Before I start maybe a small historical note:
Late in 1988 – while I was in the military service in Germany – I had read in a newspaper that it had become possible to book a passsage on the Trans-Siberian Railway as an individual traveller. I knew that I would have some time to waste after my tour of duty ended, and so I decided to go to Beijing via Moscow on a train.
And so I ended up travelling through the USSR in early 1989 – Gorbachev was still the Communist leader of the Soviet Union and those were the final days of the Cold War.
All of that is now ancient history.
This is more-or-less a direct translation from my diary that I kept during this trip, with a few explanatory notes thrown in later.
Thursday, 20th of April 1989
It’s ten minutes to three on a dark, overcast afternoon as the train stops in Moscow. As I step out of the train I realize that I’m cutting my life-line to the west – there’s no fast and easy way out of here.
I’d spent the last two days travelling from Munich via Berlin and Warsaw to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Empire. The train ride had felt like a trip back in time, with Berlin solidly in the 1980s, Warsaw still showing damage from the 1940s and the fields of Belarus and the Ukraine full of horse-drawn carriages from the late 1800s.
I say goodbye to my travel companion since Berlin – Ella, a Russian translator for English who is on her way back home. It’s time to take out the mimeographed sheet with instructions I had received back in Munich and to find my contact in Moscow.
The train station smells of disinfectant and looks very clean. Grey and clean. I look for the Intourist bureau, and find it soon enough near the end of the platform where I had arrived. It’s a big, grey room inside the hall of the station and it’s empty apart from a cluttered desk with a young man behind it.
I tell him in English that I’d been sent to him by my travel agent in Munich and I show him the pack of receipts and papers that I got with my train ticket to Moscow.
The man takes his time while checking my name in a long list. Without looking up he pushes the pack of papers in my direction and grabs the telephone. Harsh Russian words bring back where I am. He talks for a while and I can’t help but imagine that he’s talking to the KGB: ‘Yes, we’ve caught the spy now. Where shall we bring him, comrade?’…
Another man enters the office and gestures me to follow. We walk across the train station and leave through a side door. The man opens the trunk of a black car and helps to heave my backpack inside. He starts to laugh and says something in Russian. He seems to ask what on earth is so heavy in the pack. It’s the first time I see somebody laughing in the Soviet Union.
He ushers me into the back seat and starts the engine. It’s a bit surprising that my first impression of Moscow is the bourgeois view from a chauffeured limousine.
When I booked the ticket for the Transsib, Intourist required that I had to book a night in a hotel in Moscow, the minimum being US$80 for a single room in the Hotel Belgrade. That’s where we are going now, along huge streets with four or six lanes, filled with trucks, buses and taxis. There seem to be only very few private cars.
The Hotel Belgrade is a semi-clean, dusty place. My room is small, just big enough for the bed and a chair. The steam heater is making quiet ticking noises and the thick windows dimensioned for Russian winters block all outside noise. Since the room is on the 12th floor, there is at least a good view of Moscow.
I’m hungry from the train ride so I skip a first trip into town. I take the elevator down to the dining room ‘for individual travelers’ just to find out that the man at the door doesn’t have me on his list. He sends me up to the dining room ‘for group travelers’. There I get told that from now on I’m part of a tour group – the ‘group of individual travelers’…
The food is fairly good, just those strange sausages without any taste are a bit of a mystery to us. Us – that’s fourteen travelers from six countries. We all came to Moscow as individual travelers and it seems that Intourist decided that we are a lot easier to handle as a newly-formed tour group with an actual guide.
Friday, 21st of April
The breakfast at nine o’clock is basic, to say the least. Valentin, our guide, announces a bus tour through the city and a guided tour of the Kremlin at no extra cost. It certainly helps us to accustom ourselves to the fact that we’re now a tour group.
The bus tour is brief, basically only a trip around the perimeter of the inner city of Moscow. We get a rundown of some of the ministries of the Soviet government and then we stop in front of one of the entrances to the Kremlin.
We walk through a big gate and enter the heart of the Soviet Empire. Strangely enough, we are facing some office blocks that one just doesn’t expect in here. But there are also well-preserved old buildings and a beautiful old church with intricate orthodox Christian artwork lining the walls.
Valentin does a good job explaining the various sights we are allowed to see inside of the Kremlin Walls and he shows obvious pride in the fact that he is guiding us through the seat of government of the Soviet Union.
The place is big enough for days of exploration, but here the tour group is kept under tight surveilance by the Intourist guide and after half an hour, we are again in our bus heading back to the hotel.
Overall the visit to the Kremlin was a mind-bending experience. Only months before I had been a conscript in the German Air Force and had spent my days in an underground air surveillance installation keeping a sharp eye on flight patterns of Warsaw Pact forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And now I was strolling through the very heart of the Soviet Union, only a few hundred meters from Gorbachev’s office. It was utterly bizarre.
There’s another Intourist tour in the afternoon, but somehow Valentin just can’t explain what’s so special about our destination outside of Moscow.
Together with another Thomas and Andreas from Germany and Marie from Canada, we decide to do Moscow our way. We organize a map and start hiking along the big Prospekts, wide streets with six or eight lanes cutting through the city.
We visit a supermarket on Kalinin Prospekt, not too far away of the Red Square. It’s empty. Not that there are no people, no – there’s a good crowd walking among the shelves… the empty shelves. We can’t figure out what hundreds of people buy in an empty food store, but maybe they are waiting for the next truckload of meat from somewhere. It explains our meager breakfast – and the grey sausages from last evening…
The Red Square is breathtaking. It’s not as big as I thought – don’t know how someone can land a Cessna in here. But the buildings that surround the square are gorgeous. The intimidating Kremlin Wall on one side – I still can’t believe we had just been in there – the classic Gum Department Store on the other. The wonderful Basilius cathedral at one end of the square with its colorful – and freshly renovated – towers.
On the way back we take Moscow’s Metro. This is fun. The subway stations are beautiful, some of them look like huge ball rooms or underground cathedrals. We miss our stop, but since we have some time left and it is a circle route, we just stay on for another round.
Our second – and last – dinner in the Hotel Belgrade. This time the food is better and there’s folk dancing and loud music after dinner. But most of us start dreaming while we listen to the music, another couple of hours and we are on our way…
Valentin calls for his group. We all jump up and almost run for the door. It’s now 10.30pm and our bus is waiting. We all get our backpacks from our rooms, jamming into the elevator until the warning light starts buzzing nervously.
The bus takes us to the Jaroslawskij train station where we have to wait for another half hour, the train is not ready. It’s almost midnight, but there are thousands of people at the station. Some seem to travel with all their possesions, while others seem to have nothing left but their patched clothes.
Valentin calls again for us, inducing much excitement within his group. This is it – we are walking up to the platform where we see, feel and smell our train.
The Trans-Siberian Railway!
Saturday, 22nd of April
It’s 1.20am as we leave Moscow’s Jaroslawskij Station. All in our group have been assigned their quarters, sorted out by nationalities. I’m sharing a four-bed cabin with Thomas, Andreas and Maja, a girl from Hamburg. I have one of the lower beds.
We try to open the window, but it’s locked – it’s still winter time in Siberia and Valentin tells us that our window is ‘officially locked’. It’s also unofficially dirty, but we avoid pointing that out to our guide…
3.30am. We sit on the lower beds, talking. We’re too excited to sleep and as we can hear through the thin wooden walls, our Dutch neighbours are also awake.
Much later, somebody is knocking at the door. It’s 8.30am and our faithful guide reminds us that our breakfast time is 9 o’clock sharp. Andreas slept in one of the upper beds, as he finds out the hard way. We, the two Thomases in the lower beds have it a bit easier, but only a little bit after the very short night.
On the way to the restaurant car we get our first glimpse of the countryside. There are small villages connected by dirt tracks and there’s still a good amount of snow everywhere. The thawing snow and the heavy trucks convert the dirt roads into muddy creeks, almost unnavigable for even the heaviest trucks.
The food is not too good and the two waiters seem to be trained prison personnel. They basically throw the plates with the food at us and just barely manage to hit the table instead.
Grey seems to be the favourite color in Soviet cuisine. We have two kinds of stale bread, light grey and dark grey, grey sausages again, and even the yolk of the egg is greyish yellow. And the overall taste can only be described as… grey.
As we leave the restaurant car, we realize that the train personal had all the Soviet passengers cleaned out of the restaurant for us. As we walk out, embarrassed that we had kept everybody else from eating, they push in to get their share of the grey breakfast.
Sunday, 23rd of April
What was only a suspicion yesterday becomes a fact today. There are no showers on the train for second class passengers. Valentin apologizes in four different languages, but there’s not really a lot he can do about it once the train is rolling. Our showers are in a different carriage that had been left behind in Moscow for repairs.
Instead we build a small apparatus out of a plastic mineral water bottle and string in one of the toilets of our carriage. Not great, but better than nothing. The conductor in our carriage is a bit concerned at the beginning, but then helps us out with the string for our self-made shower. There is a drain in the floor under the sink, so we won’t be flooding the whole car with our apparatus.
There is a conductor in every single one of the carriages on the train. They assign cabins and beds to new passengers, clean the corridor from time to time, and are responsible for the Samovar, the water boiler in each carriage that supplies us with endless amounts of hot water for tea and instant coffee.
But their most important task is to check that all the passengers are back on the train after the frequent stops. We all use those stops to take walks on the platform or run over to the station to buy snacks. We’ve also started an ongoing international snowball match. It’s still freezing cold here in Siberia.
Monday, 24th of April
1am. We’re going through Novosibirsk. We are all still awake since we are experiencing 23 hour-days at the moment. Through our continuing movement eastward we’re loosing one hour per day.
Novosibirsk seems to be one big industrial site. Coal dust is penetrating our cabin through the cracks around the window. There is a sulphuric smell in the air. Metallic smokestacks reach into a neon-yellow sky, lit up by the lights from very large factory buildings lining the rail line.
And then as sudden as it began, we leave Novosibirsk behind and we are again surrounded by the pitch black Siberian night.
In the morning Valentin knocks on the doors of the compartments, tells us that breakfast is in 30 minutes and also what the local time is. The shortened days are very disorienting and our appetite is meager.
After lunch we cross the Jenissei. It’s a huge, muddy river, maybe a hundred meters wide, that is running north to the Polar Sea. We are crossing the river on an ancient iron bridge that clangs heavily under the wheels of the train.
Shortly afterwards we are back in the Taiga, an endless forest of birch and pine trees, interrupted by meadows of tall, rough grass growing on permafrost.
Valentin pinned a map of the world to the corridor wall on the first day of our trip. He’s charting our course every couple of hours with a thick red marker and there’s now a neat red line across half of the Soviet Union. After three days of continuous travel we’ve done almost half of the complete distance between Moscow and Beijing.
Tuesday, 25th of April
The food in the restaurant is getting worse. It seems that they stocked up in Moscow and they don’t get anything fresh on the road. One could drive nails into wood with the bread from today’s breakfast.
All morning we travel through the sheer never-ending Taiga. Birch forests that withstand any attempt to describe their vastness. An ocean of birch trees. The Taiga has engulfed us and the swampy permafrost is doing it’s very best to never let us leave again.
It’s on this fourth day of continuous movement that it finally starts to really sink in how incredibly big Siberia is.
We arrive in Irkutsk in the afternoon. Valentin is leaving us here. He goes back to Moscow to guide the next group around. Before he leaves, he gives our papers to one of the Swedish travellers as the new “head” of our group.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at Lake Baikal. The train takes a long, slow curve around the southern end of the lake. One reason for the slow progress is that the train track looks severely damaged by the harsh conditions during the winter. The carriages swing wildly to the left and right and the wheels shriek metallically as they grind against the uneven rails.
The lake is more than 600 kilometers long and still covered with ice which is criss-crossed by the tracks of heavy trucks and cars that have been traveling on the ice all winter. My guide book says that early in this century the Russians even built rail tracks across the ice in winter time. The lake stretches to the northern horizon, disappearing in a faint haze under the blue sky. It looks like a frozen ocean from here.
The ice gleams bright red in the evening sun as we reach the eastern shoreline. Our train turns due east again and the lake disappears behind us.
In these few short hours Lake Baikal had impressed us with its natural beauty. It feels very much like a place I would like to come back to some time in the future.
Wednesday, 26th of April
The landscape has changed during the night. The hills are arid, brown and dusty. There are gun nests and bomb shelters dug into the bare hills, the remnants of the fighting between China and the Soviet Union.
The train seems to have slowed down and there is very little to break the monotony of hill after dusty hill.
In the afternoon we arrive in Zabaikalsk, the town on the Soviet side of the border. We have to get off the train, because the wheels of the carriages have to be changed from the Soviet wide gauge to the standard gauge used by the Chinese.
One carriage after another is lifted up by a big metal frame that straddles the two overlapping sets of rails, the old wheel assemblies are rolled out and the new assemblies rolled in. It takes more than two hours for the whole train.
After changing our Rubles back to US Dollars in the little train station, we have some time for a stroll around town. There’s a playground next to the train station with a huge, rusty tank on a concrete foundation.
Back on the train the customs officers are very relaxed. There is no real inspection, just a casual walk-through. The Swedish holder-of-our-papers is relieved of his duties and we are again individual travelers.
It’s getting dark as we pass the border. On the Chinese side the border looks more active, more militaristic and there are soldiers standing along the rail tracks up to the station of Manzhouli, the town on the Chinese side of the border.
Suddenly everything changes. The station is brightly lit, there’s loud music out of the station’s PA system. The platform is filled with people, most of them trying to sell their goods to the travellers.
And what goods they have! There are all kinds of fruits, soft drinks and snacks that were unseen in the Soviet Union. The merchants use a melodic sing-song to entice customers. Within the last few kilometers we went from one world to another.
We all go into the station to change money and the noise and lively, colorful confusion around us is like a fever dream after the sensory deprivation of the last few days.
Thursday, 27th of April
It’s still very early in the morning as I take my first peek of China in daylight. There are farmers out in the fields, bikers on a dirt road that follows the rail track. Small villages with dark ponds and thatched roofs. Rickety, old trucks wait at the rail crossings.
There are a lot more people about as in Siberia, even out here in the countryside one can sense the huge numbers that dominate China.
Before lunch I see my first real steam train. I’ve seen museum pieces before, even under steam, but this is the real thing. It’s a very long coal train that is pulled by two big steam engines in tandem.
Around noon we have a brief stop in Harbin, a large provincial capital. It’s a huge city, much bigger than anything we’d seen up to now. The rail yard around the main station is spread out over dozens of tracks and there are giant steam engines moving about everywhere.
Marie asks on the way to the restaurant car if I’ve noticed that the Russian train personnel is suddenly smiling. I hadn’t, but it’s true. Since we’ve entered China they are suddenly outgoing, friendly, even cheerful.
We’ve also got a new restaurant car, in place of the Soviet one is now a Chinese restaurant. The food is not only fresh, but also very well made and quite tasty. The restaurant is also full of Russians and Chinese, nobody here would dream of closing it down so that the western tourists can eat alone…
Friday, 28th of April
6.45am. The train stops in Beijing Station with less than a quarter of an hour delay on more than 9000 kilometers, not bad at all.
The large open square in front of the station is a delirious experience for us. Since we are all backpackers, we’re all heading for the same, cheap hotel. But it’s not so easy to find the bus stop or even to read the signs with the destinations of the busses.
There are people everywhere. The busses we see are crowded beyond belief. Cyclists move through the mass of people waiting for the busses, using their bells constantly, shouting at the people to get out of the way.
Finally we find a bus that seems to go in the right direction and fourteen tired, sweating foreigners with huge backpacks push into the already crowded bus. We’re on our way…