Javier Sinay travelled 5,793km across the iconic Trans-Siberian route (the whole thing measures 9,288km!), seeing unrivalled natural beauty, and finding himself equally entranced by the locals and travellers the route attracts. Here are a few excerpts from an article he originally published in La Nacion, telling the tale of his Trans-Siberian adventure.
The Tran-Siberian Train, sometimes called The Tran-Sib, isn’t a single journey. Its central route is 9,288km from East to West Russia, ending in Vladivostok, the great Russian port of the Pacific Ocean. The route is a collection of unforgettable images showing the changing and varied cultures of Russia. Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, home to the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude are some of the most memorable stops on the train. Ulan-Bator and Beijing appear beyond, like two intense epilogues.
The train was created at the end of the 19th Century, under the government of Tsar Alexander |||, to unite St. Petersburg and Moscow with Sibera, a giant region rich in resources, and the Pacific Coast. In 1891, some 90,000 workers, soldiers and prisoners, began the work of cutting roads, cutting down trees, digging tunnels and building bridges. It took 25 years to complete.
The rail foundations to Vladivostok cost around 330 million rubles, equivalent to 7,000 million dollars today. It was too much for a disappearing empire but China was expanding in the South, and though half the Russian territory was almost empty, the Tsar could not idly stand by. The train was inaugurated in 1916 and by then a war with Japan, in 1904 and 1905 had served as an early trial for rail utility.
With the passage of time, some 4 million people arrived in Siberia from the West to work in the new stations and in the budding infrastructure of a new steppe. Russia built the Trans-Siberian railway, and in return, the Trans-Siberian railway helped build Russia.
I’m travelling in a Platskartny car, the third class. The wagon has 54 bunks, without doors or divisions, a single plug to share, and no WiFi. There are almost no foreigners, instead local families, workers and soldiers travel. I carry a Russian to Spanish phrase-book and when I say “Ya iz Argentiny”, there are surprisingly long talks.
Zina is my travelling companion for the 900km journey between Yekaterinburg and Omsk. She’s a quiet, shy girl who studies Geography and lives in Omsk, near the Kazakhstan border. She was, in fact, raised in Petropayl, a city in Kazhakstan. I ask about Petropayl and her face lights up, she tells me it’s quiet with lots of trees.
We have the simple, nostalgic melody of the train as accompaniment while we talk, play chess and share sandwiches. Although one of the most repeated tips I heard was, “Do not accept Vodka from strangers on the train”, I do. On the last leg of my Trans-Siberian journey, I am the one with homemade vodka, a gift from a muzhik from Irkutsk, and offer it to strangers.
Anton, another neighbor, cannot believe I’m Argentinian and travelling on the Trans-Siberian train; Zina acts as our interpreter. It’s past 10PM and the train lights have gone out. We use our cell phones for light, and the sudden intimacy makes it seem like we’re huddled around a fireplace. Anton works in a river port processing fish. He tells me about his village, Ust-Ilimsk, where a hydroelectric dam operates. The nearest large city, Irkutsk, is 650km away. “Only a few hours’ journey”, he says, accustomed to the enormous Russian dimensions.
The forests we see occupy almost half of Russian soil, and here, in the middle of Siberia, they appear like an incessant image through the windows. We watch the spectacle of nature, hypnotized. The sights merge with the clank of the train in a small fragment of our lives that, with the reddish colours of the morning, look like a movie. I have learned to say, ‘Krasiva Siberia’.
The trains run along the Trans-Siberian railway all year round, as well as the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian railways. Whether you want to experience Ulan-Bator on the way to Beijing, or take in the immense natural beauty of Lake Baikal before heading to Vladivostok, Real Russia will be able to help. Who knows what friends you might make on the way?
In China, interacting with locals can be extremely tough – the toughest I’ve found in my travels in fact. But once you break the ice, you’re in. Like anywhere else in the world, a smile goes a long way. I was walking in the hutongs of Beijing (small alley neighbourhoods) and wearing a tank top because I was fortunate to get a few rare sunny, blue sky days. An older woman was sitting in one of the alleys and she pointed at me, and then at her shoulders. Clearly commenting on my tank top. I pointed to the sky and flexed my biceps, laughing, and wondering how, “sun’s out, guns out” translates in China.
I don’t think the phrase translated, but it didn’t stop her from laughing. I wonder what she thinks I was trying to say? It doesn’t matter. For the rest of the week, every time I walked down the hutong, there she was, in her chair. And whether I was in a tank top or covered up, each time I passed, her face lit up, she started laughing and tossed her flexed biceps in the air. Sometimes you don’t even need to speak a word to create a memory.
You would have to work extremely hard to get a cold reception in Mongolia. Everyone is smiling and everyone is happy to welcome you, especially into their gers (mobile homes, like a yurt). When looking for a place to stay in the desert, you don’t call ahead. You just turn up to a ger, if you can find one, and knock on the door. Mongolian culture values guests, and you will be taken in. But it doesn’t stop there – you’ll first be greeted with camel milk tea and a type of fried sweet cookie. I was with a group and every family that we stayed with was beyond generous, sharing their homes, food and spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people smile so consistently, and for so long.
One Mongolian in particular, smiled just a little extra as I cuddled one of his baby goats. The family had never hosted foreigners, so I’m sure they were amused at our fascination with the animals that surround them every day. He laughed at me with our guide. She told him how much I liked the goats and sheep and he perked up, quickly chatting to the guide. “If she likes the animals, she can have some! I have a son her age. She can move to Mongolia and she’ll get the animals AND a husband!”
Both the family and the group burst into laughter and I told him that I had to think about it. It’s not what I’m looking for, but aside from how tempting the landscapes and animals of Mongolia are, people who are as happy as Mongolians are the kind of people I want in my life.
An American traveling by train is a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, the United States severely lacks a sophisticated rail network. So, while I’d heard of the iconic Trans-Siberian railway, I couldn’t quite relate to the notion of traveling an entire country by rail. Thankfully that changed, all starting in Beijing.
Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided that I would be sure to experience each seating travel class throughout the journey, splitting it into several legs, so I’d have a true understanding of the different ways to travel by train. Would third class be so bad? Would first be that good? Time would have to tell.
I got my visa, started studying Russian, and booked the tickets. Though that wasn’t as easy as you might think. Especially starting in Beijing. I was glad to be working with a third party to purchase the tickets, because while I tried to buy them in person, I spent hours going from place to place in the city to end the day still without a ticket. China tends to be difficult for English speakers, and leaving is no exception.
I loaded up on snacks and drinks for the ride, not knowing what would be available on the train. In the US, everything is more expensive on planes and trains, so to avoid extra costs, I was stocked up. But I gave the dining car a chance and was pleasantly surprised. Appropriately from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the car served Chinese food, which switched at the border to a Mongolian car, and at the Russian border, to Russian food. All reasonably priced, and more importantly, a great representation of the local cuisine.
While I had a hard time shaking the urge to bring my own provisions for the ride, I can’t say it’s necessary.
I am officially a fan of rail travel. I write this while on a train. Way less security, train stations are closer to everything than airports, no mucking around with bags, people are friendly, food is good and you can sleep. I’m not sure what more one could want in their mode of transportation.
Thanks, Jessica for sharing your experiences onboard the world famous Trans-Siberian railway.
We have a well-established team of highly experienced travel specialists, who are happy to assist with your travel needs, or find your perfect destination within Russia and the surrounding countries. These are the people who make our company so special. Today let us introduce Igor, a Tour Operations Supervisor.
Igor Skorodumov joined Real Russia team in 2007. Igor has a Specialist’s Degree in Economics and, in addition to his native Russian, speaks three foreign languages, English, French and German. Whenever he has free time, he reads books, works in his country house (dacha), makes crafts at home, practices sports, takes photos etc.
He likes to travel and often travels with his family within Volgograd and Astrakhan regions of Russia, as well as further afield.
As Igor is a well-known enthusiast of travel within Russia, a fan of history and simply a ‘human encyclopaedia’, we decided to get straight to the point.
Which city in Russia is the most appealing for you ?
It’s a difficult question, because each city has its own authentic beauty, history, population, dialect etc. The further one goes away from Moscow, the more vivid the local character of the city becomes.
Apart from well-loved Moscow and St.-Petersburg, I would like to accent here four cities along the Trans-Siberian railways: Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Ulan-Ude.
Kazan is a mixture of past and present, Muslim and Christianity, with many stunning monuments on the Volga River. It is surprising to see how the different cultures, religions can coexist peacefully for several centuries. I think this is one of the “must-see” cities in Russia for those who want to dig deeper and see the 'real' Russia.
Against the Kazan Kremlin wall
Yekaterinburg is one of the cities that played the most important role in the history of the country. It is the city where the last tsar’s family was executed putting an end to Imperial Russia; it is the city where the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin was born; he was the one who put an end to the Soviet Union; there is a border line between Europe and Asia; it is the city that culturally can challenge St. Petersburg in the number of rock bands, musicians, composers and actors it has produced. The city is beautifully located South of the Ural Mountains. If you are making a stopover in this city, don’t miss a chance to taste Ural dumplings and walk along the streets that have preserved the style of the former Soviet Union.
Nestled along the Ob river, Novosibirsk depicts the grandeur of the Russian Empire: the biggest buildings being the railway station and the Opera House. Nowadays it is the scientific and intellectual centre of Russia. Siberian culture shows itself through the authentic meals, the way they are served and the way people communicate. There are lots of places to visit, for example, the Trans-Siberian railway museum, an Open-air Museum of locomotives and carriages, and the beautiful embankment of the Tsar Alexander III.
Ulan-Ude is the capital of Buryatia, and is striking to its visitors, with its colourful Buddhist buildings and traditional clothes. People here are very hospitable and friendly. The city has lots of featured buildings that absorbed both the local, and the Russian, cultures.
Where did you spend your last holiday?
My family and I went to the Russian analogue of the Dead Sea, the lake Baskunchak. We had a tour at Bogdo Mountain, a sacred mountain for people who believe in Buddhism (Kalmyks, Buryats, Mongols etc.).
Last year you embarked on the Trans-Siberian railway with other members of the Real Russia team. How could you describe your experience on the Trans-Siberian in three words?
Contrasts, knowledge and history.
What was the most impressive in your trip?
We had a chance to witness the contrasts between two continents- Europe and Asia, between three countries along the Trans-Siberian – Russia, Mongolia and China, and observe a variety of cultures and lifestyles, as every place we visited has its own character and story to tell. After an intense and history laden two weeks in Russia, Mongolia was very quiet and sparsely-inhabited. And then, just one night away by train, we were in heavily-populated China; another incredible change again.
Why do you think Mongolia captured you?
I expected it to be a totally new experience for me, however, it is there, in Mongolia, where I felt more like at home than anywhere in Russia. This feeling was intensified when we came to Terelj National Park. I enjoyed this authentic atmosphere of simplicity, hospitability and friendliness. This country has the authentic values and is developing at its own pace, thoroughly keeping its character.
Igor in Terelj National Park, Mongolia
What advice would you give to customers that are planning on travelling to Mongolia for the first time?
Well, I would suggest they be prepared for lots of walking (take comfortable sport clothes, sneakers etc.), exchange their currency for the local one to be able to give tips or buy some sweets to share (for example, when visiting Nomads).
For vegetarians, I suggest searching in advance for the restaurants or check with Real Russia travel specialists about places serving vegetarian food or, if tour is booked, then it should be noted beforehand, because meat is the main food in the country.
Why do you think the Trans-Siberian route is so popular among foreign travellers?
It is the longest railway in the world stretching through two continents, several time zones and different landscapes. It is the best way one can experience Russia, Mongolia and China, admiring through the window, sitting in a comfortable compartment on a train.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I like to listen to Rock music at a high volume when I am alone at home.
What are your favourite books?
Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, and ‘The Adventures of Werner Holtv’ Dieter Noll.
What do you love the most about Real Russia?
I love the most about Real Russia that it is a real team. Many of team members are from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries, and, nevertheless, we have the mutual supportiveness and dedication that make every day at work great. For me, we have a team of professionals that have been awarded the World Travel Award for being Russian’s Leading Travel Agent for last four years not by chance, but by hard work.
We thank Igor for squeezing us in, and look forward to introducing you to another member of our amazing team soon. Click here to find more series of our interviews!
Let us help you with your next adventure, contact our travel specialists.
Travelling abroad can be an exciting and enthralling experience. Absorbing the breath taking scenery, sampling local delicacies and viewing historical architecture is only half the excitement. Sharing your happiness with family and friends back home makes it that much more enjoyable.
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Cheap international calls from the Trans-Siberian
While you are relaxing in your cabin, appreciating the earth’s natural beauty, you can also share this unforgettable experience with family and friends by calling them cheaply. TravelSim allows the customer to call from Russia, China, Mongolia, Japan and other countries at affordable prices. Not only is TravelSim inexpensive, but it is also free to receive incoming calls and there are no monthly fees or contracts to sign.
Free Skype calls for family and friends
When a family member goes on holiday, calling them can be expensive. With free Skype calls, family and friends can enjoy calling their loved one for absolutely free!
TravelSim is now available to purchase from the Real Russia website.
It is a popular (mis)conception that border guards the world over can be officious, cold and unfeeling. This is particularly true of Russia and other states who have, historically, been quite closed off to the rest of the world. No doubt this has left more than one traveller a little concerned when the time came to interact with these guards. I certainly felt this way; particularly as I always seem to be the passenger who is randomly searched/checked!
So, how was my experience?
Remarkably good is the answer. Completely painless.
The ticket check shortly after leaving Helsinki was quick, easy and hassle free. I simply remained at my seat as a gentleman came and scanned my passport before offering me my migration card to fill in while we travelled.
The migration card, for those who do not know, comes in two parts. One that you offer to the Russian border guards on entering the country, and one that you will hand to the border guards when leaving. Both parts require your personal details, your passport number and who your sponsor is (the company from whom you received your invitation).
At Kouvola customs officials boarded the train and a black dog surprised me by running past my seat! While I am not 100% sure on why it was present – it could have been taking a short journey home – I imagine it was there to sniff out any illegal substances. The officials then proceeded to check everyone’s passport at their seats.
There is a customs declaration form that must be filled in while en-route if you have anything to declare. These are available in Finnish, Russian, Swedish and English from a leaflet rack within the carriage. A helpful guide as to what must be declared is also provided, and while the English translation was not perfect in places, it is very clear as to what items must be declared.
At Vainikkala, the Finnish border station, the train stopped for around five minutes allowing the Finnish border guards to disembark. The train then got underway for the Russian border!
Next came the process I feared most, the Russian border guards.
After crossing the border, the train stops at a small town called Vyborg where the Russian passport and customs officers are collected. From Vyborg to Saint Petersburg, the train is in a ‘customs control zone’. After a few minutes the officials started their checks along the train, with some checking what luggage passengers were transporting and the others checking passports, visas and the migration card that was issued earlier in the trip. The officials take the entry section of the migration card and then move on.
This whole process was much easier than I had expected. I did not have to leave my seat, or even open my bags. It was quick and very efficient. I feel slightly silly for being worried about the process.
At the beginning, I mentioned that I had concerns about this process. Many based on preconceived ideas (and some prior experience) of border guards. I am pleased to say I could not have been more wrong. I also saw no other passenger searched. Questions were asked of a few people, but nothing more involved or complicated than that.
So when crossing the border from Finland, sit back, relax, and take in the view!
P.S. One more thing, something I noticed while travelling through the Finnish countryside; there is a distinct lack of fences anywhere! I do not remember seeing any. In place of fences there just seemed to be ditches. Lots of ditches. It gave the small villages along the route a much more pleasant, open-plan feel than you would find many settlements in Europe!
Have you crossed the border on the Allegro? Have you crossed going in the other direction? Have you entered Russia via any other land border? Share your experience below or on Facebook.
Russian Railways, RZD, have announced a change to the current schedule of one of their most famous trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As of the 26th May 2013 the Rossiya Train #2 will leave at the new time of 13:50, making the departure time around 10 hours earlier than before (23:45).
The Rossiya service is one of the most popular trains along the Trans-Siberian route, running from Moscow to Vladivostok. Departing every-other day, you can enjoy one of the longest and most spectacular train journeys in the world.
If you have planned, or are planning, a Trans-Siberian trip and would like further information then do not hesitate to contact a member of our travel team who are happy to help.
On Monday, it was announced that as of May 2013, Russian Railways will trial duty free shopping on board international Russian trains, complimenting the summer timetables. Initially, the service will only run on the Moscow – Kiev route and then after a year, if the project is successful, it will be implemented on other international routes such as the Allegro service between St Petersburg and Helsinki.
In addition, it has been planned that duty free shops will also be opened by Russian Railways in train stations that serve international routes. The first station to benefit from a duty free shop is St Petersburg’s Vyborsky and Finlyansky stations; however if successful, duty free will be introduced into all other Russian Railways terminals with international links.