It’s the world’s greatest train journey. But how do you know which route to choose? Or which stations to stop at? Use our guide to plan the ride of your life...
Having stared through the window for thousands of miles, I’d seen many images flash by – but it was that of a man heaving an old Lada out of the mud that most stayed in my mind. The car seemed out of place in a scene of 19th-century character; the wooden village houses were built along rutted unpaved roads, any paint that may have once brightened their walls long scoured away by extremes of weather. Drunken fences, made of random wood linked by wire, enclosed ground that didn’t merit the status of a garden. Scattered trees emphasised the lack of them, as though urban greenery was superfluous in a country made up of so much forest.
For a few moments I tried to imagine life in that place, emblematic of Russia’s rural poverty and as damning a contrast with the lifestyle of the country’s yacht-collecting oligarchs as the difference between the serfs and nobles under the Tsars. Eric Newby, writing about the Trans-Siberian journey before the Iron Curtain came down, put his finger on one of the most engaging attractions of train travel when he said that ‘so many questions… have to remain forever unanswered when one travels by train’. Almost every scene from the window poses questions in your mind and sets it wandering in a way unmatched by any other mode of travel.
But what is it about the Trans-Siberian in particular that fascinates so many people? The idea of being able to cross seven time zones on a single train? The attraction of visiting places that not long ago were closed to foreigners? The sheer immensity of the Russian landscape?
After studying Russian history and literature, albeit in translation, I wanted to experience a journey that would test the strong sense of ‘otherness’ that permeates the novels, plays, paintings and music of Russia, and makes it difficult to see it as a country of European sensibilities.
Almost every facet of the journey reinforced that alien feeling – whether it was looking up at the Zeppelins and heroic workers painted on the ceiling of a Moscow waiting room; being struck by the railside cemeteries, set among silver birch and strewn with gaudy plastic flowers; gazing at the great ethereal beauty of Lake Baikal; or spotting the unfamiliar three-barred crosses and renovated gold domes that evidence the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Trans-Siberian is a journey most travellers will want to interrupt, to pause in cities and change the pace – after all, billions of birch trees can induce longueurs. But whichever route and stop-offs you choose, it would be impossible not to rank it as the world’s ultimate rail adventure.
Two types of train cross Siberia – scheduled service trains and tourist trains. The exact routes are determined by which type you choose, as there are minor variations between the two. For example, service trains do not run via Kazan, which is a stop on both the luxury Tsar’s Gold and Golden Eagle tourist trains to enable passengers to visit the magnificent Kazan Kremlin. For those wishing to break the journey, there are more frequent shorter services between Moscow and other cities along the route, such as Moscow-Irkutsk.
Time: 7 nights
The Rossiya (‘Russia’) runs every other day. It is the longest route, and the least popular with Western travellers – not because it’s an unattractive journey but because more people prefer to end in Beijing rather than Vladivostok. Onward options at the Russian coast include a train to Khabarovsk (11-18 hours) or a ferry to Donghae (South Korea) and on to Sakaiminato (Japan).
The Trans-Mongolian route is often considered the most interesting. Using Chinese coaches with first- and second-class options only, there is just one train a week, which crosses Mongolia via the Gobi Desert to enter China.
Completed in the 1900s, the Trans-Manchurian is the older of the two routes that reach Beijing. It is served by the Vostok once a week, using Russian first- and second-class coaches. Note: both this route and the Trans-Mongolian require the bogies under the coaches to be changed at the Russian/Chinese and Mongolian/Chinese borders, where the track-gauge changes.
For those seeking the rail less travelled, the BAM is a more northerly route across Siberia. It leaves the main Trans-Sib route at Tayshet and runs to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast. Completed in 1991, it includes Russia’s longest tunnel, at 15.3km.
These are the principal places en route, though not all are worth a stop unless you’re an ardent Russophile. For a single stop, most would choose Irkutsk, with Yekaterinburg or Ulan-Ude for a second.
Referred to as Yuriatin in Dr Zhivago, Perm is the gateway to the Urals. As an old centre of intellectual life (it’s twinned with Oxford), it has some fine galleries and museums. The old town has some attractive secular and ecclesiastic buildings in styles from the baroque to art nouveau.
Most visitors to Russia’s fourth-largest city explore the tall, white, golden-domed – but curiously soulless – church built on the site of Ipatiev House, in which the Russian royal family was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries. There are some good museums and a theatre devoted to opera and ballet.
This industrial city has two museums largely devoted to the Second World War. There is also a fine arts museum housed in the former headquarters of Admiral Kolchak, the White Russian leader defeated by the Red Army during the Civil War.
Entirely a creation of the railway, Siberia’s largest city is built with a rare sense of space and boasts one of the world’s largest opera houses. It is the gateway for excursions into the magnificent Altai Mountains.
Chekhov dubbed this the most beautiful city in Siberia, though he would not recognise much of it now, apart from its old town on the hill and its restored Annunciation Cathedral, built 1802-12.
The grand station (opened in 1898) is an appropriate introduction to the city once known as the ‘Paris of Siberia’. Irkutsk still has some fine neo-classical architecture and characteristic wooden buildings with frilly fretwork decoration.
7. Lake Baikal (Irkutsk)
Irkutsk is the gateway to 25-million-year-old Lake Baikal. Despite worsening pollution, the world’s largest freshwater expanse remains a natural wonder; two-thirds of its 1,700 species of flora and fauna are unique to its environs. Many breaking the journey here visit the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, which has saved over 40 buildings. Summer activities include horse-trekking, hiking and mountain-biking as well as cruises on the lake; in winter there are dog-sledding and ice-diving trips.
This is the hopping-off point for the 89km heritage Circum-Baikal Railway, which hugs the lakeshore via numerous bridges, tunnels and viaducts. There are fine views of the lake and surrounding hills, cloaked in dark taiga forest.
Renowned for its vast bronze head of Lenin, Ulan-Ude has some traditional wooden buildings, a museum about the minority Buryat people and an impressive open-air museum. A popular excursion is to Ivolginsky Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery 35km outside the city.
Sprawled over three hills on the Amur River, this city was founded as a military settlement in 1858. Those interested in natural history shouldn’t miss the dull-sounding (it isn’t) Museum of Regional Studies, nor a boat trip along the river for its bankside petroglyphs.
Strikingly located on coastal hills, for decades Vladivostok was off-limits to visitors; the reasons can be seen in the military and naval subjects of many of its museums.
12. Ulan Bator, Mongolia
Famous for its Naadam Festival (July), Ulan Bator is the world’s coldest capital. Besides seeing the city’s palace and temples, most visitors spend at least one night in a ger (felt tent) on the grassy plains outside the city, where longer hiking and riding trips are available.
13. Harbin, China
Harbin developed from a fishing village into a major settlement when the East Chinese Railway was built (1897-1901). Though Chinese, its older parts feel Russian due to the Imperial Russian architecture. Harbin’s Ice Festival (Jan-Feb)attracts international snow sculptors. North is the Siberia Tiger Park, where tigers are bred for release into the wild.
14. Beijing, China
The capital of China and the most popular destination for Western travellers on the Trans-Siberian has a host of obvious attractions: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace. The sections of the Great Wall near Beijing (at Badaling and Mutianyu) are the most-visited but it’s still unmissable.
Russian Railways offers three classes: spalny vagon (first) with two side-by-side bench seats/beds and lavatory/washbasin at the end of the coach; kupé (second) with four berths per compartment; and platskartny (third), open-plan dormitory cars with 54 bunks per coach. In spalny vagon and kupé a separate ticket covering bedding and meals can be bought.
The Chinese carriages used on the Trans-Mongolian services comprise first-class deluxe two-berth compartments with a lavatory/shower shared with the adjoining compartment, and similar first- and second-class four-berth compartments.
A one-way journey by service train from Moscow to Vladivostok costs around £500 second class, £800 first class, including food. Both routes to China cost about £600 second class, £830 first class; tickets are sold with or without meals.
This 200-capacity private train, which runs Moscow–Beijing (and vice versa), offers something between service trains and the Golden Eagle. Its restaurant cars are the social hubs of the train, hosting talks on history, Russian classes and vodka tastings.
There are four accommodation categories: Standard Plus and Nostalgic Comfort carriages have shared facilities; Bolshoi and larger Bolshoi Platinum cabins are en suite with a shower, lavatory and washbasin. Both Bolshoi cabins have upper and lower berths and an armchair, and include towels, bathrobes and slippers. Nostalgic Comfort cabins evoke a 1950s feel, and have a hand-held-shower compartment, shared between adjoining cabins. Standard Class has three levels of cabin, all with two lower berths. Each car has two attendants.
Trips cost from US$7,050pp (£4,606) sharing a double compartment.
This purpose-built luxury train operated by Cheshire-based GW Travel (0161 928 9410, www.gwtravel.co.uk) has three categories of cabin: Imperial Suites, Gold Class and Silver Class.
All compartments have a double bed, wardrobe, TV and DVD, clever storage space and underfloor heating in the en suite shower room; the main differences are size of cabin and bed. There are sumptuously appointed dining and lounge cars with onboard harpist and pianist (and doctor). The all-inclusive food and wine is a very high standard. Off-train excursions are arranged at places of interest along the way.
The Golden Eagle operates various itineraries, and trips start from £9,695pp.
The Trans-Sib isn’t actually the world’s longest train journey. That honour belongs to the route from Donetsk and Kharkov in the Ukraine to Vladivostok.
Did you know?
David Lean’s film, Dr Zhivago, may have inspired many Trans-Sib travellers, but the railway scenes of the journey to Yuriatin were shot in Canada, station scenes in Spain.
Shaver sockets aside, your digs are unlikely to have a specific charging point for those oh-so indispensable gadgets: a powermonkey back-up charger could be worth its weight in vodka.
Crossing Lake Baikal
The last section of the Trans-Siberian around Lake Baikal was completed in 1905. Until then, trains were carried across the water by two ice-breaking train ferries built by Sir WG Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd in Newcastle upon Tyne. They were sent to Russia in kit form and reassembled under the supervision of English engineers at Listvyanka. The smaller of the two, SS Angara, has survived and is now a museum near the Raketa hydrofoil terminal in Irkutsk.