We got on the train on the morning of December 9 (it was the Chinese train which goes through Ulan Bator in Mongolia, not the Russian train which went through Harbin) and I find my cabin. I am sharing the cabin with an elderly Ukrainian, a middle aged Chinese Ukrainian, and Jenny, a British girl who had been living in Beijing for the past year and was almost rolled onto the train by her friends. She had a terrible hangover for most of the first day. Many of the people on the train were there for commerce, buying goods in Beijing to sell to various people in Russia’s Siberia. There were perhaps 30 or so other backpackers, and during the course of the train trip, we formed some good friendships.
As a young man growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I had always thought of China as a poor country and Russia, as a working class country with a higher standard of living. However, by the early 1990s, that had all changed. The Soviet Union had collapsed less than two years earlier, and privation and hardship had become the norm, especially in Siberia during the winter. The journey between Beijing, through Mongolia to Ulan Ude, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, across the Urals and the Moscow took six days. At the various stations in Siberia, the merchants had between 10-30 minutes at each stop to make their sales. At a couple of the stops, the mobs on the station platforms were so large and rambunctious that the train crew would not let us descend. Once past the Ural mountains, the train stops in European Russia were quieter and less tense, with light snow and temperatures near freezing, rather than 20 degrees below zero which was more typical of our stops in Siberia.. After six full days on the train, the Trans-Siberian finally arrived at Yaroslavl station in Moscow. The journey was over.
I stayed with an Embassy friend again, David Hutchings. Having been used to the size of Tienanmen Square in Beijing I was somewhat underwhelmed by the size of Red Square. I then continued on in mid-late December to St. Petersburg, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. At that time of the year, daylight only extended for five or six hours. Talinn, in Estonia, I found particularly surprising. After the winter gloom of Russia shortly after the collapse of the USSR, Talinn felt like suddenly being in “tourist” Scandinavian western Europe with tasteful and expensive boutiques, clean swept cobbled streets, and lots of consumer goods available. Minsk was more typical of what I had seen earlier – basic shortages of consumer goods, dreary socialist architecture and very few places to eat.
From Minsk, I took a train to Berlin. In one of the great ironies, I was stymied in trying to get German marks in Berlin. Everywhere else, one could always exchange US dollars cash with local people to get local currency. But in the train station the bank was closed at night leaving only bank machines. In the early 1990s bank machines and debit cards were just starting to take hold. At one point a sympathetic German gave me the few deutchmarks I needed in order to take a bus to the local hotel. Now at the end of 1992, I got to wander through unified Berlin for the first time.
I traveled to Nice in France and then up to Paris to visit some friends I had met in Afghanistan fifteen years earlier and with whom I had still kept in touch. I had wanted to visit the Sahel region of Africa. I had earlier hoped to cross to Algeria and go by land through the Sahara down to the Sahel, but by then the Tuareg rebellion had begun in earnest, and it was no longer possible to travel overland through Tamanrasset or Gao and cross from there to either Niger or Mali. After looking at various flight options to complete this trip I decided to fly from Paris to Bamako.