The Trans Siberian Railway, spanning the 9288 kms between Moscow and Vladivostok is one of the wonders of the industrialised world. It was constructed between 1891 and 1917 by one group of oligarchs (Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II) and electrified under the authoritarian rule of Lenin and Stalin. The task of surveying, clearing forests, earthworks, building bridges and laying tracks across such a vast expanse with an unfriendly climate and few people was huge.
Travel shows are almost as common as cooking and renovation shows on television these days, so I suppose it is natural that many people are now interested in taking the Trans Siberian Railway. Several travellers I have met have told me that it is on their “bucket list”.
I would strongly urge anyone planning the trip to do extensive research on sites such as “the man on seat 61”. There are several possible routes to Moscow from the East starting from either Vladivostok or Beijing. We commenced our journey at Vladivostok and travelled mainly on the original route. Our only deviation was to take an alternate route from Yekaterinberg to Moscow, one that passes through Kazan rather than Nizhny Novgorod.
Those for whom cost is not a problem can catch the luxurious Golden Eagle tourist trains that are fully catered and have cabins with en-suites. For the rest of us, there are a variety of trains that are mainly provided to carry locals from city to city and which tourists may join. On these trains the majority of locals travel in four berth cabins each with two lower and two upper bunks. First class, two berth cabins are available on some trains. There is an urn in each carriage that enables passengers to make tea, coffee or prepare instant meals. Each carriage has two toilets equipped with a wash basin. Each train also has a dining car that provides meals, snacks and beer. All carriages have a designated attendant who checks passports, maintains order, keeps the toilets clean and stocked with toilet paper, and locks the loos (sometimes for half an hour) when approaching large stations.
We enjoyed our experience on the Trans Siberian railway. We prepared ourselves by carrying on board cups, bowls, cutlery, noodles, porridge, tea bags, fruit, and emergency toilet paper to sustain us over the seven days on board. Along the way we were able to bolster our supplies when the train had extended stops and the passengers could buy food and drink from the platform shops and markets.
It is possible to complete the whole journey in seven days but that is a long time to go without a shower. Thus, we decided to break our trip at Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan. We slept well and learned to cope with the primitive toilets. Our patience was put to the test, however, when our Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg carriage blew its power board and we were left without heating, power points and only emergency lighting for two days.
We were amazed at Siberia’s size and the immensity of its birch and pine forests. The amount of east bound freight traffic was staggering. Trains bound for Beijing and Vladivostok loaded up with timber and coal thundered past us continually. We crossed many swamps and as we neared Europe many mighty rivers.
For the first few days we rarely saw a tar road and never a heavy lorry, bearing witness to the stats that say that the vast majority of Russian freight goes by rail and that Russian railways carry half the world’s rail freight. Keeping this vast network going is no snack and depending on who you believe, between one and two million people work on the railways. We saw thousands, replacing sleepers, reballasting and generally maintaining the tracks.
On our last leg to Moscow we travelled on the pride of the Russian fleet in first class luxury touching 160kph at times. We reached our destination wishing that the line from Canberra to Sydney could be electrified, better maintained and providing a frequent and comfortable service like the one that we travelled on especially over the last 2000kms of our trip.
I will describe our stops in Irkutz, Yekaterinburg, and Kazan more fully in part three.