Rails Through the Snow: A Diary of the Trans-Siberian in Winter / by Thomas O'Malley

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-- Saturday --

On the hour, every hour, the clock above Beijing Railway Station chimes ‘The East is Red’, the de-facto theme song of the Cultural Revolution.

“The East is red, the sun is rising, here comes Mao Zedong!”

At 10pm on a sub-zero January night, this jingle draws no tremor of recognition from the flow of swaddled travellers passing through the station’s socialist edifice, one of Mao’s ’10 great buildings’ commissioned to mark a decade of red rule in 1959.

I wonder if it registered with the provodnik, outside carriage number eight of the Russian K19 ‘Vostock’ (East), the once-weekly Trans-Manchurian. Blowing misty breath through leather gloves, he’s a long way from home; seven days and six nights out of Moscow.

The Trans-Manchurian railway predates all that revolutionary zeal, in any case; it has bridged the two nations on and off since Imperial China permitted Russia to divert the Trans-Siberian through Manchuria to Vladivostok (‘Ruler of the East’) at the end of the 19th century.

A branch line tapers away to Beijing, connecting the two capitals - 8,986 kilometers via Manchuria and Siberia to Moscow.

The provodnik, a beefy Muscovite with a moustache like a frost-covered hedge, shows me to an overheated compartment with four bunks. It’s empty. Padding down the carpeted corridor, I’m the only passenger in the entire carriage. At 11pm, the East is Red a final time, playing us out as we rumble away from the station.

-- Sunday --

Early in the morning, beyond the Great Wall, the train shudders to a halt at an industrial Chinese city, boxy and uniform like any other. But Shenyang was once the spiritual home of the Manchu, barbarians who breached the Wall and conquered the Ming Dynasty.

The land that wrought these warriors looks feeble as the train winds north across the Manchurian plain; a level slab of frozen earth under monochrome skies. Occasionally a blighted village greets the train apologetically, the red glow of New Year lanterns the only trace of habitation.

Cement vertebrae have been stapled into the ground for mile after mile beside the track, the spine of a new high-speed rail line. In the empty restaurant car, a Chinese chef sizzles pork with green peppers and garlic on a wok in the galley. You don’t see that any more on the bullet trains.

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In the afternoon we cross the frozen Songhua River at Harbin. Thanks to the railway, a Chinese fishing village became a Russian city for a time in everything but nationality. A few pockets endure within the Chinese sprawl: Stalin Park by the river, Jewish synagogues, and St Sophia, an onion-domed Orthodox cathedral of emerald and gold.

Paul Theroux took the Trans-Manchurian as far north as Harbin for his 1980s China book, Riding the Iron Rooster, bemoaning the winter cold in as many ways as the Eskimos have words for snow.

In the middle of the night, the train comes to a silent standstill at Hailer, in the upper reaches of Inner Mongolia. We are still in China, just barely, and the weather app on my phone shows minus 43 degrees Celsius. The sealed carriage is as warm as an oven.

-- Monday --

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The border crossing is tedious hours of torch-lit passport checks and sudden shunts in the darkness. At 3am, passengers are bustled into the compartment. A Chinese woman and boy sit facing me in polite silence as I cower under the covers.

It turns out there is a layer of water over the human eye, because at 7am, on the platform at Zabeikalsk, I have to blink repeatedly to stop it freezing. We are at last in Russia and the cold snarls like the breath of a ghost.

In the warmth of a tiny café attached to the station, a thick-armed, whiskery babushka dishes out borscht into paper bowls, heavy with beetroot, slick with oil and crowned with a wobbly blob of sour cream. It’s divine. Border police with bulbous jackboots lounge about; Russian ladies are wrapped in fur (as always). The Chinese keep to themselves, smoking cigarettes by the exit.

It’s a relief to get moving again, worming rhythmically through a landscape of snow-caked steppe. The land glistens and glimmers, a low sun shining over a cloud-streaked blue sky. Chocolate box log cabins are heaped in snow. The only clues to the bitter cold are the vivid density of chimney smoke, and the way grassland sheep huddle together like penguins.

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My new companions hibernate like bears all day, the boy on the top bunk and the mother below. Only once does she rise, to prepare noodles at the samovar, which the boy consumes ravenously.

I bundle up for an expedition to the newly attached Russian restaurant car (I probably shouldn’t be this excited). It’s slow going heaving open the iron doors of each hermetically warmed carriage. The gaps in-between are petrified with frost like a butcher’s deep freeze, as the track flashes past below.

Surrounded by frilly drapes and plastic flowers I eat pork steak, potatoes and despondent peas, made good by creamed horseradish, the Tsar of condiments. Two Europeans come in and order Russian beer. They are aid workers taking it slow and scenic back home to Italy, their contracts fulfilled. It turns out we have a mutual friend in North Korea. Sometimes, it really is a small world, we agree.

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-- Tuesday --

On the Trans-Manchurian, I’m discovering, days are measured in books and sleeps, hours in making tea and counting stations, while minutes cease to be a unit worth bothering with. The rest of the time is spent watching the white world sail past like a silent film.

Time itself is a vague concept. The railway passes through seven time-zones, but the timetable is set to Moscow from the outset, so one is never sure of the local time, not that it matters.

My compartment pals remain vertical all day. They are Mongolian Chinese, returning to their adopted home of Siberia after a family visit to the border town of Manzhouli. Considering flights between Beijing and Moscow are cheaper than the train (and don’t take a week), it’s good to know that the line can still serve a practical purpose.

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Not that the railway is some obsolete novelty. Periodically we pass trains a mile long stacked with neat Toblerones of timber, gas tankers, logistic crates, livestock wagons. It’s an industrial River Nile, a pulsing artery through a frozen world.

At Ulan-Ude, the Trans-Mongolian, a branch line linking Ulaanbaatar (the world’s coldest capital city), joins us. We are now officially the Trans-Siberian until Moscow. On cue, the steppe makes way for taiga; endless forests of larch, spruce and pine, thick with snow and patterned with the tracks of wandering animals.

Lake Baikal is the big attraction in the afternoon, but the world’s greatest body of freshwater is a snowfield 400 miles long as we wind around its southern shore. Wind whips the powdery snow into a fog, like static on an old television set.

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At a station called Slyudyanska, peasant women crowd the carriage to hawk omul, a stinky cured fish. I bring two into the compartment, which turns out to be just the tonic my roommates need to finally get out of bed.

A tractor drives along a station platform at night, hauling coal from carriage to carriage (the train is electric but the heating is coal-powered). The provodnik is outside shoveling, wearing an enormous pair of leather gauntlets. It’s minus 34 Celsius. Somehow he sees me through the window and gives me a smile. I close the curtain.

-- Wednesday --

“This is what I believe: That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go.” D. H. Lawrence

Our journey continues, hour by hour, through five million square miles of trees, interrupted by the occasional clearing close to the track revealing a handful of pioneer cabins, chimneys breathing smoke. Like the railway, even these hamlets look hardy and well wrought. I think back to those brittle villages in Manchuria, with their lonely red lanterns.

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The Trans-Siberian was built to knit the motherland together, stave off the “yellow peril” of China and Korea, and prevent distant regions from seceding. Mass migration as a result of the railway populated Siberia; each day our train halts at a handful of bustling towns and cities for a quarter of an hour or so.

It’s a relief to tramp about the platform for a bit in the fresh air, but I’m ready for more.

So I’ve formulated a plan. Russian stations are barrier-free, so with enough speed I should be able to embark on a fleeting (albeit high-risk) expedition into the real world. The timetable reveals that today we stop at a station called Mariinsk for 25 glorious minutes.

I’m off the train the second the doors open, spilling out through the station and into town. There are folks shopping, going about their day. I’m disorientated yet elated, like an escaped convict. I snap some photos. Four minutes. I load up on bread, sausage, chocolate and Russian champagne. 12 minutes. There’s a station stall selling rotisserie chickens, crisp and golden, and I take a gluttonous gamble. It pays off. The provodnik is apoplectic when I dive back on board, train whistles screaming. I offer him a chicken. He waves it away.

My Chinese pals have disembarked, so I’m king of the compartment once again. In the evening I turn host, inviting the Europeans over for cold meat, champagne and a laptop movie. The provodnik peers in for a moment, but ever the professional, refuses a drink.

-- Thursday --

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Lying in a cozy bed, book in hand. Managing your little store of provisions. Lingering over rituals like brewing tea or washing up in the samovar. Popping to the cold gap between carriages to chill an evening beer, or further afield to the restaurant. This is the Trans-Siberian in winter, and I am wholly institutionalized.

We pass through Omsk in the early morning. Dostoyevsky served time in exile here a few decades before the Trans-Siberian Railway arrived, calling it a “hateful hole”. It looks wonderful, I think, even in the dark. But so does everywhere on the other side of the window.

The landscape inches towards the industrial as the day rolls on. Factories on an Orwellian scale dot the countryside. At Tyumen, striped chimneys decorate the city skyline like spires. My guidebook tells me this is the birthplace of Irving Berlin. I can see where he got the inspiration for White Christmas. Less so, There’s No Business Like Show Business.

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We stop at Pern just after 9pm, a ‘closed city’ during the Soviet era when it was a hub of tank production. The city was omitted from maps; even the post had to be delivered to an neighboring town.

An inebriated passenger is hauled off another train by guards and he curls up like a contented cat on the platform. A sign on the station tower reads minus 29 degrees Celsius.

Underway again, the provodnik strides down the corridor holding the axe he uses to smash the icicles from beneath the toilet compartment. He waves it at me with a grin. That night I lock the door.

-- Friday --

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Every ritual takes on an earnest significance today. This will be the last Russian Railways snack pack I’ll eat. The last time I’ll wash my spoon. The last time I watch the provodnik smashing the piss icicles to yellow shards.

Vladimir, just 200km from Moscow, is our last station stop. From the entrance, the spires of the medieval Dormition Cathedral gleam gold on a hilltop.

In the station shop, I find today’s Moscow Times. Bliss. The Russian capital is shivering through a record cold winter, it says, but it nearly went nova in the night when an atomic reactor, a 60-year old relic, caught fire in the suburbs.

We are due in at Moscow at 17:53. As it turns out, after seven days and six nights we’re three minutes early. The provodnik poses for a photo beside the train, and then I’m back in the world, dragging a suitcase over slushy cobbles.

Moscow turns out to be the perfect bookend to Beijing. Seeing it for the first time makes the Chinese capital, 9,000km away, make sense. The ring roads and low-rise sprawl; Red Square versus Tiananmen Square; Mao, the devoted student of Stalin. And bridging both, the Trans-Manchurian, binding these old commissaries together.

Post-WW2, Stalin was worried that visitors to Moscow would compare it unfavorably with the lofty cities of the capitalist West, and so he built seven fabulous socialist skyscrapers around the city. One of these ‘seven sisters’ houses the Hilton Lennigradskaya, walking distance from terminus station of the Trans-Siberian.

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From my 22nd floor room the city skyline stretches away. Somewhere in the darkness below, the ‘Vostock’ train will be undergoing final checks to depart, just before midnight, on its long march back to Beijing.

After room service and a glorious hot shower, sleep takes an age to come in the silent stillness.

-- Saturday (epilogue) --

In the Kremlin Armory Museum is a jeweled Faberge egg about half the size of a rugby ball. An engraved map of the Trans-Siberian encircles it like a belt. Within is a miniscule train of gold and platinum, 12 inches long when latched together. The headlights are diamonds and rubies, and a gold key winds it up and makes it run.

Tsar Nicholas II gave it to his wife as an Easter gift in 1900 when the railway was nearing completion. Nicholas had laid the first stone of the railway in a ceremony in Vladivostok just nine years earlier.

It took Russia less than a decade to build the Trans-Siberian. Before the railway, the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, by cart and ferry in summer or sled in winter, could take more than a year.

Christian Wolmar, in his book on the Trans-Siberian Railway, sums it up like this:

“The construction and the continued efficient operation of the Trans-Siberian ranks among the greatest achievements of mankind.”

The enduring relevance of railways is something of a phenomenon. Since the British Empire, rail projects have transformed the nations that built them and the wider world around them.

Today, another country is quietly going about its own marvels of modern engineering. Building the world’s largest high-speed rail network, including the longest line between Beijing and Guangzhou. Traversing the ‘roof of the world’ across the Tibetan plateau.

A century ago the plaudits were all Russia’s. The new age of rail, undoubtedly, will belong to China.