Trans-Siberian Railway

An Epic Train Journey Across Russia

1. Introduction

Travel by Trans-Siberian Railway is an ultimate train journey. It is the liongest continuous railway in the world, stretching over 10,000 km long if the journey commences from St. Betersburg. It is also the only one in the world that traverses two continents and crosses seven time zones.

The normal route stretches from Moscow and crosses the wild expanse of Siberia to the pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok. It is an epic journey - nearly a third of the globe!

The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes 7 days and en-route one is able to see many cities, towns and villages of remote eastern Russia. It is also a gateway to some of the most fascinating places in the world.

2. A short history of the Railway

When Vladivostok was founded in the late 1800s and was rapidly growing into a major port city, the lack of adequate transportation linking European Russia and its far eastern territories became an obvious problem. The Tsar, Alexander III initiated the construction of the railway and despite the enormity of the project, a continuous route was completed in 1905. But it was only opened in 1916 after improvement to some of the difficult stretches.

3. The Route


The start of our journey in St. Petersburg

We started our train journey from St. Petersburg on 28th September 2006 after spending two days exploring this Russia's most elegant city. (See St. Petersburg - In Pictures)

We pre-arranged our stopovers in three major destinations along the route to Vladisvostok.

The first stopover was in Moscow arriving there in the morning of 29th Sept after spending a night in Train No.1. We spent two days in this Russian intriguing capital (See Moscow - In Pictures). We left Moscow in the evening of 1st October.

The second stopover was in Yekaterinburg arriving there in the evening of 2nd October after traveling one night and one day in Train No. 56. Yekaterinburg is in the Urals, the mountains that divide Russia into two continents, Europe and Asia. Again we spent two days exploring this mystic city (See Yekateringurg - In Pictures). We left Yekaterinburg in the wee hours of 5th Oct.

The monument in the center marks the end of the Trams-Siberian Railroad

Our third stopover was in Irkutsk in Siberia arriving there in the morning of 7th October after spending two nights and days in Train No.2, the Rossiya, the pride of the Russian Railway. We stayed the first night in Lake Baikal and the next night in Irkutsk (See Irkutsk/Lake Baikal - In Pictures). We left Irkutsk in the morning of 9th October.

Our final destination was in Vladivostok arriving there in the morning of 12th October after spending three days and nights in Train No. 2, the longest continuous train journey in our life. We spent two days in this port city (See Vladivostok - In Pictures).

We left Vlsdivostok in the afternoon of 14th October to return home by air via Seoul. We reached home in the wee hours of 15th October, thus ended our memorable journey by Trans-Siberian Railway.

4. The Train Journey

4.1 The Trains

Rossiya is the train that goes non-stop from Moscow to Vladivostok with Train 1 going west and Train 2 going east.

Since we had three stopovers along the route to Vladivostok, we boarded the trains four times. We started from St. Petersburg with Train 1 to Moscow, Train 56 from Moscow to Yekaterinburg and Train 2 from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk and also from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.

Our train tickets were all for 1st class 2-berth cabins in wagons called Spalny or 'SV'. A 2-berth cabin is about 2m by 3m with two beds one on each side and a small side table next to the double-glazed window which can't be opened. It is very compact and the luggage had to be stored under the beds.

The wagon is heated and so a blanket is not necessary at night. There are nine cabins in each SV wagon, which can accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers. But most of the time it was only half full.

The wagon has two toilets, one at each end. The toilet has only a WC and a small water basin with a tap that can only be operated by pushing up a level located beside the nozzle. No cups are allowed to be used. So it would be difficult even to wash one's face and to take a shower is out of the question.

In such a circumstance, dry cleaning with baby-wipes was the norm for me.

Free boiling water is available from a heated dispenser 24 hours a day. There is a "Pectopah" car just a wagon away from the SV wagon. "Pectopah" is pronounced as "Restoran" in Russian. For obvious reason it is the only Russian word I know! (It sounds like "stomach full" in Hokkien dialect.) In one train, the menu is all in Russian and none of the waiter can speak a word of English and so one has to starve if he has to depend on "Pectopah" for food!

The landscape along the way was quite stark and most of the hills were barren and little life could be seen.

In the SV wagon there is a lady attendant called "provodnitza" who also speaks not a word of English. She is a cabin keeper, cleaner and a policewoman of sorts.

There is a TV in each cabin, but it is only for watching videos supplied by the provodnitza for a fee.

There is also a speaker above the window through which some Russian and other western music and songs are piped to your cabin. There is a knob which one can switch it off.

No announcement is made for arrivals and departures at each station. But the wagon has a timetable (in Cyrillic) posted in the corridor, which shows the time (Moscow time) of arrival and departure at each station. Usually the train stops for 3 to 5 minutes, but in every 3 to 4 hours it stops for 15 to 25 minutes, allowing one to get off, stretch one's legs and buy food from the platform vendors.

From St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, we traveled in four different trains. Train 1 from St. Petersburg to Moscow was most comfortable because it was relatively new. We spent a night in this train and our ticket included a packed breakfast.

Train 56 from Moscow to Yekaterinburg was also quite comfortable. We spent a day and a night in this train and our ticket included a meal.

Train 2 from Yekaterinburg to Irhutsk was not too comfortable because it was relatively old. We spent two days and nights but we managed to get by in spite of frequent wobbles and squeaky sounds from underneath the carriage.

Train 2 from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, which we spent three days and nights, was the worst of all. But somehow we survived the ordeal.

4.2 Life in the train

(a) Introduction

In the train, the days passed rather quickly and the boredom that I feared never set in. Lucy and I brought a book each and beside that I took along 25 copies of Soduku puzzles. I also brought along the "Lonely Planet" on Trans-Siberian Railway so that I could browse though the cities we would be visiting and places along the journey.

We passed through towns we struggled to pronounce like Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Birobidzhan etc.

I was hoping to finish my book, complete my Sudoku and read Lucy's book. But before I had read a page or two, my eyes would drift towards the window and would soon become lost in what lay outside.

For me, life in the train had quickly fallen into a rhythm of doing nothing slowly, eating, drinking, picture taking, reading and solving Sudoku puzzles.


(b) Food & Drinks

In my travels I always like to sample local food and drinks. Without exception, I was keen to experience Russian cuisine and eat the food in the Pectopah car or from the food vendors at the platforms, even though, as a contingency, Lucy had brought from home instant noodles, biscuits, coffee and tea.

For alcoholic drinks, I brought to the train a few cans of Baltika beer, a bottle of Russian Vodka and a can of caviar. So I was "self-sufficient" for my happy hours!

But to order food from the Pectopah car is an experience if one does not know a word of Russian. My first encounter nearly ended in disaster when I went to the Pectopah car to see if I could order some food for lunch. The main waiter beckoned me to sit down and handed me a menu, which was in Russian. I asked for a menu in English but the waiter shook his head and started talking in Russian and pointing to some items in the menu. As I could not make head or tail out of it, I left and returned to our cabin.

The waiter did not give up and soon came to our cabin and again gave me a menu and talked quite loudly in Russian. I politely told him in English that I could not understand Russian and returned the menu to him. He reluctantly left, but while walking away he continued muttering. The Swiss couple from the adjacent cabin came out to find out what was the matter.

I thought we had to depend on our instant noodles or food we could buy from the platforms for our meals. But half an hour later, the Swiss lady who knew my problem came to our cabin and handed me a small piece of paper with words in Russian and their English translation. All items were for food and drinks. She also told me that the vegetable soup in the Pectopah car was good and tasty.

Surprisingly, the waiter came back again. But this time I showed him the paper the Swiss lady gave me and pointed to him two items (one vegetable soup and one chicken). He nodded and went away.

Half an hour later, the waiter brought the food to our cabin and wrote a figure 250 on a piece of paper. I gave him 300 Rub and he happily walked away. Yes, the Russian vegetable soup was good!

Armed with the paper the Swiss lady gave me, we had another two or three meals from the Pectopah car. Except for the vegetable soup, other dishes were just ordinary.

So, I started to look for more exotic Russian food from the platform vendors. When the train stopped at a station for 20 to 30 minutes, the smokers would head out to the platform for a quick puff, but many would get out of the train to buy food and drinks. Often if the train stopped during lunchtime or before dusk, there were many vendors displaying their products on makeshift tables offering a variety of fresh food (eggs, fish, meat, bread, bunds, pizzas, instant noodles and fruits). There were also small permanent shops beside the tracks selling dried food and drinks.

The best food I had eaten was the smoked fish (Omul from Lake Baikal), which was sold at a station near the Lake.

But whether smoked fish or grilled chicken, we would first remove their skin before consuming them because they had been left exposed in the open.

Food and drinks sold at the platform were cheap (about half of the prices of those in Pectopah car); but only Russian Roubles in small notes of 10, 50 or 100 Rub were more readily accepted.

(c) Helplessness if one speaks no Russian

Life in the train can be difficult if one needs assistance and doesn't speak Russian. This is because the provodnitza speaks not a word of English.

Even if there is no toilet paper in the toilet, you can't get the message across to the provodnitza because she would normally ignore you if you do not speak Russian!

My worst experience was towards the end of our journey from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk. The timetable in the train showed two destinations in Irkutsk, one in Irkutsk ABC arriving just before 7am and the other Irkutsk XYZ at about 7.10am. But in the train ticket the time of arrival was stated at 6.24am and in our itinerary it showed 7.30am.

I thought I was the only passenger in our wagon having a problem with the actual destination and time of arrival. Soon I also found out that two other couples, the Swiss and the Aussie, were in the same boat. Even the Swiss lady who could translate simple Russian menu into English for me, could not decipher at which station we should disembark. (Note: The two couples were heading for the same destination and we were the only foreign travelers in the train.) However the Swiss lady said she would ask the provodnitza.

That morning we were up early to use the toilet and have our breakfast. By 6am we were ready to disembark. I was surprised to see the other two couples were also ready and were at the corridor looking out of the window. I met the Swiss lady and asked her about the outcome of her enquiry with the provodnitza. She told me that the provodnitza could not understand her limited Russian and gave no answer!

By 6.30am the train began to slow down and all of us were anxious to know when the train would finally reach it destination. For me, I was hoping that our guide at Irkutsk could come to the platform with our name card to receive us.

When the train finally stopped just before 8am I went to the exit and was glad to see a lady displaying our name card!

According to our guide, she was at the station at 7.10am but the train was delayed for nearly an hour.

Earlier we had a similar experience when, late at night, we went to St. Petersburg station by ourselves as the tour agent, for no good reason, refused to transfer us from the hotel to the station. This was the first time we had been to a Russian railway station.

I knew our train number and the time of departure. But when we arrived at the departure hall the electronic board (all in Russian) did not display our train number. I thought we came to the wrong station and started to make enquiry. I became quite desperate when everybody I spoke to appeared not to understand a word of English, even the people mending the information counter!

After enduring the trauma for about 15 minutes, our train number suddenly appeared. And, as if by instinct, we found our way to the right platform and also our coach!


(d) Varied Landscapes

All Trans-Siberian trains pass by the world's deepest lake and cities that were once closed to the outside world, but most of all they also traverse through the vast Siberian steppe.

From Moscow to Yekaterinburg we saw out of the window yellow conifers and birch trees and the ground covered with dried brown grass. Occasionally, we saw small villages of quaint wooden houses with their windows and doors painted either in blue or green. Most villages had electricity but they were harsh and dirty looking places. In between, there were wide expanses of nothingness.


But from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, early snow was falling and the sceneries took a dramatic change with the ground, roads and roofs of houses now covered with patches of white snow. Thin layers of ice were also seen flowing in streams and rivers.

As the train was rolling up into Siberia in the land of gulaps and long cold winters, we saw only small villages and barren trees and wide expanse of wilderness.

All in all, there were so much space and so few people!



5. Epilogue

Train journeys are for those who travel for the pleasure of the journey, and for those who believe there is as much fun in getting there.

Spending a holiday in a train is like staying in a motel on wheels with noisy neighbours and queuing to use the toilet. But a great part of the pleasure of such a holiday is simply sitting back, watching the land go by and practicing the gentle art of doing nothing slowly!

In Siberia there are permanent nights with temperature plummeting below 50 degrees Celcius. While in mid summer, there are permanent days accompanied by tropical heat and swarms of mosquitoes. To me their world is the precise definition of HELL on earth!

And now I fully understand why the Tsars and the Bolsheviks banished the convicts and their opponents to Siberia!



We like to record our appreciation to Mrs Lena Yap of Angkasa Travel for helping us to make our Trans-Siberian Railway journey a success.

Lena has been our agent for booking our international flights in recent years. In this trip, it was essential that our flight schedule had to match with that of the trains, especially we only wanted to have 1st class train bookings all the way. In this respect, she had to make many flight bookings to suit the train schedule.

One scary incident happened just before we left for Russia. Lena called to tell me that the airline’s office in Vladivostok informed her that I had told them to cancel our bookings for our flight from Vladivostok to Seoul in our return journey. By me, of all persons! She knew that our Russian visa would expire on the day of our departure from Russia. If we were stranded there, we could be banished to Siberia to live in HELL!

But Lena never gave up. She must have called the airline umpteen times and when we reached Moscow, I checked my emails and was pleased to receive a couple of messages from her and the last one was to inform me that our bookings had been restored! What a relief!

Thanks again, Lena.

And beware folks when you have to travel in Russia by KE!


end 2008