The Trans-Siberian Railway: The Greatest Railway Show on Earth
Text Neil McGowan
Photos Karen Haynes
There are “great railway journeys” — the Orient Express, the Blue Train, the Chief — but none come even waisthigh to the greatest rail journey on earth, the Trans-Siberian Express. This is a train that covers continental mega distances — 9261 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok, or, for lightweights, a mere 7865 kilometers from Moscow to Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. Along the journey, the entire turbulent history of modern Russia, Mongolia, and China is played out — the last tsar, the last emperor, Mongolia’s struggle for independence, the race to loot the Buddhist treasures from the Taklamakan Desert, Soviet gulags. The Trans-Siberian has carried convicts and commissars, tsars and peasants, priceless relics and even gun-carriages on its world-famous rails.
Completists will opt for the Moscow-Vladivostok route, constructed between 1891 and 1913 and the first of the three “versions” of the line to be built. The reasons for building it were compelling. For centuries there had effectively been two separate Russias: the European part, which stretched from the country’s western borders to the Ural Mountains, and the Asian part, which spanned from the Urals to the Pacific coast. Before the advent of the railway, communications between the two sections of the vast country were a grim choice between months on sleigh and tarantass sledges or a boat voyage through the treacherous Arctic seas during the brief period of navigable waters in summer. As a result, it could take up to a year for laws enacted in Petersburg to come into effect in Vladivostok. When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881, no one in the country’s eastern provinces knew about it for four whole months!
The contract to build the railroad made millions for railway tycoons like Savva Mamontov (whose magnificent Moscow residence at Patriarch’s Ponds was built on the proceeds). But there were losers too. Tomsk, for example, failed to come up with enough bribes to have the town put on the route, and thus drifted off into the eternal shadow of the new “railway town” of Novosibirsk. The “first rivet” was hammered home by no less than His Royal Highness Prince Nikolai, who, as Tsar Nicholas II, would later be taken to house-arrest in the Urals on the line he’d once opened in triumph.
Ekaterinburg is one of the train route’s don’t-miss stops. Among other sites there, you can visit the site of the 1918 assassination of the last tsar and his family (a cathedral now marks the spot). Those with a special interest in the last Romanovs might also visit nearby Perm, where the Communists tracked down the tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, who had been on his way to visit the tsar in exile. Mikhail was, in effect, the last tsar of all – for the single day he survived his brother, although he probably never realized. Mikhail’s English secretary was offered the chance to return to Moscow but replied, “I shall prefer to remain with His Majesty,” so both men were shot in their hotel on Sibirskaya Street in Perm (a plaque marks the spot, although the building is no longer a hotel).
Life on Board, and The Longest Lunch (9001 km) in the World
The Trans-Siberian Express the last tsar would have known was even more handsomely accoutred than today’s, featuring not only a dining car but a saloon (i.e., lounge) car and, most intriguingly, a mobile chapel wagon hitched onto the train. Sadly, neither the saloon nor the chapel feature on today’s service, and the dining car is the only public area on board.
The Russian Railways services that run between Moscow and Vladivostok (and also those that operate Moscow-Irkutsk and Moscow-Ekaterinburg) all have two WC’s (with handbasin) per wagon and a hot shower facility that can be ordered on request (it’s located in the wagon adjacent to the dining car)
Chinese Railways (who have Moscow-Beijing service once per week) go one better for their “deluxe” clients, offering a cunning shower facility shared one-shower-between-twocompartments with a bizarre system of double-locks to prevent unintentional visits by your neighbors while you’re lathering up. These compartments, however, tend to fall into the hands of Chinese Party offi cials most of the time — you can even find your “firm” booking has been canceled by some Party functionary (if you protest, you’ll probably get the usual reply “it’s our train”).
Mongolian Railways have services Moscow-Ulaanbaatar and Ulaanbaatar-Beijing, but they don’t necessarily link-up. Regrettably, the Mongolian-operated trains are two notches below the Russian and Chinese ones and are worth avoiding in your trip itinerary.
A famous myth concerns the restaurant car — a wellknown guidebook is still retailing the complete nonsense that the “Chinese train is best.” The reality is that whichever country you are in at the moment has a franchise to supply the restaurant car, and you’ll get a Russian Railways dining car even on the Chinese train for the six-day Russian sector before crossing the border into China.
Routes and Stops, Tips and Tricks
The Trans-Manchurian is the historic route to China — the one used by Komarovsky in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, for instance. The “Zhivago” city is also on the Trans- Sib route, but its not called Yuryatin, as in the book — its real name is Perm. Although Yuri Zhivago is a fi ctional character, the book is so accurate that you can still follow its directions around the city — the public reading room where Yuri first meets Lara and Lara’s home on Lenin Street.
Lake Baikal is the stop to make, if you have the time or budget for only one stop. As well as being a major wildlife reserve, it’s also a marvelous place to walk, boat, hike, or just sunbathe and sauna. Both Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude offer access to the shores of Baikal — more built-up and resourced from the Irkutsk side, still wild and authentically Siberian on the Ulan-Ude side. But most Trans-Sibbers will combine a Baikal stay with something completely contrasted — the exotic cocktail of Buddhist temples, sun-baked deserts, and new age coffee shops that is modern Mongolia.
The savvy traveler can cherry-pick the upper-quality trains to assemble a three- or four-sector trip including Ekaterinburg, Irkutsk, and Ulaanbaatar. Many more stops are possible too, but the train-comfort droops noticeably once Ulan-Ude, Perm, or Omsk figure into your itinerary… and the Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar slow train is the low watermark. But money can buy you an out, if you wish — there are premium-priced group tours operated on the historic rolling stock of the Golden Eagle train, aboard which all is magnificently comfortable and serene… as indeed it ought to be in that price range.
THE THREE ROUTES
Moscow-Vladivostok. Operates every alternate day (on the odd dates of the month except 31st), supplied and crewed by Russian Railways. Although their flagship service, Russian Railways are curiously ambivalent about providing better rolling stock. Although tidy and clean, it still fails to match the service now available between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The entire journey takes eight periods of 24 hours each, but the time diff erence results in you arriving on the ninth morning aft er departure. The biggest downside — return flights are limited to grim domestic Russian flights to Moscow only and are very overpriced.
Moscow-Beijing via Manchuria (Harbin) — the Trans- Manchurian Express. Operates once-weekly, supplied and crewed by Russian Railways. Following the historic routing to Beijing, it avoids Mongolia, adding over 1000 km to your journey but saving the cost and hassle of obtaining a Mongolian transit visa if you don’t plan visiting Mongolia. For many, Mongolia will be the highlight of a Trans-Sib trip. However, this route off ers the chance to visit the thoroughly russified city of Harbin. Although it’s in China, it was built by exiled Russian industrialists who fled the Russian Revolution.
Moscow-Beijing via Mongolia — the Trans-Mongolian Express. The preferred route for most travellers, since it offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Mongolia, an end-point in the fascinating megapolis of Beijing, and return flights from Beijing on a wide selection of international airlines (which, in many cases, are actually cheaper than fares back from Vladivostok, with a higher standard of service).
For more information, visit www.trans-siberian.co.uk