From Russia, With Love

From Russia, With Love

Go on the adventure of a lifetime onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Sumitra Senapaty
October 17 , 2021
14 Min Read

I did not embark on this ride with any hope for luxury and style. The Trans-Siberian train certainly does not offer too many creature comforts: primitive heating (coal fire), bunk beds, pelmeni and borscht for food and a lack of showers make for a certain kind of charm that doesn’t appeal to everyone. The lack of internet connectivity and limited facilities for charging your phone are blessings, because you are forced to disconnect from your devices. But everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, possibly on account of some Russian champagne, along with snatches of conversations, interspersed with cat naps every now and then. It is getting back to basics in the best possible way. Without bathing, you quickly sport a new look, chugging along with unkempt hair and the bonhomie of a footloose spirit.

The iconic Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg

After a few days spent gazing at the iconic sites of Moscow, watching the Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake, and marvelling at the luxe chandeliered Metro, it’s time to board the high-speed Sapsan to St Petersburg. Here, we hire a boat to traverse the canals the way Peter the Great did, see the awe-inspiring Hermitage Museum, admire ornate Fabergé eggs, and people-watch on the bustling avenue of Nevsky Prospect. In total contrast is the long Siberian odyssey in the second-class compartment of the legendary Trans-Siberian train, a journey that is set to take us across Russia and Mongolia.

A cook takes a break at a station onboard the Trans-Siberian Rail

Life in most modern cities makes you forget what excitement is. But onboard the Trans-Siberian, there is a huge smile on my face at the thought of being able to boast about this. For the rest of my life! The cushioned seats have bright green upholstery and clean, crisp sheets. There are reading lights and a huge window. This is going to be our living quarters for the next few days. As the train leaves behind the city lights and enters rural Russia, the scene changes dramatically. We see small villages, little streams and few houses as the population remains sparse in Siberia. There are Soviet-era buildings, most likely remnants of factories and depots. I begin my journey arm in arm with Doctor Zhivago, believing that I will read it cover to cover during my days on the train. In reality, I don’t even manage to open the book, let alone read it, for I am content looking out of the train window and seeing the world go by. The dining car is, of course, my preferred spot on the train.

We stop at Taiga station for three minutes. And the train rolls on...

Like excited teens, we try to get off at every station but are stopped by the carriage caretakers when they feel that there is insufficient time. There is barely a smile on their faces, probably an acknowledgment that this area of the world isn’t always the easiest to live in. The winters are long and cold. The summers are short and, well, cold. But there’s life out here, in cities such as Novosibirsk, with its enormous Opera House and bustling local markets, and Irkutsk, with its gold-domed churches. The train crew stokes the coal at the carriage entrance for the fires to burn more fiercely, and our compartment gets rather warm and cosy quickly.

We stop at Zima station for 30 minutes. And the train rolls on...

Silver birch trees enroute

Miles are devoured by the train, tall, silver birch trees standing guard along the way. People stop to exchange brief pleasantries, passing back and forth to the toilet or the samovar, where hot water is available all day. I had heard about the babushkas selling stuff on the train and on the platform, but nothing really interesting turns up. Here, time does not matter. The train runs on Moscow time, but the local stations are tuned into their respective local time zones. Confusing, but of no consequence, since one is bound only by the journey. The only constant is the gentle roll of the train, the scenery that rushes past you, and the Provodnitsa (attendants), who are constantly sweeping and tidying the carriage. They check our tickets and are present when immigration officials enter during border checks.

The Irkutsk station

The train stops at Irkutsk station for 29 minutes and, here, we break the journey. I have to admit that I look forward to stretching my legs, breathing the cold Siberian air and, of course, the warmth of my hotel bed, quite a change from the bunk. While the direct train usually runs around once a week, there are several other trains that ply on these routes, so it is possible to break up the Trans-Siberian journey by stopping in cities across Russia. Irkutsk is an important city in Siberia, displaying a stark contrast between the historic buildings of the old town and the Communist apartment blocks. I spot a huge number of different churches and religious monuments and also the oldest ice-breaker ship in the world.

The tracks of the Trans-Siberian Rail run along the edge of Lake Baikal

We drive to Listvyanka, a small place close to Irkutsk, popularly known as the Gateway to Lake Baikal. Around 300 years ago, the village was tiny with a small post-office; today, it is a major tourist hub, well-known for its lake views and Siberian delicacies. Lake Baikal is one of Russia’s great sights: it is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, and has a unique and bizarre ecosystem. A laboratory of evolution, Lake Baikal is home to a variety of plants and animals found nowhere else. There is a myth that the lake’s water purifies itself. (Russian scientists think the secret lies with a tiny shrimp that filters industrial pollutants, of which tons were introduced during Soviet rule.) Baikal’s geography, its flora and its fauna are so unusual that Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site. It’s also referred to as the‘Galapagos of Russia’. Over 300 rivers flow into the lake; just one, the Angara, flows out of it, moving on towards the Arctic Ocean, somewhere far away in northern Siberia.

Vodka on a pier by Lake Baikal

Since I am a museum person, a must-visit is the Baikal Museum. Here, I spend some time looking at the wonders of the underwater world in life-size aquariums. We examine rare exhibits of Baikal under the microscope and look at wild Baikal seals through a webcam. Later, we take the chairlift up to the peaks to observe the lake in all her glory–stunning moments that will turn into memories for ever. For Russians, the lake is their sacred sea, more than 25 million years old. For us, it’s an endless water body, stretching as far as the eye can see. Later, as the fog descends over the transparent waters, we devour the delicious and famous smoked omul, a fish from Baikal. Berries and pine nuts are other popular Baikal snacks, and yes, of course, the vodka.

But the journey must go on. After a day spent in Irkutsk and a night spent in a proper hotel bed, we board the train again, with 1,000 kilometres of Siberian countryside separating us from the final stop at Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. I watch for several hours as the train sprints close to the lake, many a time seeming to pass over its edge. Trees skirt the shore in places, but the water’s edge is largely barren, except for the rail tracks. Nondescript Soviet structures mar the landscape occasionally, white rocks line the shore, and there is a hint of a beach in some stretches.

The water’s surface is still, scarcely a ripple disturbs it as the sun continues to shine on. This is when the rhythm of train life truly takes over. It’s the joy of having nothing to do but staring out of the window without a thought. Within a few hours, birch trees give way to the vast grasslands of Mongolia. I think of Genghis Khan racing across the steppes on his horse. The endless steppe makes the world look limitless. I could sit on this train and go on forever.

We stop at Ulan-Ude station for 45minutes. And the train rolls on...

The Trans-Siberian train sounds romantic and classy. It is one of the world’s greatest adventures, and a classic train journey through remote and far-flung parts of the world. So distant, so barren, so bizarre. You could compare it to a life journey–starting with the pomp and power of St Petersburg and Moscow, around glittering Lake Baikal, through the steppes of Mongolia and on towards the Gobi Desert. Naushki and Darkhan are some of the stations we stop at before the train pulls in early morning at Ulaanbaatar. I am a tad weary due to the lengthy and tiring process of Russian/Mongolian border checks the previous night. I stumble out of the compartment groggily, but the cold wind perks me up for the day ahead.

Here, I have the opportunity to observe a traditional society that has stepped into modern times. But as Mongolia changes, the past is still present. Good accommodation options are available in this city, alongside Buddhist temples filled with the chants of monks in red robes. This remote and exotic country may be on the threshold of radical metamorphosis but one can still see timeless grasslands with herds of cattle, sheep and horses, and their attendant herders, pursuing their nomadic existence as they have done since before the time of Genghis Khan.

The Milky Way seen over a ger camp in Mongolia

I get a chance to explore rural Mongolia. Deep in the hills, huge rocky outcrops mark an otherwise featureless land. Mongolia is known for the steppe, this vast swathe of high-altitude wilderness dotted with the traditional white gers, or yurts, that the nomadic local farmers still live in. I peep into one of these yurts, a window into local life and cuisine. The ger, its floor lined with thatch mats, has the fresh smell of earth after rain. When thunderstorms roll through the valley, I sit in my ‘little roundhouse,’ and listen to the sound of rain. At dusk, the valley grows dark except for the lights from a few ger camps, glowing like strings of pearls. We walk to the top of a ridge near our camp and come upon camels grazing in the moonlight.

I reflect on the rhythm of the train that has been my home for the last few days. It quickly lulls me into relaxation. It’s not just the rattle of wheels on rails–it’s the daily routine, the endless breakfasts in the dining car, the daylight hours spent reading or talking or staring out of the window, the huge dinners and the long evenings chatting with travel companions. Familiar wild flowers that grow near the train track delight me. We are here during a very special season–there are only 72 frost-free days in a year in most of Russia and Mongolia. Now that the journey is over, it is natural to look forward to a stationary bed and spacious dwellings. No, I do not weep, but I have some regrets that it is over.

Passengers on the Trans-Siberian Rail

The Information

Getting There
The best way to get to Russia directly is by Aeroflot from Delhi. Etihad also flies to Russia via Abu Dhabi.

Visa
A Russian visa costs approximately ₹6,000 and can be applied for at the Russian Embassy in Delhi. For visa requirements and online application form, see india-ifs.com. The process generally takes 10 working days.

The Train Journey
The full length of the Trans-Siberian Railway is 10,000 km. The main route stretches from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok, the largest city of Russia. The entire journey takes about seven days to complete, traverses through eight time zones, and crosses many huge rivers and, of course, Lake Baikal. But, you don’t have to stay on the train the whole time. As fascinating as the train journey is, sitting on a train for so many days can test your patience. It’s recommended to travel a particular section of the route, or break up the journey with multi-day stops in various destinations. You can always hop on to the next train that passes by your stop. However, you’ll need to purchase individual tickets for each leg of your journey and they can be bought not earlier than 60 days before departure.

You can travel on the Trans-Siberian all year round. Spring and summer are the most popular seasons among tourists. Trains are warm and cosy, but there’s no internet connection. Some of the train halts are very short–a minute or two. Ask the carriage attendant for the timings before getting off the train.

Russian train food doesn’t have the best reputation, and while the Trans-Siberian isn’t a gourmet journey, the food served in the dining car is generally good and not expensive. Most trains have beer, soft drinks and mineral water available.

The Trans-Siberian is safe for travellers. Second-class cabins typically sleep four people. A first-class sleeper cabin accommodates two and has slightly better amenities, such as an armchair and access to a shower. Travelling third class isn’t recommended as cabins are typically open (no doors or walls), the atmosphere is slightly noisier, and you may find yourself getting nervous about your possessions.

Each train carriage has its own toilet and washroom. Showers are not available to second- and third-class ticket holders, so if you’re not travelling in first class, it’s best to bring wet wipes to freshen up from time to time. Toilets and washrooms are locked when trains pull up at stations.

You should make a few stops on the trip, locations such as Irkutsk (for Lake Baikal) and Ulaanbaatar are the most popular. Having travelled so far, it’s highly recommend that you take a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad for a visit to ger country. Highlights that you should not miss are the Khongor sand dunes, the flaming cliffs or Bayanzag, and the Valley of Yol. Do not forget to pick up a bottle of the famous Genghis vodka. And visit the cashmere shop at Ulaanbaatar.

The price range for the Trans-Siberian is wide, as there is a variety of trains to choose from. When you plan, consider your budget, but also reflect on the luxuries that are essential to you. See seat61.com for advice on how to book your tickets.

This is an article from the best of our Story Bank. It was published in 2018.


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