There are lots of choices to make before taking the Transsiberian, the world’s longest railway which stretches 5750 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. There are in fact several routes as there is a line down through Mongolia down to Beijing and another line, the Baikal Amur Mainline, that goes north of Lake Baikal over the permafrost of northern Siberia.
Then there is the decision over which way to travel, eastwards or westwards. There is, too, the choice of train. There are special tourist luxury services in the summer costing upwards of £5,000 for a two week journey compared with normal trains that can cost as little as £300 in second class where there are four in a sleeping compartment. There is even a choice of what type of ordinary train. The Rossya, the prestige Russian Railways train, which is number 1 from Vladivostok and number 2 from Moscow offers better facilities than the other services. First class where there are just two beds in the compartment costs double.
More dilemmas: what places should one stop at? Should one order meals? And what time of year should one go in? The experience of travelling in the brief summer is markedly different from the white winter but do be reassured that the heating on the trains is efficient, even too much so. It could be otherwise when the temperature outside can easily reach – 40C.
My advice is to do pretty much what my partner Deborah and I did last November. We flew to Vladivostok and spent a couple of days recuperating and marvelling at the fact that we were seven time zones from Moscow which is in the same country. We then took ordinary service trains in second class, which meant we share at times with the always friendly and charming locals who were ever eager for us to try their food and ply us with vodka.
We stopped at four places – Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. The first two were the best and in truth were we to do the journey again, we would want to stop at a smaller place than these growing metropolises. Ulan Ude feels like an Asian city and boasts the biggest bust of Lenin’s head while Irkutsk is a short bus ride from Lake Baikal, by far the most scenic part of the route. On the other hand, Novosibirsk, a city created by the railway, is bleak, though it does have a railway museum, and Yekaterinburg, where the last tsar and his family were murdered, has the ugliest cathedral in Russia built in his memory.
Nevertheless, breaking up the six and a half day journey is essential. Even the disappointing places had their rewards and their rich, often tragic, history. Skip the on-train food, which was pretty poor – and at times non existent – apart from the soups (‘fish, chicken, pig’ was the waiter’s constant refrain) and instead buy supplies in advance and at the stations where sometimes local babushkas offer cheap specially prepared meals. Keep an emergency stock of the various local versions of pot noodles and bring your own tea, as there is a samovar with endless supplies of hot water in every carriage.
Do sample the superior Rossya, which runs three times per week, at least once. As for time of the year, November was great, cold enough for the landscape to be white but not yet the – 40C that freezes nasal fluids. It also ensure there were no other tourists. Going westwards, reclaiming the time slowly is definitely best as the coming back from the distant east is the terrible return journey to the UK through 10 or 11 time zones.
Go too without expectations. This is not a beautiful scenic railway winding through rural Russia. It is a big railway, the lifeline of Siberia and travelling on it provides an insight into one of the most remote and fascinating regions of the world. But definitely go on the line – it is a railway journey like no other. And for an encore, try the Baikal Amur Mainline, more remote, less populated, few tourists even in summer and a real adventure.