Russia – Discover the Unknown

Travelling on a Trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to Moscow

Walking down the street, I came face to face with a bus heading for
downtown Seoul. Normal you might think – except that we were in
Vladivostok, not Seoul, and at the start of the Trans-Siberian train
route ! Vladivostok’s proximity to Korea and Japan mean that most of
its vehicles are imported from these countries (in the latter case it leads
to right-hand drive cars driving on the right-hand side of the road …).
After three days exploring the city (which was forbidden to foreigners
until 1991) Vincent and I went to the station to discover the train in
which we were going to spend the next 70 hours non-stop as far as
Irkutsk, our first stop (non-stop the train journey would last 146 hours
end to end). We had two months holiday to look forward to, and the
first two weeks would be spent travelling the Trans-Siberian across
Russia, the world’s largest country, back to Europe.

By the way, there’s no regular train called ‘The Trans-Siberian’ (which is
the common term for the train route), rather a series of working trains
that run east- or west-bound all or part of the way between Moscow
and Vladivostok. The railway runs 9289 km from Vladivostok to Moscow,
making it both the world’s longest train route and the longest domestic
train route.

We soon settled into life on the train. Trans-Siberian trains are
comfortable rather than luxurious. Average speed is just 69 kph. Time
passed reading, watching the view, eating, watching the view, listening to
music, watching the view, and learning to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet
in order to read station names. (As we don’t speak Russian we’d used the
services of a specialised agency to book the train tickets and hotels, but
once in Russia we were totally independent). We also spent a lot of time
adjusting our watches as the train travels through seven time zones –
but all the timetables run on Moscow time. This often led to some
complicated mental arithmetic!

We travelled through mile upon mile of steppe and taiga (more than 30%
of the world’s trees grow in Siberia), past villages whose average
January temperature is -33°C. Contrary to popular belief, however,
summer in Siberia is scorching. In these conditions it was difficult to
believe that the tipsy-looking telegraph poles we saw were caused by
year-round permafrost.

Washing (shared ‘bathroom’; no shower, no hot water, no sink plug !) was
both gymnastic and perfunctory. Feet braced against the train’s rocking,
you had to avoid your personal belongings falling down the toilet hole, all
the while holding the hand basin’s tap down with one hand to get a
trickle of cold water. And beware of needing the toilet at the wrong
time – they were closed for thirty minutes before and after all stops …
I enjoyed descending from the train whenever our provodnitsa (carriage
attendant) allowed us to, getting some exercise by walking up and down
the platform during short stops. I think I gave Vincent a few grey hairs
as I was invariably the last person back on the train before it moved off
again with no warning!

Thanks to the samovar in every carriage and its unlimited supply of hot
water, our diet was very varied in the train … it varied between instant
noodles, instant pasta, instant mashed potato … . Although there is a
restaurant wagon on every train our initial trips there didn’t make us
want to return. At our stop-off points (Irkutsk, Novosibirsk,
Yekaterinburg) food was delicious : omul (a fish only found in Lake
Baikal), pelmeni and vareniki (types of filled dumplings), blinis, borscht
all washed down with kvas (a beer-like brew made from fermented
bread, yeast, malt sugar and water), and the occasional vodka. On train
platforms we bought cucumbers, boiled eggs, tomatoes, and even cooked
pine cones from babushkas.

Irkutsk, a former Siberian exile point, is now a gateway to Lake Baikal,
64 km away, where we went scuba-diving in water at 4°C. Lake Baikal is
the world’s deepest, biggest lake, with 20% of the world’s fresh water.
In Irkutsk we also came across the first Western tourists we’d heard
since we’d left Seoul six days previously. Back in the train for ‘only’
thirty hours, our next port of call was Novosibirsk, Russia’s geographical
centre and the sprawling capital of Western Siberia. Later, a trip of
only 21 hours brought us to Yekaterinburg for a day, infamous as the
place where the Romanovs were murdered, where we stood with one foot
either side of the Europe-Asia boundary marker. Twenty-six hours later,
after travelling through the Urals we arrived in our final Russian
destination of Moscow, where we spent several days visiting in the
company of a Russian friend from Seoul – including the Bolshoi Theatre !
All too soon it was time to move on to the rest of our journey in the UK
and France – unfortunately by plane !

content submitted by Catharine Smart (a Go Russia customer)

2 thoughts on “Travelling on a Trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to Moscow

  1. Vincent

    Great journey across Russia last year !
    The train allows you to rest while watching the landscape and actually seeing the country between point A and point B. That’s so rare nowadays when we often travel by plane…
    This year, we travelled on the Transmongolian from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (1357 km), and travelled on to Xi’an(910 km), Xining (892 km) and Lhasa (1957 km) by train.
    And we finished our trip in China taking the train from Shanghai to Beijing (1464 km).
    Total 6580 km !

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