Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway
The journey of a lifetime
We are enjoying a picnic beside beautiful blue Lake Baikal, known as the ‘pearl of Siberia’, one of the many highlights of the trip of a lifetime on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing.
Nicolai is playing folk songs on his trusty accordion, shashliks are sizzling on the barbecue, vodka is flowing and an ornate traditional Russian samovar is bubbling away on the table ready to make tea at the end of the evening.
Earlier, I waded into the chilly clear waters of the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake and splashed my face to see if the promise of looking 10 years younger rings true. For those who took the full plunge there’s a ‘bravery’ certificate and a shot of vodka to help warm up.
We are covering 7858 kilometres in 12 days across seven time zones and three big countries: Russia, Mongolia and China. It doesn’t take long to settle into life aboard the comfortable Tsar’s Gold Private Train, a far cry from the typical Russian trains that offer basic facilities.
In all, 164 passengers from 23 nations have climbed aboard to experience one of the world’s great train journeys.
The beauty of wide open spaces
Window-gazing becomes addictive as the ever-changing landscape unfurls as we weave our way from Moscow to Beijing, stopping at cities, towns and attractions.
From dawn to dusk, we experience a snapshot into everyday life passing by dwellings such as drab Stalinist-style apartment blocks, charming gingerbread Russian cottages, the colourful wooden houses of Siberia and the tented gers of Mongolia — but it’s those wide open spaces that mesmerise the most.
Activities along the journey
Every day brings a new adventure and there’s an air of excitement and anticipation at each new stop. Interesting lectures are broadcast and we attend a Russian language session. There is time for the occasional card game and singing around the tiny bar where ABBA hits are the universal songs.
Our tour leader, Marina, heads our group of 20 English-speaking travellers and at each destination we are met by a local guide who shows us the attractions followed by free time to wander.
From Moscow our first stop is Kazan, the ancient capital of the Tartars, then Yekaterinburg, where the Cathedral on the Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land (to give its full name) was built recently as a memorial to the last Tsar and his family.
At Novosibirsk Siberia, we are given a traditional greeting with dancing, baked bread and salt. We discover there are even palm trees in Siberia; they are shipped in for the summer and displayed in the colourful city of Irkutsk, much to the delight of residents.
The capital of Mongolia, Ulanbaataar, is a bustling city and after a night off the train in a hotel, we head by bus to the magnificent Mongolian hills of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park where we watch traditional wrestling, horseback and archery exhibitions.
But it’s those sweeping undulating valleys and amazing rock formations that weave their magic on us, enticing all to return.
Another standout is the vast biscuit-coloured Gobi desert, which is looking its best after heavy rain has produced a carpet of tiny wildflowers. Right on cue, a large camel train wanders by, then it’s on to Beijing.
Border crossings go smoothly, which is a relief after hearing of occasions when passengers have been woken in the middle of the night for a security check.
Accommodation onboard the Trans-Siberian Railway
Accommodation varies on board, as does the price. We are snug in a red-velvet and timber-trimmed ‘Nostalgic’ style cabin with a couch that converts to a comfortable bed, overhead bunk and a tiny shower between two rooms.
There’s also a sense of history as some carriages were built for former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his comrades. It seems Russian officials were fond of their home comforts and enjoyed travelling in style 50 years ago.
Diligent carriage stewards renew supplies of fruit, water and snacks and keep our cabin in order.
Hearty meals are served in our designated dining carriage with Russian specialities such as kasha, a tasty Russian porridge, shchi — Russian cabbage soup — and beef stroganoff.
There’s also a caviar and vodka tasting that leads to a vigorous discussion on just what comes up best in the scenery stakes: the snow dusted Siberian peaks and its tracts of Christmas trees or the magnificent green sweeping plains of Mongolia?
My call is definitely Mongolia, but the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t just about majestic landscapes — it’s about the people, the cultures and the camaraderie that create one big unforgettable adventure and no-one disembarks disappointed.
It is the ride of a lifetime and ABBA hits will forever evoke memories of my 12 days rocking and rolling along the tracks of these three grand countries.