Unheated, unpainted carriages, circa 1940; surly car attendants, rough wooden benches; hurried shopping for food from train-side vendors during infrequent stops at rural stations - that’s NOT what the Golden Eagle Trans Siberian Express is. On the contrary, it is a luxurious, comfortable train with a courteous and helpful staff that makes the journey on the historic trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to Moscow an unforgettable experience.
Our trip, which wound up being around the World, started with a 12 hour Korean Airlines flight to Seoul after spending 3 hours in the dreary temporary business class lounge at LAX. The flight was bearable since we took a sleeping pill and spent most of the night asleep. We departed at 12:30 am and arrived around 5:30 am. The very modern terminal at Inchon was almost deserted. For some curious reason we in-transit passengers had to pass through a security screening point before entering the transit area. We found the Prestige (business) lounge at the very end of the “finger” and spent several hours there until time for our flight to Vladivostok. There were only 8 business class seats on the 737. All 8 were occupied by members of our group. Fortunately we were included. There were many more of the group who were also traveling with business class tickets who weren’t included.
After passing through immigration at Vladivostok (two separate inspections of our passports and visas) and a cursory incoming security inspection we found the gathering point where we left our luggage and boarded a bus. On our way into town, the local guide, Olga, pointed out that although people drive on the right side of the road, most of the vehicles had the steering wheel on the right. This is because it is quite easy and economical to go to Japan from here and buy used cars. Traffic drives on the left in Japan, hence the steering wheel is on the right. The ready availability of cheap used cars means that Vladivostok has more cars per capita than anywhere else in Russia. The right-hand drive cars are spreading across the Russian far east from here.
It was a fairly long drive into town where we checked into the Hyundai Hotel. About all we did was rest a bit and then had a small, expensive meal at the lobby restaurant. Jodie ordered a chocolate milk shake and was told that all they could make were shakes flavored with either apple or pineapple juice. She asked for just plain milk but instead received a milk shake with milk and ice cream.
We started the day with our first lecture from Sharon Hudgins, the National Geographic expert traveling with us. She lived in Vladivostok and Irkutsk for 18 months and wrote a book about it. We were sent a copy of the book which was quite informative. Her first lecture was on the history of the trans-Siberian railway. It was started in 1891 and finished in 1916, just in time to be involved in the Russian revolution. It mostly followed a dirt road called the Trakt. Water wells were required every 25 miles to provide water for the steam engines. The gauge is a non-standard 5 feet as opposed to the standard gauge of 4.85 feet used in most of the rest of the World.
We left the hotel at 11 for a boat tour of the harbor. There wasn’t much going on in the harbor which was once the highly secret home the mighty Soviet Pacific Fleet. Much of the fleet is now located in another port. Vladivostok was a closed city until the ‘90s; closed no only to foreigners but to nonresident Russians. We had lunch at Ignat Restaurant and then toured the Naval Cemetery.
Most “residents” had a naval or merchant marine connection. It was extensive and filled with elaborate monuments. Many of the monuments and graves were surrounded by fences. Sometimes there were small picnic tables within the fences which the relatives used when visiting the resident. We encountered several families who were visiting or cleaning their relative’s grave site. Exceptions to the naval connection which were also some of the most elaborate monuments dating from the ‘70s and were the result of mafia warfare.
There was also an area dedicated to non Russians who died fighting on the side of the White army in the revolution. After strolling around the cemetery we drove to a view point.
There were a couple of hours for rest back at the hotel before the welcome dinner at Versailles Restaurant.
This was the day to kill time. We couldn’t board the train until evening so we had a lecture by Sharon about the settlement of Siberia and then we toured. We visited one of the fortifications that ring the harbor, built in the early 1900's to repel the Japanese, then shut down as the result of a treaty. Their existence was forgotten until a construction project recently found them. A group of civilians excavated and refurbished them and turned them into a museum. The domed chambers and thick walls were designed to withstand heavy bombardment. The quality of the concrete was much better after all these years than the more recent Soviet era construction that seems to turn to powder with the first rain.
Speaking of rain, the skies opened up. There was apparently a typhoon off Japan which brought high winds and rain to Vladivostok.
Lunch was at Josser, an Egyptian motif Restaurant on top of Tiger Hill. The place was under-staffed so service was very slow and the food poor.
It seemed that every town we visited had an elaborate memorial to those killed in WWII. Vladivostok’s is quite elaborate. There is a WWII era submarine located next to it, which we toured. In addition there is a memorial arch and a small orthodox chapel.
In spite of the light rain there were many wedding parties visiting the monument. Friday and Saturday are traditional wedding days in Russia. It is traditional to leave a bouquet at the monument in memory of lost relatives. It also seems to be a great photo op. The formal wedding occurs at a governmental office where the wedding papers are signed. A church wedding is optional and may or may not be held later.
We were invited to meet with the U.S. Consul General Tom Armbruster. Since the group was so large the meeting was held at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. This church, built from 1905 to 1907, is beautiful in its Luther-defined simplicity. The Communists “disappeared” Pastor Woldemar Reichwald in 1935 and the church was turned into a sailors’ club, then a cinema, and finally a museum of the Russian Pacific War. The current pastor, Manfred Brockmann of Hamburg, Germany, arrived in 1992 and began rebuilding the congregation. On September 16, 1997 the building was returned to the Lutheran Church. It is currently undergoing much needed restoration.
Russia actively discourages competition with the Russian Orthodox Church. One technique is to deny visas to representatives of other religions.
A concert was presented by the very small church choir, augmented by the very strong voice of Pastor Brockmann. After a brief speech by Tom Armbruster, Pastor Brockmann played Irish tunes on his violin while we enjoyed snacks provided by the congregation. Many members of our group donated to the restoration fund.
Our final time filler was an extensive visit to a ethnic museum that was held open beyond normal closing for us. There was quite a collection of stuffed animals including a very small deer with fangs and a moose with horns like an elk. There was also a siverian tiger wrestling with a grizzly bear.
Finally we went to the crowded train station and waited and waited for the train while commuter trains came and went. It finally made it into the station at 8:30 and we boarded. Dinner was immediately served. After dinner we quickly unpacked before going to bed.
The train consists of 20 cars, 6 gold sleeper cars, 5 silver sleeper cars, 2 restaurant cars, a bar car, a kitchen car, and 5 support cars of various kinds. The gold and silver cars are separated by the two restaurant cars, the kitchen car, and the bar car. The locomotives can be attached to either end throughout the trip. We used 23 different locomotives throughout the trip as we traversed 10 regions.
The individual compartments in the gold sleepers are larger and have in-suite facilities. The silver sleepers are smaller and previously did not have in-suite facilities however the cars on this train did. There is a small closet with a small safe and storage area above in the gold compartments. Since there is no space for luggage in the compartment we found it convenient to keep clean underwear in a small duffel bag under the table. The luggage is stacked in the vestibule at the end of the car and is very difficult to access.
We both slept in the 44" lower birth. It was cozy but better than having to sleep in the upper birth.
Although one restaurant car is named gold and the other silver, passengers are allowed to use either. There is no assigned seating. Breakfast includes porridge or cold cereal, freshly prepared eggs, ham, bacon, coffee, and juice. Lunch and dinner are plentiful and a choice between vegetarian and non vegetarian is offered. We were asked at breakfast to indicate our choices for lunch and dinner. Lunch was the larger meal. Wine is poured freely at lunch and dinner.
Moving between cars requires opening and closing four doors and moving across an undulating platform between cars. This area is also the only area where smoking is allowed, although our neighbors smoked in their bathroom. We had to pass through three sleeping cars and the lounge car to reach the restaurant car.
This was our first stop and we learned that access between most train platforms and the stations was by climbing many stairs up and down and walking through tunnels or across bridges. There are no elevators, ramps, or wheelchair access.
We spent the morning doing a town tour which included stops at two Orthodox churches that were new, beautiful, and loaded with icons and gold. There was also a boat trip on the Amur River. By noon we were back on the train where we had lunch. We spent the rest of the day and all of the next on the train speeding through the country side which consisted of forests of many, many spindly white birches. There were more towns and villages than we expected, perhaps the result of originally needing watering stations every 25 miles for the steam engines. The houses were simple and of unpainted wood but usually with painted shutters. All had electricity but apparently no indoor plumbing. Many, however, had satellite dishes. There was little evidence of agriculture, other than the pervasive gardens at every home. As we gained elevation birch gave way to evergreens.
9/11. Ulaan Baatar.
I haven’t written much for the past two days since we were simply traveling across Siberia. There was little activity except for some historical lectures, presented in one of the restaurant cars, and a guitar concert in the lounge car. But there was always the scenery to view. The rails undulated up and down between above 1,000 feet to almost 3,000 feet. There have been a surprising number of towns and settlements along the route. Since the railroad closely parallels the border with China I suspect it was felt necessary to populate the border area.
The settlements consist of small, unpainted wooden houses with metal roofs, scattered haphazardly along dirt roads. There are few vehicles. Most homes have extensive gardens that seem to be mostly potatoes and cabbages. This was the time of the potato harvest. In spite of all the gardens there seemed to be no larger scale agriculture. There are mounds or stacks of cut grass scattered about wherever suitable grass grows. The leaves of the birches were turning as were the needles on some of the larch trees. The amount of color change varies with elevation.
We experienced an evening of bureaucracy last evening. We reached the Russian border control point around 7 pm and were required to wait in our cabins for the officials. They came along and collected our passports. Six hours later, after we gave up and went to bed they woke us and returned them.
The train then proceeded 70 km to the Mongolia border where we were again awakened by the border police who collected our passports and by the customs agent who signed our customs form. Our third awakening came when our passports were returned.
One significant complaint about the train is the lack of any route narration or announcement of approaching items of potential interest. We have a couple of guide books keyed to the mileposts however the mileposts are on the opposite side of the train from our room so we must stand in the aisle to watch for them. There isn’t a window in the room door so we must leave it open to view the other side of the tracks.
When we awoke this morning we found that the scenery had changed. We are now on the steppes. There are no trees, just gently rolling hills and expansive plains covered with green grass or low vegetation. Large herds of cattle and some horses are grazing. Many yurts or gers dot the area.
As we approached Ulaan Baatar we encountered an increasing number of dwellings and industrial buildings. It was something of a shock to see gas stations along the parallel highway. As befitting the capital of the country the housing seemed good situated along paved, orthogonal streets.
When we arrived at the station we left immediately on tour. Like Vladivostok, the increasing wealth of the citizens has brought a growth in personal cars and the attendant traffic jams. We eventually reached our first stop, the Gandantegchenling Buddhist Monastery. Buddhism was violently suppressed during the communist era however after the democratic revolution of 1990 it is flourishing. We toured the grounds and visited three temples where the monks were actively chanting and drinking mares milk.
Our next stop was an ethnic museum where we traced the development of the people of Mongolia. Unfortunately our interrupted and truncated sleep of last night kicked in and all I wanted to do was sit. While I staggered about in a daze, Jodie shopped the museum store. Eventually we left for lunch.
We had lunch at a very large recreation of a ger. The meal was sort-of ethnic with the main course like dim sum. During the meal we were entertained by an outstanding folk music band, Altain Orgil, consisting of six musicians playing traditional instruments, a female singer, and a male throat singer. His singing was quite different than the competitive throat singing between two females we have heard in the arctic.
After lunch I went to the natural history museum while Jodie shopped. The museum had a dinosaur exhibit which wasn’t very good. Afterwards we drove a long way out to a national park where we visited a family living in a ger, tasted yak milk and ate yak cheese and flat bread then watched the milking of a yak, then had a very poor dinner nearby.
Another long border crossing. Fortunately this one was in day time so our sleep wasn’t impacted. During our long wait at the Russian border we could not use the shower since it drained onto the tracks and the border police were checking under the train for people trying to sneak across. Why you would want to sneak into Russia is beyond me.
We saw little of Ulan-Ude since it was late afternoon when we arrived. We visited an Old Believers’ village where we had a stand-up dinner of traditional food and plentiful vodka and wine. After dinner there was a mock wedding in the style of the Old Believers. (The Old Believers are a sect of the Russian Orthodox church who objected to some changes made in ritual in the 17th century and refused to go along with them. For this resistance they were persecuted and many fled to other countries. There is apparently a large group around Sacramento.)
This was the day we did Lake Baikal. This route is a spur off of the main line. For most of this trip we had been under electric power but sometime during the night a diesel engine replaced the electric one, since the spur is not electrified. We stopped at a station around 3:30 in the morning and remained there until just before sunrise. This pause was to maximize the viewing of the spectacular lake. It is the largest lake in the world in terms of volume of water. It was once 5 miles deep but the bottom is now covered with 4 miles of sediment. More than 300 rivers feed the lake but only one, the Angara, drains it. The train tracks follow the western shore and pass through 39 tunnels, some quite short and one 778 m long. For the most part steep rock walls covered with vegetation climb away from the lake with the tracks placed on a carved-out shelf. These walls are cut with frequent valleys, many of which contain small settlements or farms, some contain resorts. Access is only by train or boat.
One advantage of the diesel engine is that it has a catwalk. We were allowed, 15 at a time, to ride on this catwalk for about 10 minutes. The speed limit for this spur is quite low so it was an entirely enjoyable and exciting experience. After all who wanted had ridden on the engine we stopped at one of these villages/resorts and spent over an hour. Some passengers swam in the lake. Others visited with some of the villagers. One woman allowed visits to her house, for $1. There was a 74 year old man who claimed to be a Cossack whose picture you could take, also for $1.
Eventually we reached Port Baikal where we boarded a ferry and rode across the lake to Listvyanka and boarded a tour bus. We visited what was represented as a typical old wooden house. Actually it was a very nice house with a lovely garden. The garden was filled with flowers and vegetables. The house had electricity and running water from wells. I didn’t learn how sanitation was handled.
We visited the Limnological Museum which has an extensive display of dead fish from the lake and stuffed animals from the region. There are also several tanks with live fish, and best of all, two live Lake Baikal seals cavorting in a larger tank. They are the only fresh water seals in the world and science is puzzled as to how they made it into the lake.
After the museum visit we drove to a lovely lake-side site where we had a barbeque put on by the train kitchen staff.
We left the train at 9 am for a tour of this city whose population is 600,000. In spite of its size, there are many old wooden homes in the center of the city with no running water and no sewer connection. We visited a monument to Alexander III who approved the construction of the railroad, a museum gift shop, a couple of Russian Orthodox churches and had a too-brief visit to the Museum of Wooden Architecture. This was outdoors and consisted of a number of newly built replicas of traditional houses and structures of various ages. We also had a brief visit to an indoor/outdoor market.
A word about churches and temples. After the revolution the communists went on a orgy of destroying religious structures, and executing religious figures like priests, ministers, and monks. The few buildings that weren’t destroyed were turned into museums, schools, or other sectarian uses. The one Orthodox church we visited was used to store flour for a near-by bakery. Most of these buildings have been returned to the religious organizations.
Our last stop was at the house of Decembrist Prince Volkonsky where we enjoyed a truly remarkable concert in the drawing room. It celebrated the artistic talents of Princess Volkonsky. (The Decembrists were noble army officers who tried to overthrow Tzar Nicholas I on December 26, 1825 to create a constitutional monarchy and bring a measure of freedom to the serfs. Their rebellion failed, their leaders hanged, and the rest exiled to Siberia for hard labor. Their wives were allowed to follow if they renounced their titles, fortunes, and gave up their children. These remarkable women, and their husbands when eventually released, exerted an enormously beneficial influence on the cultural, moral and political development in these rough settlements.)
Afterwards, another very poor meal at a local restaurant. We hung around since it was uncertain when the train would be allowed on the platform. Finally a phone call from Steve Jones, the tour director, announced that the train was at the platform and we could board. The heard trooped to the busses in a light rain and we headed off to the train station.
We paid a lightening visit to Krasnoyarsk. The train arrived over an hour late around 6:15 pm. We were back on the train, as scheduled, by 8 pm, in time for dinner. As in the US, the companies that own the rails dictate the traffic on the rails. However unlike the US, the railroad still operates many passenger trains. We get third priority not only on the rails but platform access.
As we neared Krasnoyarsk we encountered many clusters of dachas. These are small, simple houses on small plots of land. They are weekend escapes for the city apartment dwellers and are used primarily for vegetable gardens. Since this was Saturday evening, we saw crowds of people waiting on the station platforms laden with baskets and buckets of potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, and bouquets of fresh flowers. One of our pauses on our way in was at the turn-around point for the commuter train.
The highlight of our brief visit was a fine ethnic museum. It featured displays of indigenous people of the far north. It was well done and interesting to view even though the signs were all in Russian. A guide from the museum staff explained the displays, in Russian, and then our local guide translated into English.
After the museum visit we drove rapidly around town, stopping briefly for photos at a few spots.
The weather has turned much cooler. Mini skirts are giving way to longer skirts with extremely high-heeled boots.
Novosibirsk is called the capital of Siberia and was one of the closed cities. Outsiders were not allowed to visit the city. Our tour began early in the day for us, 10:30. The tour actually started before we left the station. It is a grand marble palace with a very large collection of plants. Photography was somewhat impeded by signs and some people saying “Neyt.” Like every station we have encountered on this trip, there were a lot of stairs to negociate up and down between the train platform and the exit.
Our first stop after leaving the station was at the Opera and Ballet House which claims to have the largest stage in the world. It is a grand place with marble everything. Our visit was limited since there was a rehearsal of Swan Lake going on which we could watch however we were not able to visit the stage area. The rehearsal also prevented us from visiting the front row and photo-graphing the seat occupied by Premier Puttin when he attended the rededication of the place. Our city guide was disappointed.
We then drove to Akademgorodok which is one of the new cities built to house gaggles of scientists. There are several institutes there devoted to studies of things like geology, organic and inorganic chemistry, atomic energy. (We couldn’t learn if the atomic energy institute had designed the Chernobyl reactor.) We toured a mineral display at the geology institute which, surprisingly, also had a large selection of items for sale.
There was a pretty decent lunch at a hotel in Akademgorodok. After that we visited the outdoor railway museum and then drove back to town and visited the central market. It was in a large building and was a typical commercial market with vast displays of meat, fish, cheeses, sausages, and fresh produce.
The final event was Sharon’s final lecture, this one about the very many Russian holidays. We then had a fair dinner (rubber chicken and rice again) at the same hotel then drove back to the train.
We arrived pretty much on schedule in late afternoon. The timing of our arrival resulted in the majority of our visit being spent in traffic jams. One particular jam on a moderate uphill was made even more interesting by either the drivers lack of skill or some bus problem. We lurched and bucked up the hill. Frequently the driver stalled the engine.
The first site we visited was a large plaza that spanned the Iset River. It incorporated a dam that was built to power industries along the river. Now it is just part of the scenery..
More traffic jams and then a visit to the Church On Spilled Blood, a Russian Orthodox church built on the site where Tzar Nicholas III and his family were assassinated by the communists in 1918. They were shot in the basement of the house where they were imprisoned for 70 days, their bodies dismembered, burned, and then dumped into a mine outside of town. So many people visited the house that the authorities eventually tore it down. After the Soviet collapse the church was built on the site. The first level is a shrine but the second level is the typical soaring, icon-laden orthodox church. A service was just starting as we arrived. A priest strolled across, swinging an incense burner, then opened a door and disappeared behind the iconostas wall to celebrate in private.
Then it was back to the traffic as we slowly drove out of town. We were stopped at one point by a solder who demanded our passports. We all protested that we had left them on the ship, somewhat heatedly. Finally he said, “It’s a joke.” The place where the bus pulled over was near a monument that claimed to be on the dividing line between Asia and Europe. We all took pictures posing on the line, had some champagne and chocolates, and then drove back to the train with no traffic jams.
This monument was on something like a freeway with high speed traffic. The driver made a u-turn across a ditch with oncoming cars. I thought he was again going to stall the bus but although he came close, the engine kept running and we made it across without being hit.
Delightful town! We first toured the Kremlin (kremlin means a fort, not just the place in Moscow.) Contained within the walls are a mosque, a Russian Orthodox church, a leaning tower (no, not that one) plus several other buildings. The Mosque is new and ornate and in keeping with Islam traditions is decorated only with representations of flowers, no humans or animals. This lack of human depictions is quite a contrast to the icons covering every surface except the floor of the typical orthodox church. We had to cover our shoes with plastic baggies before we could enter. After viewing the ground floor we ascended stairs to a balcony that offered a close view of the magnificent dome and also of the worship areas below, a large one for men and a smaller, separate one for women.
This is the capital of the autonomous republic of Tartarstan. Surprisingly here in the center of Russia much of the population consider themselves tartars and a significant number are Moslems.
Lunch was in a hotel and consisted of typical tartar dishes including some little meat pies that tasted a lot like pasties. After lunch we had an hour to wander the shopping street. The highlight of that stroll was an encounter with a group of 13 year old students from a nearby town who suddenly mobbed us, anxious to practice their English. Some were quite good and some struggled. They were effervescent, giggling, and a lot of fun.
We found a very large, ornate, bronze carriage replica on the mall. When Catherine the Great was simply Catherine the Large she visited the city. The city presented her with an ornate carriage for her use during her visit. At the end she presented it back to the city when she left. It now rests in a museum but the bronze replica rests on the mall.
In the afternoon we took a ride on the Volga River. Since it was cold and windy we stayed inside. There wasn’t a lot to see.
The end. The train arrived about 10:30, pretty much on time. We had packed our luggage after breakfast which was taken directly to the Marriott Aurora Hotel while we left to tour. The first stop was the spectacular St. Basil’s Cathedral. Its construction was ordered by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate his final success in conquering Kazan. He told the architects to make it the most beautiful place ever built. To ensure that they never surpassed their accomplishment, he ordered them blinded after they finished. In contrast to its exterior beauty, the interior is composed of narrow, dark passages connecting small, dark chambers, one of which contains the remains of St. Basil.
Our stroll, and views, across Red Square was impacted by tall fences and bleachers left over from some military event earlier in the week. By-the-way, red means beautiful. It was difficult to get a clear view of Lenin’s tomb since it is short, compared to the surrounding buildings. The fence also impeded the view.
After lunch in a crowded restaurant we visited a convent and the spent two hours touring the Kremlin.
Up at 3 am to catch our 7:30 flight to Paris. For the capital of a major country, the airport is small and really inconvenient. All luggage had to pass through scanners before we could take it to the ticket counter. The people who handled the shuttle put all of our group’s luggage through one machine at the end of a line of x-ray machines which left them far from where all passengers were gathered. There was a large gaggle of passengers struggling to get through to the ticket agents but who had to first pass by one of two men who were checking tickets against passports, very slowly. There was no organization - everyone just sort of pushed ahead in what I assume is learned Russian fashion. We had to go get our luggage then struggle through the crowd until we finally reached the checkers. Then we had to stand in line while one of two agents were checking people in.
The next steps on our gauntlet were the passport check and then the security scan. We finally made it through to the gate with a half hour to spare. Boarding time came and went with the plane sitting at the gate. It turned out that the gates are controlled by the Russian police and the one assigned to unlock our gate was late arriving.
When we reached Paris we were uncertain as to which gate the LA flight would leave from and it was too early for it to be listed on any screens. We did know that it left from terminal 2E and we were in terminal 2B, so we boarded the shuttle for 2E, only to find that there are two terminal 2Es. Jodie noted that the earlier LA flight left from the first one so we left the shuttle there. We asked someone and found that we were in the right terminal and what our gate number was. Of course, we had to pass through security again and found the Air France lounge in which to wile away the hours.
The flight from Paris to LAX completed our World-girdling journey.
Although we had little contact with Russians other than those in the hospitality industry we could form some impressions of the country. Based on the prevalence of automobiles and traffic jams in the cities, the economy must be in better shape than it was at the fall of the USSR. The small villages, however, did not seem to share in this prosperity. We did learn that the population of the country is falling, the result of a low birth rate and lowering life expectancy. The government is offering a $10,000 reward for having an additional child. People seemed satisfied with Vladimir Putin, perhaps because they are accustomed to dictatorial rule.