Trans-Siberian Railway: Mongolia to Moscow
Check out my first post taking the train from Beijing to Mongolia. This post is about the Russian part of the journey.
Day 13-15 Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, Russia
The cheapest way to get from Ulaanbaatar to Russia is by bus. However, it doesn’t feel the same to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway on the roads instead of the rails. I took the slow daily 263N train because the faster trains don’t run on Saturdays. The train I took was a massive 36 hour ride, while the other is only 24 hours.
Part of that time difference, as I found out, is because of a lengthy 8-hour stop on the border before the train embarks. This was a tough wait, but I was excited to be in Russia and walked around the small town of Naushki for a while. Going to one of the little general stores was far too exciting for me. After nearly 3 years in Southeast Asia, seeing inexpensive cheese, bread and other Western staples made me smile.
One of the first things I saw was a group of hand-cuffed prisoners being led into the train, flanked by armed guards and a mean looking dog. It somehow seemed apt to see a group of prisoners in Siberia considering the history of exiles into the region.
In total, I spent two nights on the train. Most of the passengers were Mongolian military types who were going to Russia for some sort of training. One of the guys – a big, burly dude – was very friendly, talkative and keen to regularly shake my hand. Later I saw him on the verge of passing out drunk.
Day 15-17 Lake Baikal
The train arrived at Irkutsk in the morning but I didn’t stick around the city much, even though it looked kind of charming. I went directly to the street across from the bus station to grab a minivan to Listvyanka on Lake Baikal. This lake is absolutely massive, and it’s even bigger than it looks. About 20 percent of the world’s freshwater is here, and it’s about a mile deep. It’s really an incredible sight, with small mountains, pine trees and a relatively unspoiled feel despite the popularity of tourism in the area.
The town of Listvyanka is a little boring, although I was content to relax in my private room at the Baikel Hotel. I had spent two weeks sleeping in dorms, trains and crowded gers in Mongolia, so having a place to myself was a pleasure. During my time, I did a lot of walking. The highlight was the nearby mountain, which can be climbed in 30 minutes if you don’t want to take the chairlift. The Retro Museum small but pleasantly kitsch.
Day 18-19: Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk KM
I took a minivan back to Irkutsk and ended up with way too much time before my train left. I had a lunch, walked around a bit and constantly worried I had already missed the train. All train times are displayed in Moscow time, which can be up to seven hours difference depending on what part of the country you’re in. It’s a little confusing and I already had this irrational fear of going on the wrong platform whenever a train arrives (in my defense, some Polish train stations poorly poor where the train is arriving). Fortunately, I got in without a hitch and we left at 3:55 p.m. local time.
It was just me and a Russian guy on the train ride. For the first few hours, Russian pop music was playing throughout the carriage. It wasn’t bad or particularly loud, but it was more than odd when Haddaway’s What is Love came on. It was the only non-Russian song played on the overnight 18 hour trip.
Day 19-20 The City of Krasnoyarsk and Some Hiking
For my first day in the city, I checked in to the great Trans Sib Hostel and just explored the city. This is my first time in a non-Asian city outside the US in nearly a decade, so I took the time to stock up on yogurt, cheese and other delicacies I couldn’t afford in Asia. The city itself was a little rough around the edges but pleasant enough. It’s surrounded by big hills with a river flowing through the middle, plus some of the older buildings look cool. Once again, this could be because every city to me looks nice after Phnom Penh.
On day two, I went to the Stolby Nature Preserve. This is the main reason I wanted to come here and I was not disappointed. I got there the easy way by taking a bus to this ski resort/water park and then catching a chairlift from the top. From there it was a surprisingly steep walk to the enormous rocks that the park is known for. It was slightly treacherous, and actually climbing up some of these rocks would have been suicidal. I kind of liked that the park didn’t necessarily dissuade anyone from climbing up there, so it’s like there were multiple difficulty settings. I played on medium-easy to keep things safe.
Day 21-22 Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg
This was the only train I went on before that was “officially” doing the Trans-Siberian Railway. The 0033 train departs from Beijing once a week and goes all the way to Moscow in 6 nights. All the train cars were Chinese, complete with Chinese staffers, except for the last two cars. One was a Russian restaurant. The other was our car. The Russian cars were a bit cleaner and slightly newer.
The 30-hour ride went by quickly thanks to be bunked with a trio of fellow tourists rather than middle-aged Russian dudes who snore (I got stuck with that later in my journey). I got a bunch of reading done during this overnight journey and even did the stereotypical think of drinking vodka. There were a few 20-minute stops where we all stretched our legs. If I had to, I could have managed the extra 30 hours to Moscow comfortably with this group. I had two more stops planned before hitting the capital, however.
Day 22-23 Welcome to Europe-ish
Yekaterinburg is about 30 miles before the official Asia-Europe boundary, but it certainly looks a lot more like Europe than the rest of the country I’ve seen. This city, the fourth largest in Russia, was incredibly beautiful. Underneath all that beauty is a bloody history from one of the most turbulent times in Russia’s modern history.
First, the beautiful parts. The city is incredibly walkable, with a small river in the middle, a lake and pedestrian-only streets. The city is also well preserved, with a number of historic buildings. There’s an artistic bent to the city, with well-done graffiti next to some of these historic buildings. Some World Cup games will be played in the city’s Central Stadium in 2018.
As rosy as recent city history is, the past is more disturbing. This is where Tsar Nicolas II and his family were brutally killed by communist forces in 1918. Among the killed were the tsar himself, his wife and five children. Even the family dog was killed.
The home where the killings took place was torn down and a magnificent Russian Orthodox church – the Church on Blood – was erected in its place. The tsar was made a saint in 1981. He’s beloved in some circles in Russia, but it’s kind of awkward because he was virulently anti-Semitic and widely considered to be a poor ruler. Regardless of that background, nobody should be killed in such a way -especially innocent children.
Day 23-24: Yekaterinburg to Kazan
For this leg of the journey I sort of diverged from the official Trans-Siberian Railway and instead opted to see Kazan. One of the guys in the tour group in Mongolia recommended the city, so I took him up on it. It’s still on the way to Moscow. It’s just on a different path. I was unlucky to be roomed with three big, middle-aged Russian guys. It was a symphony of snoring for all of them. Horrible. Fortunately they left the train early in the morning and I had the room to myself for the last few hours.
Day 24-25 The Kazan Kremlin
The main draw of Kazan is its Kremlin. This attraction seems little known outside Russia, but it’s worth the detour to see the convergence of several eras in Russian history. First, there’s the large Muslim influence from when the Mongol horde invaded Russia. Afterwards, Ivan the Terrible took over and turned into the hub for Christianity. The architecture is incredible and there are several good museums in the area. From the Kremlin, you can see the stadium where some World Cup games will be played in 2018. The city itself is nice, with large pedestrian walking areas and lots of beautiful architecture throughout the city center.
Day 25-26 Kazan to Moscow
My last overnight trip went sort of well, I suppose. I used those convenient ticket machines for the first time and accidentally booked myself a fancy first class train. I thought that $70 was a little expensive for a “mere” twelve hour ride. Oh well. The trains were super nice and we were given a lunch bag full of food, plus some chicken and buckwheat. The beds themselves were super comfortable, but a crying baby prevented me from getting well rested.
Day 26-30 Finally in Moscow
All roads (and train tracks) lead to Moscow, so to speak. After 4,700 miles on the tracks since Beijing I finally made it. The thing that struck me about Moscow was just how beautiful the central areas are. Propaganda in America always painted Russia is a gray and dreary, but that wasn’t the case. The buildings were in immaculate shape and wonderfully colorful. The walking areas, whether along the river or at the Red Square, were beautiful. It’s not what I expected and that’s a good thing.
I arrived really in the morning so I had lots of hours to kill before I could check in at the Volhonka Hostel. I wandered over to the Red Square, where I visited Lenin’s Mausoleum, visited the State Historical Museum and also the War of 1812 Museum. The latter museum wasn’t the most explanatory, but I had just finished War and Peace and seeing the artifacts related to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was interesting.
One thing worth seeing are some of the subway stations built during Communist times. A couple of the girls I met during my tour of the Gobi Desert arrived in the city and we did a half day tour of some of these stations. A few of them look more like ballrooms than stations.
I suppose it’s essential to see the Kremlin, so I did that as well. I arrived just before the 10:30 a.m. opening and there were no crowds on a Friday. The best part of the Kremlin is the amazing Armory Chamber. I think it’s my favorite museum I’ve ever been to. It houses the collections owned by the royal family and I’ve never seen such impressive things, from the famous Faberge eggs to the horse carriages. There’s a free audio tour that helps point out the highlights. The rest of the Kremlin was alright, including some of the ancient churches, but much the massive walled area is closed off to visitors. It’s understandable I suppose. This is the center of government for the country and all.
Finally reaching Moscow after starting the Trans-Siberian Railway nearly a month before was satisfying. Most people do it in the opposite direction (starting in Moscow) but I liked see the Asian influence give way to European style. Technically, Moscow is the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, but not visiting St. Petersburg and the Baltic States would be a shame. That’s why I went exactly there. I’ll post that article shortly.
Part 3: Trans-Siberian Railway to St. Petersburg and Beyond (coming soon)
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?