Journalist Monisha Rajesh and her fiance Jeremy circumnavigated the globe in 80 train journeys, covering more than 72,000 kilometres along the world's most remarkable railways. She chronicled their feat in Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure. In this extract, Rajesh takes to the Trans-Mongolian to discover extreme heat, eccentric characters and eclectic souvenirs. Edit by Julietta Jameson
"You are the first English people I have ever met on board this train," said Aleksandr. "And you are the first English people that he has ever met on board this train," he continued, pointing to his roommate, who was also called Aleksandr. That afternoon we had boarded the Trans-Siberian, the godfather of trains. Strictly speaking the Trans-Siberian is not a train, but a route, spanning more than 9170 kilometres from Moscow to Vladivostok. Featuring high on bucket lists, the train is the benchmark by which rail enthusiasts measure one another. If you say you haven't taken it – but that you will one day – their eyes glaze over as you cease to exist. In fact, we were travelling on the Trans-Mongolian, a more interesting route that drops down through Mongolia and ends in Beijing. Riding all the way to Vladivostok held no appeal other than that we could then tell people we'd ridden all the way to Vladivostok. There was nothing we wished to see at the end of the line, and the last thing we wanted to do once we'd arrived was turn around and come back. On the other hand, the Trans-Mongolian opened up far more opportunities for onward travel than simply wandering around the edge of the world map looking at Orthodox churches. We'd already stood in awe overlooking the Disneyland domes of St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, and from then on, all other architecture was underwhelming. In spite of being one of the most familiar images in existence, the presence of the colourful domes – like big beautiful swirls of gelato – striped, latticed and topped with gold crosses, was glorious to behold. Via the Trans-Mongolian route, Jem and I could break up the journey in Irkutsk for two nights, then carry on to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, before eventually arriving in Beijing – 11 days after leaving Moscow. After our first Russian-train experience, we had boarded the Trans-Mongolian with trepidation, anticipating a mix of Russians, backpackers, students, weirdos, train geeks, and retired couples ticking off their bucket list. Met with familiar stares, we quickly realised we were the only foreigners on board. Having looked through travel-agency photos of the Rossiya service, we'd expected air-conditioned cars with soft berths, power sockets and flat-screen TVs, only to find ourselves staring down a grubby hard sleeper with a broken window and a condom wrapper under the seat.
Taking temperatures to both extremes, Siberia's heat was crippling. The air-conditioning didn't work, and the windows served only to channel hot air into the compartments. Tangled in damp sheets, I spent a lot of the journey lying limply, watching leafless trees roll past like rows of unsharpened pencils. Every few hours a farmhouse or two would appear with a Lada parked outside. Scarecrows tilted in potato patches, and dirt tracks wound into woods. Having picked up our location on Google maps in Moscow, I followed the blue sphere as it bobbed across blank territory. It was as though we were crossing a hinge in the Earth. By air, the notion of being in-between was constant, but by rail there were always villages, towns, and seas emerging like stepping stones between destinations. Neither West, nor East, we were hurtling through the borderlands. At dusk, halos of mist swirled above ground, orbiting forests like a magical force. Five days on board a continuous train had presented the rare opportunity to read great tomes, and, in keeping with our surroundings, I'd downloaded War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Young Stalin, hoping to emerge in China a more refined and cultured person. But the heat and the swaying did nothing but lull me to sleep each time I began War and Peace: I never made it past the list of Kuragins before dropping off.
Between Moscow and Irkutsk, the train stopped at around 80 stations, for no more than two minutes at a time, with the odd one-hour break when the toilets were bolted and anyone inside was collared and hauled out to continue their ablutions on the platform. These hour-long stops presented an opportunity to break free from the tedium, to stretch our legs, and to remember that a world existed beyond the four corners of our compartment, which had begun to smell like an old laundry basket. Russian stations are handsome affairs painted peppermint with white piping, and adorned with old clock towers. Wandering from one buxom babushka to the next, I'd buy a hunk of cheese or cake, or pass the time watching large women in small shorts selling rows of omul fish bunched like keys and hooked through the eyes. At one such stop I rifled through the trolley of a lady too busy chatting to a friend to bother with me, and offered her 90 roubles ($2) for a pack of playing cards. She laughed in my face, nudging her friend, who also laughed in my face. Even her son, who was sitting in the bottom of the trolley, covered his eyes with disbelief that anyone would offer more than a cursory glance for what turned out to be a pack of 36 cards.
By Wednesday evening I'd stopped bothering to change my clothes or brush my hair, and lounged in my pyjamas in the drinking car where the air-conditioning worked, and it was marginally cooler than the sun. Oksana kept bringing me plates of fried mushrooms covered in dill, patting my head and flapping her cloth at anyone who came near me, watching closely as an elderly man offered me cottage-cheese blinis, repulsed by my instant mash. She chatted in Russian, wholly unbothered that I replied in English, neither of us understanding the other, but happy in each other's company. Provodnik Aleksandr went to and fro bringing me commemorative coins from the Sochi Olympics, and books left behind by passengers, until I'd gathered a small jumble sale of wares I could hawk. I was beginning to run out of things to offer in return, plying him with toothbrushes that Jem had collected from various hotels. The initial iciness with which the Russians greeted us had thawed, and as the miles accumulated, our shared experience of pleasures and pains spurred the natural symbiosis unique to train travel. By Thursday afternoon I had lost all awareness of place and time, convinced it was Wednesday, comfortable in my ignorance. Two soldiers were playing cards at the next table, nursing the first bottle of vodka I'd seen since we boarded. Challenging us to a few shots, they chased each one with mouthfuls of Tropicana fruit juice, which defied the hardy Russian image I'd once feared. Swapping souvenirs, I gave them a couple of second-class Christmas stamps, and was amply rewarded with a smoke grenade. It went nicely with the gas mask Jem had stolen from our hotel in Moscow. On Friday, we arrived in Irkutsk at dawn. Since Moscow we had passed through four time zones, yet every station's clock was set to Moscow Standard Time, and we were now jetlagged and roaming around in a state of total disorientation.
"Mongolia doesn't look all that different from Russia," said Jem.
"We're not in Mongolia."
"I thought we were stopping in Ulaanbaatar?"
"We are, but not for another two days. We're in Irkutsk."
"We've been on the same train for five days and we're still in Russia?"
Like most tourists, we'd stopped in Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal – the deepest, oldest and largest freshwater lake in the world. Franz and Rens had chosen to hike its longest trail, but considering the heat – which was even more vicious in the open – we were opposed to any activity more strenuous than sitting down, and chose to see the lake via the Circum-Baikal Railway, a fabulous old steam locomotive. After the first shower in five days, we had a breakfast of dumplings at the cafe over the road, then set off on foot past rows of shuttered wooden houses to take the local train to Sludyanka from where the Circum-Baikal train departed. Passing through 39 tunnels and crossing around 200 bridges, the train travelled around the oldest section of the Trans-Siberian railroad. However, we had passed no more than four tunnels and nine bridges before it broke down, conveniently overlooking a bay where we could skid down to the pebble beach and paddle in the icy water. Formed in the middle of a giant crack in the Earth's crust – the Baikal rift – the lake is dubbed the "Galapagos of Russia" by UNESCO, owing to the unique species of flora and fauna, most of which are endemic to the area. Scientists had predicted that one day the entire continent of Eurasia would split into two along the lake, and I hoped it wasn't today.
A couple of French tourists were skimming stones at the edge of the water, and never one to shy away from Anglo-French rivalry, Jem began to whip a few of his own, pleased at the way his stones bounced just a couple of times more than theirs did, before disappearing with a plop. But when the Russians stripped off and plunged in headfirst, he sat tight. Numb to the ankles, I watched the water twinkle in the light, green and blue hues bleeding into one another's paths. From time to time concentric circles emerged and expanded on the surface where freshwater seals turned somersaults. Dwarfed into insignificance, I turned and clambered back up to where the train was beginning to exhale, pumped up and ready to go.
Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure by Monisha Rajesh is published by Bloomsbury ($37.99). See Bloomsbury.com
MONISHA RAJESH'S FIVE FAVOURITE TRAINS
THE TRAIN: Qinghai-Tibet railway
WHY SHE LOVES IT: "Running through earthquake zones, on tracks laid on permafrost, the train sails along the Qinghai plateau past lakes as silver as molten metal while yaks nibble at dried grass and eagles swoop around blazing blue skies."
TIP: "The train climbs to almost 5200 metres, so passengers should try to acclimatise for a couple of days in Xining to lessen altitude sickness."
THE TRAIN: The Mandovi Express
WHY SHE LOVES IT: "Flanked by coconut groves and palm trees, the train takes a leisurely 12 hours from Mumbai to Goa. It also features the best pantry car on the whole of Indian Railways, so make the most of the hawkers clanging up the aisles selling fresh pakoras, samosas and tea."
TIP: "Don't book a ticket in first class where the windows are tinted and you can't see any of the gorgeous views."
THE TRAIN: The Death Railway
WHY SHE LOVES IT: "During WWII the Japanese used Allied prisoners to construct a railway line connecting Thailand and Burma, with one prisoner dying for every sleeper laid, and a segment is still running between Bangkok and Nam Tok. Winding through jungled territory, the train clatters across the infamous bridge on the river Kwai, making for a stunning but sombre ride."
TIP: "You don't have to book in advance, just turn up early and hop on."
THE TRAIN: The Sunset Limited
WHY SHE LOVE IT: "The oldest named train in the US, the Sunset Limited takes just under two days to rattle through the Deep South states giving passengers plenty of time to take in the scenery from the panoramic dome car. Luring guitar-strumming students, retirees, railroaders and people too frightened to fly, the train is a menagerie of American society where you won't be bored for a second."
TIP: "Bring a good book for when the train is delayed to allow freight trains to pass."
THE TRAIN: The Skeena
WHY SHE LOVES IT: "Otherwise known as the Rupert Rocket, the Skeena train curls away from Jasper National Park in Alberta and into the furthest corners of British Columbia, bordering with Alaska. If you're lucky you'll spot a few black bears, white-tailed deer, moose and maybe a grizzly or two, all while surrounded by snow-capped Rocky Mountains and armies of fir trees marching down to the edges of sparkling, teal-green lakes."
TIP: "Book into touring class in summer when you can travel in a panoramic dome car with all your meals and drinks included."
BOOK: Passengers can't just book a ticket from Moscow to Beijing and then hop on and off at will along the way. You must book each segment individually naming the dates and stations you wish to alight at. The one-stop-shop, realrussia.co.uk will book your tickets and arrange visas.
VISIT: Many passengers stop off in Irkutsk for a couple of days to take the Circum-Baikal steam train around Lake Baikal, the oldest, largest freshwater lake in the world, filled with incredible flora and fauna and freshwater seals doing somersaults in the sun. See baikalex.com
STAY: After your day trip around Lake Baikal, stay at the Hotel Baikalski Terema in Listvyanka, a cosy wooden lodge with a traditional banya and ice pool that can be hired privately. (Gornaya Ulitsa, 16, Listvyanka, Irkutskaya oblast, Russia).