Mongolian nomads herd camels and horses across the sands of the Gobi Desert. . . Miles and miles of orange and yellow birch trees line the tracks in the heart of Siberia. . . Ancient wooden houses adorned with brightly colored shutters abound. These are only some of the images framed in the windows of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as it meanders from Beijing to Moscow, almost 5,000 miles, across eight time zones and a quarter of the globe. It is a nostalgic, epic voyage of discovery and adventure to the lands of the Mongols, Chinese Emperors and Russian Tsars that defies easy description.
Built between 1891 and 1916, the Trans-Siberian Railway connects Moscow with Vladivostok in the east (with offshoots to Beijing and Shanghai). Even today it can be an arduous voyage! The most comfortable way to travel across Siberia is on a private train —The Tsar’s Gold. While it is possible to use regularly scheduled passenger trains, the challenges of stopping off at various locations, finding hotels, and arranging transfers, especially if you do not speak or read Chinese, Russian or Mongolian, seems daunting.
This adventure begins in Beijing where, following visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, as well as the City itself, an overnight journey on a comfortable Chinese train transports us to the border town of Erlian where the 21-car Tsar’s Gold, pulled by an enormous locomotive, is waiting.
Uniformed, white-gloved cabin attendants (provodniks) stand at attention as we climb aboard. They live in a tiny cabin at the end of each compartment, working 24-hour shifts; their job is to make up the beds, clean the cabins and generally keep us supplied with tea (served in glasses tucked into silver filigree holders), coffee and vodka (for a fee, of course). Communications is via charades and a handy Russian phrase book. By the end of the trip, we can ask for “Kofe” and “Chai Chorny” – black coffee and tea.
There are several classes of service on this train, including the Bolshoi with tiny all-in-one bathrooms connected to each cabin and no more than six cabins per compartment. A couch converts into two large and comfortable bunks for sleeping, leaving about two feet of space to move about. You very quickly learn to do the “Trans-Siberian two-step” to maneuver and keep your balance at the same time. A tiny table under the window holds the fresh fruit, water and ubiquitous bottles of vodka which go flying around the cabin from time to time as the train lurches through the landscape.
Four restaurant cars, decorated with golden sconces, drapes, heavy wooden chairs and linen-draped tables recall days of old as meals are served to the 200+ passengers. Illogically, they are far from the cabins, requiring what feels like miles of walking. We count nine compartments and 42 doors to open and close between our cabin and the assigned dining car. Handi-wipes are available to wash your hands after touching all those door handles. Basic food is prepared on board– soups, cabbage rolls, and stews. As there is no lounge or bar car, the restaurant is also where activities take place to pass the hours — lectures, Russian language lessons or vodka/caviar sampling. Once they are over, the tables must be set for the next meal. No matter. There is much to see and photograph out the windows of the compartment.
After leaving Erlian, the train stops a few kilometers further down the track at Zamaan Uud, Mongolia’s border town. While the passport formalities are undertaken, the provodniks pull out large squeegees to wash the dust-covered windows, critical for photography. Nearby a Mongolian throat singer, accompanying himself on a two-stringed horsehead fiddle, entertains passengers with the haunting sound typical of the steppes. Then it is across the Gobi Desert to ÜlaanBaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
Tufts of grass and small trees cover the sand, the result of unprecedented amounts of rain in the Gobi. From time to time herds of Bactrian camels and horses race next to the rails. Canvas gers (the Mongolian word for a yurt) with fanciful, multicolored doors, solar panels, and satellite dishes dot the landscape. Mongolia is an ancient land with a colorful history — the home of Chinggis Khan (better known in the west as Genghis Khan). Our two-day stop in ÜlaanBaatar is not enough to even scratch the surface but it provides enough to feed the imagination and to guarantee a return visit. From here the train rolls through the Selenga River Valley to the Mongolian-Russian border town of Naushki where we undergo passport formalities while being confined to our cabins. Welcome to Russia!
Ulan Ude is the first stop in Siberia. The capital of the Russian Republic of Buryatia, this is where we join the main Trans-Siberian railway line. A whirlwind city tour takes us to the main sights including wooden mansions, fountains and an enormous statue of Lenin’s head.
Not far from Ulan Ude is “the Blue Eye of Siberia,” Lake Baikal. When a hydroelectric dam built along the Angara River (the lake’s only outlet) flooded part of the original Trans-Siberian Railway line, a new track was built around the area. However, the old track still exists, and the Tsar’s Gold makes a side journey around the edge of this stunningly beautiful expanse of clear blue water — the largest, oldest, deepest and purest lake on Earth. A picnic, complete with samovars and charcoal barbecue, provides the evening meal as the sun sets over the lake.
The next morning we reach Irkutsk, known as the “Paris of Siberia.” Irkutsk is still five time zones away from Moscow. If you were flying it would take you seven hours to cover the distance. Hundreds of old wooden houses with intricately carved fretwork and brightly painted window shutters line the streets of this lively market town. Once, the wives of rebellious officers in the Tsar’s army exiled to Siberia turned this town into a center of society.
As the train chugs inexorably westward, the landscape of Siberia unfolds outside the windows. Black and white kilometer markers on the south side of the track count down the distance to Moscow. Siberia (Sibir or ‘sleeping land’) is vast and empty with a few small hills breaking up the miles of autumn-hued birch forests interspersed with pines and larch. Small villages with their elaborate woodwork and colors stand here and there, each with a small plot of cultivated land, filled with large cabbage plants. In the woods, graveyards hide among the birch trees. Some are enormous; others consist of only a handful of gravestones. Many belong to the early settlers and those forced into exile as cheap labor for the construction of the railway line.
Periodically the Tsar’s Gold detours onto a siding or stops at a small rural railway station to wait while the big, powerful freight trains loaded with coal or lumber (which have priority on the tracks) blast past.
As you sway mile after mile across Siberia, there is one thing missing from the rural landscape and villages. There are few onion domes visible. This is because Stalin destroyed most of the Russian Orthodox Churches and, unless the village had found the funds to rebuilt them, there is nothing left.
Over the next four days, we wind our way through western Siberia to the town of Ekaterinberg, infamous as the execution site of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Because the train is several hours late, we arrive in the middle of the night but are still able to visit the city, with a stop at the Church-on-Blood, built where the Imperial Family died and which commemorates their sainthood.
Shortly after leaving Ekaterinberg, we cross from Asia into Europe. Kazan is the last big city before Moscow. The 1,000-year-old capital of the Russian Province of Tatarstan, perched on the banks of the Volga River, is the crossroads between East and West. Equal numbers of Muslims and Russian Orthodox believers live together here in seeming peace and harmony, the skyline dotted with minarets and onion shaped domes.
The landscape changes again as we approach Moscow. The charm of eastern Russia has been lost to urban blight of industry and concrete buildings. However, it soon makes way for the glory of Moscow’s Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s Cathedral.
After 10 days on the train, we disembark with mixed feelings. How wonderful to have space again, to walk freely without constraint but how sad that the adventure of a lifetime on the Trans-Siberian Railway is coming to an end.
IF YOU GO
The German company, Lernidee (tel +49-0-30-786-000) owns and operates the Tsar’s Gold and other luxury trains.