Frontiers in Travel: Russia by Rail

by Trans-Suberia, Trans-Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
(Mongolia China, Moscow - Ulaanbaatar, May - September)

TRAVELING by train is becoming the new frontier for adventurers in this rapidly globalizing world. Unlike the time-warping effects of plane travel, it is tedious and draining, at times lonely and monotonous, but it undoubtedly puts the world, the landscape, and your experiences into a greater context.

The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway offers the ultimate train journey connecting Moscow with the Far Eastern Russian provinces, as well as Mongolia, China and the Sea of Japan. From September 8-26, 2008, I sojourned from Moscow, Russia, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, getting off at four stops along the way.

Planning such a trip is harder then one might imagine. In the preliminary stages, I knew that I needed to begin in Moscow and end in Mongolia, I wanted to split the 120- hour train ride into four sections, and I was in search of the best cities to serve my touristic purposes.

Unfortunately, Russian trains are not like the Euro Rail where one can purchase a simple pass, hopping on and off when you darn-well please. The Trans-Siberian is made up of a network of domestic railways, some faster then others, so single tickets from city to city must be purchased.

With the popularity of the train (especially in tourist season between May-September), the infrequent schedules as you move further from Moscow, and the absence of English speakers at the stations (or any other language besides Russian for that matter), one should seriously consider organizing the trip before departure.

The options are through a European or American agency, which can be quite expensive. And the other option is through a Russian agent, which is cheaper, but a bit shadier with the language barrier, back-and-forth emails and calls, and the release of bank information across the high seas to an unknown office.

After hours of research on the most appealing stops in Russia, and on the cheapest yet most reliable Russian agent, I finally decided on my four destinations. With my second-class tickets, which included a four-berth compartment, as opposed to the double-priced first class with two berths, or the open dormitory-style third class, I began my journey.

My first stop was Moscow, a popular destination for good reason. The touristy Red Square does not fail to induce awe, filled with the familiar wedding-cake-like St. Basil’s Cathedral, an elaborate shopping mall, Kremlin (the old capital and heart of Russia), an ornamental history museum, and Lenin’s tomb (although the chemically-preserved Lenin looked like a cheap knock-off of Madame Tussaud’s wax figures). One can’t help but to be absorbed in this historic, breath-taking, harsh Russian capital.

The exorbitant sums will once again bring you back to reality however, calling you toward the next stop, with a short taxi costing up to $30USD, hostels $50USD, sandwiches $12USD, and bribes to the police for not carrying your passport up to $60USD. The only items that are relatively cheap in Moscow are low-grade Russian cafeteria food, and most cherished cigarettes and vodka.

Twenty-seven hours outside of Moscow is Yekaterinburg, the 5th largest city near the western border of Asian Russia. Yekaterinburg is the site of the Romanov’s deaths, the final czarist family assassinated during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 (the most famous Romanov being Anastasia).

There now stands a Russian Orthodox Church at this death site, known as the Church of Blood, a modest establishment worth about twenty minutes. Other than the church and a few mediocre museums, the city is very industrial and characterless. Yekaterinburg is worth about one or two days due to its central location in breaking up the rail journey,

Fifty-five hours to the west of Yekaterinburg is Irkutsk, a city of 600,000, which is quite large for Eastern Siberia’s standards. Irkutsk is a charming town, with cobblestone streets, Decembrist’s homes, and a manageable layout. Its main appeal is the proximity to the “Pearl of Siberia,” Lake Baikal.

Forty-five minutes from Irkutsk by bus is Listvyanka, a small resort town at the mouth of the Angara River, feeding into Baikal— the deepest lake in the world, which holds approximately 20% of Earth’s fresh water.

The booming tourism industry is accompanied by fine accommodations and restaurants, inflated prices, and countless activities such as four-wheeling, cycling, boat-tours, fishing,
scuba diving, and dog sledding in the winter. There is even a museum on the region’s flora and fauna, which includes unique marine life endemic to the ecosystem, and two of Baikal’s freshwater seals, held captive in a 1.5 by 3 meter tank.

The lake is what one might imagine: bluish-green-crystal clear, and pure enough to drink (the volume enables a thorough self-cleaning process). You can see down meters and meters, which is disorienting and has been known to cause vertigo, but makes you feel like you’re floating on air, flying away somewhere beautiful and desolate.

Swimming in the icy waters is a must, or at least jumping in and flailing out, allowing for an invigoration that only cold water can produce, a feeling of true cleanliness, and pride at being one of the few people that can say they swam in Lake Baikal.

If one wants to experience a more pristine, untouched Baikal, I would recommend visiting Olkhon Island, a Buryiat Shamanistic energy center, or a port on the eastern shore, which can be accessed through the capital of Buryitia, Ulan Ude.

After the refreshing and required side-trip to Baikal, the last leg of my journey took me from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, switching from the Trans-Siberian to the Trans-Mongolian line. This thirty-hour ride should only take about twenty-two hours, but the tedious border crossing which lasts anywhere from 3-10 hours, filled with cart-swaps, immigration, passport collection, and searches by Russian guards, inevitably elongates the trip.

Although there is much to see across Russia and I have merely brushed upon four major destinations (and with more time, one can take other side-trips to more remote locations), the train itself, a solitary 120 never-ending hours, should be the magnetizing motive at this adventure’s core. As arduous as 7,200 minutes may seem, it is a journey in so many different directions. When the landscape gets monotonous, when you’re unable to speak anyone’s language, and when you want a break from your book, there is the resulting exploration of the self, whether intentional or not.

You think till you can’t think anymore, than you think about not wanting to think. With so much internal brain movement, you remember things you can’t imagine. Your images, your waking and sleeping dreams, your thoughts and ideas, your memories, are so very vivid. You can picture events from the past perfectly, things you had forgotten about. You come up with great ideas about life, about what it means to travel by train.

At the same time that you are traveling inward, the train onward, you also travel outward. You hear all the noises, smell all the smells, feel all the vibrations and lack thereof sharply. Any change in surroundings is a change in the monotony of a long train ride. Even if it’s an unwanted change, it is still a distraction. One would think that one would want distractions; to the contrary. You disappear into this anti-social world that is boring, lonely, but it becomes comfortable and comforting. You become weak, you don’t need food as much. When I got off the train my hands were trembling. This strange, stuffy, unsanitary universe you disappear into becomes home.

Although you may spare yourself a bit of the inevitable cabin fever on the train by traveling with a companion, a solo experience may be the meditative and testing way to go. But whichever way you choose, it is a gem to witness the spectrum of the Eurasian continent: from cosmopolitan to rural, European to Asiatic, Western to Siberian, Soviet to Indigenous, Christian to Buddhist. It is a reality that can only be truly appreciated on the ground. The world once again feels like a massive, diverse, interconnected land.

All in all, Russia by rail is an experience that should not be missed. The cities, the nature and the history beckon the traveler; the solitary reflections, the heart-warming people, and even the blood-thawing vodka, welcomes the expedition. Eurasia by land is an emerging trip, slowly but surely being revealed in a shrinking world where true adventure is more than just a plane ride away. As the old cliché goes, it is the journey, not the destination.

By Brandt Miller

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