Russian writer and traveller, Anastasia Malyugina, reveals the places that everybody (even the locals!) should visit when they take the Trans-Siberian Railway
The Trans-Siberian is one of those routes every respectable traveller has to experience. It is also a route every Russian, whether a traveller or not, should do in their lifetime. As I happen to be a (self-proclaimed) respectable traveller, and also coincidentally Russian – the route across Siberia was nothing but obligatory.
I did the journey from east to west, starting in Ulaanbaatar and finishing in Moscow.
Here's a selection of stops worth getting off the train for, in the section between
Ulaanbaatar and Lake Baikal.
Known for: Capital of Russian Buddhism, and home to the largest Lenin head statue in the world. (Note: It's not the largest full size Lenin figure, but the largest Lenin head.)
Ulan Ude is a small town between Mongolian border and Lake Baikal. It's very cute, very provincial, and full of curious reminders of Soviet-era propaganda, of which the aforementioned head is only one.
Most of Ulan Ude can be explored in a couple of hours, on foot. But there are plenty of full day outings to elsewhere in Buryatia which are excellent (Buddhist temples, old believer villages, Buryat villages etc). Make sure you stay for two days and get a driver.
Known for: Mountains and mineral water springs.
A beautiful area in the East Sayan mountains, Arshan is a place of amazing scenery, authentic Russian villages and famous mineral water springs known for their healing power.
It is a bit remote (eight hours by bus from Ulan Ude or three hours by bus from Irkutsk), but definitely worth at least a two-day side trip to hike around and drink the healing spring water. If you travel from or to Ulan Ude, I recommend taking the train to Slyudyanka and then a bus or taxi (US$40) onwards to Tunka (the main tourist village to stay in), as spending eight hours in the direct bus from Ulan Ude to Tunka is truly horrendous.
Known for: Hot mineral water pools.
Zhemchug is a tiny village in the Arshan area, known for its hot spring water pools.
I wouldn’t recommend going to Zhemchug in summer, as it’s very crowded. But having a swim in winter, when it’s -30°C outside, is nothing if not an achievement. (The main thing to do is not to freeze to death while rushing between the dressing room and the pool). Believe it or not, but there were no other volunteers around…
Zhemchug is easily reachable from elsewhere around Arshan, and there’s no need to overnight here as the springs would take two hours at most and the rest of the place is rather tacky.
Known for: The largest non-salt water reservoir in the world.
Baikal is a legendary place for every Russian, and Listvyanka is the main touristy village on its shores. And whilst Baikal is definitely a must see – choosing to stay in Listvyanka was my big mistake.
It’s not outright horrible, but it’s crowded, overpriced, not really authentic, and does not offer much to do. And whilst it does give you a glimpse of Baikal, locals say it’s not the ‘real thing’ (which I can understand).
If you do happen to stop in Listvyanka, don’t stay for more than a day – that's enough to see the Baikal museum and the Baikal seals. Otherwise, if it’s Baikal that you’re after – make sure you go to Olkhon Island for the pristine scenery (allow at least three days) and do the Circum Baikal Railway (allow one day).
Listvyanka is an hour drive from Irkutsk (by taxi at US$35, or by bus).
For more local information on the Trans-Siberian Railway and more stories from Anastasia's travels, visit her website, The Travel Diaries of N.
Main image: Russian stamp featuring the Trans-Siberian (Shutterstock)