Winter. It’s not exactly beach weather outside so if it has to be like this, why not embrace it to its full extent? Escape to the depths of a faraway winter wonderland, where white, fluffy snow is abundant and the fields and hills roll on for ever. I’m talking about the famed Trans-Siberian railway, a great way to travel the world if (like me) you are afraid of flying. Here is a list of do’s and try-not-to-do’s of an ambitious 6,000 km journey through multiple time zones from snowy St Petersburg to bustling Beijing.
Prior to coming away, it’s advisable to book everything in advance. For a start, having bookings and proof of entry/exit of each country makes the daunting visa application process run a lot smoother.
You have two options: book all of your trains via seat61.com or some other such website and trawl the internet for the best looking/cheapest accommodation you can get your hands on, or book a package tour including all transport (including shuttle busses), accommodation, some meals, and your very own Honcho (local guide) at every stop. There are various routes to choose from with the package tours, but they come at a price. I opted for a package aptly named ‘Vodka Train’ which will set you back an eye-watering £2000.
Thankfully, there’s always option B. Train tickets for the whole route are in the region of £500 for a four berth cabin, add another 50% if you want a more private two bed. Add on accommodation to suit your budget and it’s clear this adventurous trip can be done a lot cheaper. The drawbacks are that you won’t get your Honcho in each destination, booking accommodation can be a bit of a wild card, and you’ve nobody to blame but yourself if anything goes wrong.
Once you’ve got everything sorted, head to your nearest Primark or, better yet, arctic exploration centre to stock up on thermal clothing. It’s going to be a cold winter.
When arriving into St. Petersburg by bus from eastern Europe, please note that the best estimates of travel time are spurious at best. There are two main bus terminals in the city, the first one will drop you off fairly close to the middle of everything; tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants etc. Unfortunately, unless you speak Russian, you’ll miss this stop and arrive at the second, further out bus station, where the service terminates and you’ll be forced to get off. Without your Russian fluency skills to guide you, asking various officials for directions is futile. I suggest taking a good look at a map before setting off, or (if you have nerves of steel) take a flight.
St. Petersburg is by far my favourite European city. The first thing you’ll notice while taking a stroll down the main boulevard, the Nevsky Prospect, is the sheer size and grandeur of all the buildings, most of which were built before the twentieth century.
The Kazan Cathedral (rus. Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor), an imposing semi-circle of immense columns, is one of my favourites. Modelled on St Peter’s Basilica with hints of Florentine architecture, it is one of many buildings which will leave you with a sore neck and an unnerving sense of insignificance.
Walking down the road looking around with a sense of confusion and amazement, a local stops me and proclaims in his finest English: “You must visit ze Stroganov Palace!” I love Stroganoff and was starting to feel a little peckish so I diligently made my way there. Arriving at the palace, I was struck with conflicting emotions. The impressive, pink building designed for Baron Sergei Stroganov in the 1700’s is another must see. The Italian influenced (again) interior is just as impressive as its exterior. Not quite the palace of beefy, creamy stew I thought it would be, but possibly even better.
Another thing you’ll notice on the Nevsky Prospect is that everyone is a model. The tall, flawless women and muscular men roaming the streets made me feel short (I’m not), skinny (I am), and ugly (subjective). The history of the street is interesting in itself, from freely roaming wolves and prostitutes, to the street flooding entirely leaving it easier to navigate by boat than on foot. Not too dissimilar from December in Gibraltar…
If architecture and beautiful people aren’t your thing, maybe you’ll enjoy one of the world’s oldest and biggest museums. The Hermitage is, of course, another striking building (made up of six smaller buildings) just off the Nevsky Prospect. It boasts an eclectic range of items from antiquity to the modern day which includes the world’s largest collection of paintings. I’m not sure how long it would take to fully explore the museum, but it’s certainly more than a half day trip. I’d suggest picking up a much needed brochure/map from reception and choosing a few points of interest, otherwise you may find yourself enthusiastically inspecting old Egyptian rocks at the museums entrance, only to surge through the Renaissance section in need of a coffee.
Another must see is the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The relatively new building finished in 1907 is a breath-taking sight even for the most hardened atheist. The church differs from the mostly European buildings on the Nevsky Prospect, giving you a taste of medieval Russia. Step inside for endless mosaics, of which a 45 minute tour is available for hard-core enthusiasts.
Before moving on to Moscow, it’s worth mentioning that when you finally descend into one of the world’s deepest metro systems, you arrive in a station which looks like what I imagine a bomb shelter to look like if it were designed by a creative mind. Actually, these stations did double up as would-be bomb shelters during the cold war. Be sure to at least visit the underground before getting your overnight train to Moscow.
Once in Moscow, you’ll be keen to get back underground to check out more of those amazing metro stations. I’m sure they’re great, unfortunately, if you arrive during the morning rush hour, you won’t see anything, it’s busy. Coming from someone who lived in Tokyo, you can bet your roubles it’s overwhelming. Just head vaguely in the right direction and hope the flow of people carries you to your destination.
Outside, from the (surprisingly small) building tops hang hauntingly sizeable icicles. Stand and watch for long enough and you’ll see them come crashing down, shattering into small, non-threatening pieces of ice. These terrifying spectacles cause five or six deaths a year in Moscow, along with one or two hundred injuries, beware. You may also see people wandering around with a can of beer at eight in the morning. In Russia, beer is widely considered a soft drink, although this was officially changed by law a few years ago. Vodka, on the other hand, is seen as a problem drink, double beware.
After St. Petersburg, you could be forgiven for feeling slightly underwhelmed by the capital’s architecture due to the buildings lack of height and complexity. What’s a visit to Moscow without seeing the Kremlin and neighbouring Red Square? At the head of Red Square is the eye-catching Saint Basil’s Cathedral, made into even more of a spectacle when covered in snow.
Go shopping. Buy some food before you get on that train unless you want to eat packet noodles for five long days. Water, beer, and crisps are also available, which sounds great until the fourth morning rolls around and the possibility of getting scurvy becomes a real danger. Keep an eye out for people sporadically appearing with massive jugs of water to share with a friend. This is Russia, it’s not water.
The views are unparalleled. Looking out the window as the train rounds a bend is like being in a wintery Harry Potter scene, if the route to Hogwarts was littered with Soviet industrial towns. Between these towns though is thousands of kilometres of snowy countryside. Sitting on your bed, looking out the window as the endless fields of snow roll by with your headphones on is the closest thing to relaxation obtainable. To realise this dream, I’d suggest opting for the slightly more expensive two bed cabin (to share with your friend or partner), otherwise you run the risk of sharing with mother and sweet little child. It’s worth the extra money.
Outside, the temperatures are now routinely double figures below zero. The train stops about twice a day for you to get off and stretch your legs, until you realise you can’t endure the cold any longer and run back to the safety of your den. Do you smoke? Not anymore, too cold.
By the fifth day, you’re well and truly in need of a shower, some fruit, and a time machine to go back five days and get that two bed cabin. Time to get off in Irkutsk, deep inside the Siberian heartland.
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
If you’ve opted for the full package, you’ll be welcomed here by a guide and promptly shuttled 65 km away to the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. Average temperatures here are about –20°C during the winter but be prepared for anything down to -40. It doesn’t really matter at these temperatures, anything below about -20 is can’t-feel-your-face cold. Fortunately, the Russians know how to heat a house. Pop to the local shop for a hot coffee and stock up on some nice real food to replenish your energy for a nice, refreshing early morning swim in the lake. Wait… what? Yes, apparently some locals swim in the lake through all the seasons. Minus. Thirty. Five. Don’t worry, for those of you who prefer not to dive into an icy lake, there are traditional saunas in the area. Much better.
When you don’t go for a swim in the morning, you’ll have time to walk around taking in the lake’s beauty. In the afternoon, you can go for a husky ride which is definitely one of the best experiences you can have. Make sure you pack extra fingers because yours are likely to fall off. The ride was unadulterated joy for three minutes, and the remaining ten or so minutes was spent trying to stuff one hand in my mouth for warmth and trying to navigate the sled without falling off with the remaining hand. Change and repeat. Apparently, two pairs of gloves are not enough. For another £50 you have the option to ride a snowmobile. Same process but faster and less chance of toppling.
Back in the city of Irkutsk, the Regional Memorial Decembrist Museum is worth a visit. In the early 1800’s, a group of rebel soldiers protested Nicholas I’s rise to the throne. They failed, and those who weren’t executed were exiled to Siberia, among other places. As this revolt took place in the month of December, the rebels are known as Decembrists. Take refuge from the cold to learn about Siberian history in these memorial manors. Accurate recreations of the interior help represent the life of a Decembrist in West Siberia in the mid 1800’s. For maximum learning, opt for the guided tour.
Back outside in the main square, there is a range of ice sculptures during the winter. Walk, observe, touch with your bare skin and become one with the sculpture. If you bought the full package at the beginning of the trip, you will be offered a walking tour of the surrounding area. This is most certainly a worthwhile excursion, giving you a strange sense of isolation in this ‘large’ Siberian city. Being cold enough to freeze the inside of your nose, warming up with a post tour coffee (or vodka) is recommended.
Another train ride
Now a well versed train traveller, you will embark upon a piddly two night journey across the border into Mongolia. You’ve learnt your lesson and bought plenty of food to keep you going over the next few days, but what’s this? Your cabin is full of somebody else’s stuff! Apparently, it’s not too uncommon for smugglers to load your cabin full of fruit and wine to cross the border, presumably to avoid paying tax on the goods. Simply offload the cargo into the hallway and leave a train official to find a new home for everything. Perhaps keep a couple of boxes of wine for your efforts, after all, it’s a fairly long journey.
Welcome to Ulaanbaatar, home to half of the 2.5 million people living in Mongolia. In the spirit of the nomadic nature, the city changed location 28 times before finally becoming the city of soviet buildings in state of dilapidation we know and love today. Explore the empty, snow covered streets before heading into Chinggis Square, which hosts a large monument to Genghis Khan in front of the government palace. Careful on the steps. Stand next to his statue and marvel at the fact that such a small nation would go on to forge such a colossal empire. Now that you’ve been outside for more than 30 minutes, you might want to nip back inside and grab another coffee (or vodka).
Warm up completed. Begin your trek up to the Zaisan memorial, dedicated to all the soviets who lost their lives during World War II. Conveniently, this doubles up as the best viewpoint of the city. This is a great opportunity to put that camera you got for Christmas to good use before heading back down to ready yourself for a few nights in a traditional Mongolian ger camp.
Terelj National Park
This is everything your adventurous winter-y getaway has been building up to. Serene surroundings, snowy peaks, and soured milk treats. Huge snow covered rock formations dotted across the blanketed hills and valleys with picturesque trees and river to match. It really is quite a scene. You can rent a ger (Mongolian yurt) for an average of £40 per night here or get it as part of the initial package. As part of the trip, a group of you are invited into a traditional family ger where you can converse with the locals and find out more about their way of life. Except, you can’t speak Mongolian. In any case, they will show you around their modest transportable home and offer you food and drink. As the Mongols are historically a nomadic race, they tend to live off the land. The land provides yak and not much else, especially in the winter. Warm yak milk is pretty delicious with some biscuits, but have you ever eaten a small rock made of soured milk?
The snow has been falling every day since St Petersburg, this means only one thing; sledding. With a couple of days in the national park, very few people around, and an abundance of snowy hills to explore, why not grab a sled from the main ger and head off to live out the childhood winter you always wanted. After the sledding and snowball fights, pop back down into the valley for a spot of archery practice.
Mongolia has a long and proud history of archery and most of these camps provide all the equipment you need to hone the skills you never cared you didn’t have. Afterwards, you can have a trek around visiting the famous rock formations such as ‘Turtle Rock’ and ‘Monk Reading a Book’. No prizes for guessing what these rocks look like. I think you will have learnt your lesson from the huskies and snowmobile. If not, hop on a donkey back to your camp and get straight back into that fire heated ger.
Head to the nearest village to absorb yourself in the local Buddhist culture. The whole area is a tourist spot, but be sure to stay silent in the temples.
Off to Beijing. The short 30 hour journey takes you through the Gobi desert and stops at the Chinese border for longer than you’d expect. The train track gauges are smaller in China than the rest of Central Asia, the only solution is to lift all the carriages one by one and change all the wheels, makes sense. This makes for quite interesting viewing initially, then you realise the whole process takes three hours and you can tuck into The Odyssey, which you resolved to finish before the journey’s end.
As you shoot off into Beijing, you can rest assured that the temperatures are likely to be a toasty -5 at worst. Now, you can sit back and reflect on the ridiculously long journey you have just undertaken. Why did you sit on a train for so many days? Why did you endure such unthinkable cold? Because you now have a camera full of memories and a head full of tales to tell of an enchanting land that needs to be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated.
words | Chris Hedley