Some people associate train travel with commuting on the subway. And there are those who associate it with the splendor and mystery of an Agatha Christie novel — the one where a majority of the characters on the train become suspects in a crime.
Journeying along the Trans-Siberian Railway couldn’t be more different from a morning commute or being on Christie’s Orient Express. Regardless of how you feel about train travel, a transcontinental rail journey is one of the most immersive ways to see the world. It is a joyride that is about life on the train as much as off it.
Life in transit
You’ll be in trains for days and cross seven time zones, so make the most of your time while in Moscow where you’ll board the train that begins the trip. Visit the Kremlin, Russia’s most astounding complex of palaces, cathedrals, museums, and government buildings: the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, which housed Russia’s tsars; the imposing Ivan the Great Bell Tower; the iconic Red Square; and more.
You’ll want to make sure all your needs will be met before boarding the Trans-Siberian. Luckily, luxurious train journeys now rival the experience of flying first class. In Japan, luxury-seating carriages offer passengers more than just speed; they also offer hours of pampering, with plush reclining seats, lounges with complimentary refreshments, and fine dining.
Getting on a luxury Trans-Siberian carriage includes more than just spacious leg room, a private bath, and attentive attendants; it evokes the romance and sophistication of the old days. It’s the best time to read that doorstop of a novel you’ve been meaning to dive into and put your cares away. As the changing scenery unfolds outside your window, you’ll be well-rested and pampered while the train steadily sways and thrums.
You may also enjoy the typically extensive menu of hearty meals in the carriage restaurants where you can sample Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese specialties throughout the journey. At the start of the trip, sample delectable Russian dishes (hot meats, hearty soups, thin pancakes) made from fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Don’t be surprised to see that a small carafe of vodka can be ordered — locals certainly won’t be.
Related article: All aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway with Wheel & Anchor!
Travel with a small community
You’ll be spending days in your moving home of finely decorated cabins and/or suites, styled in the glory days of the Russian elite. You may never want to leave the comforts of your plush seats, but do make time to mingle. Participate in fun, immersive Russian culture lectures and language lessons, sip different types of vodka with your fellow passengers, spend evenings in bar lounge cars.
Scheduled stops allow you to take little jaunts in other Russian cities like Kazan (also known as Russia’s “third city”) where you can admire awe-inspiring orthodox churches and UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Assumption Cathedral and Monastery located in the town-island of Sviyazhsk.
If you wish to take full-day trips to towns outside of Kazan, consider visiting a historical landmark like the Raifa Monastery, an important pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians. Meanwhile, the picturesque Ekaterinburg is steeped in a history so dark and intriguing, it has inspired countless films and novels concerning the last Russian royal family.
No two days are alike
Birch trees pop in and out of view and flatlands gradually become a fixture as the train rattles toward Siberia.
In Irkutsk, Siberia’s cultural hub, you’ll find traditional wooden buildings untouched by Russian influences. One of the most exciting attractions in this trip, however, is seeing Lake Baikal as the train winds along Eastern Siberia. It’s the world’s deepest lake and one of the most stunning. Visit the small villages around Lake Baikal, such as Olkhon, where you can meet indigenous people, or simply observe the townfolk going about their day. Hiking, cycling, and horseback riding along the lakeshore are recommended options for the more adventurous types.
The European leg of the journey ends at Ulan-Ude. Upon reaching Mongolia, you will wake to grassy steppes, mountain ranges, wildflowers, and morning dew as the train makes its way to Ulaanbaatar. See the wide open spaces of the Gobi Desert, dotted with circular tents (ger camps).
If you need more time to stretch, the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is a magnificent alpine scenery that should be among your stops if wish to explore Mongolia. On your way there, see the towering statue of the famed warrior Genghis Khan mounted on his horse.
As you hop on board toward the last stop, you’ll again witness the dramatic changes of scenery. The spectacle of mountains, desertscape, and open skies slowly transform into views of the rural villages of Beijing.
The Hanging Temples in Datong in Shanxi Province is an architectural wonder that has to be seen to believed. There are fascinating stories surrounding its construction and its purpose (e.g., it’s dedicated to three religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), but just seeing it perilously hanging on the side of Mount Hengshan is a treat in and of itself.
There’s so much to do and explore in Beijing, and you simply won’t have time to do them all. Catch the flag ceremony at Tiananmen Square if you’re an early riser. Walk around neighborhoods with a cluster of hutong, narrow alleys consisting of residences and shophouses. Enjoy a sumptuous meal of Peking roast duck prepared in several styles. The Forbidden City, a historical complex of over 1,000 buildings that used to house emperors, their families, and their concubines, will certainly beckon.
The Great Wall of China, only an hour and a half away from Beijing, is awe-inspiring from all angles. Make your visit to this wonder of the world more memorable by heading towards the quieter area, Jinshanling. It’s a terrific spot to celebrate the end of your trip, which began all the way back in Moscow. There will never be anything quite like it — like the massive 4,000-mile earth-and-stone wall you’ll be standing on.
The Wheel & Anchor travel tribe is passionate about adventures, and we can’t wait for you to experience The Iconic Trans-Siberian Railway in September 2022. Join our community of adventurers to get firsthand information on our unforgettable tours.