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Winter training

Heading home for Christmas on the Trans-Siberian railway

snow -5 °C

I am not a hot weather person. These past ten months of traipsing around Southeast Asia have wrung litres of sweat out of me. My T-shirts are now faded through overwashing, my hiking boots in need of regular blasts of deodorant. My delicate Anglo-Saxon skin has been punished by the strength of the sun. I can't complain about the quality of my non-climate-related experiences in the region, but as the trip comes to an end I'm eagerly awaiting some temperatures below 0 °C rather than above 30 °C.

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Beijing in early November is certainly a step in the right direction, and my every breath is a plume of condensation in the chill. I love that almost painful feeling as cold air finds every corner of my lungs - it seems so clean and pure, even here in this murky, polluted city. I walk everywhere, my activity generating just enough warmth to stay comfortable. There's none of the wallowing in your own perspiration that accompanies even a short stroll in a Cambodian summer. My tan might already be starting to fade, but otherwise I'm revelling in these freezing conditions.

I'm due back in England for Christmas and have opted to return to Europe on the Trans-Siberian railway. Any journey of this distance screams to be broken up along the way, to experience the landscape at first hand rather than merely through a grimy window, so I'll be stopping frequently, first at Ulan Bator in Mongolia.

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It's a chilly afternoon when I depart Beijing but you wouldn't know it inside the train. I could happily wear a T-shirt and shorts, if I hadn't stuffed such clothing inconveniently at the bottom of my rucksack in expectation of not needing it. There's an unheated section at the end of the carriage, in which I find hanging a bag of sausages. The blanket that comes with my bunk remains unused as we rumble northward through the evening and night.

The following morning brings a first sighting of Mongolia - flat terrain stretching to the horizon. The presence of humans is suggested by the odd yurt here and there. An eagle watches our passing from the vantage point of an old telegraph pole. The countryside barely changes right up until Ulan Bator.

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It doesn't take long outside for me to accept the claim that this is the coldest capital city in the world. A refreshing -10 °C during the day becomes a bitter -26 °C at night, and this with the real winter still over a month away. I've been through New York winters where blocks of ice were bobbing in the Hudson river but this is much colder though with not a flake of snow in sight. I stock up on knock-off North Face gear, but even two sets of gloves and two pairs of socks can't keep my hands and feet from slowly going numb.

My nose reacts to the cold by running almost constantly, a situation that leaves it red, cracked, and bleeding from all the blowing. Whenever I eat out, I generate heaps of used tissues that don't make me any friends.

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Just before I leave the capital, I see the first snowfall of the season, though it feels long overdue in these low temperatures. At Gandan monastery, monks dressed in orange and purple trudge through the snow to morning prayers. They are watched by thousands of pigeons huddled together in the trees, feathers puffed.

There's only one other passenger in my compartment as the train departs Ulan Bator - a Russian professor. She thrusts cheese slices on me but declines my offer of chocolate biscuits, saying that only children eat such things. I don't get to hear her thoughts on my stash of instant noodles. My last image of Mongolia is of a group of soldiers standing in the snow, smartly saluting the train as we leave the border.

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The following morning we skirt Lake Baikal, its dark surface extending to the horizon. Fierce breakers are rolling in to hit the lake shore. With a snow covering up to the water's edge and trees standing leafless and spindly under a glum sky, the occasional pockets of wooden houses look uninviting from the warmth of the train.

Once the Russian professor has disembarked, I'm adopted by a Kazakh couple from the next compartment. They give me some chunks of what is described appetisingly on the packet as "horse flesh". We share no language, but a combination of gesturing and leaps of logic leads me to conclude that they are offering me $10,000 to drive a Land Rover from the UK to Kazakhstan (where apparently they're prohibitively expensive). The husband also indicates that his country is well worth a visit, being full of jaw-dropping scenery and curvaceous women constantly on the lookout for sexual favours - his gestures to convey the latter are unambiguous.

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My arrival in Irkutsk immediately tells me that I've crossed a significant ethnic boundary. Though there are still Asian faces, the blue eyes, blonde hair, and sharp features of a large proportion of the population speak of Europe. Fur clothing is everywhere.

Irkutsk itself is a promising introduction to Russian cities. The combination of Western European stone architecture and Siberian wooden buildings, offset by some drab Soviet-era blocks, is a pleasing one. With snow falling silently through the glow of the streetlights and gently dusting fur-clad heads and shoulders, the scene is exactly how I'd imagined a Siberian city in winter.

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The next morning, I leave the hostel with my hair still damp from the shower and it soon freezes up. This confirms what my steaming breath has already indicated - that Irkutsk may well be warmer than Ulan Bator but it's still sub-zero. Like on the train, indoor temperatures here are kept bizarrely high. There's a difference of about five layers of clothing between being inside or outside.

Gritting/salting/sanding seem to be unpopular, meaning negotiating the pavements and roads requires caution. I shuffle about as though I am infirm, jealous at how experience has enabled the locals to strut around with poise.

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I'm also surprised by just how little the birdlife seems to care about humans. Blue tits and great tits, which are among the most skittish of the visitors to an English garden, won't budge until you're about to tread on them. I'm not sure if the need to find food in this freezing climate overrides any fear of predators, or if people here feed the birds so much that they've become tame, but their confidence is Hitchcockian.

The local cats are as wary as any I've met in Asia but here they have evolved perfectly for the conditions, with shaggy coats and enough bulk to make a peckish Siberian tiger think twice.

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Heading west to Krasnoyarsk, it is clear we are entering a region that has experienced a fresh snowfall. The wooden houses are thatched in pristine white and the trees' branches, outlined and thickened by the snow, glisten pink in the dawn light. Even the spoiling effect of a dirty window can not conceal the beauty of the countryside.

Krasnoyarsk is nobody's idea of a tourist destination, with major local industries producing aluminium, refrigerators, and tyres, but the snow has blanketed some of its ugliness. The city council is even less of a fan of gritting than their counterparts in Irkutsk so I again slide my way around. Ironically, my hotel room's shower produces only scalding hot water, so I have to wash in the sink.

The city is not entirely charmless, with its churches being bursts of colour rising from the white ground. I visit a museum whose souvenir shop can only be catering to the export market, as their thermometers don't go below 0 °C - Krasnoyarsk often hits -40 °C in winter.

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My compartment-mates to Yekaterinburg are a young couple bound for Azerbaijan. They speak no English, though the husband is able to sing along to "Happy Birthday to you" when it comes on over the carriage radio. We pass the halfway point to Moscow and, somewhat later, leave Siberia entirely.

Magical in the grip of winter, the landscape holds my attention. As we trundle across a bridge straddling the Irtysh river at Omsk, I can see that the water is frozen. The railway runs past coniferous forests that bring Christmas back into my mind. I haven't been home for nearly a year, but it's impossible to share that mounting excitement with people who don't understand a word that comes out of my mouth.

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I generally try to avoid arriving in unfamiliar cities late at night, but the train schedule has forced this on me and the streets of Yekaterinburg are devoid of life as I trudge along them. With the temperature at -7 °C, a park bench is not a viable sleeping option so I'm dismayed when the cheapest room I can find is well over a hundred dollars.

Apart from my hotel bill, the most affecting thing I see in Yekaterinburg is the Afghanistan War Memorial, a sculpture showing a downward-looking soldier with a weary posture. The effect is one of resignation rather than pride, the snow covering adding an extra hint of the discomforts of war.

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The final leg of my Trans-Siberian journey is spent in the company of a dour older couple, whose frosty demeanour lasts for the best part of 1,700 kilometres. Approaching Moscow, we pass through suburbs of dachas, the country retreats that Muscovites use for summer escapes from the city. Though many are painted in bright blues and greens, those vivid colours are muted by the brilliance of the snow.

On my first night in Moscow, the temperature rises ten degrees, causing the snow to melt on the ground (good for walking) but also loosening whatever has been on the rooftops (bad for walking, as chunks of snow and ice plummet down without warning).

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Red Square acquired its name from the Russian word for "beautiful", that morphed over time into "red" due to the colour being an approximation of beauty in the long cold winter, however it's hard to find beauty in the grey and unfriendly sky. In these conditions, even St Basil's Cathedral appears leached of its garishness.

With Christmas so close, there are lights and decorations on the streets and within all the shops, stoking my own anticipation of the celebration to come. I was in Australia last year at about the same time, and was thoroughly disorientated by the southern hemisphere weather in December. For me, one important aspect of Christmas is that it comes at a bleak period, when being inside with vast amounts of food, a heap of presents, and friends and family provides a contrast with the wind and chill of the outdoors. Barbecues on the beach just don't have the same atmosphere.

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I visit St Petersburg and find the river Neva frozen over bar a central clear channel. Great slabs of ice are crushed up against the banks and there's a gusting wind eager to make its presence felt. A masochistic bride and groom struggle to keep their hair and clothing under control as they pose, goose-pimpled, against the backdrop of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral.

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It's something of a disappointment to then be back in England, where winter is defined by it simply being colder, duller, and rainier than the rest of the year. I can't imagine stumbling across Santa Claus' house here. But whatever the English winter's deficiencies, it's great to be home for Christmas. And I have memories of a proper winter elsewhere - the one I have seen from the Trans-Siberian's path across two continents.

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Posted by mohn 19.04.2012 09:57 Archived in Russia Tagged winter railway europe russia trans-siberian mongolia

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