TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY
One of the world’s iconic railway journeys, it conjures up all sorts of romantic visions. Extending 9,259 kms from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific, it normally is a six-day journey. Most tourists only go as far as Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, 5,153 kms from Moscow. This takes 3 days and 2 hours and has 24 stops of 1-30 minutes, the times and duration of which are listed on a handy chart in the corridor. That is the trip I took. The cost was $622 and most easily booked through the website Russiantrains.com. Tickets can only be purchased 45 days before your travel date but I ordered and paid for them weeks before that. There are three classes of berths, but most tourists opt for the 2nd class ‘kupe’ cars that have 4 berths per compartment and two toilets at the end of the hall. The Russian train system runs on Moscow time wherever it is. The “train time” in Vladovostok is 9 hours behind local time and 5 hours behind in Irkutsk. The track is doubled all the way. Power was supplied by an electric locomotive for the entire trip.
It was surprising how difficult it was to find the track and then my car. #4 car was next to the engine but none of the train attendants could read my ticket or give any advice on which car it was!! Kind of amazing even though the ticket was in Cyrillic and English. There was no introduction to the car from the totally non-English speaking car attendant who accompanied my car all the way to Irkutsk. Nothing is written in English. The cars are modern and clean and the compartment just big enough for four-average sized people. I spent virtually the entire trip in my compartment. Bedding is supplied and there is one electrical outlet. It is not possible to open the windows and it gets stuffy at night with the door closed, especially as they turn on the heat then. Unfortunately there is a TV that was turned on by Russian guys and it runs constantly. The toilets are actually quite nice and very functional but there is no shower. Typical Russian train dress is shorts and flip flops. I felt at home.
The dining car was 3 cars down but I was warned the food was poor and expensive. A man from that car appears with a scant ‘free’ meal sometime in the evening some days. The attendant sold snacks, pop, bottled water, beer and tacky souvenirs. Probably poorly paid, it is a way to supplement their income. They are real capitalists. The main attendant turned out to be quite a nice guy.
The only real tip necessary is to bring all your own food. Fresh fruit, bread, cereal with powdered milk, tea, instant coffee and sugar if desired, juice, boiled eggs, salt and pepper, instant potatoes and noodles are the only practical things to bring. There is no refrigeration available but boiling hot water is dispensed from a large tank in the car. I am not a ‘noodle guy’ so foolishly brought some instant coffee, juice, granola, powdered milk, bananas, peaches, bread, what I thought was butter, lunchmeat (cream cheese would have been a better choice), mustard, mayo, cheese and lettuce for sandwiches. The safety of the meat and mayo became questionable after 2 days and I threw them out.
I was the only native English speaker in my car (and I believe the whole train) and had six different compartment mates for anywhere from 3 to 36 hours. The first 26 year old woman spoke no English but we had fun using Google translate on her phone when reception was available. I was alone for the next 4 hours but a fellow who wanted to practice his English sat with me for most of it. He worked in the oil and gas industry near the Arctic. He said that their IT technology was 20 years behind that of the west. Next was a couple returning from a wedding both of whom spoke English. They were from Ekaterinburg, 1778 kms from Moscow, the city where the remains of Nicholas II and his family were discovered in 1998. In the Ural Mountains, it is on the border of Europe and Asia. After another pleasant compartment mate, I was then joined by two young guys, both on leave from the army, spoke no English, and were with me all the way to Irkutsk. They watch TV or sleep and drink every night, but turned out to be pleasant guys and good compartment mates. After the first day, we used Google translate and discovered a little bit about each other. Everyone was exceptionally pleasant. It could be hell with a drinking crowd.
On the platforms, I found a young German girl and her grandmother doing the same trip as me, and a Dane and two Finns taking the train all the way to Vladivostok and then flying home. Seems like a waste of time. These were the only reasonable English speakers but they were at the other end of the train and I rarely saw them.
The food is poor and the cost high in the restaurant and I never went there.
We arrived in Irkutsk at 15:57, Moscow and train time, but it was 9 at night local time, dark and cold.
To be honest, this trip was boring as hell. And much more expensive than flying. If it were not for the pleasant Russian company that I had at the beginning, this method of travel would have little to offer. Sleep, read, work on the many posts for my web site, then repeat. It would be different if I was with a group – maybe we could play cards? The scenery is 5,000 km of bush, mostly birch and pine trees, interspersed with tiny, impoverished villages with muddy streets, and small houses with often unpainted, weathered clapboards and logs and metal roofs, all with gardens. The bigger towns we stopped in were all of Soviet vintage with typical five-story apartments. I don’t think there is a reason to stop in any of them. Fall colors were just turning. Initially dead flat, it became slightly rolling country. We passed through the Ural Mountains without noticing them. They are an old, low range, much like the Appalachians of the eastern USA and we were at their southern end. There was no big agriculture as this is too cold for wheat and I surprisingly, saw virtually no livestock. When I woke up after my second night, at km 2800, the landscape had changed to pancake flat grassland with few trees, all birch. It looks like great country for growing wheat but none of the land was cultivated. I finally saw a herd of cattle. At km 3303, after 45 hours, we stopped for 20 minutes at Novosibirsk Glavnyi, a big city on a big river. I exited the station to try to find something to eat and got back with all the steps folded up! But the pork wrap with vegys and sauce was worth it. After Novosibirsk Glavnyi, more trees appeared in a much later stage of autumn color change. It is obviously much colder here.
On awakening on the third morning, at 3600kms there were large hills, great autumn colors and some interesting views for once, but his eventually gave way to more flat grassland and birch trees whose fall colors are a uniform yellow-orange. The landscape didn’t change much all the way to Itkutsk, but it certainly got colder.
It is always interesting to hear traveler’s descriptions of their trips. Even though the Trans-Siberian appears to have almost nothing exceptional about it, most travelers will brag about having done it (probably, I will do the same). Some people are so concerned about being positive about everything, they don’t seem to be based in reality.
The cost of taking the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk is about US$662 whereas the cost of a domestic flight is US$234 or almost 3 times as much. If not stopping at any of the cities in between, or if it is not important to you to specifically take the Trans Siberian Railway, I would fly.
IRKUTSK (pop 585,000, time is Moscow +5 hours)
The de facto capital of Eastern Siberia, Irkutsk is by far the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. With Lake Baikal 70 kms away, the city is the best base from which to see the western shoreline.
Irkutsk was founded in 1661 as a Cossack garrison to extract the fur tax from the indigenous Buryats, and as the source for 18th-century expeditions to the far north and east, including Alaska – then known as “Irkutsk’s American district”. It also traded Siberian furs and ivory to Mongolia and China in exchange for silk and tea. 75% of the city burnt down in 1879, after which profits from the 1880s Lena Basin gold rush rebuilt the city in brick and stone. They did not welcome the 1917 Revolution and finally succumbed to the Red tide in 1920. It then developed into the sprawling industrial and scientific center that it remains today.
Irkutsk can be easily explored on foot with bus access to Angara Dam and the
I arrived in Irkutsk at 10PM local time and was given a ride to my hostel by a friend of one of my train compartment mates. I stayed at Baikaler Hostel, along with most of the other non-Russians in Irkutsk.
This is a big Russian city without much to offer. My 40 or so hours here was more than enough, just enough time to see Lake Baikal.
On my second and last day in Irkutsk, I went on a walking tour of Irkutsk. Called the Green Line tour and detailed on a map, it shows off the highlights of Irkutsk, of which there are not many. I walked down to the river to a large statue of Alexander III, then followed the river in the frigid wind to the Lovers Bridge where couples but padlocks to “seal their love”, just like on the famous bridge over the Seine in Paris (the incredible weight of locks there was causing the bridge to sag and apparently all of them have been removed. Then a couple of churches and a pretty park with a Russia-Japan Friendship Monument. Half the cars in Irkutsk are right-hand drive.
On the train from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator, I met two English fellows who had made many stops on the way to Irkutsk. At one city, they stayed at a hostel where the only other guests were Russian men. At night, some very attractive Russian women appeared, and then disappeared into the bathroom with a succession of guys. It is uncertain if the owner of the hostel was pimping, took a cut, or simply provided a free service to increase their paying guests.
After talking to some Russians, they gained some insight into the male/female relationship. Apparently, over the last century, as Russian men died in the many wars and Stalinist purges, a significant discrepancy between numbers of men and women became part of the culture. Women, always more abundant, had to work hard to find a male mate. They worked hard at being desirable, striving to be more attractive than other women. Even though sex ratio differences are no longer present to any degree, that mind set remains. That was the reason given why Russian women are so thin, and appearance maximized with makeup, hair, clothes and spike heels. And why the men are so “ordinary” – overweight, bad hair dos, poor fashion sense. They had made exactly the same observations that I had.
Sexual inequality is part of Russian society. Apparently men are also promiscuous and don’t have to work very hard at relationship issues. They are very critical if their “women” gain any weight.
Formed 25-30 million years ago, it is one of the world’s oldest geographical features. The banana-shaped lake is 636km from north to south and up to 1673m deep, making it the biggest (by volume) and deepest lake in the world. With nearly one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, it is larger than all the Great Lakes combined (although Lake Superior alone is supposed to have a larger surface area).
Fed by 300 rivers and drained by only one, the Angara, the water is pure enough to drink in most places. There are 110 settlements on the lake with a total combined population of 120,000 people. Effective water purification is rare so there is localized pollution. Commercial fishing is the main industry with about 2-3 thousand metric tons of trout caught yearly. The nerpa seals are also hunted commercially with 3,000-3,500 taken each year. The area sees approximately 70,000 tourists a year.
Lake Baikal has an estimated 60,000 nerpa seals and hundreds of endemic species. An outdated pulp and paper mill on the south shore pollutes the air and water. The Selenga River carries much of Mongolia’s untreated waste into the lake. An oil pipeline loops around the northern shore with potential threats to the watershed as it is a seismically active area.
Most visit the lake via Irkutsk traveling the 70kms to the closest lakeside village of Listvyanka. The east side of the lake has more beaches and trekking and is accessed by land as there are surprisingly no scheduled boats linking the east and west shores. There is no round-the-lake road and the north is effectively cut off from the south.
LISTVYANKA (pop 1850). We took tram #1 to the bus depot and caught a marshrulka (minivan) for the 1½ hour trip along the Angara River (dammed by the Angara Dam 5kms SE of Irkutsk) to produce a lake that raised the level of Lake Baikal by one meter). Listvyanka is underwhelming to say the least. The tourist town has one street on the western shore of Lake Baikal with a few hotels, souvenir shops and eateries serving BBQ meat and greasy rice. Dried fish is sold everywhere. After being let off, it is 2 blocks walking along the shore and that’s it. We couldn’t find the museum, possibly the only tourist attraction. The beach is unappetizing gravel and swimming (if you had the nerve in the cold water) isn’t allowed. We did the ritual foot dipping in the water. Boat rides are available for 500R for a one-hour ride north along the shore line. Views are grand across the lake with the eastern shore and snow-covered mountains easily visible. But it is simply a big lake and 2 hours was more than enough for me, which I suspected before going. The Lonely Planet said that a hydrofoil travels the river/lake back to Irkutsk but we couldn’t find it as possibly it is now out-of-season. I would have been interested in that option.
Many tourists go to Olkhorn Island almost half way up the western shore and a six-hour bus ride from Irkutsk. Baikaler Hostel has an affiliate there. With good hiking and more views of the lake, it would be easy to beat Listvyanka.
IRKUTSK TO ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA – Trans Siberian Railway (again)
DO NOT take the train from Ulan-Ude to Ulan Bator. My train left at 10PM and I missed all the views of Lake Baikal. I woke up in Ulan-Ude at dawn. Eight hours was spent at the border in the daylight and we did most of the travel at night, again missing the scenery. I would highly recommend taking a day train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, staying a night or so there and then taking the bus to Mongolia. The bus takes 10 hours, goes during the day, has only 2 hours at the border and costs significantly less.
I walked the 30 minutes from my hostel to the train station on the other side of the Angara River. It had been very cold all day and even snowed intermittently (much to the delight of the two Brazilians in the hostel who had never seen falling snow before). I had stocked up on food for the train trip and made much better choices – bread, soft cheese, tomatoes, salt, instant mashed potatoes, and fruit. It felt good to get some exercise.
The train, #376, departed right on time at 10:02 PM (5:02 Moscow time. I had not bothered changing my watch). Our second-class Kupe car was relatively empty with only foreigners. I ended up getting a four-bed compartment all to myself. This train was of a much older vintage but still comfortable. There was no electricity and the toilet emptied right onto the tracks so the bathroom was closed in the stations. The attendants were both oriental looking.
I didn’t see any landscape until I woke up at 6AM the next morning at km 456 at Ulan-Ude (pop 404,000). We had missed the apparently superb views of Lake Baikal visible during the day. On the other side of Lake Baikal, this is the Buryat capital with a Mongol-Buddhist culture. Founded as a Cossack fort in 1666, it prospered on the China caravan route. Every Buryat church was systemically wrecked during the Communist’s antireligious mania1920s, today Buryat Buddhism is rebounding moderately. The Buryat language is Turkic but most speak accented Russian. Ulan-Ude was a closed city until the 1980s due to its secret military plants. It has a commercial center outside of which are dusty streets of crooked timber dwellings and many factories with belching smoke stacks. A 7.7m high bronze statue of Lenin’s head was installed on Lenin’s 100th birthday. One could spend a week here making day trips out of Ulan-Ude to Lake Baikals’s eastern shore, Buddhist temples, Old Believers Villages and Kyakhta, two centuries ago a major town on the tea-trade route from China that died with the completion of the Suez Canal and Trans Siberian railway. There were some English tourists in the hostel in Irkutsk that had planned on staying in Ulan-Ude for a few days.
Ulan-Ude is where the railway turns south to Mongolia, still 657km and 24 hours on the train away from Ulan Bator. The Trans Siberian Railway is apparently the least comfortable and most expensive way to get to Mongolia mostly because of the up to 11-hour delay at the Mongolian border at the town of Naushki. A much cheaper and convenient way from Ulan-Ude is the bus that takes 10 hours. Apparently, there were three flights a week, but that airline, the Mongolian Eznis, has gone out of business. Take the train from Irkutsk, stay a day or two in town and catch the bus.
Snow dusted the ground and surrounding low hills. Much drier, there are few trees other than on the hills. The same impoverished houses dominate the scene. We arrived at Naushki at 8:45 Moscow time, our car, the only one continuing on to UB, was separated off and we sat in the train for over 5 hours as announced on the handy printed timetable in the train. The bathrooms were locked, the steps not put down and basically we could not disembark. During the last hour, Russian immigration appeared, took our passports, returning them stamped. Our compartments and luggage were searched – that is the only time that has happened when leaving a country! We then rode 45 minutes into Mongolia where we sat for 2 hours and 19 minutes. Mongolian immigration came onto the train, took our passports and then returned them. They were much more polite than the Russians. You cannot walk across the Mongolian border. With a time difference from Moscow of only 4 hours, we finally were on our way at 8:55PM with only 2 stops before arriving at Ulan Bator at 5:05AM. A significant negative of the train is waiting 8 hours during the day in stations and doing most of the travel at night when there are no views.
Mongolia previously did not require a visa from US or New Zealand citizens but since January, 2014 does not require a visa from a whole host of countries that required them before, including Canada and most of Western Europe. Nice.