The legendary Trans-Siberian line from Moscow to Vladivostok is the longest railway in the world in the world. It starts in Russia’s capital and it ends a week later in the Far East of Russia in Vladivostok, a city that was closed for foreigners until 1990. The longest train ride in the world will take you from Europe to Asia without leaving Russia, passing by eight different time zones. It departs every two days and can make you get to know Russia in just two weeks by enjoying the changing landscapes and breathtaking scenery and listening to stories from Russian people from all parts of the country.
The world’s longest railway still attracts a lot of passengers even in today’s era of cheap flights. And don’t think that the people in the train will be mostly tourists. The Trans-Siberian line connects 87 cities and villages and it’s the first choice for most Russian people. It’s more than a train line. In fact, I could even say it’s a lifeline for millions of locals.
Winston Churchill did a great job describing Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” and that’s arguably true even today. This journey might not give you all the answers but it can surely give you a lot of them. From the mesmerizing monotony of the Russian landscapes, the empty fields and useless pieces of land, the lonely villages, and of course the people that hold everything together.
What to expect?
There are three types of carriages: platzkart (open carriage), second class, and first class. The beds on the coaches are quite comfortable: I’m 6 feet tall and I didn’t feel uncomfortable not even for a minute. The food was much better than I expected but the most difficult part was the shower. The only showers in the train are reserved for the first class passengers. However, don’t forget that this is Russia and you can get a hot shower for a small fee if you get friendly with the conductor.
Prepare to see the best and worst of Russia. You will pass through dense forests and grassless steppes, high mountains, and green valleys, big cities, and isolated villages… You’ll watch 9,000 km passing by as Russia slowly unveils its secrets, whether through its shy, stunning landscapes or load, vodka-drinking people. The only bad thing about this journey is that you only pass by places and you don’t have the time to stop and explore deeper. The train only stops a few times per day, obviously leaving you with nowhere near enough time to get to know a place.
However, you can still learn a lot from the people that get on the train. Every person you meet on the train can uncover a jigsaw from the big enigma Russia is. Every breakfast shot of Vodka, every game of Durak (a Russian card game), every drunken discussion about politics in the late nights… It’s not just 7 days in the train. It’s a chance to meet people from all around the country and learn a lot about Russia on the way. Their faces and stories simply became images in my head of the regions where they were coming from. They were a big part of my journey.
Part 1: Moscow to Irkutsk
I’ve dreamed of this journey ever since I saw a documentary at school for the world’s longest train line at school. Today was finally the day when that dream came true. A load applause echoed in the train as it was leaving the train station in Moscow. We just started the world’s longest and most majestic train journey…
The provodnitsas (train attendants) were doing a great job of maintaining the train for the whole seven days and the hygiene was always on mark even in the cheapest class. Like I said, the beds were clean and quite comfortable and there were flash blankets and sheets every day. I was riding in the cheapest coach because I knew I’ll have the chance to meet more local people there. And I was right. It wasn’t long enough until a couple of Russian guys from the next coach offered me a glass of vodka. One of them said showing through the window while hitting his chests: “This is Russia and I love this country. It’s amazing”. And I couldn’t agree more.
For someone that has been a victim of the visual harshness of urban cities for most of his life, there was so much to see. The endlessly green sweep of the countryside was passing by in front of my eyes. I could only see actual glimpses of Russia during the journey but the pieces that were missing were unveiled by the passengers getting on and off the train, the smiling babushkas and the crafty hawkers that had literally everything.
Part 2: Irkutsk-Vladivostok
The Trans-Siberian Railway was built simultaneously from both, east and west resulting in the two lines meeting at Irkutsk. It was here that in the past, passengers had to take a ferry to go through the Baikal Lake and take the other train on the other side of the lake. Nowadays, trains just steam around the lake beside a little-used spur line right next to the satin-surfaced water of the world’s largest lake.
A night away from the Baikal Lake is Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic, the home to the largest Siberian ethnic group. It’s also the starting point of the Trans Mongolian Railway. The city is surrounded by deep steeps and remote landscapes that make this region look like one of the most isolated places on the planet. If you’re one of those people who associate Buddhism with South and Southeast Asia, you’ll be in for a surprise. You will see Buddhist monk coming out from Russian cottages, sometimes even boarding the train…
It was the next day when we reached the far east of Russia. It was incredible; we started off at Moscow, right next to Europe and we were only couple of hundred miles away from Japan, and even closer to North Korea and China. I know it took a week but it felt like the journey lasted really short. Eventually, we reached Vladivostok, an elegant city that was a forbidden fruit for tourists until 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union. The world’s greatest train journey came to the end. In summary, it was an amazing experience with a lot of breathtaking sights and I would recommend everyone to put this journey on the top of your bucket list. Finally, I will try to summarize the top highlights along the Trans-Siberian Line.
Top 10: Highlights along the Trans-Siberian Express
1. Yaroslavl and Volga
The landscapes that one of the biggest rivers in the world uncovers are nothing short of spectacular. The train also passes by one of the oldest Russian cities and the oldest cities along the Volga: Yaroslavl, built in 1010. Today the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yaroslavl’s architecture is the ultimate mix between the Russian and the Western and you’ll surely be impressed.
2. Yekaterinburg and the Ural
Yekaterinburg is a city under the Ural Mountains that separates Europe and Asia in two. This city is the melting pot where European and Asian civilizations have merged together. There’s a spot in the city surrounding where you can literally have your two feet on two different continents. Yekaterinburg is also a must for all history lovers as it was the place where the last Russian Tzar, Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks back in 1918. Today, Yekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia.
One of the biggest city in Russia lies at the confluence of Kazanka and Volga and it has historically been the hub for the Volga Tatars. This is visible in the architecture, especially in the UNESCO site, the Kazan Kremlin Fortress where the mix of Russian and Tatar architecture is visible.
This is one of Russia’s many hidden gems. Only a few decide to take a detour and visit Tobolsk but the ones that do are rewarded with some of the most beautiful Kremlins in the country. Keep your eyes open when you pass by this charming city under the Ural Mountains.
Known as the Paris of Siberia, Irkutsk is the city where the two lines of the Trans-Siberian Railway connect. The city will blow you away with its wooden architecture and neo-classical buildings. Irkutsk is located right next to the Baikal Lake, which takes us to the next point:
6. Lake Baikal
There’s not much I can say about the world’s deepest lake that holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Located in the south of Siberia if you’re traveling in the winter you will witness the marvelous look of the frozen Baikal. At this time of the year, you can literally walk on top of the lake. If you want to take a short detour you can go for the Circumbaikal Railway which takes passengers around the lake.
One of the greatest Russian authors of the 19th century, Anton Chekhov described Krasnoyarsk as the most beautiful city in Siberia. And who am I to disagree with Chekhov? The nature surrounding the city is absolutely breathtaking, especially the Stolby Nature Reserve. You will also be able to see the traditional-Siberian timber mansions spread across the forests and amazing landscapes along Yenisei River.
Finally, we made it to the end of the rail line. Vladivostok is a city which is much closer to China and North Korea but the city has a surprisingly European feel. Vladivostok is comfortably framed by the rugged mountains surrounding the city and this location made the city the perfect choice for a center of Soviet Pacific Fleet. That’s why foreigners were forbidden to come here until 1990.
9. The feel of the train journey
Spending a week on a train (2 weeks if you’re going back) sounds like an amazing adventure. It is indeed, the world’s greatest train journey that covers 8 different time zones and shows you practically all parts of Modern Russia and the difference between them. Just looking at the beautiful nature and endless steeps and the feeling of being lost in the middle of nowhere just adds to the reasons why the Trans-Siberian journey should be at the top of your bucket list.
10. The people
Finally, the people. Like I mentioned the train passes by 87 cities and villages. Unfortunately, you won’t have the time to visit all places individually but you can experience them through the eyes of the passengers that are boarding the train. The train is a very common way of transportation in Russia and there will be a lot of people from different parts of Russia that you can meet on the train.