The historic Trans-Siberian Express provides a fresh take on travel, with every stop showing a completely different culture, tradition, and history.
written by Marbee Shing-Go
I’ve been wanting to take this train trip since i was 16 years old,” Mr. Ng—a newly retired corporate lawyer from Singapore—shared with my husband Berg and me a few days into the trip, as we walked back to our cabin after lunch.
“You’re lucky you get to do this now, while you both are young.” As I looked out on the window’s side of the train, we passed by a whole stretch of Birch trees, with leaves lush green from the warm rays of summer. “Yes, we are truly are!” I replied.
Along with our English-speaking group of five are several other groups of tourists comprising Germans, Latin Americans, Spaniards, and Singaporeans, of which Mr. Ng is a part of. With ages ranging from 30 to 70, we all had the same sparkle in our eyes and the same mixed emotions, being on this trip that is reputed to be the greatest train journey on earth. In the end, all of us were bonded by our great adventure from Moscow all the way to Mongolia—in and out of this historic train ride called the Trans-Siberian Express.
The longest (spanning 9289 kilometers across seven time zones) as well as the oldest (existing since late
19th century) train ride on Earth, the Trans-Siberian Express is basically a journey through Siberia—where you get a front-row seat to the real character of Russia from end to end. Its significance in terms of travel has been palpable through the centuries, with famous personalities—especially writers—talking about their admiration for it. Travel novelist Paul Theroux—who took the ride three times—even likened it to “a cruise across an oceanic landscape.” Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, could not have encouraged the world more about taking this trip, saying that “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” And it’s true. The thing about going on a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express is that you care less about the destination, because it focuses on your experience during the journey.
The Trans-Siberian Express is a journey of realizations as well. In the 14 days that we spent on this ride, we saw the different characters of Russia and learned about the varying yet significant cultures of every city that we visited. Each stop has its own specialty, with its tradition and history distinct from the rest. Even the babushkas or street vendors sell different products and delicacies depending on the Siberian destination. (We also noticed that as we were nearing Asia, the locals were starting to have Asian features too. It was truly an interesting study of culture.)
This, I believe, is the beauty of long trips. Every kilometer, every corner offers a different story. With changing landscapes, come changing cultures. You learn to step out of your stereotypes and let go of your preconceived notions about certain people. In my case, we realized that Russians are surprisingly warm, and that they are religious. It’s a priceless experience to learn about the people, and that how they are is because of how they were—there is a connection and you get to appreciate it. is is where you truly realize how travel changes perceptions, which in turn, changes you.
Life on Board the Train
The entire onboard experience of eating, sleeping, and just gazing at the changing landscape across time zones is one of the best pleasures as well as quirks in the Trans-Siberian Express.
About the Train
The Golden Eagle Grand Trans-Siberian Express is a luxury train express offering several room categories from rst-class (with en suite toilet and shower areas) to economy cabins, which can accommode two and four people. It has two restaurants, a bar with live piano music, and a conference car for lectures and meetings, among others. Remodeled to follow German quality standards, the Golden Eagle Grand Trans-Siberian Express is complete with modern facilities, assuring guests a unique railway experience from start to end.
The provodnitsas are conductresses who attend to tourists onboard a train ride. In Russia, they are usually female, although on our trip, we had male attendants (or provodniks). Their tasks usually include putting beds back to a sitting position, as well as knocking on tourists’ doors to wake them up. With our provodniks, it was not enough to just greet them loudly from the other side of the door to let them know that we’re up. Apparently, we had to really get up and open the door to face them— probably for safety purposes. These attendants also make the best coffee, and usually sense when you need to have them served.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE THE TRIP
The Philippines is five hours ahead of Moscow
ELECTRIC PLUG VOLTAGE
AC 220 V, 50Hz/60Hz
WHAT TO BRING:
Jackets and sweaters for early morning or late evening use (Top pick:Columbia OutDry Extreme parka)
- A multi-purpose adaptor or a charger with multiple USB cables
- Smart casual clothes for both the welcome and farewell dinner
- A book you’ve been wanting to read
- A pair of sturdy of walking shoes that is both
comfortable and waterproof (Top pick: Merrell Gore-Tex shoes)
- A good backpack and handbag for the excursions (Top picks: Thule Subterra 34-liter backpack and Pacsafe Citysafe CX Anti-Theft Tote)
- An extra set of clothes in your hand carry in case of emergency
- Skincare such as lip balm, sunblock lotion, and moisturizer to prevent skin dryness and irritation (Top picks: Human Nature Lip Balm, Human Nature SafeProtect SPF30 Sunscreen, and Human NatureDay or Night Moisturizer)
- When in Trans-Siberian Express and you want to connect with the outside world, use Skyroam hotspot. Except when the train is in motion, Skyroam provides wonderful coverage in Moscow and around Siberia.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the main and most famous route in the transcontinental Russian line, the others being Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian route. It starts in Moscow, Russia and ends in either Mongolia or Beijing, China.
Where to Go
- MOSCOW KREMLIN. This fortified complex at the heart of Moscow serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, and where the Armoury Chamber—which houses one of Russia’s most magnificent collections of metal works, weapons, crowns, and carriages—is located.
- SAINT BASIL’S CATHEDRAL. Offcially known as Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, this church was built to commemorate the defeat of the Tatars. It is now a museum and a world-famous landmark.
- RED SQUARE. Red Square is the main city square in Moscow, where the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral are located.
- CAFÉ PUSHKIN. Don’t forget to grab a bite in this café, which o ers authentic Russian fare and imbibes an old-world 19th century opulent atmosphere.
- IZMAYLOVSKY MARKET. Along with the whole stretch of Arbat Street, this place is great for local shopping.
Things to Know
This city, located at the very border of Europe and Asia, is regarded as the “Capital of the Ural Mountains.”
It was the center of metallurgical industry, and had become one of the largest and the most important financial and cultural hubs in Russia by the 20th century.
Yekaterinburg is the location of Cathedral on The Blood, the former site of Ipatiev House where Tzar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks during the February Revolution. Tzar Nicolas, along with his wife Tsarina Alexandria and five daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastacia, and Alexei, have since been canonized as new martyrs by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Located 16 kilometers northeast of Yekaterinburg, Ganina Yama or the Monastery of the Holy Martyrs is considered by Russians as a sacred ground because it is where the remains of the Romanovs were buried. It has wooden chapels built to honor the family.
What to See
ORTHODOX CHURCHES. Russians are quite religious, which is why a number of churches are sprawled throughout the country, mainly in Siberia. However, it is in Novosibirsk that you can see some of the nation’s most remarkable churches. Must-visits include the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Ascension Cathedral, the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Church, and the St. Nicholas Chapel.
RIVER OB. A major river in western Siberia, River Ob is the world’s seventh longest. It is also crossed by the Trans-Siberian Railway.
NOVOSIBIRSK OPERA AND BALLET THEATRE. This is one of the biggest theater centers in Russia, situated at Lenin Square, the city center.
WEST SIBERIAN RAILWAY HISTORY MUSEUM. This is where you can see the old train cars that used to travel through the Trans-Siberian Railway. The museum includes steam and diesel locomotives and electric locomotives, among others.
Things to Know
Krasnoyarsk used to be a closed city during the Soviet period—foreigners and also most Soviet citizens could not enter it at that time.
It is located along the Yenissei River, said to be the greatest river system owing to the Arctic Ocean.
To further draw tourism in the city, the local mayor had the city center and main shopping street decorated with palm trees—a unique way to show Siberia.
Things to Know
Lake Baikal is a destination of superlatives, being the world’s deepest (reaching 1.62 meters), largest (by volume, containing 23% of the world’s freshwater surface), biggest (spanning 26 miles from east to west of Siberia and more than 370 miles from north to south), oldest (formed 25 million years ago), and arguably the clearest body of freshwater.
There are tons of freshwater species that can be found only at Lake Baikal (17,000 species of plants and sea creatures as well as 200 types of shrimp, to be exact), including the white omul fish of the salmon family, a staple delicacy in Siberia.
One of the attractions near Lake Baikal is St. Nicholas Church, an orthodox wooden church built by a Russian merchant—who almost died in the lake— to honor Saint Nicholas (the patron saint of sailors and shermen).
Lake Baikal is also near the Circum Baikal Railway line (between Port Baikal and Sludyanka), which for many years has been used only by a few local and tourist trains.
Its museum, Baikal Museum, is one of the three museums in the world dedicated only to a lake. This is where you can see nerpa seals or Baikal seals indigenous to Lake Baikal and the only freshwater type of seal in the world. Aside from that, you can see other fish and freshwater species endemic only to the lake.
WHAT TO DO
Check out the colorful environment of the city. The vibrant lifestyle of the city during the time of the Tsars had made it one of the popular places in the region that at one point, it was coined “Paris of Siberia.”
Visit wooden houses in the old town. The wooden buildings of Irkutsk are included in the preliminary UNESCO Heritage List. It garnered admiration because of its unique architectural style that features Neo-Brutalism and Russian Baroque designs.
Enjoy a private classical concert at Volkonsky House Museum. Aside from its concert offerings, the 19th century museum is also packed with a rich history, being the home of exiled Russian Count Sergei Volkonsky and his wife Maria.
Thing to Know
Ulan-Ude is the capital of Buryat Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation. Buryat is an ethnic group of Mongols practicing a mix of cultures and religions from the East and West.
Like Irkutsk, there are also several wooden mansions in Ulan-Ude that show exceptional examples of Russian classicism.
Another example of how the city has preserved its history is the existence of Semeiski or the so-called “Old Believers.” This orthodox community rejected the religious reforms of Russia and continued to practice their faith despite repression. They still practice their life like what their people did centuries ago, one of which is living in bright colorful houses that are supposed to drive bad elements away.
What to do
Take a history tour. Religion bu s can visit Gandantegchinlen Monastery, while history enthusiasts can check out Bogd Khan Palace Museum and Zaisan Memorial.
See a Naadam show. This is a special show arranged speci cally for the participants of Grand Trans-Siberian Express. It showcases the three disciplines of the Mongolian National Naadam Festival: wrestling, archery, and horse racing.
Immerse in Mongolian cuisine. Make sure to experience a Mongolian Hot Pot dinner, and get a taste of local drinks suutei tsai (a classic Mongolian drink made of milk, water, and salt) and airag (fermented mare’s milk)—which is recommended only for those with strong stomachs.
IS THE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS JOURNEY ACROSS RUSSIA FOR YOU?
Get onboard the world’s oldest and longest train journey! With tons of places to see, a rich culture to experience, and warm locals to meet, this train ride should de nitely be your next adventure. Russia and Mongolia will not only surprise you, they will change the way you perceive the world and people in general. The Trans-Siberian Express is perfect if you’re planning to tour both countries, or at least catch of glimpse of them next year!
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR RUSSIA
- Russian Visa application form duly accomplished and signed
- Passport must be valid for at least a year from date of travel
- Two Passport sized photos with white background
- Birth certificate for minor applicants
Filipinos can enter Mongolia visa-free for 21 days or less
For more information on the journey, such as rates, inclusions and exclusions, and other requirements, as well as on Russia in general, phone Vita Travel Services at (+632) 759 2191 to 92 or email <[email protected]>
MONGOLIA: A GRAND ENDING
A QUICK HISTORY
Centuries before, strong leadership was unheard of in Mongolia, as it used to be composed of various tribes with little inclination to confederate with each other. In the 13th century, however, they were united and became a strong ghting force—all under the The effective rule of Gengis Khan. His empire, the Mongol Empire, went on to become the largest in world history—successfully conquering China, Russia, Poland , Hungary, and even Persia. However, the Empire soon dissolved and its rule in China was dethroned in 1368. The nation then split between different groups and China came to rule the country.
Over the decades, Mongolia underwent several revolutions and occupations before achieving its long-desired full independence. In 1911, the Mongols revolted against China—resulting in them gaining limited autonomy. They were again occupied by the Chinese in 1919, but the Mongols were able to drive them out in 1921. It then came under Russian occupation, where the Communists introduced a totalitarian government which heavily persecuted those who practiced religion. When the Communism collapsed in 1990, Mongolia was able to create its own constitution in 1992 and it changed to a market economy. Since then, the country has seen a rapid growth in its economy, even recovering from recessions that came its way.
THE MONGOLIAN NOMAD CULTURE
Mongolians are nomads at heart. No matter how long they’ve lived in the city, they all go back and retire to a rural lifestyle—specifically living in a ger (portable and easy-to-set-up round tent covered with skins or felt). They usually base their living situation on the natural climate. For instance, whe the weather becomes too cold or too hot, instead of dealing with it through heaters or air-conditioner they tend to relocate to another area. This is because they believe that nature is not something to be tamed and touched.
In addition, horses are considered extremely important in Mongolian nomad culture. The horses played a crucial role in history, as they helped the Mongols not just by tending farm animals but also by transporting warriors among Asia as they built their empire under Khan’s rule.
Mongolian National Naadam Festival. This is Mongolia’s biggest traditional festival, its term meaning “the games of three men.” Held every 11th and 12th of July, the festival highlights three types of competitions—wrestling, horse racing, and archery.
Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian Lunar New Year). Normally celebrated between the end of January until the end of February, Mongolians’ New Year highlights dairy products, horse meat, dumplings, tons of cookies, and airag or fermented mare’s milk. This is also the time where families visit each other to pay their respects and bond.
Khovsgol Ice Festival. One of the country’s most unique festivals, the Khovsgol Ice Festival takes place during one of the world’s deepest winters—with temperatures dropping below -35 ̊C. During this time, Mongolians participate in horse- sled racing, ice rally-driving, wrestling, and tug-of-war—which are all held in a frozen lake.
Gobi Camel Festival. This festival honors endangered Bactrian camels and its importance to the Gobi’s nomads. Among the highlights of this celebration include camel racing, polo competitions, and traditional Mongolian music and dance performances.
PLACES TO SEE
Gandantegchinlen Monastery. This famous monastery in Mongolia’s capital has over 150 monks and features a 26-meter-high statue of Avalokiteśvara (a being who has achieved Buddhahood).
Bogd Khan Palace Museum. This place is one of the very few spots in Mongolia that was spared by the Soviets and the Communist Mongolians during the war.
Zaisan Memorial. This memorial honors the Soviet soldiers killed in World War 2, and depicts the friendship between USSR and Mongolia.
Central Sukhabaatar Square. This square is recognized for its bronze design made by the joint work of Mongolian and North Korean sculptors.
Gokhi-Terelj National Park. This is one of Ulaanbatar’s famous nature parks, noted mainly for its beautiful mountain sceneries, stone formations, and rich wildlife.
Chinggiskhaan Statue. The 40-meter statue of Gengis Khan is Mongolia’s newest landmark and a popular day trip destination for tourists.