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The Trans-Siberian Railroad

Dr. Watson E. Mills has been a passenger on many of the most famous trains in the world, including the Orient Express (Europe), the Indian-Pacific (Australia), the Blue Train (Southern Africa), the TranzAlpine (New Zealand), the Ghan and the Overland (Australia), the Via Rail (Canada), and Amtrak’s Coast Starlight (USA). He says, “This rail journey was the longest and the most challenging of any train I have taken, but it was nonetheless richly rewarding and a truly incredible journey.”

Traveling the Trans-Siberian Railroad had always been a dream of mine. I longed to be transported across Russian Siberia aboard a famous train – entering into Mongolia and crossing the Great Wall to wind up in Beijing. Just thinking about the enormity of the Trans-Siberian railway set my imagination on fire. The prospect of visiting Siberia and Mongolia in the bargain was too much to resist.

I had visited Russia and China several times before, but I had never traveled to either Siberia or Mongolia. That aside, Russia, Mongolia, and China are not just any three random countries. These are countries that few western travelers ever get to see! Somewhere between thinking about their communist histories, the wars, the ballets, the temples, the countryside, the throat singing, the dumplings, and the Mongolian tents (known as gers), I made up my mind. I had to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway.

In 2011, during my third around-the-world journey, I booked a ticket on the Trans-Siberian. I selected Moscow as a stopover city on my around-the-world air ticket (I would later resume eastbound air travel from Beijing). Then I booked my place on the Trans-Siberian Railroad through a Russian tour service.

For hardcore train buffs, the Trans-Siberian is the Taj Mahal of rail journeys. In fact there are three routes that this “train of the Tsars” follows: The “original” Trans-Siberian that runs from Moscow to the Pacific terminus at Vladivostok, Russia; the Trans-Manchurian that travels through Siberia and Manchuria to Beijing; the Trans-Mongolian that runs from Moscow to Beijing, China via Ulan Bator, Mongolia. I booked my ticket on the latter iteration on this famous train. This epic route crosses six time zones and traverses 4,735 miles from Moscow through Mongolia to Beijing. All three routes are often referred to only as the “Trans-Siberian” or “TransSib” as some of the world’s most avid train riders like to call these trains.

In 1891, the future Tsar Nicholas II personally opened and blessed the construction of the Far East segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway while he was visiting at Vladivostok. During his journey around the world, Nicholas II made notes in his diary about his anticipation of traveling in the comfort of “The Tsar’s Train” across the unspoiled wilderness of Siberia. In its prime the carriages on this train were outfitted in elegant mahogany trimmed in gold. The furnishings in the dining car were luxurious chairs that were deep-cushioned with carved wooden backs. Over the years this elegance has been often neglected, and so today some of these “Trains of the Tsars” reflect only a trace of their former glory.

Along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Like other European trains, travel on the Trans-Siberian may be in a “hard” seat or in a sleeper cabin. The sleeper cars are of two classes: First and Second. The essential difference is “how many” cabin mates you will have. There are two persons to a cabin in First and four in Second. Some Russian trains even have a private bathroom in First class. Other trains on the same route do not.

The Trans-Siberian uses either Russian trains, Mongolian trains, or Chinese trains, all of which are said to be quite comfortable and clean. My cabin certainly was. I booked a cabin in First Class so there were only two berths, but I only had a roommate for part of the journey. There are two wash rooms and toilets one on each end of the corridor. These were kept clean by the two attendants assigned to each car. Beware: No English spoken on the Trans-Siberian – not a word! The steward on my carriage spoke some German, and I was able to communicate my (basic) needs in that European language.

This trip was like nothing I have experienced. The train took me through incredible natural beauty, authentic villages, and diverse cultures in the most efficient way. I marveled at UNECO-listed Lake Baikal which contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen surface and is the largest lake in the world by volume. Lake Baikal is said to be the world’s oldest lake and is among the clearest. Its depth exceeds one mile. I was captivated by Irkutsk–Siberia’s major city in tsarist times and today’s gateway to Siberia.

Mongolian Yurts

The area around Ulan Bator, Mongolia, was greatly entertaining. Once in the plains of Mongolia I happened to look outside the window, and, to my amazement, six or seven men, dressed in traditional, colorful outfits, their swords swinging, were galloping alongside the train. For once, I appreciated the slow moving Trans-Siberian! Behind them in the fields were the oval-shaped tents where people of this culture reside (the tents are called gers or yerts).

Above all, taking the Trans-Siberian railway with all the time zones, cities, and vastness constantly reminded me of Russia’s size. The scenery was a mix of lakes, marshlands, rolling hills, rivers, and tiny wooden houses. Sometimes, I’d go to the dining car to read or to listen to music. Sometimes I would break the monotony by simply wandering the length of train – just to pass the time during this journey of more than 135 hours. Food was never a problem. On advice of my travel agent, before boarding the train, I bought provisions at a supermarket, but these were exhausted by the fourth day. Sometimes I ate in the dining car, other times I got off at various stations where I bought snacks and drinks from station vendors.

There are several anomalies one discovers while a passenger on the Trans-Siberian. One relates to your watch. Even though the train travels through many time zones, the time on the train is always set to the time in Moscow. So when I stepped off the train in Beijing the station clocks read 11a.m.; however, my watch read 5 a.m. (Trans-Siberian time).

Workers lift up the train to change its wheels before it heads into China and its different-sized tracks.

By far the most interesting anomaly occurred at the Mongolia/Chinese border. It was nighttime when I arrived there, and after the immigration and customs check, the train inched into a vast shed. Here the train wheels have to be changed because of the different track gauges used by the Chinese/Mongolian and Russia railway networks. Passengers are required to remain onboard during this process. After a good deal of shunting, the individual cars are uncoupled, then large hydraulic jacks lift each carriage up about one meter so the present wheels can be removed and replaced with the slightly smaller one of the Chinese gauge. Of course a Chinese engine replaces the Russian one and the train is now ready to be coupled together for the journey to Beijing. The “NO PHOTOS” restriction did not seem to be very strictly enforced, so near the completion of the wheel exchange most passengers jumped off to steal a few surreptitious shots. This wheel exchange was something to see!

Early the next morning there was a good deal of excitement when word spread through my passenger carriage that the train would be soon be approaching the Great Wall. Of course, you must pass through the wall in order to reach Beijing. This section of the wall, however, was in a terrible state of disrepair, as is almost all of the remaining wall that is outside the touristy areas such as Badaling, where you discover freshly laid bricks, wide walkways, handicapped accessible entry areas, and restrooms. That fact aside, it was quite a sight to see the remains of what was once the engineering marvel of the world. The overgrowth concealed much of the wall, but I could make out its size as it stretched out into the distance like a ribbon. I wondered if the invading Mongolians might have once been repelled at this very spot.

Seeing the Great Wall of China was the crowning touch to a journey that gave me a new appreciation of geography. At times during the journey I felt so isolated I would look at the GPS app on my cell phone to remind myself just where I was in the world. There were points when the train was several thousand miles from the nearest ocean! After almost a week of continuous travel aboard the Trans-Siberian, I was glad to get off at the Beijing Railway Station. Personal hygiene had been quite limited and it was good to check into a hotel room, which didn’t move, but being a passenger on this most famous of train is an experience I would not trade, for anything.

Next time: “The New Seven Wonders of the World”