the nearby city of Tobolsk. Except if you are a Mendeljev lover or seeking existential boredom, please don’t.
The sweaty 56-hour ride from Tyumen ends in the city of Irkutsk, the gateway to the largest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. Combined with its shamanist Olkhon Island, the lake serves as a spiritual mecca far away from brightly blinding city lights and modern day comfort. Baikal is an absolute climax of any Transsiberian Dream and the main reason my lost soul hopped on the train in Saint-Petey, now some twenty days ago. Bet I was not alone in my motivation.
The campsite at Lake Baikal, Russia.
Shamanist totem poles, Olkhon Island, Russia.
Baikal at night, Russia.
After 5 days of camping at Baikal, we head for Ulan-Ude, a Siberian border city in proud ownership of the biggest Lenin head on the globe. We decide to leave the Transsiberian track and instead, hop on the Transmongolian to Mongolia’s capital Ulaan-Batar. The city turned out to be a karaoke paradise and a dump for the Japanese secondhand Toyota Prius, and since we didn’t goof our way through Siberia for karaoke, nor the Prius, we leave the city for what it is. In the Mongolian desert, we spent most of our time traveling between welcoming nomadic families, sitting in yurts and enjoying the sight of untouched plains. Gazing at the beautiful Mongolian sky at night, modern day concepts like burn-outs, private property and traffic jams (traffic is impossible if you don’t have any roads) vaguely lose their significance in silence and nothingness. Life, as simple as it is.
Guy on a horse, somewhere in Mongolia.
Camel (I named her Lucy), somewhere in Mongolia.
After a week in Mongolia, we are all starting to miss the buzz of the train and take an overnighter to Zaamin-Uud, the busy and time-consuming border crossing with the Mao-land. After Google Maps and the pencil sharpener, the Schengen Area really is the best invention ever. The overnight sleeper bus from Erlian, just across the border, drops us in Beijing at night. We first encounter the infamous dazzling Chinese Crowd at the flag ceremony at dawn and later in the Forbidden City, where our European faces led to an interesting photoshoot hold-up. The visit to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, the day after, seemed a viable choice as The Crowd was rather absent.
A week later the high-speed train takes us to Xi’an, famous for its Muslim quarter, ancient city walls and Terracotta Warriors. We flee the city because of the washing rain and after a 13-hour overnighter we arrive to Chengdu, a rather new and modern city with a large student population. Chengdu is home to some famous tea houses and the Giant Panda Breeding Center. Its proximity to Mount Emei, Leshan and the Himalayas are a guarantee for some interesting excursions to spice up your trip.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China.
Next up is Zhangjiajie National Park, which is a small detour from the final leg to China’s financial center, Shanghai. The Zhangjiajie Avatar Mountains are often ignored by must-see guides to China, but is without doubt more mind-blowing than Huangshan’s Yellow Mountains. The constant fog transforms the eroded peaks into a mystical and astonishing landscape. Hiking down the peaks, you will find yourself surrounded by an immense jungle. Cute-looking rhesus macaques will provide company along the way. Bring a stick though, in contrast with vodka-providing Russians on the Transsiberian or Mongolian nomads in the Gobi desert, they are not the companion you seek.
Zhangjiajie National Forest, China.
Zhangjiajie National Forest, China.