Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Beijing to Moscow: gluten-free travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian Railway stretches between Moscow and Beijing. This epic journey spans 6,152 miles of track, crossing two very different countries. What they have in common is their hunger for dumplings: dim sum in China, and pirozhki in Russia.

Does the Trans-Siberian Railway rattle across fascinating cityscapes, expanses of birch forest and enchanting lakeshores? For sure. Is it a tough trek for gluten-free travellers? Most definitely.

St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, with domes rather reminiscent
of Mr Whippy ice cream. Image © Anita Isalska

Coeliac Trans-Siberian Railway: challenge accepted

I've written a few things about my trip already (shameless plugs here and here). But what I really want to chinwag about is travelling the Trans-Siberian as a coeliac. Throughout my travels, Russia and China are probably the hardest destinations to navigate gluten-free. Understanding of coeliac disease seemed to be pretty much nil.

Heck, even vegetarians wouldn't have an easy time of it in China and Russia. In China, dishes described as vegetable-based tended to be strewn with shellfish or studs of pork, while in Russia, "a little meat" didn't prevent something from being vegetarian in the eyes of waiting staff. Then there's the train carriage meals with their choice of fish or meat. (At least, I think it was meat...)

So in a culture where you eat what you're given, where meat, wheat and any other allergen is all just food, how do you survive when your health requires a particular diet?

Ah sorry, this view of Beijing isn't gluten-free... no wait, it is.
And I'll travel where I like. Image © Anita Isalska

Travel 1, tastebuds 0: getting my priorities straight 

First of all, my priorities: if I had to survive the entire trip on a rucksack supply of rice crackers and water, I would have done it. I was hyped up to journey from the teeming temples (and polluted smokestacks) of Beijing, all the way across Russia. It would subject me to cold temperatures the likes of which I'd never experienced. I would see charmingly colourful Siberian villages, I'd down vodka with local people, I'd point my camera at the gilded spires of Orthodox churches sprinkled in snow.

Hopefully you won't have to resort to chomping live prey, like Irkutsk's
mascot panther. Image © Anita Isalska

It grinds my gears to hear mollycoddling concerns about destinations that are (sadface) "difficult to visit" for coeliacs... or for anyone with any other health condition for that matter. Forewarned is one thing, but ultimately it's for the individual to decide if they want to take it on, not by-standers who probably don't know what gluten is anyway (let's face it, they're usually the quickest ones to nay-say).

Anyone telling me I should think twice about travelling somewhere because of frickin' dietary requirements gets filed under "quitter nonsense" (along with admonitions against travelling solo or trying to outdrink my Polish relatives). I'll show you all! Book that flight, seize that vodka bottle! Just maybe bring some of those rice crackers.

On which subject, back to the gluten-free adventures...

Gluten-free or not, I hope you like herring. Plates of pickled fish, raw onion and boiled potato
were a staple (this particular one was in Irkutsk). Image © Anita Isalska

Prepare those snacks, there's a long trip ahead...

Trans-Siberian Railway travellers usually go from Beijing to Moscow (though there are other routes to Mongolia or Vladivostok if you prefer - learn more on the excellent Seat 61 site). It is possible to tackle it all at once (if you simply want to watch the scenery rush by, and you're a little crazy). Most travellers book sections of the journey on different days, allowing you to stop in major Russian cities along the line, or take day or weekend trips (for example, skiing in Krasnoyarsk or a couple of nights by Lake Baikal).

The latter, slower method doesn't just allow you to check out stunning destinations like Ulan-Ude, an Eastern Siberian city with an enormous Lenin head and a stunning temple, and Irkutsk, the surprisingly colourful city near Lake Baikal. Just as importantly for the coeliac traveller, it allows you to restock your food supplies along the way.

Perhaps my favourite view of the trip, enormous Lake Baikal frozen over, with snowmobiles and
miniature cars zooming around its snow-kissed surface. Image by © Anita Isalska

On-train dining: friend and foe

Aboard the train, you're at the mercy of the dining cart, on-board catering (if you booked it with your ticket) or snack trolleys that rumble irregularly from carriage to carriage.

I don't recommend booking tickets that come with on-board catering if you're coeliac. I did this a couple of times out of curiosity and it was pot luck: Boo, a biscuit. Yay, an apple. Boo, rye bread slices on top of a horrible meat sauce. Yay, dried fish swimming in salty water... ugh. I take back the yay...

The dining cart on the other hand was sometimes surprisingly versatile. On a couple of trains there were extensive menus, including small snacks that had only one or two ingredients (like chopped up fruit, Greek-style yoghurt, a plate of plain buckwheat). Opening times were erratic enough that I still wouldn't suggest full reliance on the carts, though they were surprisingly handy from time to time.

It's big, it's frozen, and it's China - so skid on it. Beijing in mid-winter. Image © Anita Isalska

Despite travelling in the middle of winter (with outdoor temperatures in the minus 30Cs), train carriages are kept toasty warm. So if you had dreams of bringing yoghurts, cheeses, milk, cured meats or other fresh supplies aboard the train, I assure you they'll spoil in minutes.

Instead I recommend stocking up on hardier produce like fruit, bags of nuts, potato crisps, rice crackers, meat jerky, banana chips and other items that don't need a fridge. Yep, rice crackers are dull. But I didn't see a single gluten-free bread or cake in a supermarket on my entire trip. I started in Beijing, arguably the less gluten-free-friendly of the two cities; stocking up in cosmopolitan Moscow would be easier, if you start the trip there (run this through Google Translate for a head-start on gluten-free Moscow).

Blue skies and elegant domes in Kazan, capital of Russian Tatarstan. Image © Anita Isalska

Samovar snacks: the saviours of hungry coeliac travellers

The one thing you can trust on board Trans-Siberian trains is a samovar filled with hot water, at the end of each carriage. Turn the tap and piping hot, drinkable water gushes forth.

It's essential to bring with you a thermos or heatproof cup (with a lid - just try getting it back to your train compartment without spillage otherwise). Gluten-free travellers should bring a supply of sachets that can be instantly made into filling, safe food, that don't take up too much luggage space. I crammed my rucksack with:

  • Instant rice or rice noodle snacks and soups (Thai Kitchen has a gluten-free range)
  • Gluten-free oatmeal, like Nairns. One bag of this is easily stuffable into a corner of a rucksack and it lasts a good long while if you use it with cunning, for example, in small quantities to bulk up yoghurt at hotel breakfasts or your train dining carriage, or as an instant oaty breakfast from the samovar.
  • Teas and coffees and gluten-free instant soup mixes, plus a heatproof spork to stir them up. 

It's a pain, but I do advise bringing at least a few sachets from home so you have trusted snackage at hand. I rather enjoyed waking up on a bunk bed, gently rattling from the movement of the train, stretching, and making my way to the samovar to make some oatmeal, gently stirring as I watched miles of snow-covered tundra zoom past the window.

Some tasty plov at a skyscraper restaurant in Ulan-Ude. Image © Anita Isalska

All hail Google Translate, for restaurants and supermarkets

Eventually you're going to need to replenish those supplies. While some brands list ingredients in English and other languages, you'll encounter plenty of produce that doesn't. I recommend using an offline translation app. Ahead of your trip, download the Google Translate offline language pack for Russian and Chinese and you'll be able to use your phone to scan and translate lists of ingredients right there in the supermarket, without using precious data or needing wifi. Nifty, eh? It was also very handy in restaurants for deciphering menus.

And of course, you'll want some gluten-free language cards (in Russian and Chinese) to make yourself understood (expect funny stares).

This canteen in Kazan made things fairly easy - observe and point. That's a chicken breast with a slice of melted cheese on top (believe it or not), with buckwheat and a Greek salad. Image © Anita Isalska

Gluten-free is a weird - nay, barely comprehensible - request in Siberia. So rather than giving restaurant staff the open question of "can I eat this?", it helps to start with some dishes on the menu that are less likely to contain gluten; "I can't eat XYZ; is [points to menu item] OK?" yields richer rewards. For somewhere to start, these meal items were common across Siberia and usually fine for gluten-free eats:

  • Plov, a dish of spiced rice with mutton and sometimes dried or fresh fruit like apricot or pomegranate seeds. It's a Central Asian staple, though you may need to check in on their spice mix, lest they've added anything peculiar (usually it's a mix of cumin, garlic, carrots and lots of oil making up the seasoning). 
  • Cold herring salads or herring with potato. As plain as it sounds, the freshness of the fish made this rather delicious. I never found this tampered with, or served with anything unexpected.
  • Russian salad, a mix of diced potato, diced beetroot, chopped hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and occasionally peas.
  • Buckwheat (kasha) graced almost every menu and was always plain boiled with a little salt and no mystery additives. Top tip: find the dried stuff in supermarkets and where you have access to a kitchen (like in hostel accommodation), boil it up in milk for a nutty-tasting gluten-free porridge alternative - I became addicted to this.
  • Hot smoked omul fish was a favourite in markets near Lake Baikal, usually served with nothing other than tea. Grab a fish, whip out your own supply of carb and/or fruits and veggies, and you have a fine picnic to feast on by the lakeshore (or bring aboard the train if you want to share that fishy fragrance with your fellow passengers). 
  • Shashlik, skewered grilled meat. The trick is making sure they don't chuck it on top of a huge flatbread. If you're not already waving your gluten-free language card around, say "bez khleba" (without bread) to your Russian hosts.
  • Fancy fruit was probably the most fun at the Chinese end of the trip. I brought enormous purple dragonfruit aboard the train and scooped out the aromatic flesh with my spork, delicious.

Yep, literally a whole smoked fish and cup of tea. But if it's good enough for
Siberian locals... Image © Anita Isalska

Keeping a sense of perspective

Gluten-free aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway isn't easy. Surprise items will arrive on your plate. A day will pass in which you consume only instant oatmeal, banana chips and vodka.

These happened to me, and they'd occasionally make me clench my jaw. But then I'd look outside my window, drinking in views of a frozen lake. I'd see wooden houses with intricately carved eaves laden with snow, or a scarlet temple rising from a frosty plain. In the face of all that majesty, my grumbles faded instantly.

The journey won't be perfect, but that's what adventure means.


  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! I think in some ways the adventure is made all the more fun thanks to needing some creative thinking on the diet front. How boring must it be to turn up at a restaurant and just order anything from the menu?!

    It's been 20 years (gulp) since I travelled on the Trans Siberian. I wasn't gluten free then but I was vegetarian. I lived on fried eggs from the restaurant carriage (when the provodnitsa cold be bothered to open up) and cuppa soups when she couldn't. Doing the little carrying scolding hot drink dance from the samovar on a rocking train back to the compartment was definitely a ritual I enjoyed, despite the risk of injury. But seeing lake Baikal, the worlds biggest Lenin head and the Buddhist monastery outside Ulan Ude were worth the downside of the (lack of) food for me.

    So glad you took this trip!

    PS I love Plov and it's been too long since I ate it.

  2. This is such a great post. I love that you don't let your celiac stop you from a travel adventure/challenge like the Trans Siberian. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Great tip about the thermos and the things you can prepare using a little hot water. Thanks!

  3. Thanks so much for all those tips.