“So, what was it like on the train,” you ask?
I know that my posts have been short on details about what it was like to live on a train for 12 days. My focus for the most part was on the places we visited, not how we traveled between them. But now that I have been home for a few days, unpacked my bags, done my laundry and caught up on emails and unpaid bills, I’ve had a chance to think back on our trip, go over my posts, and identify what I have missed.
This post will present some of my final thoughts on the trip, as well as a chance to provide information about the train, hotels, restaurants, and some additional photos. It will take a couple of posts over the next few days to touch on all of these issues. Consider this the first installment on the last word.
Life on the Train
In their pre-trip materials, Lernidee, the company that runs the trip, is careful to point out that this is not a luxury trip. That said, the train is clean, attractive and comfortable, once you get used to living in a small space and bouncing around from time to time, especially at night when the train is moving on to the next destination.
At first, the space, or lack of it, was daunting. The first challenge was finding room for clothes, toiletries, books, etc. But we soon realized that there were enough nooks, crannies and cubby holes for most of our stuff, and the rest we could leave in our duffels which were stored, along with everyone else’s in our car, in a space at the end of the corridor. When necessary, we could walk a few feet to the end of the car, find our duffels and dig out what we needed. The other challenge was learning how to navigate around our compartment without bumping into things and each other. At 5’11” and 220 pounds, I don’t fit easily into small spaces, so this was more of a challenge for me than it was for Katherine, who is almost a foot shorter and over 120 pounds lighter. But after a couple of days I was able to move efficiently, if not gracefully around our compartment without banging my elbows or head.
Our compartment had a combined toilet and shower (most did not) which made life a lot easier, especially for my nocturnal runs to the bathroom. Because the door to the bathroom took up much of one side of the compartment, we only had a lower bunk, about the size of a small double bed, and a smaller upper bunk above it. If I were smaller and Katherine were a less fidgety sleeper, both of us could have fit into the lower bunk.
Being the thoughtful, chivalrous husband that I am (the sound you hear is Katherine guffawing in the background), I took the upper bunk, making those nocturnal bathroom visits even more inconvenient. But like everything else, I learned to adapt in a couple of days and eventually felt quite cozy up there.
The motion of the train at night took some getting used to, but I ended up sleeping better on the train than in the spacious hotel rooms we stayed in on our one night stops in Irkutsk and Ulan Bator. After these stops, I was happy to return to the bucking, bouncing bunks in our compartments and listen to the clatter, shuffle and thump of the train tracks as I drifted off to sleep.
All meals on the train (typically breakfast and dinner) were served in one of three dining cars. All of us in the English speaking group of 20 travelers – which included those whose first language was Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, and French – ate together in the same car for all meals. As much as possible we sat with different people at each meal so we had plenty of opportunity to converse with the others in our group.
Katherine and I agree that traveling with this group was one of the highlights of the trip. These conversations were usually lively and informative, occasionally argumentative — especially with regards to American policy both domestic and foreign — and almost always fun. After only a few days we were a tight knit and friendly group who enjoyed each other’s company despite our political and cultural differences, which really weren’t all that great.
Our routine was fairly consistent from day to day – pull into a town or site (Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan Bator) and walk around with a guide or get on a bus, or both, to tour the sites. We were usually back on the train by late afternoon to head out for our next stop. The train ran all night except for occasional stops to take on water and supplies.
For me the main attraction of the trip were the destinations, not the train. The train was the means to the end. But after a while I realized that the experience of the train was intrinsic to the experience of the places we visited and of the region as a whole. It would have been a very different trip if we had hopped on a plane every day to fly to the next destination.
The train pulled all of the destinations together into a seamless, integrated whole, more like a movie than a sequence of discreet photos. I felt immersed in the region as I watched it all gradually flow and unfold before me from the train. I think that this gradual unfolding and total immersion gave me a much better feel for the region as a whole – its history, the interrelationships that shaped it, and the economic dynamism that was on display as we passed through.
What made this trip especially interesting for me were the historical, cultural and geopolitical factors that have shaped the region’s past and present and now its future. What we saw from the train and in our brief stops, as superficial as it necessarily was, hinted at what is happening in the region and the world – the resource wealth of Russia and Mongolia, the resource hunger of China, the strategic position of Mongolia between the two, and the emergence of East and Central Asia as critical players in the world.
If you don’t view what you are seeing and hearing in that context, you are missing most of what is interesting about this part of the world. The train helped me get a better picture of that context and how the various pieces have fit together and what it all might mean for the future of the region and ultimately the world.
(next installment — info about hotels, restaurants and additional photos)