The world does not lack for epic train rides. There’s Europe’s famous Orient Express, and the modern route of the Transcontinental Railroad crossing the United States. How about the Indian Pacific, an Australian passenger service covering the 4,352 kilometres between Sydney and Perth? Or there’s Canada’s magnificent named First Passage To The West, running between Vancouver and Banff...
Yet none of these have the romantic power of the colossal network of routes that has come to be known as the Trans-Siberian Railway. No other train ride quite deserves the term “epic” like this journey.
It’s not about its size. Although it’s frequently described as the world’s longest single continuous route, it’s now beaten by two others, each topping 10,000 km (Kiev to Vladivostok; Moscow to Pyongyang). However, they both follow the Trans-Siberian for most of their distance - and in the latter’s case, foreign independent travellers aren’t allowed into North Korea, so it can hardly be considered a passenger route, at least not right now.
Yet in a way, this is about its size, the kind that can’t be captured by raw numbers. In the eight days a non-stop journey along the Trans-Siberian will take (we’re doing the whole trip in 17 days to take in the sights), you cross 7 time-zones and three of the most expansive countries on Earth, crossing almost the entire width of our planet’s widest landmass.
The true scale of this at ground level is hard to fathom until you play the comparisons game. The route from Moscow to Beijing is approximately the same distance as a straight line from Toronto to Cairo in Egypt. Imagine a train journey across the entire Atlantic and then across the bulk of Europe. Would that qualify as “epic”?
Along the way, you pass through more than 9,000 kilometres of Russia and, if you divert onto the Trans-Mongolian Railway at Lake Baikal, Mongolia and China. The route covers a staggering amount of terrain - some of it gorgeously bleak as you cross the seemingly unchanging central steppes, leading some people to describe the middle section of the Trans-Siberian as a “sea voyage across land”.
The reason it’s here in the first place is a mixture of yesteryear national pride and the demands of international trade - particularly in tea. These days it’s hard to imagine the critical importance of the tea trade for the economies of the pre-industrial Western world. By the mid 19th century, Europe’s voracious appetite for tea (which developed after coffee-houses became a standard fixture of European urban life) was closely rivalled by demand from Russia. (By 1915, 65% of Chinese tea exports were going straight into Siberia.)
The existing trade network to and from China was the Great Siberian Route, nicknamed the Tea Road - and it was deemed far too slow and treacherous by Sergei Witte, an influential minister in the late-19th-Century Russian government. It was his oversight, and belief that political power followed economic growth, that sparked the development of the railway network, supported by the patronage of Czar Alexander III.
In knitting together its fragmented train lines into a single continent-spanning route, Russia quickly alarmed many of its neighbours. Now there was a direct way to move troops quickly and cheaply in either direction, and to tap the vast resources of inner Siberia to generate capital that could be used for military purposes.
In 1904, before the railway network was complete, Japan attacked Russian ships in Manchuria - and the resulting Russo-Japanese War, ending in defeat for Russian, shifted the balance of power in East Asia towards the Japanese.
These events would have profound consequences for 20th Century geopolitics - and arguably, it all happened because of the Trans-Siberian railway.
Nowadays the railway network is complete (it was finished around 1916, although as can be seen from the newer routes that extend and outpace it, the term “finished” can only be used loosely here) and well-maintained. For over a hundred years it’s been a vital part of the economies of every country it passes through, and even today, it carries around 200,000 containers per year across the length of Asia into Europe.
It also carries growing numbers of tourists - and no wonder. It’s still the best way to see the deepest interiors of these magnificent landscapes, and to pass through otherwise inaccessible towns with some truly fantastic names, like Uyarspasopreobrazhenskoye (usually shortened to “Uyar”, even by the locals).
It’s also supremely relaxing, with little to do but read and daydream as the scenery cinematically spools past your window. For this reason, it’s become increasingly popular as a passenger service for foreign visitors with a thirst for adventure - or, in the case of a certain David Bowie, a fear of flying that forced him to seek an alternate route home to the UK after his 1973 tour of Japan.
Among the sights enroute that are best seen from the window of a train carriage is the shoreline of Lake Baikal. The word “lake” is something of a misnomer, as you quickly appreciate when you arrive at the edge of it...and can’t see anything of the opposite side.
With a maximum depth of 1.6 kilometres, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, and contains 22% of the world’s fresh surface water, more than all the Great Lakes of North America combined. It’s also the oldest, forming approximately 30 million years ago, and allegedly the clearest - and the wildlife it shelters is incredibly diverse. (“Baikal” comes from the Mongolian for “Nature”).
As with so many things along the Trans-Siberian railway, skirting the edge of Lake Baikal is a truly epic experience.
This, then, is part of the answer to the question hanging over this whole route. It’s not “the best” because it’s the most noteworthy or extreme of any one thing. Rather, it’s the combining factors that make it legendary: the history and geography and breadth of experiences on offer, swirled into a headily adventurous mixture that is surprisingly relaxed for such a vast undertaking.
This isn’t an adventure to barrel your way through, with as much applied grit as possible. This is a journey to surrender to. You don’t take the Trans-Siberian - you are taken by it, literally and figuratively, as it obeys its own rules and pace of life as it’s done for generations, through the rise and fall of nation states, world wars, and all the marks of a changing world that doesn’t seem to be changing that much when you watch it rumble past at 60 kilometres per hour…
There’s nothing like being taken by the Trans-Siberian. Why not give it a try sometime?