All aboard the Trans Siberian Express - for trees, clean windows, talk of a moustache ban, and more trees...
A long distance train journey is an easy way to lift a simple city break trip into altogether more rewarding. Often cheap and comfortable, a long train ride shows off the sweep of a region's scenery. Onboard life has a rhythm to it; talking to locals, to other travellers, finding the buffet, and washing.
An Indian train journey is hard to beat for its atmosphere, but there are great options in throughout Europe, the Caucases, South East Asia and beyond. And then there is the buttock and brain-numbing, yet brilliant experience of the Trans Siberian Express.
St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, and the compartment of a 'local' train from Moscow to Perm. Photos My Bathroom Wall
Flickering past the train window are birch trees and patches of spring snow. And this ever-changing yet never changing scenery has become the surprising highlight of my time on the Trans Siberian Express. It’s slow travel at its best, where the chief thrill is the journey itself: the cosy carriages, on board camaraderie, and the constant edging forward across the vastness of Russia.
The whole trip from Moscow to Beijing is a journey of 4,736 miles, which takes six days on an ‘ordinary’ through train, or 16 days on the Tsar’s Gold tourist train, which makes sightseeing stops along the way.
This German-run ‘cruising on wheels’ experience is for people who don’t fancy tackling the language barrier on regular Russian trains, or don’t have the £9,600 one-way fare for the most luxurious train on the route.
I boarded the Tsar’s Gold train in Yekaterinburg, just east of the Ural Mountains, for a three-night ride to Irkutsk, not really knowing what to expect.
Cities soon give way to ramshackled wooden villages, and trees. Photo My Bathroom Wall
We chugged out of the city and passing the tiny kitchen at the end of the carriage, I entered the toasty dining car and began meeting the jolly group of about 20 English speakers. Most passengers on the train are German, but the ‘English’ group on this trip were Brits, Danes, Dutch, Italians, Americans, and a Spaniard. We were together for meals and tours.
It was nice to warm through, eat a hearty meal of fish salad, cabbage soup, and ‘beef in Russian Monastic Manner’, and move on from the gloomy spots that I’d visited before boarding in Yekaterinburg. In 1918, Tsar Nikolas and his family were shot, mutilated, and then dumped down a well there.
I learnt that it wasn’t just the imperial family who’s enforced journey eastwards was doomed, when after dinner, Larissa, the guide for us English speakers gave her evening talk on Siberia.
“It’s been a place of exile for 300 years, with perhaps 21 million inmates passing through the gulags in total”, said sparky Larissa. The majority of people were sent east during Stalin’s time, when he expanded the isolated prison camps. “Even on the trains” said Larissa, “There were gun emplacements on the top of the carriages and hooks underneath to kill anyone trying to escape”.
I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances in this wilderness. Between the cities there was barely a sign of life; save for a meagre hut or two close by the train tracks every few hours.
Typical Siberian homestead, silver birch forests, and sunrise east of Novosibirsk. Photos My Bathroom Wall
I’d imagined that the size of towns would grow smaller and cuter as the train trundled further into Siberia, but Novosibirsk, the first stop after Yekaterinburg and 2,000 miles east of Moscow, was big and bombastic. Soviet era buildings here included the country’s largest opera house and a prominent Lenin statue flanked by five heroic workers.
The imposing train station at Novosibirsk, 3,385 kilometres east of Moscow. Photo My Bathroom Wall
At Krasnoyarsk, while other passengers were having a city tour, I asked train manager Hans for a peek in all the carriages. Squeezing past a large man with a small vacuum cleaner, I entered the Classic category of cabin - a basic compartment with two bench seats that convert to four bunks, with shared toilets at either end of the carriage. It costs about £4,000 one-way per person.
“All of our classes include the same meals, and sightseeing”, said Hans, as we moved briskly down the corridor. The windows of the Nostalgia cabin, with one shower shared between two cabins, were being cleaned inside and out – “so our guests can always take good photographs”, he explained. At the front of the train were swish modern Bolshoi Class compartments with double beds and an en suit toilet and shower.
Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, Siberia. Photo My Bathroom Wall
I caught up with the group walking towards the city with local guide Irena. Siberia may conjure an empty freezing wasteland to us, but almost 25 million people live here, in an area about the size of China.
Down by the river promenade, the spring sun was enlivening everyone’s spirits. Sitting on the open deck of a large pleasure boat I fell into a backslapping beer-fuelled chat with some young Russian lads about football and pop music.
On my last night aboard the train I returned to my compartment tipsy from a robust vodka tasting evening with Larissa and the group. I fell asleep wondering if she had really said that Tsar Peter the Great had made dancing and moustaches compulsory?
We joked as the train approached Irkutsk – “yes Peter the Great really did that” beamed Larissa. Then after my 100-hour stint on the train, I popped back to the compartment for a last stare into the birch forests.
The monotony had become magical, the carriages homely, and several of the group were now friends. What a cracking experience, and what a wrench to leave for my six-hour flight back to Moscow.
I travelled as a guest of The Russia Experience
Some practical advice...
There are several Trans Siberian Express train services. They run along a series of tracks that that were started in 1891 and instigated by the Tsar Nicolas, who wanted to connect his imperial capital in Moscow with his eastern port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Over the years branch lines were built to connect Russia’s far east to Mongolia and China - Moscow to Beijing via Russia’s east is called the Trans Manchurian Route, and dipping south sooner through Ulan Baatar is the Trans Mongolian route.
Which route to take? Well for me there’s a strong pull from the historic and original 6,000-mile route from Moscow to Vladivostok, but aside from its location at the end of the line, Vladivostok has little going for it in a tourist sense.
However, the most popular tourist routes by far are from Moscow to Beijing, which allows you to visit another of the world’s great imperial capitals. A whole week on a train is a bit much for anyone, and on the trip above I only travelled east as far as Irkutsk. The scenery to is monotonous east from Moscow, but it perks up considerably - so I'm told - on the Beijing route through the Gobi Desert, but still you'll be cooped in a small cabin with few creature comforts, and dreadful coffee.
Most people make a couple of stopovers; in Irkutsk for Lake Baikal, and Ulan Bataar for the Terelj National Park.
What type of train? This question sort of answers itself once you see the price of the private trains. They are run to a very high standard, with sightseeing at each stop, all meals and a good guide to passenger ratio, but you are looking at about £11,000pp, without flights at either end.
On the other hand, a trip on the regular train starts from about £1,300pp, with two nights accommodation in Moscow, three in Irkutsk and three in Ulaanbaatar.
Tour operators offering the posh Trans Siberian private trains include Regent Holidays and Steppes Travel. For the option of the ordinary 'local' trains, or the private tourist trains, there's the Russia Experience or On The Go Tours.
You won’t have to take instant coffee, powdered milk, and a mug – well advised on the regular passenger trains – if you splash out on the Golden Eagle or Tsar’s Gold luxury tourist trains of course. They run just a few times per year, but offer comfortable 2-berth cabins (some even en suit) and off train sightseeing, air conditioning, and smart bar and restaurant cars.