From the craggy mountains of northern Vietnam to the cobbled streets of Berlin, one traveler embarks on an unforgettable journey across the world by locomotive…
The last few hours in Vietnam are a blur – cleaning out the fridge, locking the windows, chucking out the rubbish, having one last shower, turning off the hot water, final email checks, shutting down computers, leaving notes about unreturned borrowed things, and a lot of walking from room to room trying to remember what we think we have forgotten. No matter how much time is spent planning and preparing for this epic journey, the final moments can only ever be filled with mindspinning measures of excitement and anxiety.
And there it is – a humble little green carriage, parked like the giant version of a child’s toy, waiting for its imaginary passengers to board. One lone carriage, powered by a connecting cab, rusted and beautiful, ornate and somewhat prehistoric, waiting for us to climb on board and begin our journey. As we climb those steep steps up into the vehicle, it’s hard to believe we are literally stepping out of one chapter and into another, the first step of a 7,771-kilometer journey by land from Hanoi, Vietnam to Berlin, Germany. Goodbye bun cha, goodbye banh cuon and goodbye Vietnam.
The Planning Stages
If you’re going to travel backwards across the world, it makes sense to plan backwards too, although it’s only natural to fight your instincts when they tell you not to book your train tickets until you’ve got your visas. However, it just doesn’t work that way; it has to be tickets first and visas after. With an invaluable wealth of information, the acclaimed Seat 61 website helped my boyfriend and I choose a route that would take us to places we had never been before – China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus and Poland – before reaching our final destination in the German capital.
Once we decided that these were the countries we wanted to roll through, we started to look at the various booking options. None seemed as user-friendly and unrelentingly helpful as Real Russia, a Ukbased company that specializes in all things Trans Siberian, and with their help we decided to limit ourselves to no more than three consecutive days on the train for the sake of hygiene, sanity and adventure. Therefore, with stop-offs included, our entire journey would be spread over a total of 18 days.
While many travel companies, including Real Russia, offer an in-house visa service, we realized it would be slightly cheaper to apply for each one at the relevant embassies in Vietnam ourselves. It was the infamously tricky Chinese visa that began to cause us the most concern. It’s not possible to purchase train tickets from Hanoi to Beijing without having a Chinese visa, and it’s not possible to obtain a Chinese visa unless you have evidence of a hotel booking confirmation in China. And finally (here’s the confusing part), the Chinese visa, if granted, is valid for one month from the date of application, and therefore, it’s not possible to apply for the visa anytime. It has to be timed just before you’re due to leave Vietnam.
Having weighed all of this up, we decided to recruit a Vietnamese travel agent to go through the Chinese visa application process for us, and it worked out just fine. With our Chinese visas firmly planted in our increasingly weighty passports, we could finally purchase the final set of train tickets for the first leg of our journey.
As our train rattles out of Hanoi along Long Bien Bridge, I wave down at the motorists speeding alongside us. We depart at night so the city glows and twinkles along the banks of the Red River, and soon, as we get further away from the city there are fewer and fewer lights, until we find ourselves traveling slowly through the total blackness of north Vietnam’s rural countryside.
Our cabin is small and basic, yet wonderfully quaint. Plastic flowers judder about in a ceramic vase that has been glued to the table, and while the curtains and walls are a dated-looking yellowy-beige, everything is clean, comfortable and endearing. We drink Son Tinh liquor, watch a film and fall asleep.
It takes only four hours from Hanoi to reach Dong Dang, the border with China. And following a stress-free visa check and textbook exchange of personal statistics with an armed Vietnamese guard, we are guided to a much longer and modern version of the train we’d just left. Above us a large painting of Ho Chi Minh shows him waving down at us, and it’s time to say goodbye to Vietnam.
China: It’s huge. Hours and hours and hours pass and we see nothing but massive city after massive city. Some of them are already functioning while others are on the verge of being built from scratch, and they go on forever. You can sleep for a few hours and look out of the window only to see more of the same, and wonder how many cities there are in China, and how many there will be in a few years, if not seconds, from now.
We’re sharing our compartment with a Vietnamese boy and his grandfather. We play chess, converse in Vietnamese and exchange facts about ourselves. Eventually we run out of words and do nothing but play chess and say things the other person doesn’t understand.
We walk the length of the train and realize we’re the only Westerners on board. Having lived in Vietnam for several years we’re used to standing out, so we take it in stride. The menu placed before us is quite rightfully written only in Mandarin, and aside from thinking that some of the words look like houses, trees and faces, we have no idea what anything means, so we politely wave at the waitress and point to someone else’s goodlooking dinner. A fresh version of noodles and beef in broth appears before us and it’s glorious. If train food was like this in England no one would ever drive anywhere ever again.
The day and a half spent on this train is easy; it’s just chess and Scrabble, eating and drinking, staring out of the window, sleeping and watching films. The furthest we walk is to the restaurant carriage and back; the journeys after that are only a matter of meters, possibly in single figures, as we use the bathroom or water boiler.
Soon we’re minutes away from Beijing and our bags are repacked and strapped to our backs. We look around in awe and wonder if we have ever seen so many tall buildings before and forgotten what life without humidity is like. We join a mammoth taxi queue and show the driver instructions to get to the hostel written in the local dialect. A short while later we’re at a hutong (alley) and staggering towards our hostel with the hefty weight of our rucksacks weighing us down.
Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel is located on a charming street extremely close to many of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. We’re sharing a mixed dormitory with eight other people and wash for the first time in days before locking up our valuables and heading to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Having seen these iconic buildings and spaces in the press for so many years, it feels extremely surreal to stand amongst them and meet them in person. We walk and walk and walk until eventually resting our tired feet with a cocktail at the Emperor Hotel’s rooftop Yin Bar – a stunning place to watch the sun set over the Forbidden City.
On the whole, Beijing is extremely userfriendly and welcoming. Booking a tour of the Great Wall is easy, and the public transport system is affordable and relatively easy to understand, though having a Mandarinspeaking friend by your side, as we did, does help.
One of the highlights of this stop-off included a visit to the 798 Art District, a German-built industrial sprawl that is home to a number of decommissioned military factories since turned into cool galleries, startling performance spaces, boutique retail stores and a smorgasbord of cosmopolitan cafes and eateries that are heaven (or hell) for those who can’t say no to a cheesecake. It doesn’t feel like you’re in Asia anymore, it feels more like Berlin – a glimpse into this city’s past and our future.
We unapologetically hand ourselves over to the thrills and spills of tourism, and wander to the infamous Donghuamen Night Market, haggling with street vendors whose displays of barbecued tarantulas, minced dog and cat, and seared unknown animal penis penetrate none of our senses other than those of our eyes and our noses. We also try the world famous local delicacy, Peking duck, in the upmarket and extremely popular DaDong Roast Duck restaurant. It’s tasty, but not quite the unmissable culinary experience it’s claimed to be. With waits of up to an hour and a bill that’ll crush your budget, it’s best to stick to the streets!
Other pursuits include the obligatory trip to the Great Wall. It’s simply epic and as breathtaking a life experience as one’s ever to have. Luckily, we decline to join the masses at the popular Jinshanling section of the wall in favor of the much more beautiful and less crowded Mutianya segment. Taking a ski lift to the top, we spend three hours hiking the historic structure before descending via toboggan. At CNY 280 (approx. US$50, booked via Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel) this is the best of the Great Wall trips.
I’m quite sure that Charles Bukowski wasn’t traveling the Trans-Mongolian Express when he named his book of poems The Days Roll Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, however, no other words more accurately describe what it is like to travel across the endless expanse of Mongolia.
Like China, it goes on forever. The country feels so incredibly otherworldly that it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re no longer on Earth. Indeed, the Gobi Desert, which acts as the stunning backdrop for the majority of our journey through Mongolia, looks like the set of Star Wars IV when Luke Skywalker returns home to find his village destroyed.
The landscape is of such epic proportions that it often seems that the curve of the planet is visible over the horizon, occasionally a yurt or cluster of yurts break up the scene. Horses — sometimes 50 of them — gallop alongside the train before changing direction and melting into the distance, while at other times there’s just one, loaded down with a rider and luggage. Everything is big, panoramic, with lots of space between it. And once you see the sunset, no words can aptly describe what it’s like to experience Mongolia.
Sizzling hot plates in the shape of a cow are placed before us, and a small mountain of purple sugared cabbage accompanies it. We are in the Mongolian food car and it’s not a million miles away from a moving version of Benjamin Horne’s office at the Great Northern Hotel in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. We’re surrounded by wood carvings, Mongolians, Russians, English, French and Americans. We play Scrabble, drink wine, watch films and stare at everything outside until Mongolia’s sun drops into a pocket of sky and vanishes.
The train comes to a halt and I wake up to blackness. Apart from snores, the only other sounds are those of heavy feet in the hallway and shouts from outside. I quickly dress and then slide open the door of our compartment. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Snow. A lot of snow. Just a couple of days ago we were walking across Beijing in flip flops, shorts and t-shirts, and now, men and women wearing large fur hats and thick winter jackets are precariously making their way to the train through deep snow.
A terrifyingly large woman wearing heavy army boots stares down at me with a fierce look on her face. She is flanked by a soldier and another official, and scans my face against the mini version inside my passport. The guard enters our compartment and looks under the bench and in the shower room for any possible stowaways. Eventually they leave, satisfied that we are not a threat to Russia. And the wait begins.
The wait for the toilet, that is. Throughout the entire journey, all of the trains have strict toilet rules; all toilets are closed about 30 minutes before arriving at and departing from a station. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem since all you have to do is work out when the next stop is, based on the timetable that is displayed in every carriage.
However, it’s not always possible to read the timetable because sometimes they’re written in Mandarin, Mongolian or Russian. All of the times on the Mongolian timetable are based on Beijing time, and all of the times on Russian train timetables are set to Moscow time – even if you’re some seven time zones away from Moscow on the other side of the country. No one really knows what time it is. Even if you set your watch to Moscow time and your phone clock to the time at your destination city, it all becomes one big guessing game.
Add into the mix the challenge of border crossings. When you hand your passport to the official in the middle of the night, you usually have to wait at least three hours before it’s returned to you and the train starts moving again. During that entire time the toilets are locked and there really is nowhere to go. Except of course if you happen to have a washbasin in your compartment.
In the Land of Giants
Without stops, it takes about three days to arrive in the Siberian town of Irkutsk, by which time our bladders are preparing to rebel against being tested to their full capacity all too regularly. We are also desperate for a proper wash. There are no showers on the train from Beijing to Irkutsk, the sinks are very small, and after traveling across snowy terrains there is no longer any hot water coming out of the taps. The novelty of washing with baby wipes has worn off and we just want to smell like adults again. And so was invented the Awkward Train Shower: A person showering stands naked next to the sink in the adjoining ‘bathroom’ while the other person fills the kettle from the shared water boiler at the end the carriage and pours it into the compartment sink. The washer then mixes it with cold water and pours it over themselves with a cup. It takes about six or seven of these ‘circuits’ to complete a full body wash.
We arrive in Irkutsk clean and refreshed, ready for our next adventure. Stepping off the train for the first time in three days is challenging; we haven’t walked more than about 100 metres during that time, so when we load our rucksacks onto our backs and stagger off the train onto the platform, it becomes an effort to remember how to walk again. But not only how to walk, how to speak. Everything is so Russian. Everyone is so big. Having lived in Vietnam for so long we were used to being the giants, though now the giants are all around us, and we cower under them like ants, wondering if we are to be trampled on.
A tall, slim man approaches us with a beaming smile. Dmitri, our guide and soon-tobe friend, warmly welcomes us. After collecting our train tickets, withdrawing money and being bundled into the back of an eight-person transit van, we’re standing on the side of an icy road on the edge of a town called Listvyanka, next to the oldest lake in the world. While that fact, and the fact that it contains 20 percent of the world’s total unfrozen freshwater reserve are extremely impressive, it’s the sheer length and breadth of the lake that really brings its utter vastness into perspective. Lake Baikal is longer than England. And Vietnam. It’s a comparison that we can actually measure in our minds, but it’s almost too overwhelming to comprehend.
And it’s cold. So very, very cold. Our thin jackets and t-shirts are as useful as chocolate teapots, and by the time we reach our homestay we’re scared. Some weeks before leaving Hanoi, we had booked ourselves onto a 20-kilometer trek ‘along the shores’ of Lake Baikal. However, in our summery Vietnam minds we had imagined a flat footpath before us, with just a few autumnal leaves obstructing the way. With a bellyful of homemade Russian donuts, jam and tea, we make our way outside into the snow and ice, and find our guide full of the joys of spring, ready to embark on this journey.
Everything is white, the snow is deep, our boots are heavy, and it is steep. We hadn’t anticipated the steepness, the voluminous amounts of snow, the mountains, the sub-zero conditions, the heavy boots, or it being so cold that the water inside our bottle would freeze into a thick block of ice. We walk, and we walk some more, and sometimes we stop to allow our heart rates to slow down, but mostly we walk. After three hours we’re tired and still cold, and after five hours bruises start to form where our boots press against our ankles. After six hours we’re dizzy with exhaustion, and after seven hours we want to hand ourselves to the snow and just give up. By the eighth hour it isn’t funny anymore. We are truly broken. Our limbs feel like they have been pummelled beyond repair, our muscles scream with every step, and the effort to lift one foot and place it in front of the other feels like the hardest thing either of us has ever been charged with. Annoyingly, Dmitri practically skips across the snow for the entire duration, and other than glowing red cheeks there’s no way of telling that he’s just walked 20 kilometres in his slowest time ever of eight and a half hours.
Tired beyond belief, we sleep in a tiny log cabin in a deserted village called Bolshie Koty. It’s deserted because no one in their right mind lives in Bolshie Koty during the winter. And winter has arrived very suddenly, just two days before we stepped off the train in Irkutsk. In October, the population of Bolshie Koty is about 30, and the three of us, plus our cabin host Alex, seem to be the only souls there.
Formerly a gold mining village in the early 1800s, Bolshie Koty is a settlement on the shores of Lake Baikal consisting of about 20 houses. During the winter it can only be accessed by foot or by ferry, and we nearly cry with happiness when we hear that the last remaining ferry is set to leave the shores of Bolshie Koty for Listvyanka the next afternoon.
The train journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg is relatively brief compared to the previous stints – a mere 48 hours. We share our compartment with a Russian policeman who spends much of his time standing outside the compartment in the hallway like a bouncer, arms folded, staring straight ahead through the window, expressionless. Despite the language barrier and not knowing more than two or three words of each others’ languages, he reveals himself a true gentleman. He plays chess with us, leaves the compartment when we have dinner and returns to give us chocolate just as we finish our mains, points out of the window and tells us stories in Russian.
The train is more modern than the previous one and some of the doors between carriages open electronically. There are flat screen TVs in every compartment and the toilets are more spacious, comfortable and clean. The restaurant car is still pretty old-fashioned though, all dark and gothic, making us feel like we’re inside a haunted house. During this journey a small child called Sonja becomes fixated by my partner’s bald head, and visits us in our compartment several times a day to climb up onto the bench and pat it.
Out of the window we see nothing but a slew of trees and villages, trees and villages, trees and villages, but mostly trees.
Yekaterinburg is a Disney city, like nowhere we have ever been before. Constructionist architecture meets palatial grandeur meets Western civilization. We know we’re closer to Europe now and it really feels like it, in everything we see. A walk through a shopping precinct in the city center sees old favorites like H&M and Next sitting together like old friends, while the iconic yet functionless radio tower spikes the sky with its lofty heights. Yekaterinburg is a city of padlock hearts, the railings that run over bridges and alongside rivers are decorated with these declarations of love. These symbols of love and promise are clamped onto the metal balustrades for all eternity, and they are everywhere. The public transport is, as in Beijing, cheap and efficient, and although the city has parks, lakes, rivers, shopping centers and varied offerings in the form of tourist destinations, it is possible to walk its entire length in just a couple of hours.
We stay for two nights and enjoy the company of an old friend who shows us around the city. We sleep in a two-bedroom hostel that could otherwise be mistaken for a normal three-bedroom flat in an unremarkable apartment block. However, the owner has cleverly turned it into a rather unassuming but perfectly functional hostel. With only two rooms, make sure you book your stay at Domino Hotel well in advance.
The Smelly Express to Moscow
We leave Yekaterinburg at about 5am and are driven to the train station at breakneck speed by an early morning boy racer with a penchant for European techno. We reach the station in less than five minutes, and board the train to Moscow an hour later. It’s a tough stint. We share the compartment with two burly Russian men who occupy the top two bunks. They eat a freshly roasted chicken and the entire compartment is thick with the smell of it. Soon after, the compartment becomes thick with the smell of burly Russian flatulence and I am forced to evict myself into the hallway for fresh air. Except it’s not really very fresh air, because the space between train compartments is the designated smoking area, and the smoke just drifts through the open doors and into the carriages and their compartments. I’m ready to be in Moscow, and count down the 24 hours on board the smelly express. Godzilla’s is a backpacker’s hostel situated within walking distance from Red Square, the Kremlin, and pretty much everything else that a tourist would want to see. Being one of the most expensive cities in the world, Moscow can be hard to fully enjoy, however, there are ways of getting around this. There are free daily walking tours that operate on a donation-only basis and take in all the sights. When armed with a guidebook it’s extremely easy to walk from iconic building to iconic building. Eating and drinking in Moscow is very hard to do on a budget, and so taking advantage of the relatively low-priced offerings at tube station bakeries is the way forward for a cheap, filling albeit unhealthy fix.
One of the most memorable yet troubling lowlights of our two-day stay in Moscow occurs at a visit to the state circus. Naively, we assume it to be a human circus, featuring trapeze artists, magicians and stilt-walkers, however, it’s an animal circus. The featured creatures are forced to perform extremely unnatural acts under flashing lights and against the soundtrack of a live band. Fullygrown bears are clamped onto the backs of galloping buffalo, poodles dyed bright colors ride zip wires across the auditorium, and ‘dancing’ seals, who are clearly distressed and unhappy, are among some of the many troubling sights.
Berlin or Bust
It’s a long walk from the beginning of the platform to our carriage, and under the early morning light and drizzling rain it feels like our journey’s coming to a premature end. The sign on the side of the train says ‘Moscou – Berlin – Paris’ and we reluctantly board after looking through the window and seeing how disappointing our compartment is compared to all the previous ones.
We’re in a very small room that consists of three fold-down bunk beds on one side, and three fold-down chairs on the other. We feel cramped enough before our Russian cabinmate joins us, and although we can’t understand what she’s saying, we know it’s something like, “How can this be a room for three people? How could this happen? What are we going to do?” And we agree with her. The only thing to do is sleep. We slide sideways into our bunks and remind ourselves not to try and sit up through fear of knocking ourselves out on the bunk or ceiling above. Those 24 hours pass quickly, and the only remarkable events are the Belarussian officials who politely check our visas. Aside from forgettable train stations, we see nothing of Belarus or Poland, the downside of traveling by night.
I arrive in Berlin feeling happy and excited, while my other half arrives in a state of despair. The Russian woman’s snores failed to penetrate my ultra-strong earplugs, though they were violent enough to keep him awake and cause him to swear and groan his way through the night.
The city before us, our final destination on this trip of a lifetime, is our new home. From Southeast Asia to Europe, we step into reverseculture shock, stunned by a renewed sense of familiarity yet nostalgic for life by train. We both agree we could have spent longer traveling the world by land, but after 7,771 kilometers, Europe, we are home.
From: Hanoi to Beijing (1.5 days)
Changing at Dong Dang and Nanning
Price: US$433 per person
Ticket class: Standard
From: Beijing to Irkutsk (2.5 days)
Price: US$754 per person
Ticket Class: 1st class
From: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (2 days)
Price: US$256 per person
Ticket Class: 2nd class
Services: 3 meals included
From: Yekaterinburg to Moscow (24 hours)
Price: US$169 per person
Ticket Class: 2nd class with air conditioning
From: Moscow to Berlin (24 hours)
Price: US$289 per person
Ticket Class: 2nd class
Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel, Beijing
Domino Hotel, Yekaterinburg
Godzilla’s Hostel, Moscow
Beijing Forbidden City,
Admission: CNY40 (US$6.4, quoted till next Mar 31); CNY60 (US$9.6, Apr 1 to Oct 31)
Mutianyu Great Wall Tour,
Admission (including transfers, entry, cable car, toboggan and lunch): CNY280 (US$50, booked through Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel)
Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Shop
various prices, dadongdadong.com
Tailored tours to suit you, with Russian, German and English-speaking guide Dmitri, baikalwander.com
Guide price : US$160 per person for a 20 kilometre walk, breakfast, lunch (x2), dinner and accommodation for one night
You can get free walking maps – which include sightseeing and culture – from the Ekaterinburg Tourist Information Service or by visiting ekaterinburg.tv
City maps can be found in any hotel or hostel, and most of the city’s tourist attractions are within easy reach of the city center. You can also book a free walking tour to take in all of the sights by visiting moscowfreetour.com