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The Trans Mongolian: When the trains stop

In the latest Friends ‘Review’ journal Anthony Coulls makes passing mention of his work on the upcoming NRM exhibition on the Trans Siberian Railway (Review, 174, Winter 2020/2021). His comment reminded me of happy times spent travelling in central Asia. As an obsessive traveller you might think I have been on the Trans Siberian but you would be wrong. I travelled on the Trans Mongolian instead, in 1988. You might need an atlas to follow this!

In 1988, 4 days out from Moscow, the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian reach Irkutsk. From there they skirt Lake Baikal on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) to Vladivostok before the Trans Mongolian heads south and east from Ulan Ude to the Mongolian border at Naushki. It crosses Mongolia, passing through the capital (Ulan Bator) before crossing into China at Erlian. From there it’s plain sailing through Datong to Beijing. It was especially interesting at Erlian where a change of gauge occurred. The Chinese and Russians, constantly suspicious of invading each other, arranged for the change of gauge in 1956 – from a Russian 1524 mm to a Chinese 1435 mm. Coaches were shunted into a shed where bogies were changed. On my trip the entire train load stood on the platform and nervously watched while the operation occurred. Customs men took the opportunity to work through the train confiscating TV sets, alcohol, anything that looked like contraband,

It was a terrific experience, a mixture of exhilarating views and utter boredom over many hours in the train. To alleviate the latter, we got off every so often and spent a few days at places on the route. Getting back on sounded simple enough but it helped to have a ‘minder’. Windows as well as doors were utilised to get passengers, ‘senders off’, and luggage on and off the train. Reservations didn’t match the coaches and so on. Most of our ‘gettings on’ were at night and I have vivid memories of watching the headlights of trains, electric, diesel and steam, moving about on the distant lines until one came ever closer, quite dazzling, and the Trans Mongolian arrived. There was that distinctive sound from the air horns fitted to all locomotives then, a sound that will stay with me forever, I think. Will we have that in the exhibition?

Each coach had an attendant at each end, a provodnik, with a samovar for hot water and tea and an endless capacity to say ‘nyet’. Provodnicks were often older women dressed either in uniform or all black. Do not upset the provodnik!

In those days, important trains still had the ‘CCCP’ badge on the front of the locomotive and sometimes the red Russian flag flying from the smoke box door (if steam hauled) or at the buffer beam. It was a reminder that trains really mattered in Russia then – and they still do.

Perhaps you will recall that after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Russia entered a protracted and bloody civil war between White and Red. Through it all, the Trans Siberian and the Trans Mongolian kept moving. Trains moved men and materials about. In 1920 Lenin is said to have remarked ‘When the trains stop, that will be the end’. I suppose he meant to emphasise the importance of trains in the war but maybe his comment was more prophetic. In many countries when the trains stop it really is the end.

Pictures: Intrepid travel website

I’m looking forward to the exhibition, not to mention exiting lockdown. It will bring back happy memories of great journeys. I am sure there are readers of this post who will have similar memories and stories to tell.

Please note that the 1988 route is slightly different to that of today. Check it out here


John Swanwick

Read about Friends contributions to the National Railway Museum here

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