The Trans-Siberian (lots of pictures inside!)
The Trans-Siberian railway, or Транссибирская магистраль (Trans-Siberian Magistral), is the longest railway line in the world, and one of Russia’s most infamous institutions. It was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II in 1890, following the foundation of Russia’s Pacific Port at Vladivostok in 1860, as a way of linking European Russia, the Eastern Provinces, and the Pacific. Since its completion in 1916, it has represented not only the major form of transport across Russia’s vast territory (within Russia alone the original railway spans 7 time zones), but also a symbol of Russian power and pride, and the ability to overcome all of the many, many obstacles that nature will throw at you, especially when you’re undertaking a construction project in Siberia!
There are actually three main railways generally referred to as the Trans-Siberian. The original is the main, transcontinental Russian line that runs the 9,259 kilometers between Moscow and Vladivostok and connects hundreds of towns and cities across Russia, including Yaroslavl (of which Alexandre Dumas wrote, “”I found one of the best hotels in Russia there, perhaps the only one with normal beds apart from the two capitals”), Perm (site of the last remaining gulag, which is now a museum – Perm 36), Yekaterinburg (where the last Tsars were assassinated), Chelyabinsk (where they had the meteor. Described by the poet Zhukovsky as “a poor little town” in the time of the Tsars, it changed drastically under industrialization – its symbol is now a Tractor Plant), Omsk (where Dostoyevsky was imprisoned), Novosibirsk (which, until the early 20s, had two time-zones within the one city and is currently home to the largest metro bridge in the world), Irkutsk (the “Paris of the East” near to Lake Baikal), Ulan-Ude (home to the largest sculpture of Lenin’s head in the world) and Khabarovsk (where North Korean leader Kim Il Sung studied). It takes 8 continuous days onboard a train to complete this route, so travelling straight is certainly not for the fair of heart!
The second major route is the Trans-Manchurian, which also links Moscow and Vladivostok but cuts the journey time down (and the visa fees up!) by travelling via China’s northeast provinces (where it is also possible to continue to Beijing or even to the bright light(s?) of Pyongyang in North Korea). While the third primary route is the Trans-Mongolian, which branches away from the Trans-Siberian at Lake Baikal, heading down to the Mongolian capital of Ulaan-Baatar before continuing southeast to Beijing.
The Trans-Mongolian is widely regarded as the most exciting of the three, with the greatest variety of landscapes, cultures, and even types of train (ooo-er!); and so, in June, with light hearts and heavy bags, we set off on our very on Trans-Mongolian adventure!
The initial fears that I had, that I think many people have, related to price and safety. Growing up in the UK, where I once paid £95 for a single journey from Bath to London (90 minutes of travel time!! 90 minutes!!) I didn’t see how an 8 day journey to Ulaan-Baatar could be something I could afford in my lifetime, let alone in my early 20s. Additionally, horror tales (both fictional and factual) of journeys across the Russian wilderness, (for example… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=386HCnvhQ2A , which I think summarizes what a lot of people seem to think my life was like in Russia), coupled with a cultural anxiety about sleeping in a train carriage with 40 strangers, means that my poor, Californian grandmother, even following my obvious survival, still shudders slightly at the idea of it. But as it turns out, the only thing you really have to worry about with the Trans-Siberian is organization.
As the Trans-Siberian is, after all, the major transport network for Russia, it is imperative to buy tickets well in advance, particularly during peak travel seasons, to avoid missing out and potentially being stranded in remote parts of Siberia. Booking tickets is further complicated by the fact that all trains in Russia are run on Moscow time (that is, they use the time-zone that Moscow is in). Your ticket will say that you’re departing at 4am, but if you’re in Novosibirsk, that’s actually 7am local time (can you imagine trying to work this out before the 1920s when there were still 2 time zones in Novosibirsk alone!). You also have to book all of your train journeys separately – you can’t hop on and off the train, but instead must buy several tickets (e.g. Moscow -> Novosibirsk, Novosibirsk -> Irkutsk, Irkutsk -> Vladivostok, or wherever else you want to stop). When you consider you’re taking 20, 30, 40, 80-hour trains spanning multiple time zones and days, this can all get a bit confusing, particularly if you’re on a tight schedule, and necessitate your ridiculously organized, French flatmate (I love you, Diane!) and several charts.
As for price, however, it was certainly affordable. Granted, we were already in Moscow and had Russian visas, but in total, from Moscow to Ulaan-Baatar, we spent less than £350 on train tickets. This was by travelling ‘Platzkart’ (third class). The majority of westerners we met traveling along a similar route had opted for ‘Kupé’ (second class), where you have a small compartment with two bunkbeds of sorts and a table, which is admittedly more expensive (although not significantly more! However, we were too hardcore for that!). Platzkart is open plan sleeping at its best. An entire train carriage filled with rows and rows of bunk beds.
Aside from cheapness, this form of travel has other advantages! Most notably, that it’s really easy to meet people! Even if those people, 90% of the time, are old, Russian women who continually feed you strange fruits from their baskets or large men who insist on your participation in various vodka-laden toasts, I would argue that talking to strangers really is the Trans-Siberian experience. If you don’t speak any Russian, a dictionary, some photos, and an ability to draw or act out key facts about yourself will go a long way here! But as well as this, travelling in an open-plan carriage is actually quite safe, as there are so many people around you. Having said this, notices did warn us to keep an eye on our fur coats while the train was stopped at a station (luckily it was summer and 30 degrees so this was not particularly concerning), and Diane did meet a lovely drunk man in the middle of the night who was convinced that she had “stolen his bed” and was determined to yell at her until she returned it to him (when she fled to the toilet he followed her there, yelling that she had “stolen his toilet”). However, the only major disadvantages to Platzkart travel that I could identify were the lack of privacy, and the fact that if any of those 40 people in your carriage snore, sleeping at night becomes just that bit more challenging!
As I am not one for advanced preparation, I started my journey with nothing more than some clothes, a Kindle (a good idea until you realize that it is incredibly difficult to charge anything on the train – bring some paperbacks as well!), a pillow shaped like a duck (thanks, Victoria!), and two packets of biscuits, and I managed to survive unharmed! (the train on the main line stops every 3-4 hours for 20-30 minutes, and it is possible to buy basic food on the platform). However, if you were going to be smart, I would recommend the following items: a pocket knife (to slice bread, cheese, meats and vegetables that you can buy at the stops), cutlery, instant noodles or anything that you can make with a kettle (there is hot water available in every carriage), wet wipes, a head lamp (so that you can read at night), flip flops (for the lovely bathrooms – note, there is only one shower car on every train, and you have to pay to use it), a deck of cards (and other entertainment items – both to keep yourself occupied and to make friends!), and a carefully maintained itinerary so that you don’t miss your stop!
But, forward planning be damned, we were off (on the 24-hour journey, which we would soon regard as a “short” train trip) to Perm!
There are two main attractions in Perm – the ice caves, and the last remaining gulag. Despite the beautiful ice formations in the caves that attract visitors from all over the world, as I had only one day in Perm, my inner history nerd won out, and I chose to visit the gulag museum – Perm 36.
Visiting Perm 36 (and, as I have subsequently heard, the ice caves) is, however, easier said than done! The gulag is around 60 miles from Perm, and so I was up bright and early to catch a bus to a nearby village.
Unfortunately, the bus stop that is closest to the village is still an hour’s walk from the actual museum, and is completely unmarked and indistinguishable (to the non-local) from all of the other bus stops. This resulted in me ending up a few villages down the way, where luckily I managed to convince a man who’s sister worked for the museum to drive me the 20 or so miles back. The drive was a bit of an experience. Shocked that I had never been this far east of Moscow in Russia before, this stranger took it upon himself to show me his favourite parts of the local area. These included his old school, his daughter’s old school, his house, his mom’s house, a river where you can go fishing, and the local producti (corner shop), where I had to try to local orange juice. Eventually arriving at the gulag (by now, late in the afternoon), I met his sister, who sat and watched a documentary about the rise of Stalinism with me, before encouraging me to explore the remains of the prison (after warning me that I shouldn’t stray too far without telling her, because security could shoot me – “just like the old days”!). The museum receives almost no funding, but to walk around the remains of the gulag is fascinating, if horrendously depressing. Be forewarned though, the hour’s walk back to the bus stop can be a bit tough, especially if you’re visiting in winter! Locals assure me that yes, there are wolves!
The next day, it was back on the train, and our next stop was Yekaterinburg, home of the end of the reign of the Tsars and also the end of European Russia. After a few “oh this is the wrong bus..” moments we managed to make it to the continental border, charmingly positioned on the side of a motorway, with a small café next door.
Getting a lift back from here, however, was slightly difficult, being as it was along the side of a motorway that was fastly flowing in what was now the wrong direction (with no visible ways to cross), and involved convincing the owner of the café to call his friend to give us a lift.
And then we were in to the vast expanses of Asian Russia, and it was onwards to Novosibirsk. Most travellers skip Novosibirsk (certainly, we were only there for its transport connections), and it’s quite easy to see why. With the Lonely Planet entry praising only “its collection of Irish pubs – the most plentiful in Siberia!” it’s quite hard to love this otherwise grey, Soviet mining town. However, after now roughly 3 days of eating stale bread on trains, we were more than happy to buy food that we could cook in an oven, and haul up in a hostel until our morning train! Or at least we thought we were, until we tried to turn on the oven, and all of the electricity went out. And the hot water stopped. And the internet went off. When we called the landlord, he replied “oh man, you didn’t try to use the light in the kitchen AND the oven, did you? No wonder it all went off!”. 2 hours later we had soggy pasta in the dark. Goodbye, Novosibirsk! One thing that I will say for the city though – the people were very friendly, and after several days of passing through small villages, it was nice to see real shops and restaurants again!
Shops and restaurants were certainly not plentiful in our next stop – the Altai. Not actually on the Trans-Siberian route, we took a detour South in order to visit this area of renowned natural beauty. The Altai Mountains are where Kazakhstan, Russia, China and Mongolia meet, and the Altai Republic is an autonomous republic within Russia, with its own language (though Russian is still the official state language), and a separate registration system (be forewarned and research this before you go – it’s tricky!). Travel here is long and arduous, which, combined with its remote location, is one of the reasons that Westerners are not often spotted here. Some people certainly didn’t believe that we were actually from the UK and France, instead choosing to believe our we’d learned our English skills back on the other side of the Urals (“their English is pretty good… I think they’re from Belarus”). It is a desperately poor region and the infrastructure certainly leaves much to be desired, but the scenery is absolutely stunning.
If you are in any way in to hiking… Go. It is so worth it! There are also a lot of adventure sports and traditional spas there, if that kind of thing tickles your fancy.
After that (and around 60 more hours on a train, including spending 9 painful hours listening to children recite the entire dialogue of the Russian version of Bambi while I tried desperately to sleep) it was back to a more traditional Trans-Siberian stop – and certainly a favourite of travellers – Lake Baikal.
Stopping in Irkutsk, which was the closest town, we managed to navigate our way through the city and on to a bus that was headed to the Island in the center of Lake Baikal (Olkhon). As the Island is very sparsely populated, many people bring most of the things they are going to need for their stay on the island with them. In our case, this meant that we ended up on a bus filled with alcohol and extremely excitable 21-year-olds, heading to the island for their friend’s birthday party. It made the 6 hour Marschrutka journey fly by though – especially when we had to stop to rescue a couple whose car had burst a tyre on the treacherous country roads, and who had subsequently been stranded there for almost an entire day! (invest in a proper car before you try this!!)
But a short ferry-crossing later, we were on Olkhon, and Lake Baikal, the most voluminous fresh-water lake in the world (containing 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water supplies!), was laid out in front of us. Stunning.
Unfortunately, due to the lake’s location in less-than-tropical Siberia, it is absolutely freezing, not only to swim in, but to walk around (though hiking further inland is quite warm!)
This became particularly apparently when we chose to take a full-day boat trip around the island. I would think very carefully before doing this! It was absolutely freezing on board, and though it was cool to see some smaller islands, the “prepared lunch” of stewed fish heads, and the constant terror that the enormously fat man on board with us would break our flimsy wooden plank that was the only way on or off the ship and creaked and splintered each time he stood on it made the whole experience slightly stressful!
Back on the island, life is slow, small-scale and relaxed.
And home to a lot of native and not-so-native wildlife that can’t wait to meet you.
But overall, absolutely incredible scenery. It is the ultimate, secluded, relaxing vacation destination. And all of that only a 4 day train journey from Moscow! Easy. Or maybe not. But if you’re ever thinking of taking the Trans-Siberian, do NOT skip Lake Baikal – it really is the jewel of Russia!
But from there it was on to a Chinese train, and on to Mongolia, where we would be faced with new challenges: horseback riding for 8 solid days, the Mongol language (toilet is three words. THREE.), a lack of running water (and subsequently too much running water after a pipe explosion and a cheeky bit of nighttime flooding), “meat flavoured yoghurt” (yeah, just let that sink in), and continual arguments about the correct pronunciation of Genghis Khan. But that’s a different story 🙂
The Trans-Siberian is a fantastic adventure through the world’s most vast country. Though the view from the train can be somewhat monotonous (if you ever wonder which country is hoarding all of the trees THEY’RE ALL IN RUSSIA), the train itself is a wonderful cultural experience, rich in characters and its own once-in-a-lifetime challenges. Russia certainly has more to offer than just Moscow and St Petersburg, and indeed the Russian countryside is surely one of the most underrated landscapes in the world. There are stunning mountains, incredible lakes, and wonderful scenes of fields and forests. It was a fantastic way to cross in to Asia, and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a few days of living on instant noodles and listening to the snores of others. It’s so worth it.