Why are you going on the Trans-Siberian railway in winter when it’s dark and cold?’ asked my friend Jon. ‘And why are you starting from Vladivostok, the wrong end?’
These were good questions and there were several more to consider too, such as exactly which Trans-Siberian route to take.
For this railway is not one but several that have been built at different times. As well as the most famous Moscow-Vladivostok route, there is the Trans-Mongolian through Ulan Bator to Beijing. And, to the north, the Baikal Amur railway runs parallel to the Trans-Siberian through even more sparsely populated parts of Siberia.
There is also the question of which train to take. A variety of local services – and in this instance, local means covering anything up to 3,000 miles – operate on some sections of the route. But the Rossiya is certainly a cut above the rest.
It runs the entire 5,700 miles between Vladivostok and Moscow and has TVs in every compartment, comfortable beds, excellent lighting and toilets that don’t give you a brief but chilling view of the tracks every time you flush. That said, it is much more expensive than the other services.
Another consideration is in which class to travel. Do you enjoy the solitude of the two-bed rooms of first class, or share with random (and mostly friendly) Russians in the four-bed compartments of second class? There is even a third-class section, a vast carriage shared by about 40 people.
Finally there is the hardest decision of all – where to stop? There are a dozen major alternatives but only one certainty: do not attempt the journey as a single six-and-a-half-day trip. That would mean missing out on discovering a range of cultures that waver between Asian and European.
After much seeking of advice, we chose to stop at Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg.
Starting from the east is definitely a good idea – a ten-hour internal flight from Moscow means you get the jet-lag over in one go, and Vladivostok actually does not feel like Siberia.
Its position on the coast means that it rarely gets much snow and it bustles with cheap cars imported from Japan. Its most famous tourist attraction is a funicular built in 1962. It trundles half a mile up a hill, then deposits you to walk through a system of litter-strewn subways under a roundabout before you reach a fabulous vantage point over the Golden Horn Bay, from where you get an idea of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
In truth, Vladivostok is a place in which to acclimatise rather than to linger, a place to anticipate the journey ahead.
Our train for the initial 62-hour trip to Ulan Ude left at 10.30pm – the easternmost part of the journey is always undertaken at night because it runs next to the sensitive Chinese border. As we walked along the platform to find our carriage, at the bottom of each set of carriage steps we passed a conductress standing guard.
The one at our carriage was rather beautiful and dressed in a doublebreasted dark military coat, long black boots and a cloche hat over long dark hair. She was fierce, though, demanding our ‘dokumenti’ and spending ages comparing our passports with our tickets before motioning us on with a curt jerk of her head.
To the relief of my partner Deborah, we had a second-class compartment to ourselves, and we went to bed excited at the prospect of waking up in the middle of the steppe. In the morning, the bleak scenes of forest interspersed by a land that gives new meaning to the word ‘vast’ did not disappoint – but the breakfast did.
When we saw that our ticket entitled us to three meals, we thought it meant breakfast, lunch and dinner. It actually meant just lunch on the three days of the trip to Ulan Ude.
So, expecting breakfast on that first morning, we went into the dining car – complete with white ruched synthetic curtains – only to find it empty apart from a waiter and two women.
We asked for porridge or eggs but got bread with cheese and strawberry jam instead. However, our bill came to a staggering 560 roubles, or £11. So that’s why the dining car was empty!
Fortunately, one of the features of the journey is regular half-hour stops to change crew or to make safety checks. These breaks allow passengers to wander into the stations, where stallholders sell bread and cheese. Occasionally there were stalls selling buuza – mutton dumplings that ooze delicious gravy when pierced.
The on-board lunches were passable and included tasty chicken broth. At the end of the compartment was a samovar, an ancient hot-water tank with a few Heath Robinson additions, where everyone could fill their tea glasses. We settled into a routine of watching the endless steppes and playing Scrabble, but the voyage was not uneventful. Once we watched our conductress ejecting a drunken man from his compartment. She propelled him along the corridor to the restaurant car, from where he was thrown out at the next station.
On the second day, the scenery improved as the snow settled and the sun made an appearance for the first time. The endless silver birches – planted as a windbreak next to the line – looked beautiful in the pale sunlight. Even ramshackle wooden dachas, the weekend homes that almost every Russian seems to own, looked pretty when covered in snow, while the adjoining river was frozen into ice sculptures.
That night we were woken when two young men were ushered into the spare beds in our compartment. That was the end of our solo travel, as on all the remaining sections of the journey we shared the accommodation with a variety of Russians. We mostly communicated in sign language and the odd word of English or Russian.
Ulan Ude turned out to be a good choice for a stop-off. The town centre was relatively free of cars and also featured the largest stone head of Lenin in the whole country, leavened by a piece of mischief on the part of the artist who gave him cross-eyes. In a small cafe, a young woman heard our broken Russian and helped translate the menu.
The second section of our adventure, between Ulan Ude and Irkutsk, was undertaken in daylight and proved the most attractive of the whole experience. Irkutsk was also a good choice as a stop-off. Some of the best features of the town were destroyed during Stalin’s reign, but there are still impressive churches, a trio of museums, and an elegant walkway by the river.
The highlight was a trip to Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, Asia’s largest lake and one of the world’s deepest.
We walked along the road that skirts the shoreline and came to a village with lots of old wooden houses painted in a variety of traditional colours – Siberian blue, pale green and turquoise – and adorned with lovely wooden shutters.
On the way back, we saw a cafe by the side of the road and ventured in without much hope – but surprisingly it gave us a unique experience. There was a large party there, some of whom had guitars, and suddenly they started playing and singing what must have been Russian folk songs. It was a truly moving scene.
Next stop for us was Novosibirsk, where the station, one of the grandest in Russia, is truly impressive. However, our final stop-off, Yekaterinburg, was a huge disappointment. We had decided to go there as it was where the last Tsar and his family, the Romanovs, were murdered in 1918, but there is no museum to mark the event, only a hideous cathedral built after the collapse of communism and adorned by pictures of the family who have been beatified by the Russian orthodox church.
We felt afterwards that we should have stopped at a more modest-sized place to savour the atmosphere of small-town Russia.
It was something of a relief when we finally got to Moscow, as it is one of the great cities of the world. It is definitely worth spending more than a couple of days there.
So what about the experience of the Trans-Siberian in winter on non-tourist trains? Sharing compartments with people in second class was a mixed experience. We met Vadim, a dog-handler with the Vladivostok police, who was fun, but then there was the huge and almost immobile Mrs Babushka, who had personal hygiene issues and snored.
Overall, my advice would be to mix things up. Make sure some of the trip is undertaken on the Rossiya, but don’t insulate yourself from the authentic Russian experience by booking it all the way through.
I can also recommend completing the trip in November. Siberia, after all, is associated with cold and it is interesting to see how life is conducted under these extreme temperatures. And the train, it seems, is never delayed. If only services in Britain were as reliable.