Monday, February 5, 2018

The Land of the Tsars Via the Trans Siberian Railway.

Shamans Rock, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal
(Photo by amanderson2.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

This year I finally get to fulfill one of my long time travel dreams - to go across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway!  I am so excited that every time I think about this truly epic adventure, I literally burst with anticipation of the moment that I board the train.

My friend Chantale, who went with me on my most recent trip which was to India and Nepal, will be accompanying me on this trip.  This sort of trip is not up everyone's alley so I have to admit, I was a bit hesitant to ask her if she would be interested in joining me.  In fact, it initially started out as a much bigger trip - one that included experiencing the Eagle Hunting Festival in Mongolia.  In all honesty, tacking attending the festival on to this trip would have made it a far longer and more expensive trip than either of us wanted to do.  So, we lopped off the festival and will just be doing the train ride.

As you can see from the two photos below, I have been to Russia before but only to Moscow.  That photo was taken in 1996 and I was sent to Moscow on a work assignment.  It was a most interesting time to be in the country as it was just a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the individual countries, including Russia, were just figuring out how to move on as capitalist societies.  I am really looking forward to returning not just to the city to see how it has progressed in the 22 years since my last visit. 

Standing in Red Square in front of St. Basil's Cathedral.

Our trip planning began with Chantale and I mapping out a route.  We basically researched recommended stops along the Trans Siberian railway and then pinned them on a Google map.  Must see stops included Ulaan Bataar, the capital city of Mongolia which I have visited but not Chantale.  I most certainly don't mind going back so we'll spend a few days there as well as visit Kharkhorin, Chinggis Khan's capital.

Wooden windows of Novosibirsk
Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake is also a mandatory stop.  Actually, the train stops in the city of Irkutsk and from there, we will have to make our way to the lake.  I've also factored in some time to journey to Olkhon Island which I have read is worth making a trip to see.

Novosibirsk will offer us a break in train journey and if we have time, I'd like to travel to Tomsk, one of the oldest cities in Siberia.  Novosibirsk is known for its wooden building architecture.

Qolşärif Mosque, Kazan
(Photo by Gontzal86.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license)
Another stop along the way is Kazan which is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan which is a republic I never knew existed!  It is home to churches as well as to Qolşärif  (Qol Sharif) Mosque, which was reputed to be (at the time of its construction) one of the largest mosques in Russia and Europe, outside of Istanbul.  For some reason, I never associated Russia with mosques.  This is why travel opens the eyes!

Posing in front of the Cathedral of the Annunciation,
the Kremlin, Moscow.
Of course, there's no leaving Russia without visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It has been a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg.  From Moscow, I am planning for us to do a day trip to Vladimir and Suzdal.  Ideally, we would have more time to spend touring the area known as the Golden Ring but given our short time, these two places might just be it.  Of course, you can't go to these two great cities and not catch at least one Russian ballet performance and perhaps even a Russian circus performance.  I'm going to do my usual best to cram pack in as many activities as I can at the same time giving us some variety of places to see and things to do.  Afterall, you can only visit so many churches before you overload!

After we roughed out an itinerary, our next step was obviously to figure out how to get ourselves from one place to another.

That's when I discovered that what is commonly referred to as the Trans Siberian Railway is actually three separate train routes.  There is the Trans Siberian which travels to and from Moscow and Vladivostok, Russia; the Trans Mongolia which goes between Moscow and Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia and last but not least, the Trans Manchurian which takes you to and from Moscow and Beijing.  I've not looked at the train routes closely enough to know for sure but I think the routes basically converge at some point in Russia.

It seems that typically people will buy a single ticket and ride continuously from one end to the other.  The most popular route is the Trans Manchurian which takes 7 days from start to finish.  It also seems that the most popular direction to travel in is west to east i.e., Moscow to Ulaan Baatar.  I wasn't keen on doing a continuous train ride as there were some stops along the way that I really wanted to Lake Baikal.  So, the question of how we would do the train ride and which direction we would go in was the decision points for the trip. 

It's been slightly over a month that we started planning this trip.  In the end, I managed to convince Chantale to do the trip from east to west for two main reasons.  One, we will end up in either Moscow or St. Petersburg, essentially leaving the highlights of the trip to the end and two, we gain time as we move from east to west.  I want to maximize the time we have on this trip!

Our trip will begin in Beijing where begin our rail journey by boarding the train to Ulaan Baatar.  From there, we will pick up the Trans Manchurian railway to Moscow, stopping at a few points along the way.   From Moscow, we will travel by train to St. Petersburg.

This is the 2nd draft of the itinerary and unless something comes up to push us into changing it, this will be the final.  I hope that in the coming week or so, we can put the *Final* stamp on the itinerary so that we can then begin to work on the other details of the trip.

Budget and accommodation wise, this will be another of my shoe string budget trips so we will be making as much use of public transportation as is possible and staying in Airbnb apartments, guesthouses and homestays as much as possible. 

Planning Resources

Planning this trip, especially if you want to break up the journey as we are doing, is not easy.  Three of the most invaluable resources have been:

Seat61.  The author of the site is a train traveling genius and his site is chock full of very useful information 

Real Russia.  This website is especially useful for mapping out your train route for several reasons:
  • It presents the train departure times in local time.  This is important because for whatever reason, ALL Russian train tickets are printed according to Moscow time so even if you are in Vladivostok which is at least 11 time zones away from Moscow, the departure time printed on the ticket is in Moscow time.  
  • Not all trains depart every day so it's important to factor this in when determining your trip timeline.  For example, the train from Beijing to Moscow only runs on Wednesdays for the season we'll be traveling in.
  • Not all trains offer all classes of compartments e.g., some trains do not offer 1st class compartments which may be important to you especially if you are looking for privacy and comfort on an overnight ride.
  • Departing on your starting point and destination, the ride can span more than a day so again, you need to know this to determine your timeline.
The Trans-Siberian Handbook.  I don't think there is a better written resource than this one.

To help us better coordinate our planning efforts, Chantale has set up a couple of Paper documents in Dropbox where we can collaborate on ideas.  She did this for our India/Nepal trip and it worked quite well though at the very end, I still needed to export the paper into MS Word and do some of my final edits there.  Still, I have to admit, it's nice to be able to collaborate with someone on planning - it's such a big effort for any trip of this magnitude and two heads are always better than one!

At this point in time, I have yet to go on my China trip yet and there are still some outstanding tasks to take care of for that trip so off I go!