Taking the Trans Siberia Express was a dream that finally came true in 2002, although we actually chose the “Trans Mongolia” variant rather than the original route terminating in Vladivostok. We first spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg and Moscow before boarding the train to Irkutsk more than 5000 km away in Siberia. The train journey was an experience that we will never forget and hope to do again sometime.
"Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev share a cabin on the Trans-Siberian Express when all of a sudden, the train breaks down. The three discuss what to do and Stalin says: lets interrogate the conductor. No no, let’s go find out what’s wrong and help fix it, says Khrushchev. They argue for a while and then finally Brezhnev says: why don’t we just draw the curtains and pretend like we’re going somewhere?"
Soviet joke - 1970s
The Trans-Siberia Express is actually known to be a very reliable train service, but some Soviet humour is always welcome. Draw the route from St. Petersburg to Shanghai on a map and you will see a distance that makes every other train journey look like daily commuting. We had some doubts if this would be too much time sending in a train, but were mostly thrilled by the prospect of seeing half the world go by from a train window. The experience exceeded our expectations, travelling by train is simply fantastic and we have tried to include trains in our travel schedule ever since.
We had arranged the Visa’s, flights, train tickets and hotels for our whole journey in advance with a Dutch tour operator specialized in China and Russia. Tickets for the Trans-Siberian Express can be bought locally but the trains are often full so it is always advisable to book them ahead of the journey. Many tour operators offer a wide variety of Trans Siberia packages ranging from tickets only to luxurious first class journeys starting in Berlin and ending in China. We decided to start the train journey in St. Petersburg and end in Shanghai, this to create the longest possible journey by train trough the former communist world.
We had less than two days to spend in St. Petersburg before taking the night train to Moscow, we would be back here anyway for a city trip in the future. We had booked a room in Hotel Moscow, the prime tourist hotel of Leningrad during Soviet times, overlooking the Neva River at the beginning of the Nevsky Prospect. The Moscow Hotel was still un-renovated during our visit and perfectly located to explore St. Petersburg.
We spend most of our time visiting the usual tourist attractions of St. Petersburg rather than going after its Soviet highlights, there is simply too much of that to see in two days. We spend a couple of hours in the Hermitage museum gazing at all the gold and priceless works of art collected by Catherine the Great and other Romanov Tsars. The Peter and Paul fortress is another must see place that we visited. The highlight of the fortress was actually the city beach near the fortress were locals go to cool down in the Neva river during the hot Russian summer. Also close by is the Artillery Museum with a large collection of military equipment both indoors and outdoors.
The next day we made a boat trip, and visited more famous places like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the Tikhvin cemetery where famous Russian artists like Dostoyevsky, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Mussorgsky and many others were buried. We also visited the battle cruiser Aurora that played an important part in the first days of the October revolution. It’s guns were used for the defense of Leningrad during the Second World War, the ship was turned in a monument and museum after the war. We only had scratched the service of what St. Petersburg has to offer before we would board the night train to Moscow. Two days is by far not enough time for St. Petersburg, but it was a great starting point for our 7000 km train journey.
We arrived early in the morning in Moscow by train from St. Petersburg and took a taxi to our Hotel: the famous Rossiya Hotel on Red Square. The Rossiya Hotel Russia was once the biggest hotel in the world and would house representatives of the Communist Party during the annual party congress and other important occasions. The Rossiya Hotel was also the flagship of Soviet tourism combining offering every possible service that Intourist had to offer. Hotel Rossiya was closed in 2004 and demolished in 2006, so Comtourist feel very privileged as onetime guests of this legendary hotel!
We had only two days in Moscow and explored the city by foot and with the Metro. Seeing Red Square for the first time was something that left a big impression, much like the Mall in Washington and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, places steeped in history, seen many times on the news, in films and documentaries. We queued up for the Lenin Mausoleum, did some shopping in the famous Gum warehouse and did the full Kremlin tour. We spend the rest of the day in the Metro getting in and out at the marvelous metro stations, often called the peoples palaces of Moscow.
Our city tour took us to the Lenin statue at Oktyabraskaya Square, Tverskaya street, Kalinin Avenue, the KGB headquarters at Lubyabka Square, the Bolshoi theatre and many more famous places in Moscow. We managed to see four of the Seven Sisters, the Lomonosov University on Sparrow Hills, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Arbat, Hotel Ukraine and the Apartment building on the Kotyelnicheskaya Embankment near our hotel. We ended the evening in Gorky park the traditional place were many Muscovites go for entertainment, food and drinks. We have been in Moscow on multiple occasions after this visit and saw a lot of more of the city, however, we would need to go there many times more to see all the important places that Moscow has to offer.
Moscow to Irkutsk by the Trans-Siberian Railway
We did the 5000 km train journey from Moscow to Irkutsk in one go (like most people do), not getting out at any of the cities where the Trans Siberia Express stops. Settling down in a train for three days and nights can best be described as camping in the train and turned out to be an unforgettable experience. We installed ourselves in our 4 person sleeper cabin, relaxed, and watched the endless Russian forests and taiga’s go by behind our window.
The train stops at the major stations along the route where passenger can go out to stretch their legs and buy supplies from the old ladies selling food and drinks (never by Vodka on the stations). The chaos on the stations where Russians are getting on and off the train is an amusing spectacle, breaking the days in the train. The train schedule is available in the train and gives the stopping time for every station, it is smart anyway to stay near the train and board in time.
We spend the evenings in the Restaurant carriage, were we became befriended with the Restaurant manager, the train guard and an Intourist guide, playing cards, arm-wrestling and drinking Vodka Russian style. Hanging out with these guys was a great introduction to the Russian way of life, especially the Vodka drinking part. Getting back to our cabin was a tricky affair since our carriage was far away from the restaurant, the train was shaking and the Vodka severely limited our ability to walk straight. Sleeping in a train is actually very nice, the rhythm of the train helps falling in a deep sleep.
The Siberian town Irkutsk is where the Trans-Siberian Railway line splits in the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Mongolian railways and where we had to change trains. We did stay a couple of days in Irkutsk first before moving on to Mongolia. Many famous Russian intellectuals were exiled too Irkutsk by the Tsar after the Decembrist uprising and transformed the city in an intellectual and cultural. We stayed in the Angara Hotel on Kirov Square opposite the city hall, a modern Soviet hotel that appears on many Soviet era postcards and in photo books, so clearly an object of pride during the 1980s. We were disappointed to find out that Angara was renovated one year before our visit, so most of its Soviet charm was destroyed during our visit.
The Irkutsk city centre is a combination of wooden Siberian houses where the Decembrists lived and the typical buildings and monuments that can be found in administrative centers around the Soviet Union. A large Lenin Statue stands in a park on Lenin Street. We found some beautiful Cosmonaut wall paintings inside the Tsum Warehouse. The local football club was playing a match in the Trud stadium, we were lucky enough to watch the second half of this game. We went for some food and drinks on the Island of Youth, a park on an Island with bars, restaurants and a Disco.
Irkutsk is located near Lake Baikal, the largest Fresh Water lake in the world with an unique eco-system. We had arranged a Home Stay with a local family in the lake town Listvyanka. Home stays are always a good way to see how the local people live and get a feel for their culture. We decided to buy a ticket for a Hydrofoil, although we were uncertain were it would take us and if we would make it back to Listvyanka, no English speaking people were at hand. A good decision, we were allowed to stand on the roof, while the ship was crossing the lake at high speed. We were dropped in a Nature reserve at the other end of the lake near the entrance of a railway tunnel. Here we could enjoy the spectacular views on the lake and the unique flora and fauna. We did get back to Listvyanka where we ate the famous local Omul fish smoked in the harbour and Solyanka a tasty sour Russian meat soup.
Where we didn’t go
We never regretted our choice to take the Mongolian route and end our train journey in China rather than traveling all the way to Vladivostok, however, the latter option is the real deal and we still plan to do in the future. We intend to start in Moscow and stop for a couple of days in cities like Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Perm and Novosibirsk. There are plenty of options to continue the journey from Vladivostok as well, including a flight to the remote Kamchatka peninsula, taking a ferry to Japan or even go to North Korea by train.