The Trans-Siberian Express: Back aboard "the world’s greatest rail journey"

On his 27th trip aboard the mammoth train journey across Russia , our seasoned rail traveller finds that though things have changed over the years, the Trans Siberian remains one of the greats.

Eight years is a long time to wait for a train. Especially when the one in question is the Trans-Siberian Express.

It’s not that the train itself is late, though. Rather it’s that, having made this trip 26 times in the past, I’d thought my “trans-Sibe” days were over. But I’m back on the rails, leading a tour group for Perth company Travel Directors.

“The Trans-Siberian is the BIG train ride,” travel writer Eric Newby once wrote. “All the rest are peanuts.”

It’s hard to argue. Whether you start the journey in Beijing or Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east, it’s an epic seven-day trek of 7500-9000km.

And more than 100 years after the line was completed, it remains Russia’s most important travel link. More than 30 per cent of the country’s exports are still carried along the line.

My love affair with the Trans-Siberian began in 1989, when my wife and I included the journey as we emigrated from the UK to Australia.

It was a thrilling but difficult trip. Food and drink was scarce and we relied on babushkas — the old ladies who met the train at the stops — for supplies.

However, with the fall of communism things changed and comfort levels increased. The dining cars were privatised and it was possible to eat a decent hot meal on the train, washed down with Siberian beer or the mandatory vodka.

So I am excited to see what else might have changed during my eight-year hiatus.

We get off to a bad start. Our train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is inexplicably cancelled and we have to fly instead.

It’s a pity because the 36-hour first leg is a terrific train ride. The Trans-Mongolian, as it’s known, emerges from the polluted Chinese capital and heads north into the Khentii Mountains and the grasslands of the Gobi Desert.

I’m also frustrated that we will miss the extraordinary sight at the Chinese border of the carriages being hoisted into the air by enormous hydraulic jacks for the wheel bogeys to be changed. This is necessary because, rather inconveniently, the rail gauges of the two countries differ by about 9cm.

But our disappointment is soon forgotten as we fly into Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia begins to work its charm.

Our arrival is timed to coincide with the Naadam festival, a three-day sporting extravaganza focusing on wrestling, archery and horse-racing. We also have time to drive 50km out of the capital to see the gigantic stainless-steel statue of Genghis Khan. More than 40m high, it’s the world’s biggest equestrian statue and an elevator takes us up to the head of the horse for incredible views.

After four days in Mongolia, however, we are keen for a rail fix. Finally, at 8pm on a warm evening, we board Train 263 for the 35-hour journey to Siberia.

I’m not surprised to find that almost nothing has changed since the last time I travelled on this particular train. To put it simply: it is basic. There are no plush furnishings and no dining car. But we knew this in advance and have stocked up well. 

Very soon the wine is flowing and we celebrate the start of our rail trip proper.

It’s a shock, waking the next morning, to find we have seemingly been abandoned at the Mongolian border town of Sukhe Baatar. There’s a long wait for a new loco to arrive from Russia to haul us into Siberia.

Sometime during our second night on the train we link up with the actual Trans-Siberian line and it feels as if we are truly on our way.

We stop at Irkutsk, the capital of western Siberia, a delightful city of churches and pretty wooden houses. Originally a Cossack trading post, it was more recently a place of exile for opponents of the tsar. Irkutsk also borders mighty Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, which contains a staggering 20 per cent of the world’s entire resource. We take a boat ride on the lake and a couple of ladies courageously (some might say madly) dive into the icy waters, a tradition said to add years to one’s life.

Now comes the main event. At the splendidly ornate Irkutsk railway station, we board Train 1, the Rossiya, aka the Trans-Siberian Express. On this train, at least, things have changed — and definitely for the better. The old long-drop toilets have been replaced by automatic, hygienic affairs and the air-conditioning actually works. The dining car is immaculate and, although prices have risen, the food is much better than I recall.

We settle in for a truly great rail journey. Three-and-a-half days through the vast taiga forests of Siberia, skirting lakes and rivers, and passing through cities steeped in history.

At the numerous stops, we disembark to stretch our legs and buy goodies from local traders. The babushkas are thinner on the ground nowadays, doubtless thanks to the station kiosks that have started appearing over the years, but I’m delighted to find my favourite potato pasties. And the ice-cream vendors do a roaring trade.

It always amazes me how quickly time seems to pass on this epic trip. From Vladivostok to Moscow, the train moves through seven time zones. And since the train always operates on Moscow time, keeping track of it can be quite a feat. 

Soon we are passing the famous obelisk that marks the border of Asia and Europe. The Russian capital is now less than 2000km away.

When we do finally pull into Moscow’s Yaroslavskaya station, there is almost a sense of anticlimax. Where is the brass band, the civic reception and streamers to celebrate our arrival?

For my group of first timers, there is an undeniable feeling of achievement. And for this old traveller, there is the satisfying knowledge that, although the years have passed and changes have inevitably occurred, the Trans-Siberian remains the world’s greatest rail journey.

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