19 July 2014

The train journey of a lifetime - Golden Eagle's Trans-Mongolian

No amount of reading can prepare you for the greatest of the train journeys - The Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok or the Trans-Mongolia from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar are true once in a lifetime journeys. Even more so if they end in Mongolia’s Nadaam Festival as was my case. 

Because they are one of the journeys to take before you die, you should enjoy them in the old world charm of the Golden Eagle.

There isn’t a better start to the journey than with a welcome dinner at overtly opulent Turandot. The walls are covered with classical frescoes, the light is dimmed to a golden tone and I wonder if it is truly an old building or the reconstruction of a mad architect. The dome shaped ceiling and the circular upper floor are a means for the sound to reverberate and I find myself listening to the conversations from across the room.

Turandot Restaurant

The Golden Eagle is a luxury private train but it is unpretentious and what it lacks in arrogance it offsets with bubbly and caviar. Through the 25 years of operation it has achieved a balance between the exclusivity that the price tag unavoidably attracts and the unassuming philosophy of the owner and the program. Tim, President and Founder, is a train lover. He used to work in the railway industry when he was a teenager and his passion 50 years after transpires throughout the journey and is made apparent in the restore Soviet locomotive that pulls the train out of Moscow on our first evening.

Restore locomotive - Lake Baikal

The company is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year yet the team’s smiles, some of which have worked for the company for almost 2 decades, are as fresh as the food that is being served or the look and feel of the carriages and the cabins.

Imperial cabin

Golden Eagle certainly provides a uniquely comfortable and private way to travel across the world’s most remote areas but it also opens the door to experiences that would be off limits to the independent traveller. 

The churches of the Kremlin, empty before the doors opened to the public

The exceptionality of the journey is apparent in some of the activities. We enter the Armoury, the most popular and crowded part of Moscow’s Kremlin where the Tsar’s treasures are kept, one and a half hours before its official opening, ear pieces on, we listen to the guide provide us with incredibly insightful knowledge of the Tsar’s jewellery, costumes and carriages, embroidered with diamonds and precious stones. We are marvelled at the tiny waists and the fairy tale carriages of the Tsarinas. By the time the masses arrive, we are well on our way out having had the entire collection all to our small group.
Daily tea includes a selection of scones, delightful clotted cream and caviar
Surprises abound throughout the journey. Tim tells me that only recently have they started adding some of the extraordinary experiences to their brochures because they didn’t want to steal the surprise from guests’ souls. We were indeed wowed in many occasions with either instances that felt like magic or deliciously local wining and dining. I saw passengers cry, overtaken by the emotions of a beautiful performance or a poem reminiscent of a moment gone by.

Opera, at the Decembrists museum

This is a train where casual attire dominates yet the glamour of champagne is never too far. On paper some visits may lack uniqueness but that is just because extraordinary experiences are insulted by factual descriptions. Then a professional baritone/soprano couple fills the room with an alluring performance accompanied by the music of an 18th century piano. She is wearing an evening gown and a Russian presenter with a smoking introduces each performance as we sit on red velvet chairs in the same room the Siberian royalty used to discuss politics and war at the end of the 19th century. In Lake Baikal we get to ride on the outside platform at the back of the train, while the fully restored 19th century steam locomotive pulls the carriages through the picturesque shore of the world’s deepest lake. Words can’t describe the exhilarating feeling of freedom when we enter one of the 120 tunnels that were required to build the railway line. The smoke from the coal burning fills the fresh Siberian air but we don’t care, the smell is pungent but real and when we come out, literally, at the end of the tunnel, an explosion of green and blue fills our dark accustomed eyes as we dance to the rhythmic sound of the train wheels against the tracks.

BBQ by the lake

Later in the day, the train stop in the middle of the line for us to enjoy a BBQ by the water. There is virtually no traffic is this line as it was abandoned when the more efficient one was built so we can block the tracks without any complaints. We spot seals in the distance while the music from an old Russian radio blasts next to the chef.

On wild and remote Lake Baikal, we fish and have a picnic on a lost creek feasting on fish soup and smoked fish cooked on an open fire in front of our eyes. Too much vodka sends us into a deep sleep on the pebbled beach under the soothing sun.

Siberia is a beautifully rugged part of the world where living conditions are harsh and even in the summer temperatures were not far from 10 degrees Celsius. The real Siberia can only be understood through the eyes and lives of those who have found a way to survive there. Interacting with the locals without the language barrier or being invited to spend a night in one of their quaint green and blue wooden houses with banyas or saunas provides a unique perspective that will leave a mark. 

To celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, Tim opens a bottle of port on our last evening. I can smell its vanilla scent from the other end of the restaurant car as soon as the bottle is decanted. Wondering what special vintage he is sharing for this grand occasion I realize the bottle is 100 years older than me. The smell floats in the air as I take the glass to my carriage while we await the Russian immigration officers to come to each cabin and stamp our passports. I wake up the following morning with the refined perfume still lingering in the cabin and I resolve that I have found the perfect gift for Sam.

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