So, what did she experience on the world’s most famous rail journey?
We booked on the Rossiya, the flagship of the Trans-Siberian. Interestingly, for staff benefit, no matter how many time-zones we passed the train kept to Moscow time – this is crucial to understand when using the restaurant car!
The Rossiya was home for four days, we travelled hundreds of miles with ever-changing scenery. From the riches of central Moscow we noticed changes in housing immediately, memorably an estate of pink houses with marshmallow like roofs.
As we made a stop at its grand station, I concluded in hindsight I would have liked to have stopped at Yekaterinburg, famously where the massacre of the Romanov Royal family took place. Now memorialised in a little church a little way out of the city.
We arrived at Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, to see Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. We booked a day trip to Lake Baikal from Irkutsk by taxi. As it came into view the site was immediately breath taking, on one side of the lake was a seaside complex and on the other majestic mountains loomed large.
Serene Lake Baikal – a jewel of the Trans-Siberian
Ulan-Bator, Mongolia’s capital, the land of Genghis Khan. We arrived at 5.45am to the most glorious sunrise. 1.5 million people live in Mongolia, and 1 million of them live right in the capital. A huge golden god oversees the capital and is worth a morning trek. Mongolia is known as the ‘land of sky’, nothing but miles and miles of horizon. We found four more travel companions and hired a jeep and driver, who would also be our chef for the next six days to head into the Gobi. At the time, there were no roads to the Gobi; only well used scrubland tracks with flocks of sheep, goats and camels that scattered when our jeep appeared. We stayed in local yurts along the way and our meals were rice with goat meat, only horse milk was available.
Our train was now the Trans-Mongolian, a proud engine with 16 coaches. As night descended the train pulled into a huge factory-type complex. My daughter said, ‘I feel like I’m going up’; we drew back the curtain to find ourselves 10ft in the air, supported by hawsers, as the men below changed the wheels from 8’ to 6’. Foreign trains could not use China’s tracks without this change.
We arrived in Beijing and stayed in the Old City. We explored Tiananmen Square, with the huge photo of Chairman Mao being the meeting place for all tours and taxis. We visited the Forbidden City, home of China’s emperors for 500 years. We climbed part of the Great Wall whose route we had already followed along the train journey from Mongolia. We experienced a cultural evening of song, dance and food. We visited a silk factory and finally, a jade factory.
We left Beijing after 4 days and travelled to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta army. It was impressive, each face unique, the detailing intricate. Our guide pointed out though sometimes described as life-size, being made around 2,200 years ago they would have been huge compared to the population, therefore formidable guardians to protect the emperor in the afterlife.
We visited a Rescue Centre for pandas, after an hour of waiting Bam Bam appeared right in front of us. He put on a tree climbing display for half an hour before shuffling back into the undergrowth.
Shanghai was a beautiful modern city where we stopped for 3 days before Hong Kong, our final destination.
We climbed to Victoria Park on the funicular railway revealing a stunning harbour view; and visited the oldest Taoist temple in the world where a local shaman will put a curse on the head of your enemies at £4 a head. You will also find the third largest Marks and Spencer in the world, constructed in adherence to Feng Shui naturally.
We did a whole island tour by coach and sampan, Hong Kong was beautiful, the temperature is never lower than 15 degrees throughout the year.
We flew back to Heathrow, my dream holiday over. We had physically traversed over a third of the planet by train.
Where would you go?
Part two of this ‘Customer Tale’ takes place as our intrepid customers leave Moscow and head east into Siberia, visiting the beautiful Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk.
If you didn’t, let’s continue this tale!
By the time our departure day arrived we had begun to feel a part of Russian life in that area, and knew we would miss it. However we were excited for the next leg which was on the train of course. We were impressed and grateful for Rita getting us to the station and even onto the train with our luggage before leaving us. We would not have managed this alone. A big thanks to her. I have emailed her in the meantime, as well.
Dining car aboard train number four
I had an idea what to expect from the train from pics you had sent me, so was not surprised to find the compartment quite small, but the wooden panelling was nice and we had our own shower hand basin attached and a flask in our cupboard to fill at the samovar. A disappointment that the water came out at a trickle in the hand basin which also meant we could not shower either. I was not too fazed about this, but I think Charles was! We brought along a big supply of wipes and found we did not really get dirty on the train, I liked the fact it was not exactly as we expected and found it added to the adventure, but I think for some that would have been a problem. I needed to unwind from the time before we left on the trip and catch up on some daily notes and just feel all pressures fall away. I loved the movements and sound of the train, which incidentally reminded me of my school days when I attended a boarding school far from my home. We used to catch the train to school each term. I was interested to note that we travelled on both electric and steam trains. The dining car on our first train was nice, and we had a taste of Russian matriarchal dominance, but once Natalia had gotten used to us I think she quite liked us! I was able to take a few pictures on the train through a partially open passage window and was grateful for that. Managed to capture a few nice ones that will forever remind us of this train trip. I enjoyed our neighbours in the other compartments of our carriage, all of them going straight through to Beijing without a break in-between as we were doing. I imagine they may have been a little envious when we got off after 3 days. I think 6/7 days at a stretch without a break could have become tedious.
Our driver was waiting for us with a sign saying MRS ALLEN & 1! And we were whisked away for an hours’ drive through Irkutsk to Listvyanka. I had visualized being right alongside Lake Baikal in what I consider to be a chalet, but equally nice was Nikolay’s Cabin, which is actually a part of his house, and about a kilometre from the Lake. We were well looked after, meal wise, and Erene even did two big laundry washes for us. A lovely setting in a small valley with forests on either side. The front to Lake Baikal and the small town was not terribly interesting except for the Lake itself and the boats.
A walk along the shores of Lake Baikal
Little did we know we were to experience some beautiful views of Lake Baikal and endless birch forests on our ‘Easy Hike around Listvyanka’ – a complete surprise as it was not an easy walk at all, but quite a strenuous hike. Alex was very professional and accommodating and went the extra mile by carrying with him the food and utensils he would need to provide for us what we would consider a 5 course picnic, with typical Russian fare, including soup and tea! We were astounded. And, I was so hot after the 5km hike through the forest that I decided then and there, as we got to the beach that I was going to swim in Lake Baikal, no matter how cold it was. What an absolute highlight for me. How many people can claim to have swum in Lake Baikal! We were very tired when we got back and Alex had said good-bye, almost too late to catch the bus back to Irkutsk. And then that night we experienced Banya – my word! We assumed it would be a regular sauna the way we know it from our gyms over here. Not at all, Nikolay led us through the whole process in great detail. Without resisting we followed through and were quite alarmed to know the temperature was over 90 degrees in the Banya, unheard of in our part of the world. How wonderful to experience something truly, uniquely Russian. Never to be forgotten! I was covered in bright red blotches overnight but did not feel worried, and in the morning it had cleared!
Ivan drove us back to Irkutsk and launched straight into our tour of the city. Once again very intense and informative, luckily I can look up names and dates on the internet of cathedrals and statues which were pointed out, as we could never have absorbed all the facts given out. Different architecture and feel to the city compared to Moscow, and we learnt of the importance of Irkutsk in Russian history.
Our hotel was well situated too Alla, thank you. We did a lot of walking in Irkutsk and almost got lost once. Luckily we had a map and Charles was good at getting us to where we wanted to be. Very interesting was the statue of Alexander III who commissioned the building of the Trans Siberian Railway, that was pertinent to me. And the Angara River, deep and faster flowing that the Moskva, was interesting to know that it linked with the Yenetsei, which we crossed while on the train, and then on to the Arctic Sea.
And part two comes to a close. If this has inspired you, why not take a look at the tour that Helen and Charles took through Russia, our Discovery Range Siberian Eye tour.
Check back soon for part three, as the train draws ever closer to China’s incredible capital, Beijing!