The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – thus goes a popular Chinese proverb. How about a train journey of over 5,000 miles? To be precise 5,734 miles or 9,228 kilometres. The long journey or the longest possible journey on train is sure to create memories of a lifetime. A ride on the Trans-Siberian train is a dream come true for many. What is that makes this travel across Russia unique? Is it an adventure of epic proportions as it is widely touted? No doubt, there is a world to see as you travel from Moscow to Vladivostok. Here we trace the famed route and detail the major attractions on the way while exploring Russia by rail almost from one end to the other in a trip that takes seven days at one go.
1. Cities, towns, other attractions en route
The Trans-Siberian trains wind through varying landscapes across different time zones as it zips from the European part of Russia to the Russian Far East for a distance of 9,228 km. After crossing the Ural Mountains, which is the natural boundary of Europe and Asia, the trains enter the vast Siberian plains and run for over 200 km along the shore of Lake Baikal which is the oldest and deepest lake as well as the largest freshwater lake in the world. Towards the fag end of the west-east journey from Moscow, or in the early part of the reverse trip from Vladvostok, the train runs for 39 km along the coast of Sea of Japan.
In two days the train covers the European part and for the next four full days, at least, it will be racing through Asia. The European stretch accounts for nearly one-fifth (19%) of the total distance and the Asian part the rest (81%). In between, the train running between Moscow and Vladivostok passes through nearly 90 towns and cities of Russia and over a dozen big rivers including the Volga, Ob, Yenisei and Amur.
The largest cities in terms of population are Moscow, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Omsk and Novosibirsk. Other main cities on the route are Yaroslavl, Kirov, Tyumen, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Chita, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.
If lucky you may see the border of Europe and Asia as the train from Moscow reaches the 1,778th km milestone. You may get a fleeting view of the tall obelisk (stone pillar) that stands on the boundary if it is daytime. There are fastidious Trans-Sib travellers who are well-prepared with maps and crane their necks to sight the boundary between the two continents. The stretch of the frontier on the Trans-Siberian route where the obelisk is found is near the town of Pervouralsk, which is about 50 km west of Yekaterinburg. Yekaterinburg, which lies in the eastern foothills of the Urals, too has another obelisk on the Europe and Asia border. Get down at Yekaterinburg railway station for a tour of the Europe-Asia border and other attractions of this beautiful city on the shores of the Iset River.
The Moscow-Yekaterinburg railway distance is 1,668 km via Kazan and 1,778 km via Nizhny Novgorod, Kirov, and Perm. Most Trans-Siberian trains take the latter longer route as it is closer to the south-easterly course they will take in the next couple of days of the weeklong travel.
Nizhny Novgorod or Nizhny, which is the fifth largest city in Russia, is about 440 km from Moscow by rail. Nizhny was known as Gorky during the Soviet times in honour of great writer Maxim Gorky who was born here. It was the prime trade centre in the Russian Empire. If Saint Petersburg is Russia's head, Moscow is its heart, and Nizhny Novgorod is its purse – thus goes a popular saying. Today, this old city on the banks of Volga River is a popular river tourism centre and an educational hub. The Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, State Gorky Literature Museum, Rozhdestvenskaya Street are among the top tourist venues here. (NOTE: Veliky Novgorod or Novgorod is another city in Russia. It is not on the Trans-Siberian route.)
Kazan, which is the capital of vast Republic of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation, is a cultural melting pot famed for its Islamic legacy as well as long tradition of inter-faith, inter-racial harmony. The prime attraction in the 1,000-year-old city is the Kremlin which has been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO. The Kul Sharif Mosque within the Kazan Kremlin was once the largest mosque in Russia.
The east-bound Trans-Sib train crosses the the Ural Mountains to enter Siberia.
The vast Siberia
Where is Siberia? Familiar place name, but difficult to spot on the map? Right? It is that colossal area – 13.1 million square kilometres – encompassing the whole of North Asia straddling from the Ural Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east. This mammoth region which is 9% of Earth's land surface lies almost entirely in the Russian Federation and makes up 77% of the country.
The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway profoundly altered the economy of Siberia and integration of the Far Eastern territories with the erstwhile Russian Empire. Its strategic value was realised by both the Axis and Allied powers during the Second World War.
Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in south-east Siberia.
The mighty Yenisei River bisects Siberia – the West Siberian Plain which is to its left extends till the Ural region; to the right is Eastern Siberia.
Novisibirsk on the Ob River is the main city of western Siberia just as Irkutsk is of eastern Siberia. The former has the largest train station on the Trans-Siberian route.
Ulan-Ude, which is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, lies to the east of Baikal.
At Krasnoyarsk, which is on the Yenisei River, you may expect long halt time, even for three hours, for the Moscow-Vladivostok train. Some travellers and prodnovists even go out of the station building for a little shopping. As you take a walk on the platform look up for the 4,097 km mark.
The massive Lake Baikal up close
On the Trans-Siberian route the landscape may seem constant for a long time, even a couple of days, but it changes drastically in Siberia. A visual treat awaits passengers as the train runs along Lake Baikal for a little over 200 km. You are like to miss the views of the Baikal if the train to Vladivostok reaches Irkutsk by evening.
Moscow to Irkutsk train ride lasts about four days. The first sighting of Lake Baikal is soon after the 5,255 km mark.
The 167 km ride between Slyudyanka station and Babushkin, formerly Mysovsk, station on the Baikal shores for about two-and-a-half hours will cast a spell on you. Don't miss the breathtaking view if it is daytime. The small railway station building at Slyudyanka is entirely built of green and white marble.
Irkutsk city, which is almost midway on the Trans-Siberian Railway route, is the base for Baikal tours.
The Siberian village of Listvyanka, 70 km from Irkutsk, is a popular tourist destination on the banks of Lake Baikal. It lies on the south-western corner of the mighty lake. Trans-Sib passengers may get down at Irkutsk to travel to Listvyanka. It is the last point on the Baikal highway commencing from the outskirts of Irkutsk.
The Primorsky Range, which is part of the South Siberian Mountains, provides the backdrop to the Baikal to the north. The Sayan Mountains, which are on the frontier of east-central Russia and Mongolia, are seen on the horizon on the other side.
Meandering away from Baikal, the line now goes parallel to Russia's border with Mongolia till Chita and then to the border with China till it terminates at Vladivostok. Large tracts of taiga, i.e., coniferous forest located in the northern regions of the world, are in this Far East region. The main stations en route are Ulan-Ude, Chita and Khabarovsk.
In winter, adventurers who trekked the frozen Lake Baikal often depart from Ulan-Ude to their native places. Ulan-Ude, which is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, is to the east of Lake Baikal. The city is the hub of Russian Buddhists. Buddhist shrine Ivolginsky Datsan, which is only 23 km from Ulan-Ude, is on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal. Another must-watch here is the Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal which depicts the life of various East Siberian ethnic groups across several eras. The Soviet Square in the city hosts a giant monument to Vladimir Lenin. The bronze head of Lenin was built in 1970 to mark the birth centenary of the great revolutionary. As per the Guinness World Records it is the largest Lenin head in the world.
The Circum-Baikal Railway
A 74 km separate railway line between Slyudyanka station and Port Baikal offers a closer view of Lake Baikal. This line on the western shore of Lake Baikal is called the Circum-Baikal Railway. It passes through 38 tunnels that cut through the mountains bordering the lake and crosses several villages. If you intend a ride, come to Irkutsk or book a tour with travel companies. Trekking on the scenic route too is an option. A few local trains called Electrichka run from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka and back, a distance of 107 km covered in about 2 hours for a fare of less than 100 Roubles. Plan a day-long tour. The train covers the 74 km in about 6 hours. Don't get stranded as trains don't run on all days and have a very limited number of services in either direction.
Ferries ply to Listvyanka village from Port Baikal. This 50-minute ferry ride is across the Lake Baikal close to the origin of Angara River. Don't miss the last ferry of the day!
From Listvyanka you can commence your return via Irkutsk.
Travellers on board
You are mistaken if you think Trans-Siberian trains mostly have tourists. Most of the passengers are Russian nationals travelling to another city, town or village. Families, couples, students, labourers, soldiers and traders rely on these trains. All along, passengers board or alight and those making the whole trip from Moscow to Vladivostok at one go are invariably overseas tourists or rail buffs. Among the tourists are railway enthusiasts or ferroequinologists from different countries.
From Irkutsk onwards there is a marked difference in the looks of the people who board. Passengers with distinctively Asian or Mongoloid features remind you of Russia's ethnic diversity. Over 190 ethnic groups reside in the vast country though most people are of Russian ethnicity.
Chita has a large Mongoloid population owing to its proximity to Mongolia. It is located in the southern part of Eastern Siberia, about 6,250 km east of Moscow. Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude are 900 km and 480 km west on the Trans-Siberian railroad. On the outskirts of the city is the Mount Titovskaya Sopka. This extinct volcano is the top natural attraction here.
The next major station on the line, ahead of Vladivostok, is the beautiful city of Khabarovsk. It is home to a small population of Jews and several indigenous groups, though the descendants of Russian settlers are the majority.
Ask any Trans-Siberian traveller about the most predominant view through the train window. The answer will be forests and they include steppes and the world's largest stretch of taiga. Of course, there are fleeting views of villages with wood houses, farmsteads and dirt roads occasionally. At times, you spot railway trackmen huddling in apparently forlorn areas. Even the sightings of industrial complexes are few and far between. Otherwise, forests, plains, mountains and valleys engulf your view. The sightings of streams and rivers have a soothing effect.
For most part of the whole journey, the chances of sighting humans and even animals are rare. Travellers from densely populated parts of the world may find this strange.
Remarkably, even in the remotest areas with negligible human presence electric power lines are visible. This too may seem odd to some, but this had to be expected along the double-track electrified Trans-Siberian railway.
In the early part of the journey as the train leaves the Moscow city zone you encounter deciduous forests. Birch trees dominate this landscape, but after a few hours the evergreen spruce trees that are typical of the temperate zone come in view. Mountain views take over on Day-2 as you near the Urals on the Europe-Asia border.
The steppe zone commences as the train enters Asia. Steppes are semi-arid grasslands though in Russia they are found scattered along woodlands. Vast stretches of steppes are visible on the Trans-Mongolian route.
The predominant biome on the Trans-Siberian route is the taiga, i.e., thick forests with coniferous trees species like pines, cedars, firs, cypresses, junipers, spruces etc that can survive the long, harsh winters. Pines dominate the scene as the train runs along the vast Siberian forests, but the taiga also has deciduous trees, mostly birch, and a fair share of poplar. It is the birch that gives a magical aura to the landscape with the golden leaves in the autumn.
Wildlife teems in the taiga but not visible to travellers. Lake Baikal is another bio-rich zone en route.
The best time for the journey
Trans-Siberian trains are in operation all year round. If you like snow, travel sometime between December and February. But in sub-zero temperatures you will be gazing at a white blanket outside the train. You will then miss the myriad colours that nature offers. The ride, especially in Siberia, especially in September before autumn advances will offer a treat to your eyes as flowering trees will be in full bloom.
Have no qualms on the onboard or outdoor temperature especially in winter. Almost the entire route, though in different time zones, is in the same continental climate zone. The 350 km Mogocha-Skovorodino section is the cold pole, i.e., the coldest part, on the long cross-country, intercontinental railway route, with the lowest winter temperatures reaching -62С degrees Celsius in winter even though the train passes through areas further north. (Cold pole is the location in the northern or southern hemisphere having the coldest annual mean temperature.) Mogocha is 709 km northeast of Chita.
Expect warmer climate towards Vladivostok as the line is closer to the Amur Bay of the Sea of Japan.
The onboard temperature is set to ambient levels, often at least 4 to 5 degree Celsius more than the outdoor temperature in winter. Note the indicator for temperature and time.
Blankets are provided along with the bedsheets and pillow covers even in non-winter months. Travellers to a vast country like Russia should expect vagaries of weather and should carry necessary woollens expecting substantial drop in the mercury levels at nights even if they are travelling before or after winter. Raincoat and umbrella too would be needed.
May to September will be the right time for travel if you are averse to cold. Winter sets in by late October and recedes almost fully by late March, though snowing peaks towards December and January, the latter being the coldest month.
It is spring in April and May, with many regions ushering it even a month early. June to August is the summer season which is followed by a short autumn from September to October. Expect rains in summer and July is the hottest.
Yes, you may have to carry stronger thermals and use accessories like winter boots for forays deep into Siberia after breaking the journey. You don't have to worry about the extreme Arctic temperatures on a Trans-Sib trip. To experience that take the Polar Shuttle linking Vorkuta to Labytnangi on the northermost train route in the world. It is entirely in the Arctic Circle! Travellers on the Baikal-Amur Mainline — Baikalo-Amurskaya Magistral in Russian — can also expect frigid conditions as the train passes through remote areas.
Another ice-cold ride through Siberia you will get on the Permafrost Express which travellers to Yakutsk take. (Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world, is the capital of Yakutia or the Sakha Republic which is the largest region in the Russian Federation.) This train is named so as about 900 km of the line is built over permafrost — the permanently frozen layer on or under Earth's surface. It runs on the Amur-Yakutsk Mainline (AYAM) — Amuro-Yakutskaya Magistral in Russian — which was opened in 2019 though it was conceived a century ago. The line goes entirely south-north, unlike the west-east Trans-Siberain routes. It branches off from the Baikal-Amur Mainline from the Tynda station and currently terminates at Nizhny Bestyakh, 973 km away, on the banks of the Lena River. From Yakutsk, which is on the other side of Lena, you may plan a trip to the village of Oymyakon which is famed as the "coldest permanently inhabited place" anywhere in the world!
In the future, a railway line linking Siberia to Alaska, across the Bering Strait, could be built. The AYAM line from Yakutia will head to the neighbouring Chukotka region for the Alaska link-up. Then a longgggggg train ride from London to Moscow to New York City won't be in the realms of fantasy for rail explorers!
For now, we wish you a pleasant Trans-Sib journey!