For someone whose routine activity involves composing 140 characters at whim, writing 1000+ words was quite THE task. But when that involved a legendary railway, the heart stirred up emotions & words beyond imagination. And there began a romance! Such is the alluring charm of tracks, ballast. fishplates & wheels that glide over them. Coincidentally, writing this took me as long as riding from Moscow to Vladivostok aboard what is Russia’s pride & joy, the mighty Trans Siberian Railway or TSR as I lovingly call it.
I have vivid memories of my early days as a railway traveler. Watching the scenery zoom by, the smoke filtering through the wagons, people selling myriad items, hopping on & off, so much buzz! The max I had traveled on any railway was a mere 3 days and 2 nights.Now that’s a journey. And by the time you are at the destination, you have learnt that the romance of railway journeys is second to none. Whats now called in this day and age, experiential travel. I was sold on it, for life!
My first tryst with the TSR was back in school. A dual carriageway spanning 8 time zones, a ginormous 9289 odd kms of track slicing through rugged, picturesque terrain and snow plus nearly 200 hours of travel had all my attention. Upon learning further that this thing is a trans-continental railway gave me the heebiejeebies! My mouth was salivating already! If it were a parallel universe, Genghis Khan would have ruled the world if he had access to this line. Last year, it completed a (mere) 100 years of existence. And yes Alfred would’ve still told the Russians to apply their own goddamn sun tan lotion!! 😉
Labourers laying tracks in the middle of nowhere.
So where did it all begin for the TSR? The main line starts off at Yaroslavsky station in Moscow and terminates at Vladivostok. Ideally boarding begins 40 mins before departure, but being there 3 hours prior helps. Line 2, ie the Trans-Manchurian branches off from Chita into northern China before reaching Beijing via Harbin. From Ulan Ude, line 3 ie the Trans-Mongolian heads south into Mongolia then eastward to Beijing. Another line heads into North Korea from Vladivostok. You can actually do a London-Vladivostok by train & hop over to Tokyo by ferry! As cool and happening as it may sound, the TSR was made under extremely difficult conditions & political hierarchy.
The Rossiya in its resplendent Russian flag colours at a wayside halt in frigid Siberia. The train halts for 20-30 mins every 3-4 hours.
Had it not been for Tsar Nicholas II this would’ve never happened. First called the ‘Great Siberian Way’, construction commenced on 19th May, 1891 from both ends with an aim to meet at the centre. The rulers didn’t want foreign influence to construct this landmark railway. The needs were simple. Harsh, unforgiving climates(even today the train rides through -50 degree C in the winters ferrying people & cargo), difficult to access remote regions & scarcity of quality travel modes. People had to rely on horse drawn carriages, steamers to cross rivers etc. The line was surprisingly complete in a short period of time, in 1916. Most of the labourers were convicts & prisoners. One can only imagine the no of graves along the line. The TSR is a time machine. I still wonder why is there no movie made on this?!
Wind back to 2017, train no 002, the ‘Rossiya’ is the modern day Trans Siberian Express. Older locos are now replaced by cool Alstom ones & German wagons have swish new cars in place. You can opt for either the 3rd class/economy also known as the ‘platzkart’. Similar to the Indian sleeper class, it offers communal travel as you share the space with passengers. The superior 2nd class or the 2 tier option is called the ‘kupe’ and the top of the line is the first class. The latter gets a private toilet and wardrobe along with charging sockets. Back in the day, the liveries were green, but now a fab blue-white and red scheme adorns them. I like!
The platzkart or the economy class of the Rossiya.
Each carriage has a dedicated attendant or conductor called the Provonidtza. Its these folks who lend character and life to the TSR. Apart from the usual hospitality they do everything from checking your tickets, changing your linen and also de-icing the wheels and feeding the heaters with coal. The Chief Conductor takes care of the entire train. He is your go to man if you have just about any issue. The train has a restaurant car in the middle making it easier to access for all. A typical menu will include Piroshkis(Fried Buns), soups, Pelmeni(dumplings),some potato dishes, pickles etc. Although people prefer picking stuff from halts, esp from Babushkas selling local breads, cheeses, meats, fruits etc. Do tuck in the delicious smoked Omul fish sold near the Baikal region. Also English is a problem, so apps are your best friends. Even better if you’re traveling economy class and have yum Indian meals to share. 😉 The train halts for 20-30 mins every 3-4 hours. Stations are dotted with dogs of the cutest kind! I already see a wide grin on your face.
Babushkas selling smoked Omul fish at Irkutsk.
Surprising enough, there are no showers on board. Every car has a samovar so you’ve an unlimited supply of hot water for your drinks or food. A better idea is to break down your journey to explore this giant nation. From the rugged Ural mountains, to the desolate Siberian snowscape. The lush Taiga, the winsome Lake Baikal region to the Mongolian Steppes & the mighty Gobi Desert. Some sheer geography to experience & amazing micro- cultures to discover. Prominent stops along the way include Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia(halt here for the Laki Baikal experience including the Circum-Baikal train ride), Ulan Ude etc. There’s a unique clock with zodiac signs installed at Kazansky station 90 years ago, which is now immortalised on a post stamp! The Krasnoyarsk station has unique marble architecture. Enough to keep a rail-fan satiated.
A steam loco ferries passengers on the picturesque Circum-Baikal tour.
For railway enthusiasts hopping over to UlaanBataar, geeky stuff awaits at Erlian where the carriages are changed to smaller wheel sets that ride until China. Passengers are given a choice to either sit back in the carriages and experience the change over or wait outside the yard until the works complete. This is a 3 hour long process.
Shoveling the ice away. One of the many tasks the conductors do at every station
And what’s a great railway journey without some drama? The new trains come retrofitted with eco-toilets, akin to those found in aircrafts. Many a times due to the extreme climate, the pipes freeze & most washrooms on the entire consist are rendered useless. The engineers and conductors are always busy zipping around, fixing it. They spend weeks away from family but are always up on their feet. Around holiday time, the Chief Conductor even dresses up as Santa Claus & goes about his duty distributing gifts to kids on board. Kudos to the men & women of the TSR for keeping everything smooth & fun. Although typical Russian bureaucracy ensures trains are late by 30-40 mins most of the time.
The Trans-Mongolian makes its way across the land of the Great Khan. With curves aplenty, it is a rail fan’s delight.
The best period to book tickets is between July to September or even during winter months when ridership is low. A week’s worth of journey from Moscow to Vladivostok can set you back by anything between Rs 28000 to a cool lac. May seem like a lot of price to pay, but hey, it’s the world’s longest railway journey after all. Worth its weight in gold! (You can book tickets here: Trans Siberian Express, Russian Railways). In Germany you can purchase Russian rail tickets from just about any station!
How does the future hold for the TSR? There’s stiff competition from airlines(ticket price is almost as same as a one way platzkart fare). As Russia’s neighbours upgrade to high speed rails, plans are on to give the TSR a shot in the arm. It is a vital link for cargo. In April alone, the railway handled nearly 100 million tonnes of cargo! Gives you an idea how indispensable this route is.
Some day this week long journey will be cut to just a few days. But the sheer length & diversity of the route, the experience had will remain second to none. I do hope to meet some furry friends for a pic & a paw-5. And conductors Sergei, Natalya & Svetlana over a cognac. And to experience this epic journey in many myriad ways, truly…Lena hoga janam humey kai kai baar. (Dev Anand style.)
The romance will continue. Ab Trans Siberian ka naam liya hi hai to ticket book kar hi lete hai! So, when are you booking yours??
Mehul Gohil was born and brought up in Bombay. Graduated in Geography, he’s been in the media industry all along. Started off with photography. He is a food lover, ardent traveler, good design nut and also loves tech, animals, movies & anything on wheels! Current mission is to work with Chris Nolan and do a round the world trip on rails and motorbike. Community building & connecting people is his forte and is right now running Synergy 5. He also hosts a kickass tweet chat called the #SY5Chat every Tuesday. If you wanna make some great videos & get going on social media/digital hit him up. 😉 Always a tweet away.