I met two of the nicest people on the first leg of this trip. Janet, a retired teacher from Kalamazoo, and Michael, a young programmer from Zürich. I am using Janet’s iPad since my computer will not work. And Michael was my cabin mate from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk.
The famous Trans Siberian Railway stretches almost 10,000 kilometers from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. This is the chance to see the Russia that the Cold War never uncovered. This is the Russia with curious and twinkly eyed Russians, dressed in track suits, curious to know the foreigner who is crazy or passionate enough to tackle their Mother country from one side to the other by train.
The Russians will offer all sorts of food and drink, a truly generous lot of humanity that we know so little about. The vodka will make for some interesting memories and stories. Likewise, the traveler is expected to share some food and treats from their homeland. This is unwritten rule Number 1 on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Though the Trans Siberian Railway originates in Moscow, I will tackle this trip from the east, via Japan. Moscow, as we all know, is the center of the Russian universe. To the east lies the “Golden Ring” town of Vladimir. Then comes the birthplace of the famous writer, Maxim Gorky, the town now renamed Nizhny Novgorod. From here, it branches either through Perm, an industrial city, or the infinitely more colorful Kazan, capital of the Tatar Republic. The branches meet again in the fabulously named Ural city of Yekaterinburg, vibrant and progressive by Russian standards.
From here, the route almost reaches a few hundred miles to Kazakhstan, before officially reaching Siberia. The stops here are named: Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk. The cities either seem to have too many or too few vowels in translation. At the halfway point is Irkutsk. and the stunning Lake Baikal. Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world. From the southern shore, curve and peel away to the Buryat region, and its capital of Ulan Ude.
The final section plows through mountainous and bare Eastern Siberia, near the Chinese border. The next civilization is Kharbarovosk, then turning south again for the home stretch to Vladivostok. This eastern seaport is reached after eight non stop days or nearly ten thousand kilometers on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Another major line is the Trans Mongolian, which follows the above route until Ulan Ude, where it breaks south to Mongolia, and its capital of Ulanbaatar. It ends up in the center of the Chinese universe, Beijing. A third, lesser known line,called the Baikal-Amur Line (BAM), breaks from the Trans Siberian a few hundred miles east of Krasnoyarsk, and hugging the northern edge of Lake Baikal. From there, is plunges deeply into the wilds of east Siberia. It ends up at remote Sakhalin Island, just north of Hokkaido (Japan).
s to catch the train in Vladivostok, after reaching the sea of Japan by Shinkansen, then a ferry over from XXXX. (I cheated, I flew from Tokyo to Vladivostok, via Seoul). There are three main itineraries: the Full Monty, a non stop from one end to the other, the Half Nelson, breaking the trip into two four-day stints. The hop on, hop off (sounds like fun) is a 30 day visa with as many stops as time permits. This would be preferable, since a shower or bath might be required a little more frequently than four or eight days. The stations have shower facilities, sell a variety of food and beverage, and the option to take a break from riding the rails.
They say there is no right or wrong way to attack this trip. But stopping frequently does require planning the visa itinerary. The Russkis are plenty strict about having tourists follow their planned path. Each stop of three days or more requires a visa registration at the nearest immigration office. Failure to do so will result in the Russian police collecting a bribe, I mean fine. This will be an exercise in patience with the Russian bureaucracy, needless to say.
Most travelers do the Full Monty, easiest, and fastest. Bring a big supply of food, plenty of good books, sleeping pills, and cognac. But I know I would like a regular bed and shower every few days.