Following in the footsteps of decadent Russian Tsars, tragic enemies of the state banished to the notorious gulag labour camps of Siberia and allegedly a flight phobic David Bowie in 1973, a journey on the Trans Siberian railway tops many people’s bucket list. This year it finally reached the top of mine and I, along with my husband and a couple of friends, booked our Sundowners Overland 21 day Mongolian Discovery tour from Beijing to St. Petersburg.
As we'd travelled extensively in China before, we chose to skip the 2 days of sightseeing in Beijing and instead met up with our fellow 5 travellers and Anya, our lovely Russian tour leader, the night before the start of our epic 5,000 mile adventure.
Early the next morning our train from Beijing departed bang on time. Heading north the rather uninspiring Beijing suburbs slowly drifted away to be replaced by the picturesque villages and fields of northern China. As the sun set, we entered the Gobi Desert bound for the Mongolian border. We quickly learned that border crossings on the train aren’t timely affairs - ours took over 8 hours! Entry formalities are conducted on the train - don’t be alarmed as your passports are whisked away from you for several hours, they will be returned! Whilst their focus is usually on the local traders using the train to transfer their stock, customs officials may conduct a thorough check of your luggage and/or your compartment so little bit of patience goes a long way.
The highlight of this border crossing, especially for railway enthusiasts, is the changing of the carriage wheels, or bogies, as you move from China’s standard gauge rails to the wider gauge used by Mongolia and Russia. Your carriage, with you still inside, is jacked up 3m into the air. The old bogies are removed, the new ones attached and once you're back down on the rails and the train is all reattached you’re good to go. It’s quite an experience and fascinating to watch from your aerial vantage point.
GER-ATE TIMES IN MONGOLIA
The train continued its journey across the Mongolian steppe, heading towards Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital city (-49C in winter!). Winding around tight bends, there are some excellent photo opportunities on this leg. Arriving in the city late afternoon, there was time to quickly check in to our hotel before enjoying an evening of traditional Mongolian song and dance. The throat singing was a genuine highlight - totally bizarre but surprisingly melodic!
Nothing quite prepares you for the beauty and expansiveness of the Mongolian landscape. Leaving the city behind we spent a night spent camping out in a ger tent, shared dinner (boiled sheep’s head anyone?!) with a delightful nomadic family and enjoyed the fabulous views atop the gigantic Genghis Khan statue. After a stop to fly a golden eagle (a pretty normal thing in Mongolia!) it was back on the overnight train headed for Russia.
SENT TO SIBERIA
Following another 8 hour late night border crossing, we awoke to scenes straight from a snow globe as the train skirted the shores of a frozen Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. During our time in the charming lakeside village of Listvyanka, Anya initiated us to the art of the Russian banya ie being whipped with birch branches in a sauna - far more relaxing than it sounds! She also taught us the etiquette of vodka drinking. Always drink with food (ideally follow each shot with a pickled vegetable or smoked fish), look the person you are clinking glasses with directly in the eye, never miss anyone out nor toast with an empty glass (it’s very bad luck). And the last clink should be with a member of the opposite sex who you are not romantically involved with. Za zdorovje!
We had time to explore the picturesque city of Irkutsk, an obscure Cossack outpost made famous for hosting aristocratic political exiles from the court of St Petersburg in the early 19th Century, before starting our 3 night non stop train ride across Siberia headed for the city of Kazan. The time onboard was comfortable and passed surprisingly quickly (aided by quantities of vodka, pot noodles, box sets downloaded to our iPads, good old card games, lots of laughs and plenty of snoozing!).
Hitting the cosmopolitan Tatarstani (yep tartare sauce has its origins here) capital was quite a culture shock after the wilds of Siberia. This little known hidden gem of a city has amazing architecture, much of it funded by the region’s vast oil & gas deposits and a proud people, said to be direct descendants of Genghis Khan’s legendary Golden Horde. Older than Moscow and known as the Istanbul of the Volga, Kazan is one of Russia’s most progressive cities, majestic mosques rub shoulders happily here with grandiose orthodox churches and there's a lively mile long strip of bars and restaurants to let your hair down in as your stretch your legs after being cooped up on a train for days.
REACH FOR THE TSARS
But Moscow was calling. Our overnight train journey got us in mid morning on 9th May, Victory Day, which celebrates the ending of hostilities of Russia’s Great Patriotic War (aka WWII). We headed straight out to watch the military parade being broadcast from Red Square and were then invited to join in the Immortal Regiment parade. The Soviet Union faced some of the worst losses during the war, with an estimated 27 million casualties and every year millions of Russians march through the streets holding portraits of relatives who died during the fighting. It was an incredibly moving experience to walk alongside the families and an honour to help them keep the memories of their long lost descendants alive.
The next day we explored Bunker 42, deep underground in a forgettable city suburb. Built top secretly during the Cold War, it was designed to be the head of operations during a nuclear war. I volunteered to launch the nuclear missile in an attack simulation. Typing in the map co-ordinates that were being barked at me by the scary looking 'guard' and pressing that white button (only the west has red ones apparently) was surprisingly nerve wracking! Having obliterated New York - oops, it was time to unleash our inner space geek at the Museum of Cosmonautics. This 'must see' in the city showcases Russia's race to conquer space. There’s the taxidermied bodies of Belka & Stelka, the first dogs in space, a life size replica of the Mir space station to walk through and the capsule that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in as he made history on 12 April 1961.
Saying a sad farewell to Moscow, we caught the overnight train to St Petersburg. Highlights of this beautiful city were a guided tour of the world class art collection of The Hermitage, a night at the ballet in the Mariinsky Theatre and seeing the final resting place of the last tsar of Russia in the Peter & Paul fortress. After a farewell dinner with the group, our adventure of a lifetime sadly had come to an end.
So how can I sum it up? It was a journey covering 2 continents, 3 countries, 19 days and 5,000 miles simply jam packed with the most incredible experiences, wonderful people and magnificent landscapes. Combined with comfortable trains and my new appreciation of vodka (and pot noodles) I loved every single minute of it. Packing my trusty Trans Siberian guidebook away on our last night, an old bus ticket fluttered to the floor. Examining it, I saw it was dated 2003 and had been used as a book mark when I had first started planning this adventure when I first started working with Trailfinders! Whatever you do, if it's on your bucket list, don’t leave it as long as I did - just go!
Top Ten Tips
1) With the need to submit fingerprints for China & Russia, do not underestimate how long getting your visas will take. Start applying for them as soon as you can (but no sooner than 3 months before departure) and be aware that your passport can be tied up for up to a couple of weeks for each one - important if you have any other trips planned during your application process.
2) The trains run regularly in both directions, ie east to west or vv. We chose the former, to get the jet lag over and done with at the beginning of the trip when there is plenty of time to adjust your body clocks with some top snoozing on the train. Spending the last few days in 'European' Russia also meant we gently readjusted ourselves to coming back home, so no culture shock on arrival.
3) Pack as light as you can as your luggage shares your compartment. A low, soft sided bag works best for fitting under the seats. Do include a set of comfy ‘train clothes’ to lounge in - a t-shirt, leggings or shorts and a sweatshirt is perfect. The heating in the carriages can be a little erratic, but with a tendency to being too warm rather than too cold, dressing in layers is helpful. A pair of slip on shoes or flip flops is useful. Bring plenty of reading material, downloads and pack of cards but don’t forget to take the time to simply sit back and gaze out of the window at the ever changing scenery.
4) Owned by China, Mongolia or Russian rail operators, there is a vast range of styles of carriages operating on the Trans Siberian network - we had a completely different one for each leg of our journey. They ranged from modern business style sleeper accommodation with an en suite bathroom to older more utilitarian options with a questionable taste in net curtains, but all were perfectly comfortable. No need to bring sleeping bags. Freshly laundered linen, pillows & duvets are always provided along with a hand towel for each berth. There are 2 toilets with a washbasin in each carriage. They are pretty basic but kept spotlessly clean by the provodnitsas, your carriage attendants. Toilet paper is provided and there is plenty of space to wash. Do bring a flannel/sponge and a universal sink plug. On some trains showers are occasionally available either FOC or at a minimal charge (approx £2 including towels). Plug sockets will be available somewhere in the carriage to charge up your electricals but do keep an eye on your belongings if using the sockets in the corridors. If travelling with lots of gadgets, consider taking a large capacity portable power pack with you.
5) If travelling as a couple, or if privacy is important to you, consider upgrading to a twin share cabin in advance. It bumps the price up considerably but spending 3 consecutive nights in a compact 4-berth compartment with 3 others (often strangers), all with different sleeping habits and large amounts of luggage can be a little wearing. On some trains, upgrading to a twin share gets you into a different class of carriage altogether - the equivalent of travelling 1st Class, on others it secures you exclusive use of a standard 4-berth cabin. We upgraded and felt it was definitely money very well spent.
6) There will be a restaurant car of varying standards on each train. We found the Russian dining cars offered the widest choice of decently cooked dishes. However prices are fairly high and the menu can become a little monotonous on longer stretches. This is when pot noodles become your new best friend! Easily available at stations all along the route, they are a cheap and portable meal option. There are samovars of boiling water available in each carriage, so bring a travel mug with a lid, tea bags and instant coffee/creamer and cuppa soups.
7) Make an effort to learn a few words of the local language. A little ‘spas-iba’ (thank you in Russian) or ‘sain banu’ (hello in Mongolian) will go down well and help you interact with your fellow travellers.
8) Your tour leader supplies details of the timings of all stops, along with interesting things to look our for either in the station or on the journey itself. Get off at as many stops as you can to stretch your legs, fill your lungs with fresh air and stock up with snacks or water (both available on the train at a premium). The platforms become a hive of activity during stops - it’s not unusual to see a group of little ballerinas on their way to a dance competition doing plies. Some passengers go for a jog up and down the platform whilst others browse the wares of local traders offering fur hats, woollen scarves or smoked fish. It’s important to remember that the Trans Siberian doesn’t wait for anyone so my advice is to set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes before departure to ensure you are back on board in plenty of time. Always take your passport & money with you when you leave the train just in case...
9) As you’ll generally only have a few days in each city stop, consider booking unmissable add on experiences in advance. Tickets for things like the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg or the Bolshoi in Moscow get booked up early so if these are your must dos, my recommendation is to book these before you leave home.
10) Leave space for some souvenirs! Travelling overland right across Asia to Europe presents a huge & varied buying opportunity. My best finds were a tiny jade Buddha from Beijing, Mongolian cashmere (one of the worlds largest producers of cashmere - who knew?!), beautiful hand painted matryoshka Christmas tree decorations and Russian pewter tea glasses. And a bottle of Beluga vodka from duty free naturally!
Find out more about our Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian journeys here.