Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on September 2004
If there’s one thing that can be relied on in Russia, it’s the Trans-Siberian railway. Running 9,289km through seven time zones, from the charmingly decrepit port of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Moscow’s Yaroslavl Station, this marvel of railway engineering regularly transport millions of passengers in roughly seven days of continuous travel across a nation where air travel is expensive and dangerous.
From Japan, the logical starting point is Vladivostok, connected with the port of Fushiki in Toyama Prefecture by a weekly ferry service. The ferry is modern and comfortable, but the seas on the two-night crossing can be rough. You may prefer to fly from Niigata or Toyama; from mid-July to late September there are also weekly flights from Tokyo. Once in Vladivostok, it’s worth lingering to absorb the slightly disorienting atmosphere of this pocket of old Europe in Far East Asia, where the peaks and islands hugging beautiful Golden Horn Bay are the city’s most appealing aspects, along with the fairy-tale-like railway station that marks the Trans-Siberian terminus.
On all long-distance trains, the second-class kupe is the standard accommodation. These carriages are divided into nine air-conditioned compartments, each with four reasonably comfortable berths, a fold-down table and just enough room between the bunks to turn around. First-class carriages have only two beds in their compartments, so there’s a bit more space and less people lining up for the shared toilets.
The constant of all classes is the provodnista—the attendant who takes your ticket, provides clean linen, keeps the carriage spick-and-span and the samovar stoked, and supplies drinks, snacks, crockery and cutlery. Get on the right side of these formidable women (they generally are women, often sporting the scariest hairdos you’ll see outside of a drag show) if you wish to have a pleasant journey.
A week aboard for the non-stop journey to Moscow will not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you want to break your journey you’ll have to buy separate tickets between each destination. Alternatively you can use an agent (see Trip Tips) to help you plan out your stops along the way and sort out tickets before you go.
The most obvious place to break a Trans-Sib journey is three days into the trip at Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal. This remarkable lake, the world’s deepest containing one-fifth of the earth’s fresh water, is one of Russia’s natural wonders. Take a dip in its icy sapphire waters and it’s said you’ll add several decades to your life. Irkutsk, once hailed as the “Paris of Siberia” remains an attractive city with whole quarters of traditional “gingerbread”-style wooden buildings.
In contrast, Novosibirsk, the next major city heading west, is a modern age creation. Home to 1.9 million, Novosibirsk boasts Russia’s biggest opera and ballet theater, a grand temple-like train station and the West Siberian Railway Museum, an impressive collection of brightly painted locomotives and carriages, some dating back to the turn of the 19th century.
Little more than a decade ago several of the most interesting places along the Trans-Siberian route were off limits to all foreign travelers. It’s now no problem to hop off the train in Krasnoyarsk and sail up the Yenisey River past magnificent rocky scenery to the enormous hydroelectric dam at Divnogorsk, a marvel of Soviet-era engineering. Likewise, in Yekaterinburg you can stand on the spot where the last Tsar and his family met their bloody end, and visit a cemetery where the ornate graves of gangsters bear witness to the continued theme of violence in Russian society. And in Nizhny Novogrod, on the banks of the mighty Volga River, you can visit the tiny flat where the Nobel Prize-winning dissident Dr. Andrey Sakharov spent six years under house arrest. It’s now a museum revealing how far the Soviet regime was prepared to go to silence its critics.
Back on the train you’ll discover the dining car is favored more for its makeshift role as a social center than for any gastronomic excellence. No matter, since at times a Trans-Siberian trip can seem like an endless picnic with all manner of foods being shared among fellow passengers. Shopping for supplies at stations is all part of the fun. At practically every stop vendors line the platform with a wide choice of items—all incredibly cheap—such as fresh milk, ice cream, grilled chicken, boiled potatoes, home cooking such as pelmeni (dumplings), or buckets of forest berries and smoked fish.
So chuck away the clock and sleep, read, play cards and chess, and bond with your fellow passengers, while the landscape unreels in cinematic slow motion outside.
Temperatures can soar then to 40C, even in Siberia. Travelers require visas. (For details call the Russian Embassy at 03-3583-4445). A second-class kupe ticket from Vladivostok to Moscow costs around ¥45,000 and double for first class. If you’re hopping on and off trains, the combined cost of tickets will be more expensive than a straight-through one. For tour operators, contact MO Tourist CIS Russian Center (Tel: 03-5296-5783 or firstname.lastname@example.org), which takes care of connections to Vladivostok as well as railway tickets.