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Trans-Siberian Railway: My experience as an American tourist

Learn more about the Trans-Siberian first-hand from an American tourist's perspective

Travelling over 9200km from Moscow to Vladivostok in the far east of Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the most inspiring and challenging train journeys in the world. The route attracts tourists far and wide, and today, we will be hearing about one of our own customer’s experiences of the Trans-Siberian first-hand.

Memoir of my trip to Russia

I had always wanted to go and do the Trans-Siberian. The memories of my years of studying Russian at the U of I are very precious to me. I took over 50 credits in Russian and read all the great classic Russian novels, stories, poems and plays. My classes were conducted in Russian, so I could understand a lot. I have notebooks filled with notes in Russian. I was not a Communist, nor did I want to work for the CIA, I was just fascinated because this was the ultimate otherness—I wanted to understand it. But travel to the Soviet Union in those days was expensive and difficult. I didn’t have any money, nor was I really prepared to make such a trip. So, I got married and went to Colombia instead. That, of course, set my life to go in a different direction—a wonderful and very productive direction. But I still—in my heart of hearts—wanted to go to Russia.

 It took a lot of work to plan this trip. I went with my beloved friend Michelle and her boyfriend Mike. I couldn’t have gone without Michelle because I’ve lost most of my Russian, and Michelle was an invaluable companion and translator. I came to understand what I was seeing a lot better because Michelle was there to translate and, yes, to teach. But I did the first few days of the trip alone, and that was very important.

Moscow

Christ the Saviour Cathedral
Christ the Saviour Cathedral

I was picked up at the airport and duly deposited at the wrong hotel. This ended up not being very important because it was practically the only slip my travel agency made. But in the beginning, I felt a little doubtful. Michelle, Mike and Claire, Michelle’s friend with whom they were staying, came to see me the night of my arrival. It was so good to see them. I hadn’t seen Michelle for three years—since Richard died. My two tours were: first a riding tour and then a walking tour of the city. I had a wonderful guide, Alexander, who was handsome and very charming. Moscow is a very beautiful city. On the riding tour, we saw lots of beautiful buildings and parks and went inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Here, I got a lesson on the iconostasis, which is key to interpreting the themes of the church. For the walking tour, we went to the Kremlin, Red Square and Gum, the department store.

Arbat Street in Moscow
Arbat Street in Moscow

On the Moscow riding tour, I saw the Moskva River and its sites, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the New Maidens Convent, the Sparrow Hills and a lot more. The problem with all these kinds of tours is that you can’t necessarily remember all that you have seen. What I will say is that I really admired the architecture of a lot of the buildings. It was imaginative, and there was a lot of inventive decoration on the buildings. Russia is very green in July—full of beautiful trees and grass. There are a lot of parks and boulevards in Moscow. We went walking on the Arbat, which is a broad street closed to cars, and we had lunch at a typical Russian restaurant there on the Arbat. If I were more of a shopper, I would have had a ball shopping. Obviously, I could have spent a lot more time seeing Moscow, but this wasn’t that kind of trip, and so I moved on.

Vladimir, Suzdal and Bogolyubovo

Wooden Architecture Church in Suzdal
Wooden architecture church in Suzdal

Vladimir, Suzdal and Bogolyubovo are known as the Golden Ring and are about a 4-hour train ride from Moscow. They interest tourists because of the several buildings that remember the medieval period and Vladimir was, for a time, a capital of Russia in the 11th-12th centuries. In Suzdal, we saw the St. Efimius Monastery, which was founded in the 14th century and has extensive grounds. It is still an active monastery, and the bells play a small concert every hour on the hour. We also visited the Museum of Wooden Architecture, which features a series of buildings built in the style of a medieval village. Here you can visit houses where you can see the insides and get an idea of how people lived. I had always read in Russian novels of people sleeping on the stove; well here I got to see how that worked. There was also a wooden church, which was quite interesting. In Vladimir, we visited the very beautiful Assumption Cathedral, which was built in the 12th century, and we got to see some of Andrei Rublev’s work there. We also saw the Golden Gate, which was Vladimir’s defensive tower and triumphal arch.

I loved the room I stayed in Suzdal. It was a bit rustic with beautiful (what looked like) hand-painted wainscoting, chest and bench. I was really impressed.

Yekaterinburg

Church of Spilled Blood
Church of Spilled Blood

When I got on the train to Siberia, I met up with Michelle and Mike, and we made the rest of the trip together. I especially remember the Cathedral in Yekaterinburg because it is the Church on the Blood, located very close to where the Romanovs were murdered. Obviously, it is new and very beautiful. It has a lot of photographs of the Tsar and his family both in the church and in the small museum next to it. We also did a walking tour, saw the huge opera house and park and statues of heroic figures. Then we also went outside the city to a park and forest area where you can stand with one foot in Europe and one in Asia. This was important for me because this will probably be the only visit I make to the continent of Asia.

Novosibirsk

Pelmeni for Lunch
Pelmeni for lunch

Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia, but our tour was a bit of a disappointment. We missed the part of the tour (for our own reasons, which I can’t remember) where we were supposed to learn how to make pelmeni, a Russian dumpling. The next day we visited the home of the lady who made the pelmeni, and we had lunch. It was very interesting to visit a Russian home, and this one was lovely inside, it had been built by a talented architect and had interesting wood carving as part of the walls. It had a living room, sun porch, dining room, kitchen and bathroom downstairs and, I believe, two bedrooms upstairs. Then we were supposed to have a tour of the university there. Michelle and I are retired academics and would have enjoyed this kind of tour. Instead, our guide, who was probably the least interesting of all the guides we had during the trip, took us to the Dept. of Paleontology where a lecture and tour of the museum was being given in Russian. This was fine for Michelle, but Mike and I were left out. We did look at the exhibits, which were lovely and interesting but very limited; sadly, there was no other exposure to the university.

Irkutsk, Listvyanka, Lake Baikal

This was the high point of the trip for me. I’m sorry we did not spend some time in Irkutsk itself—Michelle and I would have liked to see the Decembrists’ houses and other sites, but we did have a lovely time elsewhere in this area. We visited Taltsy, the Museum of Architecture and Ethnography. Here we saw medieval buildings—houses, a church and other buildings. I also rode in a horse-drawn wagon and bought a necklace for Lux Marina. This was a wonderful experience and we heard part of a concert by choir members that was quite beautiful.

Train Along the Shores of Lake Baikal
Train along the shores of Lake Baikal

We stayed a couple of nights in a guest house in Listvyanka, which was right on the lake. We went to a banya which is like a sauna, but it was very hot for us and we didn’t stay that long, we did do some walking, however. Lake Baikal in the summer is like the Jersey shore for the Russians and they come to relax and have fun. Just as in many other places in Russia, there are lots of games, rides and other entertainments for children which I was particularly impressed with.

The high point was seeing Lake Baikal and spending time travelling alongside it. We had a beautiful day, and the lake was pristine, a few people were bathing in it, but not many as it was far too cold. I was not put off by the repetition of scenery—I enjoyed looking at the lake the whole day and we took a boat across a narrow crossing of the lake and then boarded a train, which went alongside the lake; It was magnificent and I took many pictures.

Ulan Ude

Unfortunately, the stay in Ulan Ude was kind of ruined by my illness. The night we got there I began to feel ill and had to wake Michelle up to help me get a doctor. Finally, when we did get to see the doctor, he wrote a prescription and there was no charge for the medical services—Amazing! We went to a pharmacy and got the medicine. I continued to be sick at my stomach for the rest of the night, and I had to rest the following day so we didn’t get to see the Buddhist monastery or the Old Believers’ village, I’m sorry to say.

While I was lying in bed feeling miserable, I toyed with the idea of buying a plane ticket and flying to Vladivostok, which was to be our last stop. Ulan Ude is two and a half days, three nights on the train from Vladivostok. That was to be the longest single train trip. And it was feeling a bit daunting.

Vladivostok

Vladivostok is a really beautiful city— a beautiful bay, a beautiful bridge, hilly streets. I really enjoyed my stay there. We visited a dacha and had lunch. The dacha was very simple—one room with a dirt floor and two bedrooms. We ate outside on a picnic table with an umbrella to shelter us from the sun. The outstanding thing here was the gorgeous vegetable garden with vegetables and flowers. The lunch was quite delicious—borshch, some kind of fritters made with zucchini and several other dishes. Before we left we were invited to use the facilities in a new, modern dacha that was being built nearby.

Michelle and Mike left the day before I did, so I used the last day to kind of prepare myself for the long trip back. I had a massage and a wonderful lunch (Probably the best meal I had in Russia.) The trip home was 22 hours and I was to leave at 8:40am on Saturday, Aug 3, travel for 22 hours and arrive at about 18:00pm on Saturday, Aug. 3. Amazing.

The train

Moscow to Vladivostok Train
Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok

I travelled 6,000 miles on the various trains, and, even though I wasn’t always comfortable, I was amazed by the Trans-Siberian railroad. It could travel hundreds of miles at a time, and it always arrived at the exact minute it was supposed to. The second-class compartments were very compact, but they easily fitted four people for riding and sleeping. You had to sleep in your clothes, but otherwise, the beds were comfortable. We had our meals in the dining cars, but we did not see Russians there. They would buy small packaged foods, like Ramen noodles, and eat them in their compartments. A dinner would cost about $10 in the dining car, but I think that was too expensive for the Russians.

The scenery in Western Siberia was birch forests, sometimes cultivated fields. The scenery in Eastern Siberia, where it gets even colder in the winter was meadows, a few trees, rivers, lakes and streams. Mountains in the distance. I did not get tired of the scenery and I will remember it for the rest of my life.

The Russian people

I came home very sad for the Russians. There was clearly a nostalgia for Soviet times in many quarters. In those days, people took care of each other, had enough to eat and somewhere to live. Now there was a sense of instability. We saw many small businesses, but my sense of things was that there was a lot of underemployment. People do not smile, although when you interact with them, they are very nice, helpful and pleasant to talk to. The housing looks very rudimentary and you see a lot of high-rise apartment buildings and a lot of ramshackle huts. Almost no middle-class houses, the kind we are used to. One of my friends commented that I didn’t take pictures of anything ugly. That is because for me the beautiful things are the real expression of the culture. I loved and appreciated the beautiful parks, gardens, buildings, rivers, churches, government buildings, etc. I saw so much to admire. I will always remember the ramshackle huts, but I want to preserve the beautiful things I saw and share them.

My Trans-Siberian experience

I was very happy with the trip. It was an overview, not an in-depth study. If I get to go again, I will go to St. Petersburg and stay for a few days, soaking up the culture. The travel agency did a good job. Our drivers and guides were very reliable. Except for the hotel in Ulan Ude, the hotels were excellent. One of the things I am very grateful for is that I never had to carry my very heavy suitcase. It contained my C-Pap machine and supplies for 22 days. Being a single woman of a certain age, I could count on my drivers to carry the suitcase. They were very kind. The places we visited were exactly right, and, although I am not ready for another train ride for a while, the Trans-Siberian was a once in a lifetime experience!

Thank you for reading! If this story has inspired you, why not begin customizing your own trip with our Trans-Siberian planner?

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