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Off the beaten path: The Trans-Siberian Railroad

  • By Kandice Bell
  • |
  • Jan. 21, 2022 - 7:07 PM

Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railroad had always been a dream of mine. I longed to be transported across Russian Siberia aboard this famous train and then to travel through Mongolia and finally, after crossing the Great Wall, wind up in Beijing, China. Just thinking about the enormity of the Trans-Siberian railway set my imagination on fire. Although I had already visited Russia and China several times, I had never before traveled to either Siberia or Mongolia. The prospect of seeing these two countries while traveling on this historic train was too much to resist. Besides, Russia, Mongolia, and China are not just any three, random countries. These are countries that, up until a few decades ago, were rarely visited by western travelers. Somewhere between thinking about their communist histories, the onion-domed churches, the vastness of the countryside, mountainous ridges and plateaus, the unspoiled nature and miles of forests, and the Mongolian circular tents, I made up my mind. I had to travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

So, during an around-the-world journey a few years ago, I booked a ticket on the Trans-Siberian. I selected Moscow as a stopover city on my around-the-world air ticket. Then I booked my place on the Trans-Siberian Railroad through a Russian tour service. For hard-core train buffs, the Trans-Siberian is the Taj Mahal of rail journeys. Actually, there are three routes that this “train of the Tsars” follows: The “original” Trans-Siberian that runs from Moscow to the Pacific terminus at Vladivostok, Russia; the Trans-Manchurian that travels through Siberia and Manchuria to Beijing; the Trans-Mongolian that runs from Moscow to Beijing, China, via Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I booked my ticket on the Trans-Mongolian route which crosses six time zones along its 4,735 mile trek from Moscow through Mongolia to Beijing. All three routes are often referred to only as the “Trans-Siberian” or “TransSib” as some of the world’s most avid travelers like to refer to them.

In 1891, the future Tsar Nicholas II personally opened and blessed the construction of the Far East segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway while he was visiting Vladivostok. During his journey around the world, Nicholas II made notes in his diary about his anticipation of traveling in the comfort of “The Tsar’s Train” across the unspoiled wilderness of Siberia. In its prime, the carriages on this train were outfitted in elegant mahogany trimmed in gold. The furnishings in the dining car included luxurious chairs that were deep-cushioned with carved wooden backs. Over the years, however, the maintenance required to care for such elegant appointments has been often neglected and so some of the “Trains of the Tsars” reflect only a trace of their former glory. One particularly egregious example from my experience on the Trans-Siberian comes to mind. The “white” tablecloths in the dining car on my train were never changed during the entire six-day journey! When the train finally arrived at the Beijing station, these tablecloths were several degrees beyond filthy! In fact, both the service and quality of the food were noticeably inferior to that found on the major trains in Europe and Japan.

As with some other of the world’s most famous trains, travel on the Trans-Siberian may be in a “hard” seat or in a sleeper cabin. The sleeper cars are of two classes: first and second. The essential difference is how many cabin mates you will have. There are two persons to a cabin in first and four in second. Some Russian trains even have a private bathroom in a first class cabin. Other trains on the same route do not. I booked a cabin in first class, so there were just two berths. But I only had a roommate during two nights of the journey. My cabin was quite comfortable and it had a remarkable amount of space. Each of the two beds, that face each other, are made up to resemble a sofa during the daylight hours. The large window permitted panoramic views of the passing countryside. Thankfully, during routine stops along the way, station workers would give these windows a thorough washing.

There are two washrooms and one toilet at the end of the corridor. These were kept reasonably clean by the two attendants assigned to my coach. Beware! Not a word of English is spoken by the stewards on the Trans-Siberian! One of the stewards on my carriage did speak some German, and so I was able, with some effort, to communicate to him my very basic needs.

This trip was like nothing I have ever experienced! The train took me through incredible natural beauty, authentic villages, and diverse cultures in the only mode of transportation available in that part of the world. I marveled at UNESCO-listed Lake Baikal which contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater surface and is the largest lake in the world by volume. Lake Baikal is said to be the world’s oldest lake and is among the clearest. Its depth exceeds one mile.

The city of Irkutsk also captivated my interest. Once Siberia’s major city during tsarist times, today this thriving metropolis is the gateway to Siberia. At the beginning of the 20th century, about 30 percent of the population of Irkutsk consisted of exiles who were sent “to the east” due to their participation in, or sympathy for, the December 1825 uprising–an attempt to topple the current government. The banishment of these military officers and other nobles to a city that was situated more than 3,200 miles from Moscow is one of the reasons this area is often understood to be an isolated, frozen wasteland. Their presence in Irkutsk, however, explains at least partially, how Irkutsk became the cultural and educational center of Siberia.

The area around Ulan Bator, Mongolia, was greatly entertaining. Once in the plains of Mongolia, I happened to be looking out the window and, to my utter amazement, six or seven men, dressed in traditional, colorful outfits, their swords swinging, were galloping alongside the train. For once, I appreciated the slow-moving Trans-Siberian train! Behind them in the fields were the oval-shaped tents where people of this culture reside (these tents are called "gers" or "yurts").

Above all, taking the Trans-Siberian railway through so many time zones and across such vast plains and forests constantly reminded me of the enormous size of Russia. The scenery was a mix of lakes, marshlands, rolling hills, rivers, and tiny wooden houses. Sometimes, I would walk to the dining car to read, or to listen to music. Sometimes I would break the monotony by simply wandering the length of the train–just to pass the time during this journey of more than 140 hours. Food was never a problem. On the advice of my travel agent, before boarding the train, I bought provisions at a supermarket, but these supplies were exhausted during the fourth day. Sometimes I ate in the dining car; other times I got off at various stations where I bought snacks and drinks from station vendors while stretching my legs.

There are several anomalies one discovers while a passenger on the Trans-Siberian. One relates to your watch! Even though the train travels through many time zones, the time on the train is always set to the time in Moscow. So when I stepped off the train in Beijing the station clocks read 11 a.m., however, my wristwatch read 5 a.m. (Trans-Siberian time).

One of the most interesting anomalies of this incredible journey occurred when the train passed from Mongolia into China in the dark of night. After the immigration and customs check the train inched its way into a series of huge sheds where the wheels (known as “bogies”) were changed to ones that are of a smaller gauge to fit the rails used in the Chinese railway network. After several minutes of shunting, the individual cars were uncoupled. Then large hydraulic jacks lifted up each carriage over two meters so its wheels could be exchanged with ones that are slightly smaller. Passengers are not required to exit the train during this process so I elected to stay in my cabin glued to the window. I realized early on that the “no photos” restriction was not being enforced so I took pictures from my window. Near the completion of the wheel exchange, I jumped off to capture a few surreptitious photos from ground level. Of course, the Russian-Mongolian engine had to be replaced with one of the Chinese gauge. Only after the individual train carriages had been lowered down onto the new wheel-sets were the cars ready to be coupled together for the journey onward to Beijing. This wheel exchange was something to see indeed! While experiencing it, I knew instinctively that I was adding what would be a “whopper” of a train story to my own repertoire of exciting and interesting travel memories!

Early the next morning there was a good deal of excitement when word spread through my passenger car that the train would soon be approaching the Great Wall. Of course, you must pass through the wall in order to reach Beijing. This section of the wall, however, was in a terrible state of disrepair as is almost all of the remaining wall that is outside the touristy areas such as Badaling where one discovers freshly laid bricks, wide walkways, handicapped accessible entry areas, and restrooms! That fact aside, it was quite a sight to see the remains of what was once the engineering marvel of the world. The overgrowth concealed much of the wall, but I could make out its size as it stretched out into the distance like a ribbon. I wondered if the invading Mongolians might have once been repelled at this very spot.

Seeing the Great Wall of China was the crowning touch to a journey that gave me a new appreciation of geography. At times during the journey I felt so isolated I would look at the GPS app on my cell phone to remind myself just where I was in the world. There were points when the train was several thousand miles from the nearest ocean! After almost a week of continuous travel aboard the Trans-Siberian, I was glad to get off at the Beijing Railway Station. Personal hygiene had been quite limited and it was good to check into a hotel room, which did not move! Yet being a passenger on one of the most famous of the trains in the world is an experience I would not trade, for anything.

Watson E. Mills has traveled on several of the most famous trains in the world including: in Europe, the Orient Express; in Australia, the Indian-Pacific, the Ghan and the Overland trains; in Africa, the Blue Train; in New Zealand, the TranzAlpine train; in China and Tibet, the “Top of the World” train; in Japan, the Shinkansen or “bullet” train; in Canada, the Via Rail train; and in the U.S.A., Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train.