Considered one of the greatest train journeys in the world, the Trans-Siberian railway is a voyage into the heart and soul of Mother Russia.
Longer than the Great Wall of China and America’s historic Route 66, the 9,300 km track snakes its away across Russia, connecting Moscow to the far eastern port town of Vladivostok.
While highlights include scenes of astounding natural beauty including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake – the real stars of the journey are the Russian people, according to Robert Reid, U. S. travel editor of Lonely Planet.
“Russians are a misunderstood people and I’ve heard complaints that they are hard to get to know,” said Reid, a veteran Trans-Siberian traveller. “But when you’re on a train with a Russian, they will treat you like family, they will shame you with their kindness.
“You’ll have Siberians on the train
with you for 30 hours; they will share the vegetables from their gardens and their vodka. They will treat you so well,” he said.
“Remember,” he continued, “a lot of the scenery can be monotonous after a while, but the people will not.”
Crossing two continents and seven different time zones, 30 plus hours from one stop to another is not unusual on the Trans-Siberian route. In fact, to travel the entire distance with no stops would take around seven days straight.
But to really get to grips with the landscape and the people you’ll need longer, says Reid.
“You don’t want to think of doing the trip in anything less than 10 days and I think 14 works really well,” he said.
“Too many people think of the journey as looking out the window the whole time,” he continued. “But you’ve got to stop at least twice. I would stop three times, even if it’s just a day stop.
“You’re in the middle of Siberia, when are you going to be there again?”
Popular stops include Ekaterinburg, where Russia’s last Tsar and his family met their grisly end, the university town of Tomsk, famed for its stunning wooden architecture and the Tsar era town of Khabarosvsk, which also features Japanese pagodas, great sushi and a cafe next to the town’s medical college that used to store cadavers.
But by far the biggest attraction is Lake Baikal – a 25 million-year-old pre-historic lake, which contains 20% of all fresh running water on the planet.
In winter it can freeze to depths of 80 meters and it’s not unusual to see Russians drive their cars across it during the coldest months of the year.
“If you’re going to stop at one place it needs to be here,” said Reid. “It really defies science.
“There are creatures in it that don’t exist anywhere else. If you dropped a dead body in there, micro-organisms would eat every single part of the body. Its existence is amazing,” he continued.
Many people choose to end their Trans-Siberian journey just past Lake Baikal, transferring to the popular Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian railways.
Both these routes thread down into the Chinese capital of Beijing, the first via Mongolia and its capital of Ulan Bator and the second via the northern Chinese city of Harbin – famous for its ice festival.
But no matter where you choose to end your Trans-Siberian adventure, there are a few “musts” to remember. Most importantly says Odette Fussey, marketing director of travel company The Russia Experience, is planning.
“Spontaneity for the independent traveller isn’t an option,” she warned.
“You can’t just hop on and hop off where you choose, you are limited by what your visa says.