Trans-Siberian Express in a Nutshell (Part 1 - Russia)
There’s something about train travel which makes it such a soothing way to get from a to b. For me, everything looks better through a train window and there is no better way to see a country or region (I actually think cycling is the best way to do this, but you definitely need plenty of time to embark upon a long distance cycle tour). Long distance train travel isn’t for everyone though, especially in an age of budget airlines.
However, the journey is part of the trip for me, if not all of it, and I think being able to see the world pass you by whilst you’re heading for your destination really clears your mind and brings an element of relaxation to you (this is clearly not the case for me if i’m travelling on the tube, City Thames Link or home for Christmas with National Rail).
My friends and I had decided to do the Trans-Siberian express and we’d given ourselves three-weeks away. We’d booked in advance with a travel agency in London who’d sorted out our tickets and visas for Russia, Mongolia and China. At this point I should say we technically did the Trans-Mongolian express as we didn’t end up in Vladivostok, but Beijing. It would have been a lot cheaper to have got tickets in those countries as and when we pleased, but due to timings, and the need to get back to the UK, we had to guarantee ourselves a place on each train, so we let a middle man do the hard work for us.
The trip (A Shortened Version of it)
We flew from London Stansted, via Germany, to the Russian capital, Moscow and stayed for three nights in a hostel. I’d actually been to Moscow before on a school trip when I was 15. My memories of the city were terrible though having given myself alcohol poisoning on the last day of the trip (full disclosure: the teachers were in no way aware or involved in my own stupidity). Ever since that trip, my memory of Russia consisted of storm clouds, a ballet and me being extremely ill; the stuff of nightmares.
Anyway, it turns out Moscow is a lovely, vibrant city which is far from gloomy when you’ve got your sensible head on. Having spent three days walking around and seeing the sights we did a big supermarket shop. We’d read that we needed to stock up on dry food for the journey to avoid eating at the restaurant cart every day. This would have made the trip even more expensive that it was. As mentioned above, we had an agency book everything for us so it was quite a bit more expensive than what it would have been had we done it DIY-style. We paid around £1600 for the entire, seven-day trip, including visas. This isn’t actually that expensive considering the Orient Express is around to £2.5k for one night. However, with the Trans-Siberian I think around £400 is what you can expect to pay if you go it alone.
Enough waffling (I get side tracked easily). We boarded the industrial looking train one morning and set off on our journey. Due to the time restrictions we had our first planned stop in five days! So that was 120 hours on a train, which I personally was quite looking forward to. We’d gone for a second class cabin which had four beds, so this meant that most of the time we had someone sharing with us. There was a shared toilet at the end of each cabin and a lady who looked after each carriage too.
The train set off and we were soon out of Moscow and into the wilderness of Russia. Seeing as it was May, the weather was pleasant and the view was green and lush. Going back and doing the same experience during winter is definitely something I am keen to do. We were soon surrounded by thousands of silver birch trees and we started to cross over time zones without even knowing. We’d stop occasionally at scheduled stations for normally no longer than 20 minutes, but we never knew when the next stop was coming and for how long. After one day we truly were in the middle nowhere. Phone reception was intermittent and we were cut off from the outside world.
For some, this may sound boring, but we loved it. We played cards, drank beer and reminisced and spoke a lot; not just amongst ourselves, but with other travellers. Most of those on board up until Irkust (Siberia) were Russian, but the further East we got the more travellers we came across, hopping on and off the train. We dined in the restaurant carts and smoked in the smoking sections (a habit i’ve since given up… sigh).
The food rations we got before embarking upon our trip were, to say the least, not very varied. I’ve never eaten so many instant noodles before and was as close as i’ve ever got to giving myself scurvy (clearly I would have needed another several weeks of just noodles for this to have happened). On board the train, each carriage had a ‘hot’ water tank for teas, noodles and, well, coffee. Apart from that, the only way to cook a meal was to pay for it in the restaurant cart. The food there was good, but it’s hard for me to give a accurate review of this as in the context of the situation pretty much anything which wasn’t a noodle would have tasted nice.
Days passed, we crossed several time zones and we had completely lost any form of routine. We didn’t shower (because there wasn’t one) and the whole train was in competition with each other as to who could ‘out-scent’ each other. We are all animals after all.
Our first stop was Irkutsk in Siberia, which is home to the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. We were spending three days here and then moving on south, around the lake, towards Mongolia and then China. The journey was starting to get even more interesting due to the change in scenery. The silver birch had subtly been replaced by mountains, tiny villages and a far more textured landscape. The train was going up and down hills now, not just through flat forestland.
After five days on the train we arrived at Irkutsk at a time I didn’t know then and I certainly do not remember now. Time was starting to become less important to us as we left our normal lives behind. The journey so far had been a challenge, but one we had thoroughly enjoyed and we were excited to explore Irkutsk and for the next chapter of our trip, to Mongolia and China.