The prospect of making the 7621-km trip from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian express was thrilling. This was going to be an epic adventure on one of the greatest rail journeys of the world: experiencing the changing scenery, cultural traditions and learning the history of these countries while travelling alongside the local people and sharing life on their trains. We thought it was a trip best done with a guide – and we were not disappointed.
Meeting the group in Beijing
In Beijing we met up with our 10 fellow travellers and our trip leader Anton to embark on the 16-day tour through China, Mongolia and Russia, ending in Moscow. Anton is Russian, passionate about his job and has an impressive mastery of English, not to mention the other languages he speaks.
He kicked things off by taking us to an award-winning restaurant called Little Yunnan. Here he ordered a delicious array of provincial dishes to share, dispensing with the need for choices and letting us concentrate on getting to know each other. Numbering eight different nationalities within the group we were an interesting and diverse mix, and that first meal was the perfect way to start – one long table, chop sticks and dishes of food to share. I think we all recognised that Anton was going to be a terrific leader and an all-round great guy to hang out with for two weeks on a train.
On the train with Anton
The tour itinerary was impressive in itself, but Anton brought his own extra personal qualities to it all. Anton is easy-going, charming and natural, and there was no hiding the fondness the local guides and contacts have for him. We saw him build those same warm relationships with each new train attendant and everyone we met and, of course, with all of us.
He proved to be knowledgeable on a huge range of subjects and well-informed on every aspect of the trip, and managed our expectations every inch of the way. Sometimes during our briefings we were 13 people crammed into one carriage, but we bonded as a group from the start. Anton’s Russian lessons meant we could all say Добрый день (“Good day”) – or make a Russian toast. He added to our vocabulary along the way, but more than that, he educated us on the local various customs and culture.
A teacher and a student
Anton’s smiling face would appear at our carriage door at some point each day, teapot in hand, to offer perfectly brewed fine teas (on which he was an authority) and to sit and chat. Anton’s gift was to be both a teacher and a learner – he as interested to learn what we had to offer as imparting what he knew to us. We learnt a lot about the Great War and the Cold War, about growing up in Russia, and about the political landscape today from a Russian’s point of view.
We also learnt how to play Russian cards and to appreciate Chinggis Khan Gold vodka as we whiled away the hours in the carriage and restaurant car. Anton made us feel like we were the best Intrepid group he’d ever had (although I imagine each of his groups feels the same way).
What makes a good trip leader?
Anton shared with us his enthusiasm and passion – for travel, people and his country. He constantly went the extra mile for us; sometimes by simply buying Russian pastries on the platform to share. He had something interesting to tell us about everything. During the whole journey, no one missed the opportunity to stay with the group for a meal or an event that he recommended.
Overall it was an amazing trip with many highlights. The music and singing stand out – the cultural show in Ulaan Baatar, dancing in a village of Old Believers, Anton and (local guide) Nemo singing in a Mongolian ger a busker playing beneath a bridge in the snow. There was a lot of laughter too, especially when we made buuz (Mongolian dumplings) and leapt into the freezing waters of a lake after our banya sauna. Another time we stood on frozen Lake Baikal, making snow men and throwing snowballs, and then at Anton’s suggestion became a litter-picking-up team, clearing the lakeside beach with great enthusiasm.
It was with genuine sadness and heartfelt farewells that we departed the group and Anton in Moscow. I like to think we all played a part in making it such a terrific trip, but our special thanks go to Anton for being the glue that held us all together on this very special and memorable adventure on the Trans-Siberian express.
Feature image c/o Gemma Sherwood.
Rachel travelled on Intrepid’s 16-day Beijing to Moscow trip.