Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Trans-zippers

Posted by kuri, ping, the pinglet, & mini-ping on 1/25/2006
travellingcari asked me about the Trans-Siberian trip I took in 1997, so I thought I would post a blurb I wrote in 2002. This was one of the best trips I've ever taken and is still fresh in my mind, even after almost 10 years. Will post pictures soon!
Standing on the deck of the boat to Shanghai with a glass of wine in my hand, I could feel the tears drying on my cheeks after leaving E7 behind for the start of a one-and-a-half year long distance relationship. At least I had this trip to look forward to, I thought, as I watched the coastline of Japan recede into darkness. My two friends and I exchanged glances as we toasted the first day of our journey.

Months of preparation went into getting ourselves ready for our two-month sojourn--from purchasing visas to filling our bags with toilet paper, crisp US$1 and $5 bills, and numerous packets of instant ramen. We were planning to travel for over two months with only one backpack so we needed to be light, compact, and well prepared.

My friends and I decided to take the long way home from Japan to the United States--through China, Russia, England and Ireland. Because we were low on cash, a comfortable 1 1/2 hour plane ride from Fukuoka to Shanghai was not an option. Instead, our voyage began on the ferry from Kitakyushu to Kobe to Shanghai. We entertained ourselves during this 3 1/2 day journey trying to recover from seasickness, along with the majority of other passengers.

Before boarding the Trans-Siberian train, we traveled around China for three weeks. We spent most of that time trying to figure out where we were and where we were supposed to be going. We were unable to speak Chinese and English-speakers were few and far between in most of the cities we visited. As we found out, trekking around China takes a lot of persistence, patience and luck.

We mostly traveled around the country by train, with the occasional harrowing bus trip thrown in for some adventure. The Chinese train system is divided into four classes: hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat, and soft sleeper. Hard seat is the most inexpensive way to travel around China. Unfortunately, we were invariably informed that there were no seats available except in "soft sleeper"--which costs approximately the same amount as a plane ticket. To get around this, we would plant ourselves in front of the window and refuse to leave until we eventually were offered tickets for hard seat or hard sleeper, depending on the length of the journey.

Because of the language barrier, we spent most of our time in China perfecting our specially developed form of sign language, Japanese kanji and the small amount of Chinese that we knew (which mainly consisted of us asking "How much?" and "Can you lower the price?"). There were times when we would take a bus from one place to another, only to find that the bus did not go all the way to our destination. At the halfway point, we would scramble to find another train or bus to our next destination, only to discover that the train departed once every other day...leaving us stranded in a small town or village for a few days.

After wandering lost around China for two weeks, we spent one week in Beijing, visiting the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, Tiannamen Square, and other places that we could never pronounce, trying to finalize our visas for Russia and pick up last minute essential items on our shopping list from the company that was helping us set up our tour in Siberia (Moonsky Star...aka Monkey Business, so named because as we were told, "Sometimes a little monkey business is necessary to get what you need.").
Trans-zipping across Siberia
At almost 10,000 kilometers, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest continuous rail line in the world. Construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway began in 1891 and a continuous route was completed in 1905. Construction concluded in 1956 with the completion of the Trans-Mongolian line.

For most of the train travelers (known as "Trans-zippers"), the draw of the Trans-Siberian is not the destination--it the actual journey itself. Watching the lonely expanse of Siberia pass by and meeting other passengers is what makes this trip an unforgettable experience.

There are three routes that are usually taken by Trans-zippers: the Trans-Siberian line (Moscow to Vladivostok), the Trans-Mongolian line (which follows the Trans-Siberian as far as Ulan Ude and heads south to Ulaanbaatar before arriving in Beijing), and the Trans-Manchurian line, which is the line we took from Beijing to Moscow. The Trans-Manchurian is a five-and-a-half day journey which clatters around the Eastern border of Mongolia and joins up with the Trans-Siberian in Karimskow along the following route.

Beijing (China) => Shenyang (China) => Kharbin (China) => Karimskow (where the route to Vladivostok separates from the Trans-Manchurian) => Chita => Ulan-Ude (where the Trans-Mongolian separates from the Trans-Manchurian) => Irkutsk => Taishet => Krasnoyarsk => Novosibirsk => Tyumen => Ekaterinburg => Perm => Vyatka => Yaroslavl => Moscow.

And so our journey began...We arrived at the train station in Beijing on a Saturday about 1 hour before the train departure. We were traveling 2nd class, which consisted of four beds crammed into a little compartment, no showering facilities, and a beautiful carriage with a sullen Russian provodnik (male cabin attendant) who despised everyone in his car. The cabin attendant usually collects tickets, puts down the carriage steps, vacuums, and provides tea or coffee. The attendant also takes care of a samovar, which provides hot water for drinks and instant ramen noodles.

There were two bathrooms with no showers at either end of the carriage. The cabin attendants usually lock one bathroom for his or her personal use, with the remaining bathroom shared among approximately 20 people. The one bathroom we were permitted to use had a basin and a toilet without a seat. There was no hot water in the bathroom, because at some point the travelers in our carriage must have annoyed the cabin attendant...possibly by having the audacity to board the train in Beijing. To take showers, we used the hot water from the samovar, mixed it together with the (absolutely freezing) water in the bathroom basin, and used a mug to pour water over ourselves. The water drained out a hole in the floor of the bathroom onto the tracks.

The staff members of Monkey Business were right on the money in informing us of the items to pack, in particular food. Despite having an illegible five page menu, the Russian restaurant car only served shchi (thick cabbage soup with meat) and solyanka (meat soup) and ran out of food on the second day of the trip. Reason? The restaurant staff had sold all the food on the black market at each station stop.

We watched our fellow travelers (including the restaurant staff) sell toys, mammoth panties large enough to fit four people, and the food meant for the restaurant, on the black market to the babushkas who came to meet the train at the different stops in Siberia. Everyone got a cut of the profits, including the cabin attendant who took bribes from the passengers in order to pay the immigration officials...who paid the customs officials who in turn paid someone else.

When we crossed the border between China and Russia, we were not allowed to disembark from the train until the Russian officials came to each compartment and checked the entire room for stowaways, including tearing through the beds in each of the compartments. We spent about two hours at the Chinese border and another six hours at the Russian border, where we practiced English, Chinese, and Russian with the residents of the border town.

One of the reasons for the long wait at the borders is the difference in tracks in China and Russia. For the trains to run, the wheels, or bogeys, under each carriage must be changed. To do this, the train goes about 1km away from the border and returns in a few hours with new wheels. We got a little nervous when we saw the train leave, thinking that we might be stranded in the lonely border town indefinitely.

Many people wonder what to do on a train for five days. We spent most of our time meeting our neighbors in the nearby compartments, befriending the cook and waiter in the restaurant car (they didn't have anything else to do since there was no food to cook!), and listening to the rich sounds of Russian being spoken by the babushkas who sold us homemade bread at the different stations in the barren expanse of Siberia. We drank vodka with old melancholy Russian men on the train at 8 o'clock in the morning who spoke to us in Russian and German and wanted to teach us how to play cards...and who snorted at our selection of alcohol, preferring instead to share their own vodka with us. We communicated through smiles and gestures with a Chinese man and his 8-year old daughter, our "neighbors" on the train, who entertained us with magic tricks. We were the recipients of the kindness of strangers, such as a fellow traveler from North Korea who helped us fill out the immigration forms that were only available in Chinese, Russian and German.

From the window of the train, the flat expanse of Siberia is breathtaking. There is nothing but grasslands for hundreds of miles, with the occasional village appearing in the middle of nowhere. There is no sign of life in these villages except for plumes of smoke rising from the chimneys of the run-down houses. We kept our curtains open in the evenings to watch the lightning storms that lit up the night sky and woke to breathtaking sunrises.

Our strangely beautiful trip on the legendary Trans-Siberian ended in Moscow---9,000 kilometers from our starting point in China. Parting ways with the friends we had made during our journey, we were hit in the face with reality. After five days with no newspapers, Internet, or telephones, we returned to the present to hear the shocking news that Princess Diana had died.

As we walked away from the station and were absorbed into the hustle and bustle of Moscow, I was already missing the gentle rocking of the train and the ink-black nights in the isolation of Siberia. I can still remember the peace I felt in the quiet evenings on that unforgettable trip in the legendary Trans-Siberian train.

If you would like more information on the Trans-Siberian, you can access Moonsky Star Ltd.'s website at: http://www.monkeyshrine.com/



6 of you feeling verklempt. Tawlk amongst yourselves:

Cari said...

Oh wow! Scanned it, will read properly when it's not 7:25 AM

Thanks for sharing :)

Mom said...

I still think of that "Golden Rule of Travel" when I pack to go somewhere.

Fan said...

Hello.
"the lightning storms" means
Aurora(O-rola)?
I'd like to see more pictures you took and to know about the rest of journey for U.S.A through U.K and Ireland...
I'm being blunt, amn't I?

Fan

in kobe

kuri & ping said...

Cari, hope this will get you on your way to becoming a trans-zipper!

Mom, oh, definitely. The "golden rule" is my mantra!

Hi in Kobe! The lightning storms that I saw weren't aurora borealis (northern lights), but actual lightening storms, without the rain. I'd love to see the northern lights sometime though. Hmmm...the rest of the trip through the UK and Ireland? Maybe in a future post. :) I have lots of pictures but it was before I had a digital camera so they have to be scanned...that's on the list of things to do! ;)

Mande's J-Life said...

I remember reading about this trip before in the Journal or perhaps you were talking about it at one of our lunch outings. What an amazing experience! It's funny how willing we are to put up with bad conditions when we are young travelers. So, I was surprised to hear that you want to take your husband on this trip. When I hear about some of the adventures my husband had while traveling in SE Asia, I was like, "No, thanks. I need a toilet that flushes!" Anyway, I learned that Golden Rule at girl scout camp, and I still think about it - I don't necessarily follow it, but it comes to mind every time I travel.

kuri & ping said...

Mande, the bad conditions are what makes travel such fun! I remember making a point of staying at the worst hotels (if you can call them that) because...that's just what you did. $1 a night? Perfect! Doesn't matter where it's located or that there are bedbugs...all the more stories for later.

However, E7 definitely would not want to take this trip...he's more likely to enjoy a trip on the Orient Express! LOL

 

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