Photo: an hour east of Kirov on the No. 2 Rossiya train, the day after I left Moscow. This was shot looking out the back door of the last train car, but if you knew that Russian trains roll on the right-hand side, you already knew that. Chinese trains run on the left.
“When can you start?”
In April of 2011 I had been offered a new job. It was a big deal – the economy was rough, my current job had all but burnt me out, and I felt lucky to get a new opportunity in such a tough climate.
But when I was asked for my start date, I hesitated. Most people at the new place that had moved over had taken a week or less.
I decided to push it.
I asked for a month.
They said fine.
I asked for that time not so I could sit on my ass in Chicago for a month, tempting as that may have sounded. Instead, I had decided I needed to take a trip that wouldn’t be feasible in normal vacation periods (one or two weeks, max). Many of my lifelong travel dreams like Japan and Kilimanjaro all fit into that one-to-two week window, so I decided I’d have to make them wait a bit longer.
There was another memory from my childhood that resurfaced: looking at place names in my atlas like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk and wondering what it must be like to live in a city so far from an ocean. (The presence of Lake Michigan here in Chicago made me forget that I already knew exactly what that feels like). More recently, I had read the story of two insane Austrians who took the train from Vienna to goddamn Pyongyang and blogged about it like they were recounting a weekend at the county fair. Those guys have balls of steel, and I recommend reading their blog.
So a plan formed in my mind: “TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILROAD.” I still call it that, although as the plan developed, it would actually be more accurately called the “Trans-Mongolian” voyage (there are three “Trans-Siberian” routes – 1) Moscow-Vladivostok, the true Trans-Siberian, 2) Moscow-Beijing via Harbin, avoiding Mongolia, known as the Trans-Manchurian, and Moscow-Beijing via Ulaanbaatar, the Trans-Mongolian, and the route I took, and then extended on through Shanghai). On paper, it was daunting. A straight shot from Moscow to Beijing alone would take 7 days on the train; if I wanted to make stops along the way, I’d have to time them right because trains didn’t necessarily run every day; I’d be making arrangements in countries where I not only didn’t speak the language, but could barely read the alphabet; internet would be spotty; and the list went on. But the allure of it was too great and I plowed ahead with planning.
I knew I was likely to be on this trip alone — nobody can take three weeks off of work, or if they can, they don’t have the money to fly halfway around the world. But to my surprise two friends, Shannon and Scott agreed to join me for part of the trip.
I read up a lot about the trip, both online at sites like seat61.com (which is a tremendously helpful resource), and with the help of the Trans-Siberian Handbook and Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian. But I didn’t do a lot in the way of actual planning. When I left the US, I had the following plans set in stone:
May 25 – leave Chicago, arrive Moscow May 26.
May 26 – 29 hang out in Moscow with Shannon (including her birthday)
May 29 – put Shannon back on a plane, get on train (first of several?) across Siberia and into Mongolia and then China alone.
May 29-June 11: ?????
June 11 – meet Scott in Beijing
June 11-June 19 – do stuff in Beijing and Shanghai, with a stop to climb Mount Tai along the way.
June 19 – Fly home from Shanghai.
So that was it. The 4 things I booked in advance were my one-way plane tickets, to Moscow and from Shanghai, my first train ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk, and my hotel in Moscow. Everything else would have to be planned along the way.
It’s a good thing I was flexible. Almost nothing went as planned.
It was the best idea I ever had.