Trying to learn the Russian alphabet during long days in a train compartment was unfortunately no help when advice was ignored, writes Natasha Harris.

Don't drink the tap water, the sign on the train said.

I was only brushing my teeth. Surely I could use the undrinkable train water just to rinse.

This, it turns out, was the worst decision I could have made while travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

It was early morning in Russia when I was jolted from sleep not by the movement of the train but by my painfully cramping stomach.


Perched on the top bunk in my nightie, I knew my absent room-mates could return any minute. Cruelly, the toilets were locked, because we had stopped at a station.

All I could do was lock the door, yank the curtain shut so people on the platform couldn't peer in and choose between the full rubbish bin on the floor, or the white plastic supermarket bag peeking from my backpack at the end of my bed.

There was a knock on the door. As I yelled at my returning room-mates to come back in five minutes, I chose the bag.

It really does pay to obey signs when you're on a 7600km train journey from China to Russia. But this is not a story about a trip from hell.

It's about an epic two-week adventure from the megacity of Beijing over the plains of Mongolia and barren Siberia to opulent Moscow, relishing in the simple pleasures of life in a four-berth room with two strangers.

My journey began in Beijing, a sprawling, smog-covered city of around 20 million residents.

I headed to Beijing West Station with my arms full of gear, including a makeshift shower (a bucket) and a bag full of instant noodles. It was late at night but locals crowded the platform. Despite the crush of people, I was grinning from ear to ear as I stepped on to the train that would take me to Mongolia. I had feared it would be dirty and run down but the carriage boasted modern furnishings, was spotlessly clean and my four-berth room was decorated with a bouquet of (fake) flowers.

As the train smoothly headed northwest, I bonded with my Australian and Swiss male room-mates. Like me, they had joined an organised group trip on the Trans-Mongolian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the hope of getting off the beaten track and avoiding a cramped long-haul flight to Europe.


There were no flowers waiting for me nine hours later when we changed trains in Hohhot, a nondescript, dusty, flat city in northern China. A stern carriage attendant dressed in a heavily starched uniform showed us to our room where, oddly, the mattresses were covered in floor rugs. A tiny table between the beds was covered in a mustard-coloured tablecloth. The toilet was in no way eco-friendly; your excrement dumped directly onto the tracks below after you pressed the flush button, which is why toilets are locked during stops. I claimed the top bunk and during the day, I'd push the bed against the wall to create more space.

Train attendants turned to shop keepers when stopped at stations.
Train attendants turned to shop keepers when stopped at stations.

Each carriage had a samovar, a gift from the gods for people stuck on a long-haul train. Passengers crowded around the coal-heated water boiler to delight in a cuppa or pot of instant noodles, and fill buckets for a rudimentary "shower".

Arriving at the China-Mongolia border city of Erlian at dawn was an eye-opener. Classical music blasted from loudspeakers behind uniformed guards standing to attention on the platform. To top off the unique greeting, my carriage lifted up while I was in it. We hadn't derailed; the bogies were being changed, which meant adjusting the width between the wheels to fit them on the wider gauge rails of Mongolia. After a six-hour wait, we made our way to another station to have our passports checked, an unnerving experience as officials took our passports off the train in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

Another six-hour wait followed: There's only so much walking around a train station one can do before you want to tear your hair out. Finally, with passports back in our possession, the train snaked its way through the Gobi Desert, a barren landscape covering 1.3 million square kilometres, in the middle of the night. As dawn broke, I was greeted by white gers (giant tents) that lined the outside of gritty Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, a city packed full of country folk desperate to make a buck.

This is the landlocked homeland of the legendary Genghis Khan, who conquered countries as far away as Iran. Statues of the 13th-century ruler abound throughout the country and there's definitely no chance of missing the 40m-high metal horse statue near Ulaanbaatar.

Moscow Underground station.
Moscow Underground station.

My new friends and I departed the train for a few days to see the sights of the city, but I'm pretty sure that if Genghis Khan was still around he wouldn't be impressed by the domination of drab Soviet-era buildings.


The countryside, where yaks and short-legged Mongolian horses graze on the gentle rolling plains of Terelj National Park, was more idyllic. I stayed in a ger, which are surprisingly big and feature a central woodburner, and I played golf in the most remote golf course I've ever seen. Trying local delicacies is a must-do when travelling but I won't be in a rush to sip on fermented yak's milk again.

It was time to depart the land of infinite Genghis Khan statues for the largest country on earth. The green plains of Mongolia gave way to a bleak barren land smattered with snow (it was late spring) and hardy fir trees as far as the eye could see. We were in Siberia, Russia and it was easy to see why people were sent here as punishment.

Weary-looking houses that resembled shanties chugged out wood smoke. Thick ice and snow blanketed the mighty, deep Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake that stretches out for 636km and sinks 1.6km underground. It's so large our train traced the lake's shore for hours. Siberia was just what I expected: poor, dreary and cold.

Siberia marked the start of four consecutive days with no long stops. My cellphone was turned off and there was no television or internet access. But this was part of the reason why I was on this train; to take life at a slower pace.

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square.
St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square.

Life settled into a relaxing routine of reading, napping, strolling through carriages, writing in my diary, chatting with my room-mates, eating noodles, wondering what time zone I was in, drinking fresh ginger tea and staring out the window. The repetitive but gentle clack of the wheels turning was a calming backdrop. I even had time to learn some of the Cyrillic alphabet, which came in handy when trying to identify train stations. Life on the Trans-Mongolian truly taught me to savour life at a slow pace.

Other passengers kept to themselves mainly because of the language barrier but one Russian was not so shy. The middle-aged man, dressed impeccably in a brown suit, walked into our compartment uninvited when he saw the door ajar, and was keen to have a chat. His English was basic and he called us donkeys for not understanding his Russian. It soon became apparent he rather enjoyed a tipple of his country's national drink, vodka; he slurred his words and the liquid spilled on his suit smelled of it. We deciphered he was a miner returning home.


Although this journey was a unique experience for me, it was just another commute for the drunk Russian and most other passengers. Mongolians and Chinese head to Russia to trade, while Russian miners and soldiers working in eastern Russia return to their home towns in the west. Many took the cheaper option of staying in third-class carriages packed with 54 berths that take up the entire carriage.

Natasha Harris on her 7600km journey.
Natasha Harris on her 7600km journey.

There were other tourists on the train, such as the young American couple who asked me where the showers were. Oh dear, they hadn't been informed there were none. They also didn't have enough food with them. They weren't keen to fork out money for the rather pricey restaurant food, so whenever we made stops they would rush out on to the platform to stock up on supplies.

Arriving at these provincial small stations was an another eye-opener. Huge letters plastered on the station roofs screamed that you were in NOVOSIBIRSK or IRKUTSK. Platforms transformed into markets as Russian hawkers traded shoes, blankets and food. Locals were also there to buy from canny train attendants, who sold goods via the small carriage windows. People rushed around as the train stopped for just 20 minutes in each town.

The fear of being left behind in Siberia kept me inside most of the time.

Gold-plated, onion-domed churches graced each town. Modest homes lined the train tracks. Many locals I saw walking around were stout, middle-aged babushkas.

When we arrived in Moscow, the contrast between humble, quiet rural Russia and its bustling capital was enormous. I felt grubby as I heaved on my backpack beside finely coiffured young blonde goddesses gliding along the platform.


When I entered the underground station, my jaw dropped: chandeliers graced the ceilings and beautiful light fittings decorated the walls next to the fast escalators that transported us deep underground. My male companions were too busy staring at the stunning women to notice the fancy fixtures that Stalin had installed to impress the masses in the 1930s.

His masterpiece was the end of the line, the finale of a two-week adventure. I had started in smog-covered Beijing and ended in opulent communist-era extravagance. I had survived no shower for several days. I had eaten so many packs of instant noodles I never want to set sight on them again. I learned that a train trip in itself can be the most enriching travelling experience even when you're stuck on it for four full days.

Next time, however, I'll make sure I obey the signs.