29 May 2014

3 ways to make the Trans Siberian train journey

I have a fond passion for train travel and have taken a few of the grand train trips including the 8 day Maharaja's Express across the Rajasthan or the 24h Blue Train across South Africa.

Trains are great because they let you see the landscape and take in the local culture much better than planes. It is indeed slow travelling allowing you to make stop overs along the way and visit the main sights.

After I decided I wanted to embark on the Trans Siberian the search began for the best alternative. 

Yurt, a classic Mongolian house
The Trans Siberian is a network of rail tracks running from Moscow to Vladivostok in Far East Russia across 7 time zones and over 9,000 kilometres. The end-to-end line was inaugurated in 1916 by Tsar Nicholas II and took almost 30 years to complete. Initially, Lake Baikal was crossed by ferries which were able to transport locomotive and carriages across the 600km lake. But later on they were replaced by the circum-Baikal tracks although the ferries were kept longer as plan B in case of derailment or rocks falling on the tracks.

The Trans Siberian played an important role during the Russia-Japan war and was blamed for Russia's defeat because of its single track construction which didn't allow for evacuation of injured at the same time as restocking of the front. It also played an important role during the first two years of WWII when the USSR was neutral and Japan provided rubber to Germany using the tracks. 

Nowadays, the train is still used for transporting all sorts of items across Russia and as a main means of travel within Russia so prices of the regular train journey are very reasonable as expected for any regular train.

Aside from the main route to Vladivostok there are connections to China, Mongolia and North Korea.

As the train journey became more popular other more comfortable and luxurious versions have sprung including the Tsar's Train and the Golden Eagle.

The bar on board
When I set out to research the options I found a wide array of travel agents ready to book me on any of these three options from the bare regular Trans Siberian train ticket to the luxurious Golden Eagle and, to my surprise, prices varied dramatically from operator to operator in the thousands of dollars for the Golden Eagle. So I resorted to contact the operator of the train directly figuring that they would be the ones to offer the most competitive rates and I was lucky to be right.

Whereas tickets on the regular train with a sleeping berth start at less than $1,000 for the 7 days journey this price can multiply by 20 or even more for the highest end options on the Golden Eagle. There are all sorts of variants and trains making the trip and you can pretty much choose the duration and stops that you want to take. All operators and trains will offer the Trans Manchurian (ending in China) and the Trans Mongolian options (ending in Mongolia) and make the trip all-inclusive and completed with visits at key stops and of the start and end cities (Moscow, Beijing, Ulaan-Baatar, Lake Baikal...) with knowledgeable guides and all meals.

You can also do it independently and buy a regular ticket with stop overs along the way for you to visit the main sights which would be a much cheaper option.

After having had the privilege of enjoying the Maharaja's Express I knew that what I wanted was to take the Golden eagle and satisfy all my romantic ideas of sitting by the window, writing about my experience in this blog. And at dinner, share the table with other travellers from various backgrounds, more likely middle aged and well travelled as it always happens in these sort of trips. I would absorb the sight and the sounds, reflect on the visits and the continuous cultural immersion.

Have you been on the Trans Siberian? Have you taken the Golden Eagle? Do you find train travel as romantic and exciting as I do?

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