From September 1987 to August 1988 I was living in China as a foreign student, learning the language at Fudan University in Shanghai, and traveling the country.
When the time came to return to Germany I decided to make the geographic and cultural transition from East to West a little bit smoother by taking the Transmongolian Railway, from Beijing, via Ulan Bator in Mongolia, to Moscow, and from there further on to Berlin (East), and back to my home near Stuttgart in the South-West of Germany.
I bought my „Beijing – Moscow – Berlin“ ticket several weeks before the trip, at the Foreign Travel Agency in Shanghai. It cost me 892.30 Chinese Yuan, which was, at that time, about 450 German Marks. So, besides going on an adventure, it was also a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Europe.
Below you can find my travel diary entries – translated from German – from this long railway trip.
Please consider that this trip took place just a little more than one year before the Berlin Wall came down, an event nobody even dared to dream of at that point in time!
August 10, 1988, close to Erlian, at the Chinese-Mongolian Border
I almost overslept this morning, as I did not hear my alarm clock, but I woke up at 5:30 anyway. Last night a string on my guitar broke, and of course I did not have a replacement with me, so I tried to fix the broken string somehow… Then it seemed like our taxi [from the hotel to the railway station in Beijing] would not show up. It arrived eventually.
The [Chinese operated] train is quite comfortable, actually. The compartments correspond to the so called „soft sleeper“ class on domestic Chinese railway. I am sharing my compartment with a Chinese „German Studies“ student, who is on the way to Bochum University, a Chinese woman on the way to Budapest, and Hungarian guy who seems to be able speak just any language of the world…
Unfortunately, the film roll got stuck in my camera, so, in the worst case scenario, all my pictures taken in Beijing will be lost.
At some point on the way, we could see the Great Wall. Now we ride past endless steppes, green and flat as a pancake, and I just saw a herd of camels grazing.
Anja and Claudia, Anita and Adrian [tourist I got to know during my four week stay in Beijing] are on the same train carriage.
OH – I ALMOST FORGOT: GOOD-BYE, CHINA! SEE YOU AGAIN!
August 11, 1988
Contrary to all the horror stories I have heard [about the Mongolian border control] everything went smoothly at the Mongolian border. They collected all our passports, and we had to fill in a customs form, which they didn’t even bother to collect afterwards. They only took a short glance into our compartment, actually.
Last night I slept like a log. We are now (13:00 h) approaching [the Mongolian capital] Ulan Bator. Outside, I can see horses, yurts, camels, grassland, and many Mongols, as well as Russians. Also, it is quite cool outside, compared to Beijing. I am afraid I may not have brought enough warm clothing for the trip.
The Mongolian officers once again did not give us any trouble when we were leaving the country. One officer, however, studied the Chinese movie magazine our Chinese companion had brought very thoroughly, page by page… Finally, he found a color photograph of an actor kissing an actress, which he studied for a long time, with his emotions undisclosed to the outside word.
The Russians in Naushki were much more thorough, though. They were scrutinizing the train for hidden persons. It took ages until out passports were returned, so we could leave the train. I was the one before last at the queue in front of the bank, where I changed US$ 20 into rubles, I got 12 rubles and some kopecks. We were told that the black market value in Moskow was six rubles for one dollar, though. Well, we can make the ruble can roll now [A German idiom for „good business“] … And our the train, finally, rolls again, as well.
[Note: At the Mongolian-Russian border, and later again, at the Russian-Polish border, the complete undercarriage of all train carriages must be replaced, as Russia has wider railway tracks as the rest of the world.]
By the way, this afternoon I tought Adrian, Anita and a Danish woman the rules of Majiang, and we played several rounds in the dining car.
August 12, 1988
Siberia in Summer! Lake Baykal, with boats, wooden houses and huts, birch and fir trees everywhere, meadows with flowers and the fantastic summer weather you always long for, but rarely get! Exactly the right temperature, outside, neither too warm, nor too cool.
And then the old babushkas with headscarfs, standing at the railway stations where we stop every few hours, selling carrots, garlic, radishes, strawberries, black currant, etc. from prams.
So, I am standing on the platform at the Irkutsk railway station, just as if were the normal thing to do. On the train there are lots of Russians who try to sell rubles for foreign currency.
Dinner in the dining car: Cheese, butter and bread. Borscht, beef stroganoff. Very small portions, but delicious and inexpensive.
After we passed Irkutsk the landscape outside became livelier: More rail traffic, more settlements. Alltogether, traveling on the Transsiberian [Transmongolian, actually] is quite comfortable!
Novosibirsk Railway Station
August 13, 1988
Coffee, reading, listening to music, playing cards, trips to the dining car, short breaks on some railway platforms. I spend a lot of time in Adrian and Anja’s compartment, and visit Claudia an Anja from time to time, as my compartment is just too crowded. [The Chinese travelers had a lot of baggage!]
Obviously, I had enough spare time to copy the complete train schedule
I have had two very good meals in the dining car restaurant today, and we jogged to the railway building at the stop in Beljabinsk. Then we had a nice and comfy evening, playing majiang with Adrian, Jim and Tina. The time difference slowly becomes noticable, and the Moskow time we have set our watches to is somewhat irritating.
August 14, 1988
Some Chinese passengers started making a lot of noise at a quarter to six this morning, so I got up at 6 and had breakfast. The first stop for today was Sverdlovsk in the Ural. There, on the platform, some young Russians wanted to buy my walkman…
A bit later, at the kilometer stone 1777 (measured from Moskow), there was a memorial stone, marking the official geographic border between Asia and Europe. So it seems we are almost back home, right?
August 15, 1988
The morning started with „the big catlick“, and a breakfast, consisting of a cup of coffee and a bar of chocolate. Now it is time to pack my stuff again.
Later, we filled our bellies in the Russian dining car for a last time.
In Moskow we took the metro from the Jaroslav railway station to the Beloruskaya railway station. There was an enormos queue of mostly German-Russians who wanted to buy tickets to Berlin. [Under Gorbachev’s perestroika, people with German ancestors were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Germany, and at the end of the 1980s, there were hundreds of thousands who did.] It may be hard to get a ticket! So, we won’t be able to see the Red Square!
5:30 p.m.: Still sitting at the railway station, waiting for a reservation for tonight. They are now collecting our tickets, passports, and visa. Let’s hope it will all work out!
伟大的社会主义! [Oh, Great Socialism!] Of course there is no more train today! We were told that thirty of us can take a train tomorrow at noon, further seven persons will have to take the midnight train.
So, I left my guitar and backpack at the luggage checkroom. Then we – Wolfgang, Monika and I – took the metro to „Prospect Marksa“, where, by chance, we met the Swiss family we know from the train. We went to the Red Square together. I tried to take a photo of the Basileus cathedral at sunset.
As it was getting dark quickly and it started to rain, we went back to the railway station. When we left the metro at Belorusskaya, a Russian woman asked us whether she could help us, as we looked quite puzzled, obviously. She showed us the way out and brought us to the railway station restaurant, where we had dinner. Nadja was her name, and she told us she was an editor for a newspaper in Leningrad. We talked about old Russian architecture, Gorbatchev, Reagan, Glasnost, traveling, freedom of the press, etc.pp.
And now we are staying over night in the waiting room of Belorusskaya station.
August 16, 1988
I survived the night in relative comfort, as the waiting room was heated, and I was able to lie on the corner of a sleeping bag that someone hat put on the floor.
At 5:30 I took a walk in the surroundings of the railway station. At 8:00 our passports were, once again, collected. I really hope it will work out with the train at noon!
9:45: Happy news – not! Not 30, but only 10 people will be able to take the train at noon! The others may be able to leave at midnight. Those ten lucky people got their tickets after some time, and left Moscow.
Then at 1 p.m. suddenly a big surprise: The door to the reservation office opened, and we all got our passports and reservations! Our train will leave at ten past midnight!
So we brought our baggage to the baggage check, again, and took the metro to the Red Square, which we found in perfect, bright sunshine. Then we went to the Kremlin, visiting some churches and museums there. Afterwards, we went to the GUM shopping center. Well – if this is the best Russia has to offer… [Indeed, I was shocked. As a result of China’s economic reforms, even small town shops in Tibet had more diverse goods on offer than the GUM in Moscow. Seriously!]
Back at the railway station we had dinner at the PECTOPAH.
At 11:45 we went onto the train with all our luggage, and left Moscow.
August 17, 1988
A catlick on the train. Breakfast: Coffee and chocolate, again. We arrived at Brest at 12:30, where I changed my remaining eleven rubles back to 30 German Marks (West). Suddenly, everybody seemed to start buying whatever they could find, to get rid of their remaining rubles. [The point here was that you could only change back the maximum amount that you had changed when you entered the country. So, everyone who changed rubles for the fantastic black market exchange rate was now stuck with a lot of Russian currency, and virtually nothing to buy for it.]
Then, we had some trouble finding the platform from which the train would depart. Once again, all the undercarriages had to be exchanged to fit the standard gauge Polish railway tracks. There was practically no border control, except for a passport inspection.
Now, at 4 p.m., we are rolling into Poland.
August 18, 1988
Arrival at the Polish/GDR border at 3:20 in the morning. The Polish and East German border and customs officers did a joint control.
We arrived at Berlin (Ost) – Lichtenfelde at 6:00 in the morning. I took the S-Bahn to Friedrichstraße and passed the border station [The border crossing Friedrichsstrasse was known as „Tränenpalast“, the „palace of tears“, as East Germans could not cross, with very few exceptions.] to West Berlin without any hassle. There, I took the S-Bahn to Bahnhof Zoo, where I bought a ticket to Stuttgart for 102.00 DM, departure: 11:38, arrival in Stuttgart at 21:55. I then called my parents to tell them that I was on the way home.
Breakfast at MacDonalds. How decadent! [Shame on me, but after a full year in China, wasn’t that a venial transgression?]
Helped a Chinese guy buying a train ticket at Bahnhof Zoo. Now, at 11:30, I am sitting in an otherwise completely empty train carriage to Stuttgart. How strange! [considering the constantly overcrowded public transport in China…]
17:11 – Finally back in the West! There was only a passport control when entering the GDR [at the Polish border], but not when leaving the GDR. A Bavarian border official wanted to see my passport in Ludwigstadt, though.
Home, sweet home! Arrival in Stuttgart at 10 p.m. My parents were already waiting for me at the platform. At home, I found a new dog and a new cat, and all the parcels I had sent from Shanghai had arrived already. And my former landlady from Trier had called – telling me that she has a room for rent for me, when I go back to university.
This ends my year in China!