Tag Archives: Trans Siberian Railway

Notes from a Journal…Arriving in China

Friday 18th October

“Waking up in China to a densely built up landscape. Gone are the forests of Siberia and the golden plains of Mongolia. It is autumn again, time goes backwards and we briefly travel through more familiar pine forests and woodland. Auburn leaves cling stubbornly to branches. It is rocky and flat alternately. There is evidence of agriculture with ploughed fields, the first since Siberia. The view is changing much more quickly now. Inhabited to wild, agriculture to city scape. House construction is different, older properties with tiled roofs. Evidence of man is more frequent here…”

It felt like I’d been cocooned by the train, my home for a full 7 days and nights of the three week journey. I have come to the end of my Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian train journey. Nearly three weeks after leaving Moscow I am about to arrive in Beijing, leaving my new family behind as we all take our own paths onwards…

Bexhill to Bexhill

Last morning on the Trans Mongolian train, dawn slowly brings China into view, Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

My view has been framed in this way for such a long time, I will miss the train. Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Arriving in China, Louise Kenward (2013)


Moscow, Sunday 6th October

“Arrived 7.55am on sleeper train from St Petersburg, leaving at 23.55 last night.

It felt a one time luxurious cabin with cream and red curtains of swags and tails at the window and a vase of artificial yellow roses on the table. It had seen better days, but more than hinted at how train travel had been regarded. We were given glasses in ornate silver metal holders filled with hot water on request. Although soon discover they are not for lingering with as disgruntled staff take them back again.

I share this cabin with Leah, Shenny and Cynthia. Two bunks above and two below. Bags and cases are wedged into every available cubby hole. Shenny soon begins her morning routine of insisting on photographs of us all, at every junction in the journey, in every possible combination, from every perspective. An almost hour by hour account of the next three weeks of my journey commences. An enthusiasm I have never encountered before. A broad grinning face and warm demeanour, she is impossible to refuse and a joy to be around. Counting our days through the journey to Beijing she is totally un phased by anything. A level of energy I can only imagine…”

Bexhill to Bexhill

Waiting for the train at Moscow, Louise Kenward (2013)

The Wall (the Great one)

There are many great places I have visited, few are bold enough to describe themselves as such, but ‘the wall’ is one of them (and rightly so). The lakes and barrier reef others. Typing ‘the great’ into a search engine guesses the rest of the search as ‘Gatsby’ ‘Depression’ ‘Escape’ or ‘British Bake Off’! All very grounding cultural references. The Great Wall of China was a significant landmark to reach, not least because it was a true marker of the distance travelled. Crossing Russia and Mongolia marked a significant crossing from anything I had encountered before. I had truly left my known world behind, and it would not look the same again.

I needed to mark this significant place in the only way I could, I left a pebble covered in crochet. Leaving one of the ‘breadcrumbs’ at The Great Wall felt like it could be an easy decision. Of course, any landmark as big as this ‘needed’ to be marked. But I didn’t want it to work in that way, those landmarks are ‘marked’ well enough already. I didn’t want my trail of breadcrumbs to be left in all the obvious places, they couldn’t fight with such icons. I wanted them to be quiet pieces that were seemingly random, left in hidden, unsuspecting places. And, despite its size, the accessible parts of the wall are scrutinised routinely, steps swept, litter picked and few secret spots remain. I ventured to find one though, and am not under too much illusion that it will have inhabited its little space for very long before discovered and discarded.

The Great Wall of China, Louise Kenward (2013)

The Great Wall of China, Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Trail of Breadcrumbs at Great Wall, Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

View for breadcrumb from wall, Louise Kenward (2013)




Trans Siberian Train, day 2 (or 3)

Wednesday, 9th October – Trans Siberian Train

“8am local time (somewhere between Moscow and Beijing), 6am Moscow time – the train will remain on Moscow time until we reach Beijing. This initially entertains me but is becoming increasingly confusing. I adjust my watch accordingly so as to ease myself in to changing time zones, and to arrive in China at a reasonable time of day. It makes for more complicated station stops though, assuming the train is running to schedule.

I’ve just realised the last entry was probably yesterday, so Tuesday not Monday, or Wednesday, possibly.

Early morning calm and more trees are yellowing or have lost their covering for the winter. A soft pink/peach filled the sky earlier but now it is a purple grey with smatterings of blue and white. The stark trees continue to line the tracks. The ‘bathroom’ is becoming increasingly fragrant. Ingenuity through necessity I’ve had a warm wash from the boiler this morning, taking great care not to drop anything on the floor.

The attendant has returned the creased, yellowed, slightly stiff netting to the lower parts of the windows, serving neither function or aesthetic. It is removed again as soon as she is out of sight, folded unceremoniously and stuffed through the elastic cord suspending it, so we can watch the travelling landscape. 

The gentle swaying of the train and the noise as everything moves with it is vaguely calming. The temperature reads 27ºC above the door at the end of the corridor – it is very hot, we are not allowed to open the windows. We’ve tried, they are quickly closed again. Communication in this respect is clear and facial gestures and hand signals indicate that window opening is not approved of. I don’t know why. Perhaps to add to our discomfort. It feels punishing rather than comforting. Two more time changes are passed through and my watch is duly altered. I think that makes five, or six, and another night is spent on a train. I’ve relinquished myself to the journey and its time frame. The one thing that is certain is that the train will ultimately arrive in China. Everything else is frivolous detail.
For the wilderness, there is great activity on the railway. Lines are busy, long freight trains take forever to pass, blocking light for many minutes at a time.”


The first pebble was more of a stone than a pebble. I’m not certain what the difference is, but train line stone chippings were the best available, and suited the purpose well enough. It became apparent that this was likely to be a common situation. Travelling by train so much, without access to beaches, railway chippings work just as well. They aren’t smooth, or as nice to handle granted, but the size is right, they are readily available, and they are directly connected to the journey.

This was my first. The stone was collected at Omsk station (Siberia) during a stop on the Trans Siberian line. It is a careful choice, trying to find the most even, rounded piece, of ‘suitable’ size. Like Goldilocks, it could be neither too small nor too big. Clambering across the tracks was a common enough practice here so I had a decent chance to find ‘the right’ one. It is a big station, there are a number of tracks and platforms, babushka’s selling things made of cabbage and potato, bundled in many layers of clothing. Passengers from the train get off to stretch their legs or smoke a cigarette. Guards stand at carriage entrances wearing heavy navy woollen uniforms with smart hats and stern faces. Station attendants check things and pace the platform purposefully.

I boarded the train as it prepared to move on. I made a cup of tea and settled in to the next part of the journey. My tea went cold, and by the time we arrived at Barabinsk my first stone was ready.

Bexhill to Bexhll

Barabinsk, Siberia – ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Barabinsk, Siberia – ‘Trail of Breadcrumbs’ (Louise Kenward, 2013)

As much care and consideration was taken as I could afford on the placement of this stone. The stop was not very long and I was not keen on getting left behind. It is another two or three days before the next train to Irkutsk. Shortly after the stone was placed, another train came into the station, rolling along the track above it. My stone was safely under the train and a part of its surroundings, it’s journey had begun.

….more trains

Realised only after posting that my last post spoke very little about the actual train journey. So much to talk about I am easily distracted at this stage. Aside from saying that travelling by train really is the greatest way to travel, even more so when it is comfortable, which mostly my journey has been. Even throughout South East Asia and Indonesia (aside from one delayed ten hour train journey in a ‘hard seat’ and a very packed carriage to Nanning, and a particularly cold night in Thailand – what is it with hot countries and their air conditioning?) it has not been arduous. Travelling through Canada I am, however, being looked after very well. I have certainly travelled in the right direction. At a time when I am getting a little weary of 8 bed dorm rooms and shared spaces where you have to label absolutely everything you put in the fridge, remembering your room key to go for a pee in the night and being woken up by the ubiquitous plastic bag rustling at various ungodly hours because someone has just arrived or is preparing to leave, or has just decided to look for something in the middle of the night. Hostels have been a great and affordable way of staying in some great places, and places where I have met some great people. There are times when it is nice to have your own space though. So having my own cabin and being well fed on the train is really very nice.

There is, however, something just as wonderful travelling in sleeper carriages where you share with several other strangers. For one, you meet local people who are mostly travelling through necessity rather than pleasure, to visit family or for work. While it hasn’t always been possible to find out very much about many of the people I shared these six foot square spaces with, because I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak mine (although usually more than me). But even when that was the case I still have some great memories of meeting people, where we would share food, help out with shuffling cases around so we all fitted in to the allocated spaces, and generally being pleasant company for the duration of the journey.

I have also met many people on this part of my journey. A dining carriage and communal sitting areas with drinks and viewing carriages make for an altogether different experience, and in many ways a more sociable one too. I’ve met many from Canada and the US, some Australian’s and Europeans, including a few from England who, when feeling slightly homesick last week, I nearly rugby tackled to have chance to speak to them and find out where they were from (and just to hear the accent and share common ground).

But mostly the journey is about what is going on outside. I end my journey in almost the same way as I started it, with an epic train ride of several days across the one country. The length of time and immensity of Canada reminds me of the Trans Mongolian train and the vastness of Siberia, in many ways it is just as beautifully bleak and inhospitable (certainly during the winter). The excitement of seeing a break in the landscape for a house with a wisp of smoke as it was in Russia. A break to the endless view of birch trees. While in Canada it is a grain elevator or pool of water, farm or the like. The mountains of Alberta a distant echo of the snow capped mountains through Mongolia, the prairies, of the expanse of Siberia. The same but different. The duration of the landscape remains immense and my captivation with it, constant.

And just as I again set out with particular intentions, my keyboard has run away with me. At this point in my trip I am being reminded of so many other earlier times, an inevitable part of the last stretch I feel. Bear with me, I shall talk trains more…