28 October 2009
The Trans-Siberian Railway. Or: Really Far Away
The Big Picture
We are awakened by the older cabin matron who jolts our door open, points to her watch, shouts “passport control” and slams the door shut again. It’s seven thirty in the morning. They inspect our passports with excessive seriousness, then instruct us to “leave cabin.” The four of us get up, unsure of where we’re going. A small gymnastic woman enters our cabin and proceeds to do an uneven bars routine while looking in every nook and cranny for who knows what. Drugs? Money? People? The cabin matron then proceeds to vacuum the entire train with a dust buster. She motions to our feet and points up. We lift and she sweeps under our feet. She then motions to our feet and points down, as if we would have stayed in that formation permanently otherwise. We are shaken by an abrupt “push” forward as an engine is attached. We start moving ever so slowly forward. A fellow traveler appears to inform us of the party happening later in the evening. “Apparently there is actually a Russian on the train and he has invited all of us to a vodka party later.” Welcome to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Trans-Siberian railway is the world’s longest train journey. Covering more than 5,000 miles across Siberia, the route - despite its fame - remains distant to most travelers; it just might be the namesake of the phrase “off the beaten path.” While the Russian route runs from Vladivostok to Moscow, two other lines begin in Beijing: The Trans-Manchurian runs through northern China and into Russia while the Trans-Mongolian takes travelers through the breathtaking scenery of Mongolia. This writer recommends the Trans-Mongolian starting in Beijing and traveling northwest to Moscow.
Because this adventure offers so many options, below is a recommended route and suggested length of time in different locations as well as hostel, restaurant and connection recommendations where necessary. This writer recommends booking all train tickets in advance. Probably the most well-known and widely trusted agent is Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk). Tickets can also be purchased en-route through hostels and travel agents. This is not advised during high season (May to August), as trains fill. Try departing early August to avoid huge crowds but still enjoy warmer weather.
Beijing (See the Beijing city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) This is where it all begins! Trains leave Tuesday and Sunday for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which is the next stop on this journey. Ideally, plan to spend 7 days in Beijing.
Ulaanbaatar (See the Mongolia adventure guide for details on hotels, restaurants and excursions) The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is mainly a jumping off point for excursions outside the city. Train services to Russia are more regular than the first leg of the trip. Ideally, you’ll want four to six weeks in Mongolia. Shorter stays of three to seven days still offer time to see part of the country.
Irkutsk - Nestled deep in Siberia, Irkutsk was once known as “the Paris of Russia.” While the city does retain a certain grit and charm, its main function now is as a gateway to Lake Baikal. Spend a day or two here arranging travel to the Lake as well as taking in a few sites.
Stay at Baikaler Hostel (www.baikaler.com, +7-3952-336-240) They offer dorms and homestays as well as assistance in arranging trips to Lake Baikal. Charming, English-speaking staff couldn’t be more helpful. $18 per person.
Eat at the Central Market. You can’t miss it. This sprawling labyrinth offers clothes, bric-a-brac, flowers and divine food. Pick up some fresh cheese (divine), deli meat, bread and cake (gorgeous) to eat back at the hostel. The food is beyond fresh and the best way to eat in Irkutsk.
See the magnificent Basilica just over the bridge, the multitude of churches, the Stalin bust, the Lenin statue, Trubetskoy house, the Art Museum and the Central market. Also, ride one of the classic trams. It is an experience.
Lake Baikal - The world’s largest freshwater lake, Baikal has enough drinkable H2O to quench the thirst of the entire planet for nearly forty years! It is remote, spectacular and beyond beautiful. Make sure to take a dip in the frigid waters. Russian folklore says a swim in the waters of Baikal will add 25 years to your life! There are three main ways to see the lake.
Day-trip - Most hostels offer a day-trip to the lake that usually includes a boat trip, a ride on the circum-rail that circles the lake and a stop in Lystvyanka - the closest lake town to Irkutsk.
Lystvyanka - situated 45 miles from Irkutsk, Lystvyanka is easily reachable by bus. While travel books claim Lystvyanka is now overrun by tourists, this writer found that claim ridiculous. Think tiny mountain lake town, only everything is in Russian. Plan to spend two days here.
Stay at Baikal Chalet Lystvyanka (From where the bus drops you, face the lake and walk left. Follow the lake to the seal show. Turn left into the valley down Gudina street and walk to number 75, email@example.com, bookable on hostelworld.com) With private balconies that look out to the lake through the valley, Baikal Chalet is one of the few places in town offering affordable, lovely accommodation. Breakfast included, $30 per person.
Eat at one of the four cafes on the main road that runs along the lake. The yellow one has delicious pastries and the green one has enough options for at least three meals. Try the omel - a local fish.
See the lake from every angle. Ride the chairlift to the top of the highest peak for breathtaking views of dense forest, brilliant lake and snow-capped mountains. Take a cruise on the lake. Go scuba diving. Don’t forget to take a dip! 25 years!
Olkhon Island - a 6-hour drive from Irkutsk, Olkhon is the largest island within Baikal. Take a jeep tour to sandy beaches and enjoy the truly untouched naturally beauty before this place gets crowded. Plan to spend 5 days here, including two days for return transportation.
Stay, Eat and Do through the island’s best guesthouse – Nikita’s (Irkutsk Region, Olkhon area, Khuzhir, Kirpichnaya St., 8, http://www.olkhon.info/en/). Nikita’s is bookable online or through guesthouses in Irkutsk.
Yekaterinburg - It is a 51-hour train journey from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg. As the train chugs effortlessly through the thick Russian taiga forest, the cabins come to life in an all-out onslaught of tradition Russian vodka drinking. Come prepared and know that you have a comfortable break waiting for you in Yekaterinburg - home to former President Boris Yeltsin and sight of the gruesome murder of Russia’s last Tsar and his family - the Romanovs. Now a booming steel town, real Armani and fake McDonald’s (called McPeak, and a serious status symbol) line the streets of this bustling University town. Plan to spend one full day here.
Stay at Meeting Point Hostel (87 Malysheva, Apt. 73, Bookable on hostelworld.com) Just a short tram ride from the train
station, Meeting Point feels like going home to Mom and Dad for a few days. Hot water, family photos and a fully stocked kitchen make this place the perfect break from train life. The owner speaks perfect English and is wildly excited to help you make the most of Yekaterinburg. $18 per person.
Eat at Studio Cafe, where you can also make the most of the free wi-fi. McPeak - a lawsuit waiting to happen - also has a certain level of kitsch-factor. Hit the grocery store and cook in as well. The apartment hostel is just so warm and cozy!
See the Basilica and now memorial to the Romanov family, who were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks at the start of the communist revolution. Wander the river and pedestrian avenue as well. If you have time, check out the rotating photo exhibit at the Photography museum. For those who are so inclined, make sure to snap your own photo of the Lenin statue to add to your personal collection.
Moscow (See the Moscow city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) You’ve made it! Wear your badge with pride as you explore Russia’s mighty capital - where money talks. Ideally, spend 5 days here.
St. Petersburg (See the St. Petersburg city guide for details on hotels, restaurants and sites) While not officially on the Trans-Siberian route, if you’ve come this far make sure you see Russia’s most beautiful city. Plan to spend a week here.
The Life Of A Train-Goer
While life may maintain some sense of normalcy on the first leg of this journey, no doubt this will not continue. With time zones jumping by at lightning speed while the train stays on “Moscow Time,” you will most certainly lose all sense of time and space. Just go with it.
Food - Bring your own! While the food is decent on both the China and Mongolia legs, Russian food cars are nothing to write home about. Prices seem to change on every visit, portions are small and the darn stuff is expensive! While it is possible to buy food on train platforms at stops, quality isn’t much better and prices are still high, Essentials on your packing lists should include: Bottled water, vodka, mixers, nutella, bread, instant noodles, candy bars, fresh fruit, cheese and deli meats. Also, pack a sharp knife, two forks, two spoons, two cups and two bowls. Remember, you won’t be moving much, so hunger may be fleeting.
Drinking - Stories vary, but it is common for Russian travelers to arrive at your cabin door insisting that you join them for vodka either in the dining car or in their own cabin. It is considered extremely rude to refuse this invitation. The only workable way out seems to be mimicking illness. Otherwise, head out and drink up!
Sleeping - If you travel in a pair, book a top and bottom bed on the same side. This guarantees a place to lay down and seats for two at all times. As for when to sleep, just listen to your body. Time is truly of the essence on this adventure.
Cabin Crew - Trains are - 99% of the time - staffed by middle-aged women who hate their work and hate you more. Do all you can to butter them up. This can come in the form of chocolate, vodka or jewelry. Such bribes are crucial if you ever want to use the toilet, as they’re locked for nearly 50% of the journey.
Time - While Russia has eight different time zones, all trains run on Moscow time. That is, it may be 6pm in Irkutsk, but that’s 1pm in Moscow and your train might leave at 7pm, but that’s Moscow time - so midnight in Irkutsk. So while the local citizens have their clocks set to local time, all the train stations house enormous clocks displaying Moscow time. This provides hours of conversation on the train. It goes something like this: “What time is it here? Okay, it’s 5pm Yekaterinburg, which is three hours ahead of Irkutsk, which is one behind Beijing. Now, we leave at noon Moscow time on Wednesday - what day is it? - Tuesday, okay. So we leave at noon Moscow time on Wednesday which means it’s now 4am in Los Angeles on Monday and noon in London, so with the stars in the third quadrant of the Milky Way and our having just passed the sixty first parallel, I think it’s time for lunch!” Set your time to Moscow when you leave Mongolia and work out everything from there. If this sounds confusing that’s because it is.
Bits and Bobs
As you cross the border from China to Mongolia, the train actually has all of its wheels changed from “Global Gauge” to “Russian Gauge.” The Russians did this to fend off invading trains during the Cold War. If you get off the train, plan to be off for several hours. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The “Duty Free” shop houses an impressive array of fake top-shelf liquor, from “Johnny Worker Song Red Square Whiskey” (Johnny Walker Red Label) to “Absolutely” vodka (Absolut).
Brush your teeth twice a day. This may sound obvious, but it keeps your body on some semblance of a schedule and keeps you clean.
Bring your own toilet paper. The train’s supply seems to disappear within minutes.
Let go. This is Siberia and it’s incredible!