The Trans-Siberian Express
This trip, strangely enough, did not start with something I got in the mail. I was at a meeting of a group to which I belong, and met someone who also was quite well traveled. We started chatting about things we had done and places we had been, and happened to mention the Trans-Siberian Express. This is a fascinating train trip that starts in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok on the east coast of Asia.
I went on to the website of the company that was booking the trip, and selected a July trip. I quickly made my air reservation through British Airways. Much to my delight, since I was only going one way, they only wanted 32,500 miles instead of 65,000. The downside was I was going to have to overnight in London, which I will do at the airport. I got the ticket, and much to my dismay, they had booked me into St. Petersburg rather than
Moscow! I had the reservation corrected, and sent the ticket in to be reissued, which it finally was, 4 months later.
I was on eBay, as I am wont to do, and found a copy of a National Geographic for sale that had a story on this trip. It was quite an extensive story, and had a map of the entire trip so I can keep track of our journey. In chatting with someone at work about the trip, I realized I would be going east the entire time, so I would be circling the globe.
The flight from Los Angeles to London was uneventful, other than the fact that my bag had been checked through to Moscow! That meant that I did not have a change of clothes or my toilet kit with me. Fortunately, I have a small toilet kit in my backpack, and I ended up washing stuff out and using the blow dryer to dry them.
I got up at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, which was the equivalent of midnight Los Angeles time, to catch the bus back to the airport. It was at that point that disaster struck! Someone asked me if I had ever forgotten anything important on a trip and I said never. Never is a long time, and pride goeth before a fall. I left the folder with all the trip information in my room at the hotel, including my return tickets home!
On the flight to Moscow, I sat next to a man who spoke Russian. He helped me fill out the landing card, which was a great help. I cleared immigration and customs, and looked for a sign from the travel company. I spotted a man holding a sign with my name, and was glad to see him in the chaos in the terminal.
We arrived at the hotel, and I told the tour manager of my problem, so they could try to recover the folder with my tickets. I was the last person to arrive, and was given 5 minutes to clean up. I had not shaved in 2 days, and I looked for the razor socket in the bathroom, but could not find it! I ended up sitting on the floor and using a regular outlet and my little transformer to shave.
From that point on, I was in the hands of the tour manager, and everything went smoothly. We walked across Red Square and entered St. Basil‘s cathedral for a reception.
We were served caviar and vodka, and were serenaded by a trio of folk singers.
The next morning, we were taken on a private tour of part of the Kremlin called the Armoury, which had a fabulous collection of jewelry, clothing, and the Faberge eggs. These were fantastic; when each egg was opened, there was something inside. One had a tiny 14 car train in it like the Trans Siberian Express.
After the tour we were taken to the train to unpack. I was fortunate to have a room by myself, so I could use the other bed to put my stuff on. There was an ingenious hanging bag that had shelves in it to put underwear etc. There was also an overhead slot to store my suitcase. It was very comfortable, and they had nicely left a small bottle of vodka in the room. I had packed a LARGE bottle of scotch, however, and it lasted 16 days.
We had a nice lunch in the dining car, and had our choice of red wine, white wine, or beer with both lunch and dinner. We left the main railway station and started on our journey east. On the Trans-Siberian, distances are measured from Moscow, and all trackside signs give the distance in kilometers (about 0.63 miles). We will wind up in Vladivostok, some 9300 kilometers and 7 time zones from Moscow.
Our first stop was Kazan, in the Tatar republic, and we were taken to the Kremlin there. Apparently Kremlin is a word that means fortress, but to the West, there is only one—in Moscow.
We were taken through the site, and then went to the Kul Sharif Mosque, which is the biggest in Europe. I fully expected to have to take my shoes off as I had in other mosques, but they handed everyone plastic booties to put over their shoes.
One of the neat things they did on this trip was to have the guides use wireless microphones, and we were each given a receiver and earphone. That way we could all listen without crowding around. We then were taken on a two hour cruise on the Volga River, which was quite pleasant. One of the things we saw was a little village on an island and I wondered if it was one of the Potemkin Villages erected to fool Katherine the Great. Apparently Potemkin was a minister of the court, and after she passed the village, he took it apart and hauled it through the night and set it up again so it would appear there were more people living there than there actually were.
Our next stop was Yekaterinburg, which was the Romanov’s city of exile. When the White Russians (royalists) appeared to be closing in on the city it was feared that the Czar would be an inspiration to them. The entire family was taken to a cellar and shot, and their bodies disposed of in the forest. Years later, DNA evidence proved that the remains were of the Czar and his family. A cathedral was built on the execution site.
I went inside the cathedral, and there were a series of plaques on the wall. I can read Cyrillic well enough to see that there were plaques honoring each member of the royal family.
On our way to a museum, we were stopped at what looked like a checkpoint. The lady next to me panicked, because she did not have her passport. It turned out that the point was at the division of the continent between Europe and Asia.
Our first stop was at a mineralogical museum, and we had one of the professors give a lecture on the different minerals that were found in Siberia and their uses.
From the museum we went to the Opera House, which is one of the largest in the world. We were allowed to go backstage and into the scenery department.
And then— one of the highlights of the trip for the train buffs—the Railroad Museum. It was quite fascinating to see all the steam locomotives all painted and shiny.
There were also some unusual cars there, especially one that looked like a submarine. I turns out it was a molten iron retort for moving iron as it came out of the blast furnace. The car was filled from the top, moved to a sluice to pour the metal into molds, and the entire retort rotated to pour out the metal.
There was also a fourth class coach. Heat was supplied by a stove in the corner, and baggage was stowed under the seats. Food was either brought on by the passengers or bought at various stops along the railway.
One of the people I met on this trip was a very interesting lady that owned a business that sold DVD’s of steam locomotives to a niche market of enthusiasts. She was trying to get a ride on one of the engines; however they were unable to accommodate her. However, we did get up into the cab of the locomotive and I was able to take some pictures. They would not let us ride there, however, because of regulations.
We then went to visit another cathedral. On the grounds there was a statue of Alexander III, commemorating the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway.
Another highlight of the trip was the side trip to Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake in the world. The train left the main line and took the old route to Port Baikal. Before the new route was blasted out, a railroad
ferry had to be used to transport cars and people across the lake. In our daily program there was a notice that we could ride on the outside of the locomotive for a nominal fee. Needless to say, I was the first one there with
It was a fantastic experience. I almost felt like a dog with its head out the window of a car! Well after the second group had gone, I decided to do it again. The ride this time was twice as long and I found the only thing better than riding the locomotive was to do it twice!
It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and there was a little cove set up with a tent and BBQ and some small boats. We were then taken by ferry to an open air wooden architecture museum, sort of like Skansen Park in Sweden. There were all manners of structures, and well as booths set up selling the usual stacking dolls and other local handicrafts.
We returned to Port Baikal and took the ferry back to the train. We then departed for the next stop which was Ulan Ude.
We were taken to a village of the “Old Believers” who had emigrated from Europe and established themselves here. We were greeted by some of them in their costumes, but the highlight was the wedding ceremony performed with a young couple from our train who were on their honeymoon.
The young lady was dressed in the traditional garb, a layer at a time, and when she was through, the young man came out in his costume. There were all manner of ceremonies, including a ritual beating of the bride and groom, then the groom beating the bride. At the end of the ceremony, a tray with vodka and pickle slices was passed to a few of the men. Well, as usual, I was one of the ones picked. I took a deep breath, and swallowed the vodka in one gulp without choking; then took a bite of pickle.
Later that evening, on the train, as we were heading to Mongolia, we had to go through first a Russian Border crossing then a Mongolian border crossing. It went very smoothly, but we had to stay in our rooms until we cleared the Mongolian border.
Our first stop was at a Buddhist temple complex that was restored after Stalin died and they were allowed more religious freedom.
From there we were taken to the main square which featured statues of one of the Mongolian heroes. There was a large statue of Genghis Khan on the other side of a fenced and covered area, but I found a hole that I could shoot through standing on my toes.
For lunch we were taken to a ger restaurant, which was shaped like the huts the nomads lived in out in the countryside. With lunch we were treated to a show of singing and acrobatics. Some of the singing called “throat singing” was unique to Mongolia.
There was a tour in the afternoon, but some of us did not want to face an hour ride each way. We were taken back to the railway station, but the train was parked out in the rail yard. It was kind of exciting to be walking across active tracks and looking each way twice to make sure we did not get run over. When the rest of the group boarded the train, we left and headed back to Russia. We made a brief stop at Ulan Ude to change locomotives, and then we were off to our last stop of Vladivostok.
Well we finally made it! 9288 kilometers from Moscow. The post I am standing by has the number of the final kilometer on it. Other than the post, the other welcome sight in the station was one of the tour managers holding my return airline ticket home (whew!). It only cost me $65 to have the ticket reissued, but it was a small price to pay for the lessons learned about making copies of everything.
That night we were put up a nice hotel overnight with a REAL king size bed. It was a delight after sleeping on one that was 2 feet 6 inches wide! After we got settled, we were taken to a really nice restaurant for our farewell dinner.
The next afternoon we were taken to the airport, checked in, which was a little hectic, and flew to Incheon International in Korea. The flight home was uneventful, as I slept most of the way. It took me about a week to get rid of my jet lag, and I was home for two months until my next adventure, a seven day cruise of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, on to Wales to ride the narrow gauge trains, and then take the chunnel to Paris
Steve Goch – Photographs and text Copyright 2019