A JOURNEY on the Trans Mongolian Express takes the traveller through magical landscapes into a world steeped in the past
T HE man opposite me on the train is making a wild, sawing motion with my penknife and looking pointedly at my left index finger. I speak as little Russian as he does English but it's clear that he is suggesting I stop slicing pieces of cheese for my lunch and undergo an amputation instead. Suddenly I'm less concerned about the strange infection that led me to bandage my finger in the first place, and more worried that old Vladimir here may be about to attempt some serious DIY surgery on my behalf. After an awkward pause, in which I wonder if he’ll suddenly lunge, he returns my knife, guffawing loudly. I giggle too, partly in relief, and we continue our pantomime-style communication.
Like me, Vladimir has an ailment. His is a dodgy eye, so our compartment looks like a mobile hospital. I'm not sure where he is going, but I am on the epic Trans Mongolian Express route from Beijing to St Petersburg. Like most people, before joining the train I visited the Chinese city's sights, including the nearby Great Wall. Wandering around Tiananmen Square feels strange, especially with a giant picture of Chairman Mao still keeping watch over the thronging people, but for anyone keen to escape the crowds, the Summer Palace is a tranquil place to watch the sunset. Or there’s the luxury Aman at Summer Palace hotel, next door, where guests have their own Narnia-like secret door into the palace grounds, though sadly not through a wardrobe. A wonderful place to gear up for a long journey, it has delicious food and a spa to ensure you start off properly relaxed.
As the train pulls out of Beijing, I chat to a Mongolian lady called Gulia, I think, whose Chinese husband has just deposited her, along with numerous large bags, to visit her family. She is a veteran passenger, but for a newcomer there is much to learn. Each carriage has two attendants, who repeatedly vanish to change from air steward-style suits, worn to greet new passengers, into cleaning lady outfits, the garb sported to tidy up after us all.
A notice states that the train toilets have their own ‘timetable’, under which they are locked 30 minutes before arriving at a station and not unlocked again until 30 minutes after leaving. Every carriage also has a hot water urn, prompting most passengers to bring pot noodles and their own tea and coffee.
Gulia invites me to share her picnic, which includes ‘secret pork’. The secret, she explains with a mischievous grin, is that she is a Kazak, and therefore officially Muslim, and her parents don't know she has strayed. As we approach the border, the attendants shove a large box of shoes and a crate of beer into our compartment. In danger of being as wide as they are tall, they look a little scary, more prison warden than steward, and apparently have told Gulia to pretend the boxes are hers so they can avoid paying import charges.
The incident is nothing, however, compared to one later on, involving a Russian lady who crams in box after box of goods and tries to persuade myself and a younger British couple sharing the compartment to tell officials that we, backpackers all, are lugging around a widescreen TV with our rucksacks.
It is possible to stay on the train for the whole journey but most people want to explore the vast landscapes through which they are passing. Since organised tours give customers no choice on where to stop and for how long, I booked my tickets through Real Russia, which does. My first stop is the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in a few hours I am in a different world, one where nomads still move with the seasons, packing up their distinctive round tents, known as gers (albeit on to trucks now), and herding horses and sheep. Galloping through the same wild lands as Genghis Khan is an incredible adrenaline rush, though the prospect of being attacked gets a bit too real when a herdsman's dog briefly gives chase.
Later, Timur, my highly entertaining and informative guide, kills time with a bout of Mongolian wrestling. Circling round and round with the driver, chatting quietly and laughing, they could be dancing together – until suddenly Payaraa flips Timur on to his back with a resounding thwack.
Back on the train, it’s hard to tell what time it is during the infamous ‘white nights’ of summer, with 3pm and 3am looking identical. Maybe that’s why, whenever we stop at a station, everyone gets off to stand on the platform with a beer/ice-cream/cigarette or all three, regardless of the hour.
My next stop is Lake Baikal, in Siberia, where I hike along the shores, admiring the scenery and discovering the tasty though anti-social Russian snack of wild garlic shoots with salt-sprinkled bread.
Ambling around St Petersburg at the end of the line is far less strenuous, especially with the luxurious Corinthia Hotel, in the heart of the city, as a base, with staff happily suggesting attractions from Swan Lake to Peterhof to entertain me.
And as I finally head home, I’m happy to report that I still have all my fingers.
One-way tickets from Beijing to St Petersburg on the Trans Mongolian Express route start from around 20,240Rubles (£452) with Real Russia. (Tel 0207 100 7370, www.realrussia.co.uk)
One way flights to Beijing from Scottish airports (via London) from around £440, returning from St Petersburg to Scottish airports (via London) from around £250. (www.cheapflights.co.uk)
Double rooms at Aman at Summer Palace, 1 Gongmenqian, Beijing, PRC10091, China ( Tel +86 10 5987 9999, www.amanresorts.com) start from US$650 (£406) per room plus 15% tax. A one hour aromatic massage costs RMB880 (£85).
Double rooms at The Corinthia Hotel (a member of the Great Hotels of the World Luxury Collection) , Nevsky Prospect, 57, St Petersburg, Russia (Tel 020 7380 3658, www.ghotw.com/corinthia-st-petersbur) start from £292.
A two day/three night horseriding trip with Mongolia Expeditions and Tours (Tel +976 11 329279, www.mongolia-expeditions.com) is US$555 (£347) per person for two people, less for bigger groups.