Lost in Siberia: Ticking off the bucket list went horribly wrong

"Maybe it has moved to another platform," I thought, then the reality struck home. The train had left without me."

It all started with the ‘bucket list’ that I shared with my son.

I had always wanted to travel on the Mongolian Express from Moscow to Beijing.

Imagine my delight when my son provided tickets for my wife and I to fly to Moscow for a week’s tour and then join the Mongolian Express, followed by a week in Beijing.

We had a great week touring Moscow and joined the train just after midnight.

We had been booked first class however the two berth cabin was very basic and a bit dusty due to the open coal fired boiler at the end of the corridor. There was a shared shower and hand basin with the next compartment, which was quite grotty.

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The Chinese carriage attendant provided some grey looking sheets and two pillows, spoke no English, and was fairly disinterested in both us and the other Europeans who were in the same carriage.

However, it was exciting to be underway and the above negatives were soon forgotten. The next morning we went to the restaurant car where we greeted by a surly individual who told us to wait. Eventually we were given a menu which had two breakfast options, we chose option two, only to be advised, option one was available – a form of porridge with melted butter.

We decided to buy some soup and noodles at the next train stop and were able to laugh off all the dramas and enjoy the scenery flowing past.

We made a few short stops the first day. The following day we did have the two options for breakfast and ordered scrambled eggs, which tasted as if made from powdered eggs. Never mind, I would organise some supplies at our next stop which was to be Omsk in Siberia.

The carriage attendant said we would be stopping “for 50 minutes”. I queried his statement, which was difficult to understand, and asked, “did you say 50 minutes?” and I held up five fingers. The attendant nodded and walked away.

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I told my wife that I would take some photos of our engine and of the trains at the other platforms. Omsk Station was a large, white, attractive looking domed structure. My wife decided to stay on the train.

Several people left the train and walked towards the station building. I walked the other way to the end of the platform to photograph the various engines including a really old Russian steam engine which was on display.

I then decided to walk back to the station building to buy some snacks and a couple of porcelain mugs for our ‘do it yourself ’ food.

At the other end of the platform, which allowed an underground passage to the main station building, stood a security guard. I indicated that I would like to go to the main station building and he waved me on.

On entering the station, I discovered lots of small shops which I explored and eventually found some mugs which I bought.

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I checked the time and saw that I had been away for 20 minutes. “How the time flies when you are having fun,” I thought. I then set off through the underground passage back to the Mongolian Expresses’ platform.

Oh my goodness, oh no, the platform was empty! “Maybe it has moved to another platform,” I thought, then the reality struck home. The train had left without me (I found out later that the scheduled ‘stop’ time at Omsk was 15 minutes). 

All I had on my person was my wallet and (thank goodness) my passport. I also had a tablet with which I had been taking photographs. All of my other possessions were on the train with my wife.

I stood stunned for a while and then slowly and sheepishly returned to the main station building. I had no phone and no train ticket.

First, I went to the information desk in the foyer and asked for help. I was told “nyet” and then waved away. Next to the ticket counter , I was also waved away. I wandered around the building asking if anyone spoke English. Nobody wanted to speak to me. No one spoke English!

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I eventually returned to the row of ‘windows’ in the ticketing hall and just stood there refusing to leave when waved away. What to do? Should I start crying?

After about 30 minutes, a young lady suddenly appeared alongside and said in English “Can I help you?”. I was speechless, she was not wearing a name tag nor any kind of uniform. Who was she?

I explained my predicament and said I needed to get to Beijing (I realised there was no way of catching up with the Mongolian Express). 

She could not understand and thought that I wanted to return to Moscow.

By accident I realised she knew of Peking but not Beijing. Eventually things fell into place.

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I asked her name. “Alina,” she said. I was still a little dubious about her motives, especially when she asked if I had Russian money. However, she had a lovely smile and I had no alternative means of assistance.

After conferring with a supervisor in the train ticketing hall, Alina took me to another part of the station building, where there were two female Siberian Airways representatives. They were very amused after talking to Alina and viewed me with interest. Through Alina they explained that I could catch a plane from Krasnoyarsk to Beijing. I asked can I fly from here i.e. Omsk. The answer was nyet!

I tried to pay for the air ticket by Visa, but the card was not accepted by their machine.

“How much Russian money do you have?” they asked. I had about 26,000 roubles. They took 17,000 roubles and printed out my ticket. “How do I get to Krasnoyarsk?” I asked.

Alina took my arm and guided me back to the train ticketing area to meet another supervisor who listened to Alina as she explained my predicament.

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Then after searching train timetables with the supervisor, Alina advised that I could catch a train from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk. “When?”  I asked. “Tomorrow afternoon,” she replied.

The supervisor prepared the ticket and advised the cost as 6,000 roubles. I explained that I had little local currency and she reluctantly accepted my Visa card.                                                                                                                                                                                                     

I had visions of sitting on the platform for 18 hours. Alina laughed and took me by the arm to another part of the station, up several flights of stairs and down corridors, eventually arriving at a small reception area. She explained that I could get a room for the night and the receptionist would point me in the right direction the next afternoon for the train to Krasnoyarsk.

They had no single rooms but said I could have a double for 1,200 roubles.

By this time, I was emotionally drained and physically bushed. I took the key and was escorted by Alina back down stairs and along corridors, in a dimly lighted environment, until we reached my room.

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Alina smiled, wished me happy dreams, and waved goodbye. Wow!

I never saw Alina again.

I had a shower and then tried to contact my son using my tablet. The battery was low and I had no charger. All of my regular contacts were on my mobile still with my wife on the train together with my medicines and Russian phrase book. The only email address I had on my tablet was my daughter-in-law based in London.

After several attempts, I got a message off saying I had missed the train at Omsk, asking her to get a message to my wife, saying I would meet her in Beijing.

A message came back. “Are you joking?” she asked.

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I tried to explore the station for a restaurant or café but was hampered by numerous locked doors and dead-end corridors. In the end, I found a stall and bought a large bottle of water and some pretzels.

The other problem I faced was that I could not read the information on either my train or airline tickets (I still cannot read Cyrillic). This was worrying but the only solution I had was to fall into bed. And wait for tomorrow.

The next morning was a bit stressful as the hotel receptionist did not understand nor speak any English. I eventually discovered a snack bar in the station and bought a coffee and a Russian (sausage?) roll.

It took me another 40 minutes to find my way back to my room. Then the long wait. Will the receptionist contact me when it is time to leave? Will she point out which platform the train leaves from?

I decided to go back to reception a bit earlier, just in case. Maybe Alina would be there? When I arrived at reception, clutching my bottle of water, pretzels and two mugs. Oh no! It was a different receptionist, who also spoke no English and who waved me to sit down in the hotel foyer.

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I was on tenterhooks for the next 90 minutes and the receptionist completely ignored me.

I thought the train was to leave early afternoon. Oh my, what now?

Suddenly just after 1pm an official looking lady swept in and gestured for me to follow. She led me through the station and across to a platform, where a train was standing. She marched me up the platform to a carriage attendant, whose name badge said Alexandria.

She smiled and took the ticket I was holding. She then walked me into the carriage and showed me into a four-berth sleeping compartment and left.

I chose a lower bunk and sat against the window.

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Shortly after a trim-looking fellow came into the compartment smiled, and started taking off his clothes. He changed into some casual PJ’s and sat down.

A few minutes later another man arrived and also started stripping off, leaving on his shorts and singlet.

They both had luggage and baskets of food (I subsequently found out that the train trip from Omsk to Krasnoyarsk would take at least 20 hours!).

Alexandria, the carriage attendant, soon returned with whiter-than-white pristine bedsheets, pillow cases, and showed us how to access our mattresses from beneath our seats. The two Russians, who spoke little English, allowed me to have the lower bunk.

Alexandria returned shortly with piping hot tea and coffee.

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The Russians watched me eating pretzels and drinking water for dinner and decided to offer me some of their food.

We were able to use a bit of sign language and sounds and writing, the result of which was that I learnt their names Vadimk and Alexander, and that they would be travelling on the train for three-to-four days to Irkutsk.

They knew of Skippy, Crocodile Dundee and Guns & Roses and shared their food: biscuits, ham, eggs, and cheese for the rest of my journey.

Alexandria the carriage attendant kept the tea and coffee flowing and also vacuumed the compartment after each meal.

The two Russians could not understand my predicament, I tried to explain that my wife was up ahead on the Trans -Mongolian and that I had missed the train at Omsk. They seemed happy to accept that I was travelling to Beijing/Peking with no luggage and no food!

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We talked about Putin and they thought he was no worse than previous presidents/dictators.

My biggest worry is that I could not read any of the station names as we passed through and found it difficult to pronounce Krasnoyarsk let alone read it in Cyrillic.

I kept pointing to my airline ticket (Alexandria, the carriage attendant, had kept my train ticket) and pointing to my watch at every station at which we stopped.

 There were lots of nyet, nyets.

Then after approximately 20 hours my Russian companions indicated that the next stop was Krasnoyarsk. Hurray.

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 My next challenge was how to get to the airport.

Just before we arrived at my stop, Alexandria appeared with a hand held digital translator. The screen message said “do you know where to go?”

I shook my head and said “nyet”. She returned my train ticket and when the train stopped she took my arm and led me out onto the platform, with Vadimk and Alexander following.

What now I thought as Alexandria started using a ‘walkie-talkie’.

Within minutes six policemen in full gear arrived.

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Alexandria seemed to be arguing with them, eventually she turned to me and said “Teksi”. The senior police officer pointed to one of his men. The nominated, rather obese policeman gestured for me to follow.

I waved good bye to Alexandria, Alexander and Vadimk with some in trepidation

The policeman led me out of the station, through a market place across two roads and pointed to a waiting taxi.

The policeman muttered something to the taxi driver who held up a 1,000 rouble and a 500 rouble note.

I nodded my head and jumped into the front seat (I hoped that the taxi driver knew that I wanted the airport).

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As we sped off, I decided to check my wallet where I had several notes including a 1,000 rouble note and a 500 rouble note. Imagine my dismay when I checked and found that my 1,000 roubles were in fact a 100-rouble note.

I gestured to the driver and held up a credit card. He immediately swerved to the right and pointed for me to get out. My heart sank.

As I reluctantly got out, I saw the driver was in fact pointing to a square concrete structure ahead on the footpath.

It turned out to be a space housing a vending machine and an ATM.

I tried without success to access the ATM, lots of messages and pictures appeared on screen. I was mindful that the taxi might just take off, leaving me stranded once more.

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Fortunately, a lady entered and helped me navigate the machine, and I was able to withdraw 3,000 roubles.

Joy of joys, my taxi was still waiting.

We headed off at great speed (at a guess, close to 120 kilometres an hour). Hopefully towards the airport. It was 30 to 40 minutes before I recognised some airport signs on the side of the road.

We eventually arrived at two small single story buildings with no signage. The driver pointed to the far building and waved goodbye.

I walked to the entrance and was pleased to see uniformed ladies alongside a security screening device.

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I entered without any comment and headed for what looked like comfortable seating. No way, the seats were as hard as a park bench.

Never the less I was so pleased to have made it this far, just a flight away from Beijing, where I had promised to meet my wife at the train station.

My flight was not due to leave for another 12 hours. There was no restaurant but I managed to get a black coffee and a Russian sausage roll before the stall closed (It was Saturday!).

I found an empty bench, laid down flat like a homeless person and waited for the next ten hours.

The check-in was uneventful, although it was several days since I had a wash, and I was beginning to smell. Hopefully the plane would not be full.

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Unfortunately, it was, but I had a window seat, so only one person alongside.

The plane, an A320 was painted green and operated by Siberian Airways S7. The scheduled flight time to Beijing was approximately three-and-a-half hours.

We finally took off from Krasnoyarsk just after midnight. I was now able to relax – finally.

After two and a half hours flying the Captain announced in Russian and English that “we are turning back.” Oh, no!

I could not believe it. The fellow sitting next to me spoke English and said Beijing Airport is closed and we are returning to Irkutsk.

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When we landed we were not allowed to leave the plane and waited on board for three-and-a-half hours.

With a new aircrew on board we once more set off for Beijing, an estimated two-hour flight.

On arrival, I saw my name held high on a sign., I was met by representatives from my Beijing hotel, who had been briefed by my son  (who had monitored the S7 flight from Krasnoyarsk). They helped me through security and having no luggage quickly had me in a car back to the hotel.

At the hotel I was met by half a dozen staff who welcomed me and escorted me to my room for a bath and a rest. Unbeknown to me my daughter had arranged for the concierge to buy shorts, shirts and underwear, which were waiting in my room.

Wow, I had arrived at long last.

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After bathing I returned to reception to formally register and adjourned to the lounge for a club sandwich and a cold beer. Heaven!

After a rest, I explored the local shopping area and purchased an electric razor.

On return to the hotel I shaved, and showered (what a luxury) before falling into a fabulously soft bed.

The next morning, I had breakfast in my room and wrote up a journal of my adventures.

I had promised to collect my wife the next day from Beijing Rail Station, so I decided to laze around and soak up the atmosphere.

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Imagine my surprise when I received a telephone call from my daughter in Australia, advising that my wife had already arrived in Beijing with all of our luggage and no local currency (I had the wrong date).

She was reportedly “as mad as a cut snake” and would be arriving at our hotel shortly.

I sheepishly went down to reception where my wife was arguing with a taxi driver about payment. I was able to pay him and help my wife register

It took a couple of days to mend fences but we ended up having a fun week together in Beijing.