Friendships are often tied up in long journeys. Having made friends on Trans-Mongolian Railway, passengers exchange emails and take photographs together for memory. In reality the photos will remind you of a wonderful companion, however the email will never reach the addressee, it will simply not be written. No matter how interesting a companion might be, he will never get a letter when he gets home… knowing that he won’t write one either. The exchange of addresses is more like an act of courtesy, a symbolic playing by the rules of etiquette. As soon as you get back to your everyday routine, that necessity in a travelling companion disappears.

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Day four: Irkutsk, Slyudyanka, Ulan-Ude, Djida, Naushki, Sukhe Bator.

I found out that there was a Russian conductor on the train, thanks to which I was fortunate enough to wake up early and see the beauty of Irkutsk.

Here is snow and the soil seem red.

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Surroundings of Irkutsk.
Typical village of Irkutsk.
Typical village of Irkutsk.
Boundless steppes.

What’s it like to be on the train through Trans-Mongolian Railway for six days? It’s like a geography lesson, studying on the go with the landscapes change behind the window. I was especially fortunate to hit the road in autumn. From the window I looked at the yellow leaves that was falling from birches and watched as the steppes have been changed to the taiga forests.

With an area of almost 10 million square km, Siberia is huge and rich. Until the 16th century Siberia belonged to the local Aboriginal people. In the Mongolian language the word ‘Siberia’ translates as ‘moorland, covered with birch trees, forest thicket.’ Western Siberia is covered with marshy plains, the central plateau with dense forests and on the east, mountains rise 3,000 meters above sea level. Only northern Siberia can be called Tundra, where the temperature falls below -60° during the winter.

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Golden birch trees and mountains.

While the popular view of Siberia is of howling arctic wastes and full of penal colonies, tourists quietly cross the limitless terrain on the old train.

Magnificent Lake Baikal is the deepest in the world and the largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth. In fact, it’s the world’s future fifth ocean and the only ocean that will contain fresh water. The mountains that surround the valley and the lake consist of several parts; the Baikal Mountains to the west of the lake, the Transbaikal mountains in the east, and to the south of the valley there are tourist attractions.

In the morning the lake is covered with mist and looks like milk with whipped cream on top. Basically Lake Baikal is a place about which you can make a whole separate story.

The lake is fed by three hundred tributaries, the Angara River is the only outflow of Lake Baikal. Despite environmental concerns, the lake water is pure enough to drink. It is said that the water level in the lake have risen by one meter since the construction of the dam, which later led to the flooding of the densely populated areas near the river Angara.

Village houses on the hills near the lake.
Village houses on the hills near the lake.
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Village on the hill.
The foreman is busy as usual.
The foreman is busy as usual.

At Slyudyanka station people could buy smoked omul. According to residents this fish is only found in Lake Baikal; missing the chance to try it means missing a unique opportunity to enrich one’s own experience. I overslept and missed this opportunity.

Fishing in endless Baikal.
Fishing in endless Baikal.

Buryats live a very simple and poor life. Houses are scattered randomly, sometimes right in the middle of a field, next to some small lake where locals of nearby houses are standing knee-deep in the water and washing.

Going on Trans-Mongolian Railway and crossing the Mongolian border, the customs officer asked if I was reading books of a Nazi or fascist propaganda character? I just finished reading Henry Ford’s The International Jew, which was published in 1922. Fascism or criticism?

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Landscape somewhere in Buryatia.

During the previous three days the landscape spread out in front of the train on both sides of the railway, was beautiful, but very monotonous. All the space from the Moscow to the Lake Baikal is a huge, flat plain. A plain on which dark rivers were carrying their dark waters, and streams which were so slow that at times they seemed frozen. All the villages were like one another – grey wooden houses with a narrow facades, staring at the roads, and the roads looked as if they were trodden by cattle and people.

The Mongolian border was passed and the landscape have changed instantly.

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Typical Mongolian landscape.
Lake somewhere in Mongolia.

Day five: Darkhan, Zuunkharaa, Ulaanbaatar, Choir, Sainshand, Zamyn-Üüd, Erlian.

Industrial area in the middle of the wasteland.
Industrial area in the middle of the wasteland.
The valley is divided by a fence of pillars and sparse barbed wire.
The valley is divided by a fence of pillars and sparse barbed wire.
Wild horses inhabit the desert.
Wild horses inhabit the desert.

A small town not far from Ulan Bator, is surrounded by a fence columns, fence boards are stacked on the side. This fence is built to prevent horses and people running to the rails.

And camels. They are also wild.
And camels. They are also wild.
Village.
Village.
Station of the village.
Station of the village.

Belyashi and drinks are sold at the booth. With this type of trade there is risk of sickness if the products are spoiled; for example belyashi made with cat or pigeon meat. Just joking.

In reality there are frequent stories about mass poisoning on the Trans-Mongolian Railway train, with the consequences of hospitalisation. People who are afraid of getting sick and wary of food at the stations are happy with dry rations, sometimes buying just bread and mineral water. Such an attitude begs to be watched as travellers make purchases trying to barter.

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Small kiosks on the platforms.

Clean air, rare stretches at the stops, the fear of falling behind (people love stories, like turning up late for a train, ending up on the platform with no money and things like this), on opinion of nomads all this resembles a sort of a prison.

The Soviet Union firmly stuck here.

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When exiting the station.
Mongolian restaurant car.
Mongolian restaurant car.
Gobi desert.
Gobi desert.
Tourist admiring the beauty of the desert from the first-class carriage.
Tourist admiring the beauty of the desert from the first-class carriage.

On the border with China, while checking passports, the cars are driven straight into the depot with people on-board and the wheels changed to the right size.

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Because of this the stop lasts for four hours. Coming out of the car is prohibited. At stops toilets are closed, so remember; to relieve yourselves on a Trans-Mongolian Railway with the number one you got to do this in cans and even bottles, depends on the need. While the wheels are changed there is a dispute between travellers / risk takers, what does this liquid tastes like? It turns out it tastes like water. (The faces of those who have tried it will remain in secret.)

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Day six: Jining, Beijing.

All the way on the Trans-Mongolian Railway and it was only on the last day Chinese person moved in.

Thanks to him I learned to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. As it turned out later, it was not right.

China greeted us with a kilometre-long corn fields.

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Corn fields.
Local villages.
Local villages.
Chemical factories.
Chemical factories.
Spectacular polluted views.
Spectacular but polluted views.
High bridges.
High bridges.

There have been millions of people and thousands of trains that have travelled along the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The line was built in the days of the Russian Empire, next year it will be 100 years since its construction. At the time, the railway was the beginning of the expulsion of Jews, revolutionaries and intellectuals. This road has become a symbol of the way to the Far East. Everyone who has ended up as a passenger of Trans-Mongolian Railway has their own story: sometimes good, sometimes bad. For one it’s a tin box in which you can spend all the time with an iPod and a bottle of wine, for others it is an inspiration for creativity.

The most interesting thing is observing the lives of the people on the train. The nomadic space of the Trans-Mongolian Railway is interesting in that it allows individuals to consider the processes of adapting to a new environment. Making it feel like home, notions of comfort and the ability to organise the surrounding physical and social space are the things that get revealed in these unique conditions of routine nomadism. A man builds a house under any circumstances, trying to organise his life so that it acquires the look of familiar daily routine, where the train at that moment becomes a substitute for home.