Out the window lightening sizzled across the Asian sky. Lamps along the tracks sent long shadows dancing against the railcar as we accelerated away from Beijing. The clacking of the wheels sang verses with the thunder, the mid summer storm seemingly matching the rhythm of the train’s engine.
It was exhilarating and elating. As we chugged through the urban sprawl and out towards the mountainous region north of Beijing the anticipation of the journey ahead was reaching a crescendo. I was embarking on a journey over 6,000 miles in length. The three week trip in its entirety would take me from Beijing, China and up through the reaches of Manchuria. From there I would pass through the steppe of Inner Mongolia into the taiga of Siberia, all the way to the western Russian capital, Moscow. All of it overland, by rail.
I sat with my head pressed against the glass, rainy streaks scooting down the window in crystal trails. I was already falling under the spell of the ebb and flow of the railway car. That gentle rock and sway of inertia and momentum lulled me into taking in the outside panorama. Over the weeks that followed, railway travel would climb to my most preferred mode of transport.
Somewhere between Chita and Ulan Ude in far eastern Russia a young man with long black hair and hazel complexion poked his head into my open compartment. Spying my guitar case on the berth over my head he smirked, “Do you play?”
“Of course.” I answered, following his gaze to my small travel guitar.
“Come on over.” he gestured towards the hall with a wave of his hand.
“We’re one door away.”
Ducking into the compartment next to mine, with guitar in tow I was met by the sight of five young men crowded around a slew of instrument cases, taking up much of their berth’s little space.
“We’re in a band.” Sergei, the man with the long black hair explained.
“Play us something.” he added, clearing off space for me to sit down.
As I noodled away on the neck of my little guitar, Sergei and his bandmates began producing instruments and playing along with me. The man across from me passed up a guitar to the man on the bunk over him who immediately began strumming away rhythm. The man on the bottom bunk pulled two drum sticks from his bag and began thumping a beat into the corner of the mattress he was sitting on. Meanwhile Sergei, began singing along to our improvised tune. Producing sound from deep within his throat he sang in the traditional style of the people of Buryatia, the region we were currently chugging through. The resulting sound was hypnotic. Low guttural words mixed with interchanging whistles and shrills. They nodded and laughed as each of us added our own personal flare to the growing song. Slowly the train came to a rocking halt.
“Thats our stop.” Sergei said, as the band quickly gathered up their instruments.
“We have a concert tonight in Ulan Ude!” he said with excitement.
They shook my hand as they each passed out the door.
Encounters like this are only possible when traveling by train, far from the anxiety inducing time warp of air travel. Travel by plane is a nauseating bore. All of us disinterested with our fellow passengers. Diddling away on inflight touch screen pads or near comatose from dramamine and noise canceling headphones, we keep to ourselves whilst defying space and time. Travel by air is borderline teleportation. Departing and arriving without witnessing anything in between. High in the plane’s ascent looking out the window is usually only met with the same unchanging view of white fluff. Not so while traveling in the comfort of a train car. You traverse biomes; scaling mountains, charging over steppe, snaking through cities, and plunging through forests.
Late in the evening, halfway to Irkutsk I was delving into a paperback I had picked up in Beijing. On the benches sat a Russian family. A mother and her two daughters were working to prepare a small dinner. The mother gingerly laid down a white and red checkered handkerchief over the small table. She laid out slices of bread then proceeded to cut up a cucumber. The daughters pulled from a shopping bag little baggies of candy and jerky. Arranging the cucumber slices on a small dish the mother beckoned her daughters to eat.
Suddenly both girls were pressed against the glass window pointing out excitedly towards the setting sun. As our train burst out of the thick Siberian forest an expansive view opened up. The blue waters of Lake Baikal shimmered in the late evening sun as far as my eyes could decipher. The crystal shores expanded out and beyond to beaches rimmed with the untouched wilderness of the Siberian wild. I put my book down and joined them in gaping in awe. The train skirted the side of lake, the calm water so enticingly close I felt as I could leap from the train right into its chilly embrace.
The mother, too now had stopped and was taking in the view. She held out a bag of candy, offering I take one. I picked out a candy, thanking her. Smiling, she turned back to the window.
“Baikal.” she explained pointing out at the endless lake.
While every plane ride is identical, each traveler by train has a unique experience. One with the potential to enrich their travel with meaningful interaction and humbling scenery. Trains are not just a means of transportation. A vehicle for travel. They are part of the places they run through. They’re extensions of the country and its landscape. Moving by rail gives a person the most to gain with the smallest amount of anxiety and risk.
We should cease traveling by trains, and start traveling for trains.