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My Trans-Siberia Journey - 2004.
Having travelled from Bejing, through Mongolia to Moscow in 1997 I have always had my mind on wanting to travel the full Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostock. In 1997 I spent a few days in Moscow and then spent 6 days on the train. This time I chose to have less time in Moscow, and enjoy stopping off during the route. Breaking the journey is possible, but it adds to the cost as multiple train tickets are required plus finding hotel or homestays to stay at.
I used Adventure Bound a local travel agent in the UK who booked it through Sundowners, a very good tour company with a lost of experience organising Russian tours. If I more time I would have chosen to travel onwards to Japan or China from Vladavostock but instead I chose to fly back to London via Moscow.
Moscow - the start of my journey.
I had been to Moscow before so I chose only to stay a few nights. This gave me enough time to see my favourite sites and collect my tickets for the first part of my journey. I stayed in the Rossiya Hotel which was built in 1967 and has over 3000 rooms. Facilities were good and it overlooks the Kremlin and the Red Square. I have heard that it will be demolished soon to make way for a more modern hotel. The Intourist Hotel had already been demolished and they were clearing the ground for a new hotel. Moscow has an interesting history and many lovely buildings to see. A city tour allowed me a good way to see Moscow and a chance to talk to other tourists.
There are several main stations in Moscow. The Siberian trains normally arrive/depart from Yaroslavsky Station. As my train was to depart in the night, I ensured that I visited the station during the daylight. When it was time to leave the hotel I took the metro to the station and arrived a couple of hours early to watch the other travellers come and go. When my train pulled in I found my carriage and showed my ticket to the attendant. I shared a 4-berth cabin with Gerald and Jasmin from Austria travelling to Beijing and Maria, a Russian lady travelling back to her home outside Irkutsk. I paid my 50 roubles for the bedding and unpacked a few things for the night. The train departed on schedule at 2330. After a long day it was not long before I fell asleep.
On the Train
The following day I soon made friends with my cabin friends. I find the best way is to have some photos of family and friends from home, together with some postcards of your town and country. I had bought a number of London postcards and I found them useful to give as gifts. I also left a few Russian/English books on the table. It was not long before Maria picked them up and started to practise her school time English. We managed to get on by pointing to words and using one or two word sentences. The Austrian couple spoke good English and this helped pass the time away.
Making friends with the carriage attendants is also important. They look out for you at the stations and ensure you are on the train before it departs. Alina and Luda looked after the carriage that I was in. The kept the toilets clean and vacuumed the carpets twice a day. At the station stops they opened the doors and guarded the train. If you ask them to they will also lock you cabin if you need to leave it. They had a few items to sell such as simple food, postcards and some videos.
Train #10 was heading for Irkutsk a popular stopping point. On board the train was a mixture of both tourists and local Russian people. Most of the tourists I spoke to were travelling on to Mongolia and China after a break around Lake Bakel. I did not find anyone else travelling to Vladivostok.
I was pleased I had stocked up on food as the restaurant car was often pre-booked with German tour groups and it was not possible to get a seat at meal times. I knew when it was time to eat as like clockwork about 20-30 Germans would make there way down to have their meals. The water boiler at the end the carriage is always on and provides water to make hot drinks, soups and noodles.
The days and nights went quickly. I find travelling in late September the most scenic. The trees are displaying their autumn colours and the air is still warm during the day with a crisp cold feeling in the night - a useful reminder that I was crossing Siberia. One day I would like to travel in the middle of the winter to feel what the real cold feels like.
The train stops about 5 - 8 times a day, sometimes for 3 minutes and sometimes for up to 30 minutes. I check with my guide book or attendant to ensure I do not wander too far from the train. At most stations there are small kiosks selling food and drink plus local traders selling home cooked food. I bought some local cakes and pastries but chose not to try the meat or fish as I was unsure of the quality.
What Time is It?
Travelling such distances by train is always confusing to the body. The train always runs on Moscow time, even though local time changes a few times. On this first train local time changed twice, starting off at Moscow time, then MT+3 and MT+5. The best way I found was to teach my stomach that when the sun rose it was time to have breakfast and shortly after sunset have dinner. Lunch was somewhere in between. I kept my watch on MT purely to keep track of what stations the train was stopping at. I kept my mobile phone on London time so that I could keep in touch with family and friends back home.
Listvyanka and Irkutsk
Irkutsk is a popular stop over and is close to Lake Bakel. As the train pulled in I said my goodbyes to my cabin friends and the attendants. My driver greets me and takes to Listvyanka, a village right on the lake show and about 90 minutes drive from Irkutsk. I stay in a newly build hostel owned by The Bakel Complex. I spend just over a day here exploring the village. There are is a mixture of lovely wooden houses, some old, some new in the little valleys that feed into the lake. Along the shore front a few shops and restaurants. I find a small post office that also has the village telephone. A few cafes are by the harbour where the bus stop is. During the daytime a number of local people are selling various souvenirs from their table tops. Early in the following morning the harbour area is full of people smoking fresh fish and selling them on to others from the village.
I travel back to Irkutsk and spend just over a day exploring the city. It is a busy town with plenty of shops and restaurants. A couple of busy internet cafes serve tourists and college people. If you are interested in history then a visit to Maria Volkonsky's house and the Trubetski house are worth a visit, especially if you pay a few dollars for an English speaking guide. Also worth visiting was the regional museum and the cathedrals.
My next train left late in the evening and was an 8 hour journey to Ulan Ude. I made friends with Alexsandu and we talked for a few hours before falling asleep.
Ulan Ude is not listed in many pre-arranged tours but I was glad that I chose to stay here for a couple nights. It is the capital of the Burryat region and is the point on the Trans-Siberian journey where the track divides - either going south to Mongolia or East to Vladavostok.
I had arranged guided tours for my short stay. On the first day Marina and Rada took me to Ivolginsky Datsun, a Buddhist monastery about 35km from Ulan Ude. We spent about 2 hours walking around the complex and I enjoyed hearing about the monastery, spinning the prayer wheels and visiting the temples. In the evening I went to the Indigo restaurant for typical Russian food.
The following day I took a walking tour around the town, had lunch in a local Buryat café and visited the open air ethnographic museum where there is a good display of houses and dwellings showing the history of the region. The history museum is worth a visit, with a good display of Buddhist and Buryat history. Personally, I found the Buryat region and its people very interesting. They are descendants of Mongolians and clearly have their features. I also read that there is a little bit of Turkish in them as well.
On my departure day I explored the town more, visited a couple of markets and stocked up with food and water for the final part of my journey.
And onto Vladivostok
I shared my cabin with Abrei, his girlfriend Nina and Valeri, all Russian who did not speak any English. Using my photos and postcards we quickly made good friends and used the dictionary and notepaper to talk.
I found the Ulan Ude to Vladivostok journey much more interesting. I felt more remote because of lack of tourists, except for one German man and the scenery was much more beautiful. The train was less modern so I did not feel I was in Europe. Being much older some of the windows in the corridor opened allowing the sound of the train in the tracks to fill the carriage, plus any smells to give a full atmosphere. The open windows also gave an excellent opportunity for photographs which I did not get a chance to do in the earlier trains. For most of the journey I was not able to get a mobile phone signal to send texts to my friends and family. Only at a large city after a couple of days was I able to do so.
Often I smelt fish in the train and it was not until one of the meal times that Abrei opened his bag that was underneath my bed and pulled out a fish. I thought it was raw, but apparently it was salt. So now every day another fish came out of this bag, was gutted and cleaned and eaten by hand. As there were no tourists on this train I was able to use the restaurant car more often. They had a good selection of basic meals which made a change from the food that I had brought with me from England.
On the final day the attendant wakes us up about 0100MT. My cabin friend's pack and I get up also to say goodbye to them. I then fall asleep for a few more hours and wake up as the train is passing along the coast line. I see fishermen wading in the sea. A few workers are setting out the sun beds on the beaches ready for the weekend visitors. At 0200MT (0700 local time) the train pulls into Vladivostok - 9288km from Moscow.
If you ever plan to do this trip, whether through to Beijing or Vladivostok I would thoroughly recommend it. There is no better way to travel 9000km, several time zones, see such wonderful scenery and spend time with fellow tourists or locals on a fascinating working train.
My 2004 Moscow to Vladavostock Itenary