January 11

Trans-Siberian Railway: How a railway reached Mongolia

Trans-Siberian Railroad takes passengers through t [...]

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY: HOW A RAILWAY REACHED MONGOLIA

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest direct railway route in the world, regarded as high as the Panama channel for its geostrategic success. The railway is featured in the Guinness Book of Records not only for its total length but also for its number of stations and the fastest temp of construction, taking only 26 years to complete. The railroad network is made up of five lines: The Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Mongolian, the Trans-Manchurian, the Baikal-Amur, and the Ural.

Train on the Trans-Siberian railway

By its main route, passengers can travel 9,289 km from Moscow to Vladivostok in just seven days. Its secondary branch, known as the Trans-Mongolian, follows an ancient tea-caravan route from Russia’s capital to Beijing. Hopping on the Trans-Siberian train has become rather popular among tourists in recent years. In addition to sweeping through over major cities, old towns, and crossing large rivers, including the Volga, Yenisei, and Amur, the journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad also takes passengers through time. Traveling from west to east, passengers travel forward in time. From east to west, they travel backward. The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes you through eight time zones. From Moscow to Beijing, it is six.

Train on Trans-Siberian railway in Siberia

The origin story of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a monumental one. Before the railway was established, Russia had nothing to connect itself with East Asia or to the rich natural resources within Siberia. Sergei Witte, an ambitious minister of Imperial Russia, suggested that building a railroad would solve all these issues at once. In his opinion, harvesting the natural resources of Siberia was the quickest way to transform Russia into a rich industrial power. Witte’s idea was well-received by Czar Alexander III, who believed increasing the Russian population in Siberia would secure the country’s eastern border. But the railroad project was deemed impossible by many. The line would have to cross three of the world's greatest rivers, the world's largest freshwater lake, one of the world’s biggest forest, and Siberian permafrost in the world's harshest climate. When Russia's Committee of Communication pleaded that the idea was unreasonable, the emperor immediately dissolved the committee.

Angara river along the Trans-Siberian Railway

In 1891, with Czar’s approval, Russia began the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Czar insisted to build the railways entirely on state money without any foreign investment. While it was the right decision as the railway manages 80% of Russia’s industrial potential today, it caused an enormous financial burden at the time. To prevent bankruptcy, Russia had to take extreme measures. The rails were made from weaker iron instead of steel. Wood was used for bridges in its place of stone and steel. Because there was no budget for dynamite or machinery to clear the path, all work was done by hand. Even so, short cuts were necessary to take to save money. About 90,000 workers, made up of peasants, soldiers, and convicts, were transferred for the construction. This massive deportation created a series of new towns and settlements in the uninhabited areas. In 1896, Witte negotiated a deal with China to expand the railroad to Manchuria (Northeastern China) to shorten its length by 1200 km. This prompted the Japanese to attack Russian-controlled Port Arthur in 1904, as Manchuria was a territory that Japan wanted for itself. The Russo-Japanese War, which was fought during 1904 and 1905, had taken the lives of nearly 170,000 soldiers. Japan won a convincing victory over Russia, becoming the first Asian power to defeat a European power since the time of the Mongol Empire. Russia was forced to turn over Manchuria to the Japanese. As a result, the construction was completed wholly within Russian territory from start to finish in 1916.

Workers building Trans-Siberian Railroad

However, the expansion of the Trans-Siberian Railway did not just end there. Having the friendly communist states of China and Mongolia as neighbors gave birth to the dazzling idea of constructing two new major railroad lines, which would shorten the traveling distances between the Far-East and Europe. In 1949, a railway was built from the east Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, east of Lake Baikal, via border town Naushki to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.  In October 1949, when the whole of China fell into the hands of the communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, it has become crucial for Stalin to break the ice between Mongolia and China since both states have become partners with the Soviet Union in the Communist International (Comintern). It was then decided to connect China with Mongolia by railway via the old caravan route between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. This line was planned to join the Chinese railway network, starting at Tsining, with Ulaanbaatar via the border town of Erlian. The construction of the 710 km long Mongolian sector of Ulaanbaatar-Tsining had begun in 1953 and was completed in 1955. A significant number of the Russian Liberation Army captives, who fought under German command during World War II, had worked in the construction of this segment. The 338-km-long Chinese sector of the line between Tsining and Erlian was completed in 1954. This part was built and funded by the Chinese Communist Government. With the completion of the whole line from Tsining to the Trans-Siberian Railway via Ulaanbaatar, the traveling distance between Beijing and Moscow was shortened by whopping 1100 kilometers.

Old Tran-Siberian train in Novosibirsk

Before the completion of the Trans-Mongolian line, Mongolia only had a 43 km line, connecting the coal mines at Nalaikh to its capital Ulaanbaatar, and a Soviet-built 236 km freight-only branch from Borzya on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Bayantumen, in north-eastern Mongolia. Due to its lack of direct access to the sea and the vastness of its territory, the establishment of the Trans-Siberian railway branch was extremely important to Mongolia's development. At the time, it was virtually the only transport corridor linking the country with the rest of the world. The Mongolian Prime Minister openly expressed his gratitude to the Soviet Government for its assistance in the construction of the line in Mongolia.

Ulaanbaatar central train station

When a peaceful democratic revolution had ended communism in 1990, the Soviet Union declined to import goods to Mongolia. As the import had dropped by 65 percent, the country had suffered through severe shortages of food and products. The effects of these changes were seen even in stores, where shelves were empty of everything but salt. In response, the Mongolian government started issuing foreign passports to all its citizens, finally allowing them to travel abroad freely. Thousands of Mongolians started traveling daily on the Trans-Mongolian line to Russia and China, in an effort to bring the much-needed goods in the stores. Many of this generation of merchants had become successful business owners that now hold the country's wealth.

People waiting to board train at Trans-Mongolian railway station

At present, the total length of the Mongolian railway is 1815 km, of which 1110 km is the Trans-Mongolian line. This international route remains highly significant to Mongolia. Every year, more than 23 million tons of cargo and 2.5 million passengers are transported through the railway in Mongolia and the great bulk of it is carried on the Trans-Mongolian line. Transporting transit cargo between Russia and China is an important source of revenue for the country's railway system.

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