Last year the iconic Trans-Siberian Railway celebrated its 100th birthday. To mark this occasion, my girlfriend and I agreed we should ‘have a quiet summer’ and ‘just’ travel the breadth of the largest country in the world by its most famous mode of transport. Somehow within weeks our mums and dads were accompanying us and so without hesitation, I got to work organising the trip of a lifetime for the six of us.
While the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok can take 6 ½ days (if you hide on the train the whole way), we decided to give ourselves 20 days and hoped to indulge in as much of Russia as we could. By the time we had created our own itinerary, booked our train tickets and 9 hour flight back to Moscow, we had spent less than £500 per person.
Here are some of the stops we made along the way.
Vladimir and Suzdal
I’ve written before about the various reasons everyone should love Vladimir and Suzdal but in the summer there really is nowhere like it. It’s only about 180km from Moscow but get off here, enjoy the relaxing pace of rural Russia in the sunshine and ease your way into this adventure.
400km from Moscow and a mere 6 hour train trip, there is every reason to find yourself in Nizhny. The 5th largest city in Russia was the exiled home of Maxim Gorky (one of Russia’s most famous writers) and Andrei Sakharov (father of the hydrogen bomb as well as Nobel peace prize winner). It is packed with museums, art galleries, an impressive Kremlin and a cable car spanning the breadth of the Volga offering panoramic photo opportunities throughout the relaxing 30 minute return trip. After a busy day cramming in the sights, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is full of cool bars and fashionable eateries, making it the perfect place to recover and watch the world go by. As the sun sets, aim to be near the Chkalov monument (a tribute to Valery Chkalov who flew 63 hours in 1937 from Moscow to Vancouver via the North Pole) and enjoy the spectacular views of volcanic orange and red skies burning deep into the Volga before disappearing for the evening.
With the most common route via Perm, we took a slightly southern detour to visit Kazan and I’m delighted we did. Kazan is around 800km from Moscow and takes its name from an old Tatar word meaning ‘cooking pot’ as a variety of cultures and religions blend to create this incredibly picturesque city. The undoubted highlight of this stop is the fairy-tale Qolşärif Mosque inside the Kazan Kremlin. Qolşärif was an Imam killed defending Tatar Kazan from a rampaging Ivan the Terrible in 1552 and the magnificent mosque in his name is one of the most visited in the world. Road signs are written in Tatar, Russian and English and while it has long been considered the Istanbul of Russia, walking Bauman Street in the sunshine you could be anywhere. Stretching further than the eye can see from the base of the Kremlin, this main street has been stylishly pedestrianised and is lined with a great variety of bars, restaurants, churches, mosques, people and fashionable designer shops. This was my highlight of the trip and a place I hope to visit again.
Church upon the Blood (xрам на крови) is 1,778km from Moscow and was completed in 2003 to commemorate the site where Tsar Nicholas II, his family and loyal staff were executed by Bolshevik forces led by Yakov Yurovsky in 1918. As well as being the death spot of Imperial Russia, Ekaterinburg was home to Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin and has various European and Asian border monuments to straddle for photographs. 40km from Ekaterinburg on the way to Pervouralsk stands an impressive obelisk at the original marker which was erected after Tsar Alexander II famously stopped for a glass of wine on his way to Siberia in 1837. Tradition now suggests you have a glass in Europe before enjoying another in Asia – I suggest going here after lunch.
22 hours from Ekaterinburg and 3,303km from Moscow is Novosibirsk. A fairly unremarkable city, this was a comfort stop featuring showers, hotel beds and as many good meals as we could get in 24 hours. If you do stop here, try to see a performance at the impressive Opera and Ballet Theatre (also known as the Siberian Colosseum) which is the largest and most technically advanced theatre in Russia. Depending on arrival time, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a nice way to spend an hour of an afternoon – it was the first stone built building in Novosibirsk which was dedicated to the memory of Tsar Alexander III and is romantically atmospheric and colourful inside.
Irkutsk was originally a gold and fur trading post but is now famous for its wooden architecture and as the stepping stone to Lake Baikal, the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (nearly 2 km) stretches of unfrozen fresh water in the world. All five of North America’s great lakes could be combined and you would still not be close to the vast volume of Baikal. Within the depths of the world’s fifth ocean lies a very special fish. Omul is only found in Baikal and whether you eat it smoked, salted or dried, it’s hard to avoid eating it when visiting the area. Roadside smokers, barbecues and restaurants make this an impressively fresh and incredibly tasty meal or snack.
Having visited Baikal in the bone chilling winter of -27c and slid around the ice in old buses on the clear, thick ice that turned this lake into a highway, it was a real treat to walk Siberia’s Riviera in my shorts, sweating in the hot sun. Diving from a small wooden pier into the refreshing, mind clearing water was a welcome escape from the +25c temperatures of the stony beach.
Ulan-Ude is one of the most endearing cities I’ve visited in Russia. The capital of Buryatia is exotic and friendly, comfortable and interesting. Heavily influenced by Mongol Buddhist culture, welcoming Asian faces along with a landscape and climate that feels similar to Vietnam or Thailand makes this a real hidden gem for a holiday within a holiday for anyone on the Trans-Siberian.
The world’s largest Lenin head was unveiled here in 1970 to remind locals who was in charge and since then, even the birds have appreciated his importance and ensured the 42 ton face remains clean. Towering high above the city, a mere 30 rouble marshrutka from Lenin’s head is the Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan. This oasis of tranquillity and calm is a beautiful way to escape the rigours of trains, cities and the general hustle involved in travel. Here the quiet, sprawling gardens are brought to life by colourful butterflies, singing insects, birds, flowers and squirrels. Statues depicting the 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac periodically split up a wonderful panoramic walk around the mountain top with outstanding views in every direction for miles.
With a 60 hour trip from Ulan-Ude (enforced by visas and train timetables) we treated ourselves to 1st class for the first time and rolled into Vladivostok in style. Choosing to propose to my girlfriend at the ‘9,288km from Moscow’ monument in the centre of the platform, in front of both our sets of parents ensured my excitement at successfully completing the trip was tinged with some nerves and anticipation. Fortunately she said yes and we were all able to enjoy the last few days of our trip together in this special Russian city that is closer to Pyongyang and Beijing than Moscow.
We took a taxi across Russky Bridge (the longest cable stayed bridge in the world) which connects Russky Island to the Russian mainland of Vladivostok. After a swim in the Sea of Japan’s relatively warm and perfectly clear water, we ate seafood plov and enjoyed a beer in a beach hut as we observed the tropical landscape of thick bushy trees covering mountains from tip to water’s edge with a slither of white sand separating the green and blue.
Having spent so much time organising and then living this trip, it was surreal to be finishing it. With various reasons to celebrate, we had an incredible meal at Zuma featuring King Crab and oysters before one last sleep and a quick 9 hour flight back to Moscow.
For more information about the Trans-Siberian, travelling in Russia or my photographs: feel free to email me at [email protected] or follow up via Instagram by following travellingteacher.me