Review of Christian Wolmar’s ‘To the Edge of the World’

Review of Christian Wolmar. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway. London: Atlantic Books. 2013

No reliable recent history of the Trans-Siberian Railway exists. Unfortunately, Christian Wolmar’s book does not fill that role. It is many things – advocate of the railway, entertaining read, anti-communist, ode to tsarist faithfuls – but it is not a history that will stand the test of time. For that, we still have to go back fifty years to Harmon Tupper’s To the Great Ocean (1965), and even there one encounters a curious mix of history and anecdote that also appears in Wolmar’s book.

This is not to say I did not enjoy reading the book. I did so in bed in the evening, racing through the chapters and dreaming of my next journey on the Trans-Siberian. Wolmar writes lightly, if a little too hastily, so the text is easily digestible. To his credit, he focuses mostly on the railway itself. It is the real actor in this story, which runs from the long process in the late nineteenth century of deciding on such a massive project to its role today. Almost half the book concerns the railway’s construction, from the slow process of deciding to undertake the project, through a loving portrait of the man who made it happen (Sergei Witte), to the extraordinary engineering achievement of completing a 9,288 km line in a little over a decade (1892-1903). It passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the world – through remote mountains, vast forests, marshland, endless steppe, permafrost and areas with constant seismic activity.

The initial line ran in its eastern section through what was known as Manchuria, cutting out a long loop, running north-east from Lake Baikal and then down the Amur River to Vladivostok. It also relied on an ice-breaker to take the train across Lake Baikal, due to the forbidding terrain around the lake. Manchuria, of course, became a flash point, for the Russian tsar turned the Chinese concession to build the railway through their land into outright imperial expansion. A modernised Japanese navy also had imperial ambitions, so it was inevitable that a clash would ensue. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) was the result, and the railway was one factor, although not the prime factor, as Wolmar suggests. Due their severe losses in the war, the Russians decided to complete the north-eastern loop to Vladivostok, which was ready by 1916 – the year before the October Revolution in 1917. Yet, this focus on wartime is one of the weak points of the book. Wolmar has a hawkish bent for military matters, having a written a book called Engines of War (2010). Railways were, of course, as much military constructions when they were first built as anything else. Until the advent of aircraft, they were the fastest way to move troops and military hardware. So we find long sections on the Russo-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. All the same, wars are interludes to the much longer peacetime running of a line, and Wolmar leaves one unsatisfied on that account.

He cannot quite decide whether the railway was a triumph or a tragedy. On the one hand, he exults over the greatest railway in the world, writing of its profound effect on Siberia. The commission in charge of the railway spent more money fostering Russian settlement in Siberia than on the railway itself. Whole towns were built, settlers were given reduced fares and financial assistance, and the agricultural and mineral wealth of Siberia began to make an impact. Some of the richest coal and oil fields in the world were opened up, and agricultural products such as grain and butter (yes, butter) flowed westward. The railway – at least the regions close to it – became woven into Russia as never before. On the other hand, he constantly notes the mistakes made. While he berates western naysayers, who were vocal from the moment construction began, he too joins the chorus from time to time. The line required constant upgrading, from the initial single track with its too-steep gradients and light steel, to the multi-line arterial that it is today. The cost of the construction was astronomical, a cost that the tottering tsarist regime could ill-afford during revolutionary times.

However, he reserves most of his carping criticism for the long era that the railway was crucial to the Soviet Union. No lover of anything that tastes remotely of socialism, he praises the monarchist Sergei Witte (minister of finance and in charge of the railway commission) to the skies. Meanwhile he berates the soviets for their misuse of the line. In passing, he cannot help note that the railway provided both the means for the massive industrialisation under Stalin, as also for the extraordinarily rapid relocation of industry eastward after Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Indeed, he hints that were it not for the railway and what it enabled, the Red Army may not have won the Second World War. Yet, he betrays a distinct wish that the White Armies might not have been so brutal, that the massive support (in money and equipment) for those armies might have been better coordinated, that they had used the railway to better effect, so that they might have triumphed in the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution. That Wolmar’s father was Russian, sympathised with the White Armies and hated the socialists until his death is clearly a factor here.

However, it was the soviets that made the line what it is today, a massive arterial route that is fully electrified from Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the most difficult aspects of reconstruction, with tunnels, better gradients, and multiple lines were undertaken by the Soviet government. Much of the line had to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The soviets too constructed the BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline that runs hundreds of kilometres north of the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian, from Tayshet near Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Perhaps one of the most formidable projects ever undertaken, it is 4,324 kilometres long, passes over and through impossible mountain ranges, alpine rivers, permafrost, and required the construction of 60 new towns. Begun in the 1930s, it was completed only in the 1991.

The paradox of the Trans-Siberian is that one usually thinks of it in terms of a passenger service. It takes seven days (six nights) to travel the full length, as I did in 2010 and will again in 2014. Wolmar cannot help providing anecdotes, either from his own trip on the line, or more often from others who have written of their varied experiences over more than a century. This practice is of course part of the genre of travel writing. One attempts to give a feel of the landscape, the people met, the quirky moments and crises overcome. I was often absorbed by these accounts, especially of the BAM and the appeal of travelling on the remotest line in the world (Wolmar relies on the entertaining account by the septuagenarian, Devla Murphy, in Through Siberia by Accident, 2005). While entertaining, it also reveals a dilemma Wolmar is unable to resolve. He cannot decide whether he is writing a travelogue or a history, and often falls in between both. The catch is that the prime purpose of the line was and remains freight. Massive amounts of minerals, timber, agricultural produce, and finished products are hauled over its length day and night. Indeed, it is far quicker to go overland with such freight than by the ocean. But the story of a freight line is far less interesting for the travel reading public, even though that would be a proper history.



Of Yurts, Steel Teeth and Coal-Fired Samovars: From Europe to Asia on the Trans-Siberian

Minus 34 and a few minuted to midnight – so said the station clock and thermometer. At the appointed hour, we joyously popped a champagne bottle, necked it and staggered about, yelling ‘Happy New Year’ to an empty, icy railway platform. The Chinese conductor wasn’t quite sure what to make of us – a Russian, a Mongolian, a Swede, a Dane and an Australian leaping, laughing, sloshing champagne and slipping on the ice. Meanwhile my nostril hairs had frozen, the liquid in my eyes had became thick and viscous and the piss I tried to do in the corner froze before it hit the ground, so I had to snap it off.

It was New Year’s Eve and we had stopped for a few minutes at the small station of Zima, in the middle of Siberia and in a cold most of us had never experienced before. Already we had been on the train for three nights, with three nights and four days to go. We were on the legendary Trans-Siberian, making our way from Moscow to Beijing in a Siberian winter. I had actually begun my journey in Copenhagen on Boxing Day, making my way via Stockholm and Tallinn to Moscow by train and ship. That had taken two days in itself; along with the Trans-Siberian I was to travel half way around the world in nine days, all by surface.

A little over a week? Is that all? Are not ‘East’ and ‘West’ separated by vast distances? Psychologically, cognitively, even politically, most people feel that the East is a long, long, long way from the West. In that light, a journey of a nine days in all, or seven from Moscow is short indeed. All the same, I am told that a website exists which has video of the entire seven-day journey. The view is from the window, looking out, as though one were on the train itself. And should one tire occasionally of the scenery and stations passing by, then one has a choice of three audio options: the click-clack of the rails; a reading of Gogol’s works; or a reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – delivered in a deep Russian male voice. While I can see the attraction of gathering a group of friends for a week-long Trans-Siberian party, with vodka flowing and station food bought, I still prefer the real thing.

The Trans-Siberian is less a train than a route along which many trains run. Some cover the whole route, while most rattle along over various stretches. But even that route in its entirety has three options: the original run to Vladivostok and then the lines through Manchuria or Mongolia to Beijing. But they all run along the same tracks for five days between Moscow and Irkutsk, north of the stunning Lake Baikal, after which they spread out, like three crooked fingers, to their various destinations over the next couple of days. The earliest line, to Vladivostok, was completed in the late nineteenth century, although since then it has undergone many reroutings and upgrading. We took the most recently completed line, turning south at Irkutsk to travel through Mongolia to Beijing.

Each day was to be full of the sheer variety of that species known as homo sapiens, of life on a village in motion, never seen before items of food from station stalls, low Siberian suns skidding quickly across a corner of the sky, and the uniqueness of a train that does not stop for a week.

Day One: Moscow

We had come to the fabled Moscow from a frozen north in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. Cutting through the deep snow of Sweden, the ice of the Baltic, and the bitter night of Estonia, the trains and ships had struggled to get anywhere, let alone on time. Moscow in winter is fearsome, with hoar-frosted trees and houses covered in snow, with glistening ice worn smooth from countless expert footsteps (and no gravel or salt for clearance and grip). Since we had the daylight hours to ourselves before our train left for Beijing, I was after a different Moscow from the one so often portrayed in the Western media, an expensive city full of capitalist corruption. Instead, I was keen on the city of Red Square, Lenin, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, the city that one Western emperor after another had failed to capture.

A pure pleasure in a new place is to find your way around when the script you know (Roman) does not match the one they use (Cyrillic), when the languages you know do not match the languages they know. A trilingual Azerbaijani, speaking Persian, Russian and English came to our aid in a warm corner of a cafe. Soon we had a map, instructions for Red Square, a finger pointed in the right direction and a wish for good luck. Forget taxis, since they would spot the foreigners and charge a shitload. So the grand metro it was, with its rattling, hurtling Soviet-era metro-cars, vintage 1977 – obviously built to last.

Despite all the hype of 1991, the city is still full of Lenin, from Leninskaya railway station, at which we had arrived from Tallinn, the towering and pensive statue of Lenin in the square outside the station, to his mausoleum in the midst of Red Square. We were blown away by the square. Apart from the ice-cream domes of the churches, the imposing fortress of the Kremlin itself, and the vast sweep of the square, in its midst was a skating rink on which the locals carried on the tradition of Lenin, who was himself an expert skater. We even had a rink of our own, for the glistening, icy cobbles made for some expert footwork and the ever-present risk of going arse over tit. But it was the mausoleum that drew me like a magnet. Snug with the Kremlin wall, it is constructed in an appealingly minimalist style that seemed as though it had been built yesterday. Alas, we missed the closing time by three minutes. Looks like I will have to return.

By evening we had to board our train, the No.4 from Yaroslavsky station. Chinese rolling stock, of a solid, older variety, modelled on Russian trains of a Soviet vintage. It certainly gave the impression that it was built for a long, tough haul. Richly carpeted in deep red, wood-panelled, heavily curtained, with those wonderful fold-out seats in the corridor where you can find a space to yourself to peer out of the windows on that side. As for our cabin – unlike sleek, modern trains in which space-saving has become such a fine art that at times your ribs feel constricted when you breathe, this one was spacious to a fault. Wide, firm bunks with luxurious doonas, an easy chair and a wide table, even a shared bathroom with the next cabin. Here you could stretch out and not feel as though you were engaged in foreplay with your travel companion for the whole journey.

Day Two: Coal (Into Siberia)

Almost as soon as we had boarded I had dived into bed, sleeping long and hard as we trundled east from Moscow. It was still dark when I woke, even though the morning was late. On these days in Siberia, the sun cut a small arc low on the horizon for a handful of hours. At first I was puzzled: the sun seemed to rise and set within the range of our window, struggling up late on the left-hand side and, with a sigh of relief, flopping back below the horizon on the right-hand side not long afterwards. Had the train rapidly changed direction over the day, so that in the morning we faced east and in the evening west? No, we stayed facing south: the sun was interested only in raising itself a few metres above the southern horizon for a brief period.

Awaiting the sun and with a large cup of tea in hand, I was out in the corridor studying a list of stops and times that was posted in Chinese, English and Russian. Legendary names for a legendary journey; some known, some entirely foreign:

Day 1: Vladimir

Day 2: Gorkiy, Kirov, Perm II (gateway to Siberia), Sverdlosk, Tumon

Day 3: Ishin, Omsk, Barabinsk, Novo-Sibirsk, Malinsk

Day 4: Krasnoyorsk, Ilanskaya, Nizhne-Udinsk, Zima, Irkutsk

Day 5: Ulan-Uda, Naushki, Suhe-Bator (into Mongolia), Dahon

Day 6: Zuhala, Ulan-Bator, Choyr, Sain-Shanda, Erlian

Day 7: (into China) Zhuzhihe, Jining, Datong, Zhangjiokau, Beijing.

From two minutes to three hours and forty-five minutes, each stop would involve some or all of rewatering, changing bogeys, passport and customs checks, bartering with platform stallholders and wandering hawkers, chipping ice from door and stair mechanisms, a smoke or three and replenishing coal.

Coal? At the second long stop into our day I had leapt off the train for a stretch – after the conductor had chipped off the ice and kicked the stair latch open – and was immediately face to face with the coal loader. Two men in a trailer, towed by an old and well-maintained tractor, shovelled coal into buckets and then handed them to the conductor of each carriage. Not for the engine, which is electric (more than 7,000 kms of electrified line is mind-boggling enough), but for each carriage’s internal power. Of course, what an enormously practical design! Instead of all power – for air-conditioning, signals, lights, water pumps and so on – relying on a functioning engine (as you find elsewhere), each carriage is self contained in regard to heat and water. Should the engine break down in the middle of a Siberian winter, we would have water and warmth as long as the coal lasted – which would be long enough for a replacement engine to arrive.

That explained the bags I had seen in the freezing vestibules. Initially I had thought they were salt for clearing ice, but then a small shovel appeared in the guard’s hand, a bag was opened and coal was heaped into a small furnace. A waft of coal smoke filtered down the hallway, but the burner ensured a constant supply of hot water for our heaters. No wonder it was such a full heat; no wonder the samovar steamed away, asking, begging even, to assist with that cup of coffee or tea. In each carriage the same procedure was repeated, day in and day out.

All the same, the heat was contained within the main section of the carriage, leaving the smokers’ vestibule and passageway from carriage to carriage to share the winter outside. Ice soon gathered, some snow wafted in through the smallest crack, so that doors froze and required a crowbar to unlock. Deeper into Siberia – which we entered today in Perm – one needed gloves for the door handles, for otherwise hands threatened to stick to the cold metal.

While out on my ‘inspections’, I noted a couple of other features about Russian and Chinese long-distance trains. Each stop saw a team set about chipping off the ice that had built up in the under-carriage, ensuring continued smooth running. In fact, the bogeys were remarkably free of ice, with no massive chunks falling off periodically under their own weight. I couldn’t help contrast such wisdom with Western European chaos after a flake or two of snow or a couple of degrees below zero. There, trains came to a standstill as ice seized up their vital functions, people and freight are stranded, railway staff have no idea what to do – in short, complete disarray, even in winter-postcard Scandinavia (pointy-roofed houses, bare trees, fields and hills all covered in snow) which is supposed to have a sophisticated approach to such matters. Obviously, it was due the Western fashion for ‘rationalising’ the economy, with cutbacks in ‘unnecessary’ railway staff that now went a long way back, so much so that the skills of winter running have been forgotten by now. Perhaps a necessary training camp with the Russians or Chinese is in order.

And as I was watching the ice-chippers, I noticed a belt system on the bogeys. Further inspection revealed a small engine on each. Of course! Should the engine break down, each car would not only have enough heat and water, but it would be able to get out of trouble under its own steam.

Day Three: Water and Food

Apart from heat, water and food were the other two basic requirements for surviving the journey through Siberia. One could buy bottles of water on the train or at the occasional stalls at the stations, but these were unreliable sources. The only sure and trusted source was the glorious samovar I had already met and become familiar with at the end of each carriage. With its pumps and gauges and pressure valve and simple tap, the worn steel cylinder at the conductor’s end of the carriage provided a constant source of coal-fired boiling water for drinking (when cooled), tea or coffee, noodles or beans or rice, or indeed for thawing a lock, cleaning the toilet and washing.

And food: one could, if one wished to sell a body part and partake of dubious Russian food, make one’s way to the dining car. The Chinese car was, on the last couple of days, to have half a dozen cooks procuring fresh meals with plenty of steaming vegetables, but the Russian and Mongolian ones were nothing to salivate over. As for the Russian dining car, the English-language menu had a massive price gap from the Russian version; most of the items were not available, apart from perhaps eggs for breakfast, soggy salads and parts of a dead animal for lunch, and borscht (aka, whatever soup happened to be cooking) and rice and parts of a dead animal for dinner. One ingredient was common to all meals – a liberal supply of butter, so much so that it seemed as though the meal was an afterthought to the buckets of molten butter on offer. One or two visits were worth the experience, with the solid waiter uttering three words of English, the drink purveyor four words and the car decorated with streamers, balloons, the worst art one can imagine, fancy iron-work and a CD at nightclub-level volume playing the four English songs available. We soon realised that the only diners were the non-Russian and non-Chinese travellers, for the Russians had stocked up and the Chinese conductors preferred to cook their own food.

Once we crossed into Mongolia, I decided to consult one of those necessarily misleading guidebook offered to us by our neighbours (American Trustafarians). I came across the following forewarning: ‘Mongolians have never thought much of vegetarianism; some identify vegetable eating with Chinese culture, others are convinced that eating vegetables is just not healthy’. But the Buddhist-themed dining car, with its streamers and Santa-Claus, served food that had obviously been prepared before the car joined us on the Russian border, for the runny eggs were cold, the salad sticky and the sole meat option was sparse.

Surrounded by these culinary delights, we opted to rely on other sources. For the first couple of days we dipped into our stocked-up food – cans of beans, bread rolls, strange powdered substances, some sparse vegetables and fruit. Soon it ran out, but by then I had discovered the station stalls. After one misdemeanour at Perm II, where I had wondered off during a station stop to find food and was sharply rebuked by the conductor, I stayed close to the train. Baby-stepping – to avoid slipping on the ice – along platform after platform, feeling the cold seep through the sternest winter gear, I threw myself into haggling with the stainless-steel-toothed women at the stalls.

Once those women saw I was interested, they flocked about me. Beer? Vodka? Water? No, no and no. But that Kefir looks good – 40 rubles! It sounded cheap to me, so I did not haggle. Peanuts, bread-rolls with a lucky-dip inside (I managed out sniff out the spicy cabbage ones), strange-looking tubs with what turned out to be flavoured potato mix soon added to my bundle. Now I was presented with ready-made meals of a chicken leg and vegetables, mutton and rice, Russian salads (liberally anointed with mayonnaise), an unidentifiable sausage and many more items I simply could not make out. Even though I had no need to worry about freshness, since they were all nicely frozen in a fridge as wide as the sky and this endless land, I avoided the home-cooked and snap-frozen meals. After this first encounter, I learned to buy food when I was able, for not every station had such stalls and the menu varied wildly when they did appear. So we came across the chocolate biscuit station, the bread-roll station, the leg of lamb station, the WTF-is-that station. And after that first glorious engagement with those eager Russian babas, I wondered whether they had phoned their friends down the line, saying: ‘this dumb Australian is on his way; likes to buy food, doesn’t haggle – charge him as much as you can!’

Day Four: New Year’s Eve in Siberia

On the turn of the year we pushed deeper and deeper into Siberia. I was astounded at the size of the cities and the railway stations: almost two million in Novo-Sibirsk, about one million in Perm, and many hundreds of thousands in the others. The so-called ‘exile’ to Siberia – synonymous with poverty, cold, hard labour and early death – was actually a long-standing incentive to populate the new territories to the east. The policy dated back hundreds of years and the Soviet era merely carried it on. If the carrot would not work, a little stick was employed in its place. Add the policy during World War II to move whole populations and factories eastward in this vast country, so that they would be out of harm’s way and support the war effort, and you have a long history that had made Siberia far more populous that it would otherwise have been.

The vital role of the Trans-Siberian railway, itself over 100 years old, was plain to see. With at least triple lines throughout, electrified all the way, massive rail-yards and multiple local and long-distance services, we passed train after train. Mostly freighters, often full of the vital coal (of which we partook), but also passenger services, for 45% of the population use trains as their prime means of transport.

New Year’s Eve: we simply could not miss the chance to celebrate the auspicious year’s turning on a train in the middle of Siberia. One option was to take up the offer of the Russian dining car. It was to be an unspecified spread of dubious quality, blaring songs in English (the four we had already heard), and an endless stream of ‘vodka’ poured from unidentified plastic containers – all for 2500 rubles each. The rotten-toothed salesman, a lackey of the rotund dining-car manager, certainly did his best to persuade us. He would walk uninvited and repeatedly into the middle of our cabin, elaborate on what was on offer, understand our repeated ‘no’ as a ‘yes’, and then, when it finally dawned on him that we weren’t coming, violently rattled his drink tray and slammed the door on departure.

Option two was far better. We piled into the cabin next door, occupied by a trustafarian, Buddhist-hippie American couple planning a whole life of marriage together. They had boarded the train with about thirty bottles of French wine, of which none was left by the time we reached Beijing. We were joined by others who found the whole idea of selling a vital organ for the pleasure of the dining car dubious at best. Lars, a bearded back-packing Swede out for his first adventure in the world, laden with brand new gear, a massively phallic camera hanging around his neck and a liking for both the vodka and the female part of the couple next door. Indeed, he spent much of the journey with her, walking the train, talking in the corridor, laughing in their cabin, drinking – all with her partner benignly looking on, for what his love wanted he was happy to provide, even randy Swedes.

Lars brought with him a short and beaming Mongolian, Ganzorig, who managed litres of vodka without any visible effect. The two were sharing a section of the ‘hard’ sleepers, the open cabin with no doors. The glamorous Georgian couple from the next carriage also joined us, she wearing impossibly high heels and dyed blond hair, he with that barrel chest and sweep of hair that comes from a solid diet of animal parts. We laid out virtually our whole supply of food and alcohol, much of which I had assiduously collected at various station stalls along the way. Later more joined our throng – some Russians from Lars’s carriage, an Australian couple who materialised out of nowhere, and more whom I can no longer remember. By now the hallway was full of people, drinking, shouting, laughing. The only exceptions were the Chinese conductors, who found the celebration a little odd, since it wasn’t yet the real (Chinese) new year. As the night wore on, we celebrated a series of New Years: the east coast Australia’s came at 9.00 pm local time, the local one three hours later, and then, for one or two hardy revellers, Moscow New Year (the train time) – five hours later.

At Zima, a few hours shy of Irkutsk, we piled off the train a few minutes before the local midnight and onto a deserted platform. Most of us were long past feeling the bitter cold, so we popped a champagne, passed the bottle around for a liberal swig each and hailed the year’s turning. The guard kept a watchful eye on us, turned down the offer of a drink and shooed us back onto the train lest we remain stranded.

Day Five: Lake Baikal to Mongolia

How to write of this long, long new year’s day?

It began peacefully. As the others slept off the festivities, I was up early and alone. Standing in the corridor I watched the pack ice and floes on Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water in the world (about 20% of the world’s total amount of fresh water). A smell of cooked beans and vegetables drew me towards to the conductor’s compartment. The day-shift man sat quietly, listening to Chinese music, gathering balls of the vegetable and legume mix in his fingers from a steel bowl and rolling them in dumpling pastry he had laid on the board. Each completed dumpling he placed carefully on a clean cloth, awaiting their moment in the steamer. As he did so, he looked out of the window, oblivious to the world about him. What was he thinking? Looking forward to home? To the journey drawing near to its end? It was an immensely peaceful and private scene.

That early moment set the tone for the rest of the day, helped a great deal by all those nursing hangovers. After Irkutsk we skirted by a part of Lake Baikal for what seemed like an eternity, with mountains towering on the landward (western) side. Villages rolled by, small houses with chimneys poking up through the snow-covered roofs, pushing long streams of smoke into the sky. Exceedingly practical, it seemed me, for small spaces are easier to keep warm instead of sprawling ‘open-living’ houses in countries where people seem baffled by space.

By now the time difference between Moscow time (which the train follows) and local time became almost ludicrous. With six hours’ difference, the sun would rise at 4 am and set by noon according to train time. I tried to keep up with local time, but constantly had to recalibrate when checking the timetable or talking with train staff. Naushki, on the border with Mongolia, couldn’t come soon enough, for there we would switch to local, Mongolian time.

The wait at Naushki was interminable, for here we underwent a thorough transformation as the bogeys were changed from Russian to whatever the Mongolian gauge is. As we clunked and clanged, shook and ratted, shunted backwards and then forwards, the last car, the Russian dining car (with comatose staff from the night before) was detached and the front half of the train simply replaced, now with a diesel loco, Mongolian carriages and passengers and a Mongolian dining car that was suddenly in the middle of the train.

By this time more than three hours had passed, a test of bladders and bowels since the toilets were locked for three hours. As we pissed in a converted water-bottle, I pondered the ten tips I had discovered for using the toilet on a winter train in Siberia:

1. Upon entry, admire the durable stainless steel construction, minus seat or lid.

2. Make sure you are wearing solid, wet weather shoes upon entry. Even though the liquid on the floor looks clear, the result perhaps of a leaking sink or flushing device, that slightly acrid smell suggests otherwise.

3. Ensure that you engage all of your considerable acrobatic skill in keeping any part of your pants or clothes in general from touching the floor, unless of course you wish to rinse them in the pool swishing about down there.

4. Enjoy the soft sound of whatever you need to deliver onto the metal plate, for there is no pool of water to make a satisfying ‘plop’.

5. Reach vainly for the toilet paper, realising too late that whatever was there disappeared a few months after construction in the 1970s. Try calling loudly for the conductor to bring you a roll (he will be your friend for life. If that does not work, follow the old biblical adage), do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing and make a mental note to obtain toilet paper for your next visit by whatever means possible.

6. Try to locate the flushing device. Neither on a cistern behind (which does not exist), nor on a chain above your head, a diligent search will reveal a pedal at the base of the toilet.

7. Peer with perverse curiosity down the hole that suddenly appears once the pedal is pressed, waving goodbye to that warm part of you that now slides down onto the tracks.

8. Be startled at the puff of steam that billows from the hole. Was that me? No, a temperature variation of 50 degrees ensures a lovely cloud of steam from the frigid outside.

9. Vainly look for soap, vainly turn the taps and then make a mental note to acquire some hand cleaner as soon as practically possible.

10. Ensure that you seize the opportunity to piss or shit when you can, especially before the outskirts of the next town appear, for the toilet will be locked at the station. After all, civilisation demands that one does not leave behind a gift for the locals as they await their own train. If you fail to make it, the wait of twenty minutes to three hours is good pelvic floor exercise.

Eventually our replacement bogeys were attached and our transformed train was off … almost. Now it was time for the border checks. Russian border officers, dressed in the fur hats and heavy coats (and that was just the sniffer dogs), inspected and inspected again. A serious and very polite woman checked and took the passports, a rotund officer laughed away the unfilled Cyrillic form he had handed us earlier, a red-faced and burly inspector gave our cabin a token inspection for contraband substances. Then it was the turn of the Mongolians: slinky officers in chic gear – short skirts, pantihose, calf-boots, hugging jackets and jaunty caps (and they were, again, just the sniffer dogs). A distinctly handsome people, the Mongolians we met, from border patrols through station staff to other passengers.

But with my early morning, two long border stops, a complete transformation of the train and then the evening run into Mongolia, the day seemed to go on forever, even though we went to bed early in order to be up for the lights of Ulan Bator at 6.30am.

Day Six: Gobi Desert

Mongolia: favoured destination for backpackers, NGOs seeking to westernise, jaded liberals pursuing an ‘authentic’ corner of the world that they can then mould in their own image. But Mongolians have a good reason for encouraging all these visitors, since they have become very creative in extracting money from gullible foreigners. Those foreigners begin with being mesmerised by the most unique name for a currency: forget crown, pound, dollar or denarius, it is the togrog or tughrik! Then they find out that one togrog is worth a stunning AUD 0.0007, so the zeroes seem to multiply exponentially on any product offered to a foreigner. Thus our sole sampling of the dining car’s offering, at lunch, racked up TOG 50,000 (A$35). It sounded far too much to me for what was on offer, even with the conversion, so after that it was the delights of station stalls on the way.

Mongolia seemed like a miniature country compared to the vast steppes of Russia. It took barely 24 hours to cross from north to south, but we made the most of the extending daylight. From the early lights of a frigid Ulan Bator, through the Buddhist-themed dining car and yurts and sheep and Bactrian camels and yaks and deer and thickly-clad herders on foot and horseback, we entered the Gobi desert. Bitterly cold, its meagre grassland was covered with wind-blown snow and sculpted ice. And if the locals on the train were very practically dressed, with fur boots lined with sheepskin, padded jackets and thick caps, then outside such gear was overlaid with flowing cloaks of wool, full-face fur-lined hats and the thickest of gloves.

While I was looking outside, every now and then a cluster of three or four solid rectangular houses, with ornate wooden cornices and alcoves, would pass us by. A village, I thought, a settlement in the Gobi? But then I noticed that gathered about these houses were children’s play equipment, a few vehicles, clusters of people and the scattering of yurts on the plains around about. These houses were not the village, for they were merely the community centre, with a hall, a school, perhaps a simple temple. In other words, they represented the village-centre, for the village itself was scattered some kilometres over the desert around about.

Day Seven: Welcome to China

The plateau of Mongolia with its yurts and village centres and wind-swept snow passed into an obviously wealthier China after an efficient change of bogeys to standard gauge (with much newer equipment than on the Russia-Mongolia border). China welcomed me again. This was the third time in 18 months, with the simple food and chopsticks I have come to expect. We ran through fields lying fallow in preparation for spring, new buildings cheek-by-jowl with old villages, construction trucks beside bicycles with their loads. The burial practices were different too, caves dug in soft mounds in between the fields or on mountain sides – land that could not be cultivated yet still overlooked those fields. Each one had its mountain behind and body of water in front, a formula for a peaceful eternity. And I noticed a feature that had not struck me before in my long rail journeys through China: nearly every older village dwelling with its distinctive arrangements of urban space, every new house and apartment block, indeed almost every roof had solar panels on them. Simple, mass-produced panels, they bore witness to China’s quiet attention to environmental initiatives. While Australia has cut back the government subsidy for solar electricity, since it threatens the established electricity companies, China simply forges ahead on yet another program.

Now the train was noticeably fuller. Mongolians on their way to Beijing, Chinese heading home, a few non-locals – all had boarded from Ulan Bator onwards. Many of the Westerners found the crush too much, especially in the dining car as they offered complimentary breakfast and lunch (a hint to their over-priced and low quality Russian and Mongolian analogues?). But the Chinese especially had no trouble, passing by me with barely a twitch of the hips as I sat in a hallway seat, sipping coffee and looking out the window.

I had one last task to perform before I could soak up our gradual arrival: to embrace my final ascetic wash before entering the world’s largest city. Since the bathroom drain had become blocked with ice, I took to the toilet with its small washbasin and trickle of water. Soaped crotch and shoulders and armpits and neck gave way to one foot at a time in the basin, until at last I sloshed freezing water on my hair and then face. A shave in the dim light and then a prance down the corridor in my clean undies and I was done. Amazing how little water one really needs.

The journey’s end drew me now with anticipation. Beds were stripped, bags were packed, people peered out of the windows as we passed down through gorges, by towering mountains, the Great Wall in the distance and through tunnels from the plateau to lower ground. Beijing enveloped us by late morning and I watched avidly the last hour of the journey, until city’s massively thronging central station offered its welcome.