Initially, the actual thought of travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway was a bit unnerving. Cloaked in mystery and intrigue since its construction, the Trans-Siberian Railway has become synonymous with a world wonder. Constructed between 1891 and 1916, it is the longest single railway route in the world spanning 9, 289 km and crossing seven time zones. It is by no means a simple train ride.
The planning alone took at least four months. A visa application had to be made, and this was a tedious process. The Trans-Siberian Railway is the general name of the journey and there are three popular routes that you can travel: Trans-Mongolian, Trans-Siberian, and Trans-Manchurian. I chose the Trans-Siberian, which runs from Moscow to Vladiostok, and thus needed only a Russian visa. The others require at least two visas.
Additionally, there are many accommodation choices; from the luxury cabins with separate bathrooms to the budget-friendly where there are shared sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities. Even for budget travel, the cost can be prohibitive at a starting price of £2500. I was advised that winter travel would be a cheaper rate and provide a more authentic Russian experience, but I preferred May when the days were longer and warmer. Of course, you can also travel independently and book your own tickets to reduce the costs but this was too daunting a task for me so I booked though a specialist UK company called The Russia Experience. They were really knowledgeable and helped me sort everything out which was fantastic!
After a few hours spent settling down and becoming familiar with my surroundings which were overwhelming at first, especially with all the different languages within earshot, I finally relaxed. Hand gesturing was my only mode of communication but it wasn’t so bad. Apparently, the workers and Russian travellers are very adept at it, maybe from years of practice form tourists like me. I spent the next hours of daylight simply staring outside. The beauty is breathtaking, stark and unrestrained. Trees became a green blur as the train sped on but the calmness and majestic power of the Russian countryside mellowed the spirit.
The next day we had our first stop. Do get off at every stop. The babushkas and their wares are as much a part of the experience as the train ride. The babushkas sold practically everything under the Russian sun, from genuine Siberian fur hats to woollen shawls to pickled vegetables to smoked fish and potatoes. It was a welcomed change to the bland fare onboard the train. But unlike me, do have more control with your purchases; I was like a giddy school girl in a candy store and it left me with items that had me questioning my rationale later.
My favourite stop was Listvyanka on the shores Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, clearest and deepest freshwater lake made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1966. The village portrayed everything I imagined Russian village life to be. Serene yet bustling with life. The colourful houses – blue, green and turquoise – added to the charm and hospitality.
Surprisingly, I was never bored. There was always interaction with other tourist and Russian natives on the train. And when it got a bit too much, such as one man going into loud choruses after a vodka-filled meal, I always retreated to my extremely comfortable room. Then the Siberian red sunsets, green forests, beautiful hills of Krasnoyarsk, vast meadows, rural villages and ancient cities became my company.
At the end of the train ride, I felt slight pangs of nostalgia. It is almost as if this shouldn’t be the end but then you’re quickly consoled with the fact that you have just been on a once in a lifetime experience with the memory snapshots to prove it.