From Berlin Wall to the Great Wall of China by land

This summer (2016), I set out to go from Switzerland to China without flying. The idea was to take the Transsiberian, stop over for some adventures in Mongolia with my friend Audrey, then join my class for a study trip in China.

Why would I go without flying? This the first question I get asked, and I’m still looking for an answer. Few travellers would lock themselves in a train for 5 days while they could be enjoying another country meanwhile if they took a 15h flight.
One of the reasons is that at the Conference of Youth last year, I calculated my carbon footprint. Based on your lifestyle, you can calculate your impact on the planet. For me it was eating vegetarian/vegan, cycling and taking the train, etc. contributing to a low carbon footprint. But when it came to travels, the numbers just exploded. While a vegetarian driving a four-wheel drive generates less carbon than a meat-eater who swears by his bike for transportation, nothing would compensate the numerous flights I took last year for academic and personal trips.
Another reason was that Audrey told me she was going to Mongolia so I thought that I could go too. And when she told me about the Transsiberian, it sounded like loads of fun and I had no reason not to go on this adventure.
Also, after 4 years of intensive studies for my well-earned Bachelor’s in Microengineering, I needed some time for myself to rest and think about what I wanted to do afterwards.
Finally, traveling by land was a great way of discovering places along the way, meeting some friends in their distant towns, and getting a grasp of how big actually is our small world.

Chloe sitting in front of the Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral
One of the beautiful places I couldn’t have visited from the plane.
The Euro-trip

Day 1: I hopped on my first train from Lausanne on July, 23rd. By Voie 7 – a free travel card in Switzerland from 7pm – I made my way to Zurich, meeting my friend Mateo who studies there. Fortunately, my bus to Nuremberg and Berlin was late, so I could enjoy a couple more drinks in Switzerland’s biggest city.

Day 2: The bus to Germany was the first of a long series of driving all the way through Northern Europe and into Russia.
After my first night on a bus, I had a stop in Nuremberg just long enough to get a delicious breakfast in a coffee, practising my very basic German. Then, another bus got me to Berlin for mid-afternoon. Driving through Germany was very enjoyable. Surrounded by fields and windmills, we made our way across the country rather comfortably. With only a couple of hours to spend in this capital with a strong history, I wandered in the Holocaust Memorial before renting a bike and riding along the Wall.

Blue bicycle on the sidewald near the Berlin wall, with
Cycling along the Berlin Wall

Day 3: I have no clue in which country I woke up. We crossed Poland during the night, then went through Lithuania and into Latvia. This 20-hour leg of the trip was starting to get uncomfortable, but the landscapes were worth it. At 7pm, I arrived in another capital city, welcomed by Cynthia who is doing an internship here. She shows me around on the evening, and we enjoy a magnificent sunset from a bridge.

Day 4: I have the full day for visiting, so I join a free walking tour then have coffee with another traveller. The “old” city centre is very enjoyable to walk around, even though it has been recently constructed. In the evening, I get on my last bus: out of Europe and into Russia!
The border crossing was a stressful experience. I don’t know why, but I felt like I could get kicked out of there, even though I had “nothing to declare”. The customs officer was rather unhappy about my China guidebook, but I went through the border with an EU exit stamp on my passport.

Day 5: I woke up to an eerie sunrise, the light was dispersed by a thick fog, it felt out of this world. An older lady sitting next to me had put her jacket over my shoulder during the night to cover me from the cold Russian air. A couple of hours later, I will be in Moscow.
The way to my hostel was a struggle, as I wasn’t familiar with the Cyrillic characters, the value of their currency, and the metro system. At least, when I made it, I was quite proud of myself!
I explored the city for 2 days, walking around in the unreasonably-sized streets, surrounded by beautiful churches and huge buildings. I feel like I could have stayed way longer, I didn’t expect to like this city so much!

The Transsiberian experience

True to myself, I rushed out of my hostel, and decided to hop on an overpriced taxi in order not to miss my train. I settle down in my cabin, which will be my home for 5 days!
On the first day, some Russians in their fifties and sixties from a neighbouring cabin invited me to try some of their homemade vodka. As their were unable to pronounce my first name, they nicknamed me after my second name. They barely spoke English, and one spoke some German. So during all afternoon, I was shouted at: “Rosy! Vodka! Klein, klein!”. They also invited me for a dinner, Russian-style, composed of potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, rye bread and dried meat. They even made a special vegetarian plate for me.

Chloe in a Transsiberian cabin, holding a ukulele, with 3 Russian men in their sixties.
Enjoying home-made vodka and playing music on the Transsiberian

On the following 3 days, my time was spent in between discussions (with live translators, drawings, pictures, etc), card games, sleeping, catching up on my travel note books, reading, planning next trip, playing ukulele and playing cards. On the last day, we crossed the Mongolian border with my Chinese cabin companions, who made fun of the Russian roughness at the borders. In the morning, we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, where the staggering heat made every move harder.

From Mongolia to China: last leg of the trip

Audrey joined me in Mongolia, and we had 10 days of fun: horse and camel riding, Naadam festival with Wonder-woman (male) wrestlers and archery, accompanied by a soundtrack of throat-singing and galloping rhythms.

Chloe and Audrey on horses in a green and empty landscape
Riding semi-wild horses, faster than the wind, in the vast emptiness of Mongolia

After these 10 days of adventures, Audrey flew out to Hong-Kong, and I got on my train for the last leg of the Transsiberian (though not in Siberia any more). The 24h-trip was not long enough for all I wanted to do, I barely had time to sort out some pictures and videos and catch up on my travel notebook.

And here I am, in China! I get out of the very crowded train station and ask myself “what the hell am I doing here?“.  I would never have decided to go to China by myself, but as we had our study trip in the country, I decided it would be a good starting point for my gap year. It appears that it was the ending point of a fabulous journey across 2 continents!

Chloe smiling on the Great Wall of China
Made it to the Great Wall!