This is the story of the most incredible journey I ever had. Finally at home, I try to put in order all the memories of places and encounters during the almost 8,000 Kilometers across Europe and Asia with the Trans-Siberian Express. The actual Trans-Siberian is exactly 9,289 km from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, being the longest railroad on the planet. You can take this route as well, but I will tell you about the variation more precisely told Trans-Mongolian. It starts in Moscow and ends in Beijing. Crossing Siberia, Mongolia and China is more than just a trip through two continents and seven time zones. At its end one has the feeling that it was a trip through space and time in a larger sense.
Tsar Alexander III started he building of the Trans-Siberian in 1890. His son, the last Russian Tsar Nikolay II finished it in 1916. It was a technological and geostrategic achievement equal to the building of the Panama channel. For just few decades it transformed Russia into the richest industrial power on the verge of the World War I because of the access to the immense natural resources of Siberia. But even more, this was the only land road to Japan and China. I am telling you all these facts to prepare you for the immenseness of this trip. You will see places related to dramatic historical events and even fictional stories like “Doctor Zhivago”.
But let’s start from the day one. Moscow itself is a place where you can spend days discovering the beautiful sites of the Russian capital. Yet the interesting part starts on the Yaroslavsky Train Station. Train is a common way of transportation and the atmosphere is like the one in the first years of the Trans-Siberian. Well, it is perhaps much more comfortable, even if you travel Second class. There are no special cars or compartments for the tourists and you mix with the locals. I find it one of the most charming parts of this journey. The real way to discover a place or a country is through its people.
Restaurant in the train
In the restaurant of the train or in the corridors you meet the most incredible mix of characters. This is the best way to spend the next three days on the way to Irkutsk. You get off the train for a while when it stops on the big stations like Perm or Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk. You can buy food or drinks next to your train. Still, my advice is to avoid experiments with cooked meals. Few apples or fresh veggies from an old lady will make your day.
Old lady with apples
If you take the True Trans-Siberian route, you will stop for a day in some of these cities. There are plenty of interesting places to discover. Like the obelisk close to Yekaterinburg, marking the geographical border between Europe and Asia. Or the monastery with five wooden churches built in 2000 near the town at the burial place of the last tsar Nikolay II and his family, killed by bolsheviks there in 1918.
But my route leads me to Irkutsk. The city lies on the banks of Angara River where river Irkut flows into it some 70 kilometers from Lake Baikal. Just to imagine how huge this 600 kilometers long lake is, you have to figure out that it contains a fifth of our planet’s fresh water. After 5,153 kilometers in the train, traveling most of the time through endless birch forest and the taiga, I arrive in Irkutsk in the evening. I am totally disoriented because of the time difference and need to look at the map to understand exactly how far I am from my starting point.
The next day is dedicated to a city tour and a visit to the picturesque village of Listvyanka. If you are familiar with Russian history or love the works of Pushkin, you would know who the Decembrists are. Irkutsk is the place where these noble rebels to the regime of the Tsar, close friends of the great poet were sent as convicts. The house where they were living, part of the old prison fort is today a museum worth visiting.
Restored Wooden House in Irkutsk, Russia
I don’t know if I like Listvyanka. It is a lakeside village located on the spot where the river Angara leaves Lake Baikal. Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of the nature, the wooden houses and the charming wooden church are fine. Even the trip from Irkutsk with the ferry is calming and filled with joy of the sites. But the place is overtaken by tourist industry with all the souvenirs on the port market and the noisy crowds. Perhaps, if this was all I saw from Baikal, I would be more generous in my judgment, but my journey didn’t stop there. From Listvyanka our group of travelers took boat to the little village of Bolshie Koty. It is just an hour away from Listvyanka, but what a difference!
Bolshie Koty for me is the hidden gem of the entire Trans-Siberian journey. First, it is popular mainly to local tourists and access is almost only by boat. There is a tourist track from Listvyanka, but it is a good couple hour hike along the beautiful and sometimes difficult tiny track. There is something magical when you approach the village by boat. It is situated in a little valley divided by a small river. On both sides the valley is squeezed by two steep hills. One of them is the 200 meter high Skripper Cliff. Climbing Skripper worth the effort because of the most wonderful views to the lake and the ancient cave on its top.
House In Bolshie Koty
But the strange and charming absurdity of Bolshie Koty comes from its inhabitants. The village is home to the Botanic Institute of the Baikal Commission to the Russian Science Academy. This scientists community was created in 1918 and still today, most of the hosts of the private houses where a tourist can stay are working in the Institute. This unusual profile of your hosts makes the experience even more memorable. After a long walk and a Russian “banya” (like the Scandinavian sauna) you can have a talk with your host about the origins of Universe, about poetry or philosophy. This, combined with the encounter of the taiga and the magnificent lake wild beauty, makes it an emotional moment. After the steamy “banya” you can refresh yourself in the lake. The water even in the summer months is not warmer than 7-8 degrees Celsius and you should be prepared for the chill. Finish the long day with a cup of tea with the local magic plant “sahan-dalya”. Like the ginseng, this tiny plant is adding strength to the body and can be added to your tea or coffee. It is a protected plant, but it can be found only in this region and if you use it just for a cup or two, it will not harm the nature.
Wonderful summer day, lake Baikal
You can visit Lake Baikal in the winter and go through the whole adventure, experience the beauty of Siberian winter. The lake is frozen and its surface becomes a roadmap. You will be then traveling by bus on the ice to another magical place – the island Olkhon. But this is a story I will tell you some other time.
After two days in Bolshie Koty, it is time to catch the train again. Back to Irkutsk, the train takes me along the south end of the lake and through the border to the Mongolian capital – Ulan Bator. It is a different world. You can feel it even on the Russian side, when crossing the federal region of Buryatia you encounter for the first time with Buddhist culture.
Discovering Mongolia is another story I must tell you in details some other time, my fellow Traveler. Yet the Trans-Siberian journey wouldn’t be complete without the magnificent two days in Terelj.
Nomadic Ger, Mongolia
After a night in Ulan Bator, I take the road to the National Park Terelj. It is situated in a valley some 70 kilometers from the capital. You stay and sleep in a traditional Nomad ger. You enter in the world of Mongolian nomadic way of life still most of the population follows. Riding horses, hiking and learning about the culture and traditions of the Nomads is the second surprise I discovered during this journey.
Crossing the border with China is a moment you will remember. All former Soviet republics and Mongolian trains have broad railway gauge, incompatible with the standard in China and Europe. Hence, entering China there is a technical stop.
Gauge Changing, China Border
After a day and a half trip from Ulan Bator I arrive at the final point of my trip – Beijing. But this is not the end of the journey. Take few extra days to have enough time not only for the tourist sites, but explore real Beijing with the old town narrow streets and blocks, called “hutongs”.
The Great Wall will be there, crowded with tourists for many years to come. Yet this part of the town, bearing the true atmosphere of old Beijing is disappearing little by little.
Dear Traveler, it is difficult in just few lines to tell you about one of the most spectacular journeys. So, I will share again and again stories and memories of the Trans-Siberian railway adventure.