Tracks of my cheers
It traverses a third of the planet's land mass and by the time you cross the finish line you can count on having consumed at least a few bottles of vodka. Welcome aboard the Vodkatrain, the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways with a unique twist. Operated by Sundowners, the company that has run more upmarket Trans-Siberian packages since the 1970s, Vodkatrain aims one of the world's grandest rail experiences at adventure-minded travellers.
There are numerous ways to attack the Trans-Siberian and I decided to go from Beijing, through Mongolia, Siberia and on to St Petersburg. In my group are travellers from Britain, Australia and the US. Nobody can speak Putonghua, Mongolian or Russian, and that's why the Vodkatrain's 'honcho' concept is so appealing. At each stop, a local student will meet us and show us around. It
is like having a friend in each port, except these friends are paid to hang out with us, helping us to negotiate the currency, language, customs and best places to find vodka. Honchos speak English and are pretty much at our disposal: a neat twist on the usual tour-guide model.
We meet our Beijing honcho, Raymond, in a hotel a few long blocks from Tiananmen Square. With only three days in the city, I want to cram in as much as I can between the excessive crowds and humidity. Raymond suggests hiking the Great Wall of China from Jingshanling to Simatai, avoiding hordes of tourists by driving three hours from the city. The 11km hiking route is practically deserted
and crossing 67 towers is a physical challenge everyone is up for. Honchos are on the hook only until 9pm but their expenses are covered by the company should they decide to join the group for some drinks. This cleverly promotes interaction and avoids kickback scams. After an all-night party binge we end up at Tiananmen Square once again for sunrise, joining dozens of children flying kites; it
is a magical time to see the world's largest square.
That evening, we board the train for Mongolia. Throughout the trip we will travel in first-class, four-berth compartments, with bedding provided for a few extra dollars. Crossing the Gobi desert mostly at night, we arrive several hours late in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's dusty capital. Our honcho, an arts student named Nomin, is waiting on the platform. She speaks terrific English, listens to Radiohead and is more like someone you would meet on MySpace than a Mongolian guide.
My night in the capital dissolves into madness when our group discovers that Mongolians take their vodka as seriously as the Russians. My journal mentions beautiful women, modern nightclubs and something about the police threatening me with a Taser at 3am.
But Mongolia's beauty is in its countryside and Vodkatrain has its own ger camp, made up of traditional nomadic tents, a few bumpy hours' drive from Ulan Bator. We stay five to a tent, filling our days with horse-riding, rock climbing and short walks. Recovering from the party in Ulan Bator, I am relieved to steer clear of vodka, although I do sample a few cups of fermented horse milk at a village. When we are fully relaxed, Nomin sees us off on our three-day train journey into Siberia. Life on a train passes at a different pace. There's nowhere to go but forwards and nothing to do but think. Mongolian trains are basic but clean and comfortable. Hot water is provided and with no dining car, meals consist of instant noodles, sardines and bread bought from old ladies on platforms. Toilets are locked before and during each stop, including a torturous 12-hour border wait when Russian guards discover our Mongolian attendants are smuggling clothes in our pillows. We are not allowed to leave the train and bladders threaten to rupture. Eventually, we burst out of the carriage and are allowed a few seconds against a wall, under armed supervision. Women have to make do in a small water closet with a big stench.
Mongolia's gers give way to bleak wooden houses, Asian features merge into Caucasian faces and the train finally pulls into Irkutsk. Here we swim in the freezing pure waters of Lake Baikal, the largest, deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world. After a few days cooped up on the train, our group seems ready to explode. Baikal bars serve their vodka by the bottle, which lights our fuse. Our honcho, Eugene, has to rescue Ed, an English backpacker, when he trips over a local thug and almost starts a bar fight. Eugene arranges a booze cruise on the lake, followed by a traditional Siberian sauna, a banya, in which birch trees are whipped against one's body in a hot-as-hell small wooden box. In a place as extreme as Siberia, it somehow makes perfect sense.
Another four days on a train: more instant noodles, more instant potatoes, more instant anything to avoid the overpriced borscht in the dining car. We hold carriage parties, stocking up on beer and vodka at platform kiosks, inviting our neighbours to join the fun. The stone-faced attendants are not amused but as the hours wear on, they grow used to us. Books are swapped, iPod batteries drained, marathon card games ensue. The rolling Russian countryside barely changes for 8,000km. By the time the train pulls into Moscow I have read three books and am suffering from carriage fever. As before, a few days bottled up on a train results in a serious release at the next stop. Hence, I find myself on Red Square at dawn after yet another all-night party.
One final night train and we arrive in St Petersburg, easily living up to its reputation as one of the world's most beautiful cities. The group members meet for a final dinner, saying farewell before heading our separate ways. I have experienced a lot in three weeks but with those long train stretches I could hardly call it stressful. Vodkatrain's honcho concept refreshingly dispels the 'follow-the-leader' mentality of typical group travel, giving us the freedom to do our own thing but with the ever-helpful advice of friendly locals along the way. You might, however, wish to book a separate holiday for your liver.
Getting there: Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Beijing. Vodkatrain offers two- and three-week packages on Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways, departing from China or Russia. Group size is limited to 15, with no single supplements. Accommodation includes hotels, hostels and guesthouses; all train berths sleep four. Prices range from US$2,000 to US$3,000 and include accommodation, transfers, honchos and visa support. Food, activities and airfares are excluded. For more information, see www.vodkatrain.com.