Ron Perrier took this infamous railway from Moscow to Irkutsk in September and shares the experience.
One of the world’s iconic railway journeys, the Trans Siberian Railway conjures up all sorts of romantic visions. Extending 9,259 km from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific, it normally is a six-day journey. Most tourists only go as far as Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, 5,153 km from Moscow. This takes 3 days and 2 hours and has 24 stops of 1-30 minutes (the times and duration of which are listed on a handy chart in the corridor). That is the trip I took.
The cost was $622 and most easily booked through the website Russiantrains.com. Tickets can only be purchased 45 days before your travel date but I ordered and paid for them weeks before that.
There are three classes of berths, but most tourists opt for the 2nd class ‘kupe’ cars that have 4 berths per compartment and two toilets at the end of the hall. It was surprising how difficult it was to find the track and then my car but none of the train attendants could read my ticket or give any advice on which car it was. Kind of amazing even though the ticket was in Cyrillic and English. There was no introduction to the car from the totally non-English speaking car attendant who accompanied my car all the way to Irkutsk. Nothing is written in English.
The cars are modern and clean and the compartment just big enough for four-average sized people. I spent virtually the entire trip in my compartment. Bedding is supplied and there is one electrical outlet. It is not possible to open the windows and it gets stuffy at night with the door closed, especially as they turn on the heat then. Unfortunately there is a TV and it runs constantly.
The toilets are actually quite nice and very functional but there is no shower. Typical Russian train dress is shorts and flip flops. I felt at home.
The dining car was 3 cars down but I was warned the food was poor and expensive and I never went there. A man from that car appears with a scant ‘free’ meal sometime in the evening some days. The attendant sold snacks, pop, bottled water, beer and tacky souvenirs. Probably poorly paid, it is a way to supplement their income. They are real capitalists. The main attendant turned out to be quite a nice guy.
Bring all your own food. Fresh fruit, bread, cereal with powdered milk, tea, instant coffee and sugar if desired, juice, boiled eggs, salt and pepper, instant potatoes and noodles are the only practical things to bring. There is no refrigeration available but boiling hot water is dispensed from a large tank in the car. I am not a ‘noodle guy’ so foolishly brought some instant coffee, juice, granola, powdered milk, bananas, peaches, bread, what I thought was butter, lunchmeat (cream cheese would have been a better choice), mustard, mayo, cheese and lettuce for sandwiches. The safety of the meat and mayo became questionable after 2 days and I threw them out.
I was the only native English speaker in my car (and I believe the whole train) and had six different compartment mates for anywhere from 3 to 36 hours.
The first 26 year old woman spoke no English but we had fun using Google translate on her phone when reception was available. I was alone for the next 4 hours but a fellow who wanted to practice his English sat with me for most of it. He worked in the oil and gas industry near the Arctic. He said that their IT technology was 20 years behind that of the west.
Next was a couple returning from a wedding, both of whom spoke English. They were from Ekaterinburg, 1778 km from Moscow, the city where the remains of Nicholas II and his family were discovered in 1998. It is on the border of Europe and Asia in the Ural Mountains.
After another pleasant compartment mate, I was then joined by two young guys, both on leave from the army, spoke no English, and were with me all the way to Irkutsk. They watched TV or slept and drank every night, but turned out to be pleasant guys and good compartment mates. After the first day, we used Google translate and discovered a little bit about each other. Everyone was exceptionally pleasant. It could be hell with a drinking crowd.
On the platforms, I found a young German girl and her grandmother doing the same trip as me, and a Dane and two Finns taking the train all the way to Vladivostok and then flying home. Seems like a waste of time. These were the only reasonable English speakers but they were at the other end of the train and I rarely saw them.
The scenery is 5,000 km of bush, mostly birch and pine trees, interspersed with tiny, impoverished villages with muddy streets, and small houses with often unpainted, weathered clapboards and logs and metal roofs, all with gardens.
The bigger towns we stopped in were all of Soviet vintage with typical five-story apartments. I don’t think there is a reason to stop in any of them.
Fall colours were just turning. Initially dead flat, it became slightly rolling country. We passed through the Ural Mountains without noticing them. They are an old, low range, much like the Appalachians of the eastern USA and we were at their southern end. There was no big agriculture as this is too cold for wheat and I, surprisingly, saw virtually no livestock. When I woke up after my second night, at km 2800, the landscape had changed to pancake flat grassland with a few trees, all birch.
At km 3303, after 45 hours, we stopped for 20 minutes at Novosibirsk Glavnyi, a big city on a big river. I exited the station to try to find something to eat and got back with all the steps folded up! But the pork wrap with vegys and sauce was worth it. After Novosibirsk Glavnyi, more trees appeared in a much later stage of autumn colour change. It is obviously much colder here.
On awakening on the third morning, at 3600km, there were large hills, great autumn colors and some interesting views for once, but his eventually gave way to more flat grassland and birch trees whose fall colors are a uniform yellow-orange. The landscape didn’t change much all the way to Irkutsk, but it certainly got colder.
Was it worth it?
To be honest, this trip was boring as hell and much more expensive than flying. The cost of taking the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk is about US$662 whereas the cost of a domestic flight is US$234. If not stopping at any of the cities in between, or if it is not important to you to specifically take the Trans Siberian Railway, I would fly.
Even though the Trans-Siberian appears to have almost nothing exceptional about it, most travelers will brag about having done it. Probably, I will do the same.
Ron Perrier, a Canadian, is travelling the world and writes a blog about it at http://www.ronperrier.net. This excerpt is presented with his permission.