Going loco on the Trans-Siberian railway

A week on the Trans-Siberian railway is a trip in itself, but for a real treat, stop at the towns along the way. Simon Calder tells you where to get off

Life on the world's greatest railway can resemble a blur of images. Calibrations of time and space melt away. The fastest train takes a week to cover nearly 6,000 miles, on a journey one-quarter of the way around the earth and through eight time zones. To loosen further your grip on the wheres and whens, the on-board clock sticks to Moscow time - so as the sun slumps behind the hills in Russia's Far East, your watch (and quite possibly your stomach) may insist it is time for elevenses.

The solution: take the Trans-Siberian for what it is: an agreeable mode of transport from A to B, where A happens to be the biggest city in Europe and B is the Pacific Ocean. And get off the damn thing every day or two.

Before you do that, of course, you have to get on. For anyone who craves dramatic travel options, Yaroslavl station in Moscow is the place to be. Aviation has yet to erase the sense of grandeur from Russian terminals (and the police have yet to rub out the villains who prey on travellers). As you marvel at the scale of the ticket hall, you choose: should you spend the equivalent of 12p on a Metro ride to the next station along, or pay £100 for a ride to the far side of the world's biggest country?

In reality, you will have decided some weeks earlier - and paid considerably more than £100 for the ultimate ride to the seaside. A tangle of bureaucracy surrounds everything from getting a Russian visa to booking the right class of cabin on a train that runs on random days. So place your problem in the hands of a specialist agent - just make sure he or she lets you get off. And, to show that you know what you're talking about, suggest starting your journey on the Urals Express from Moscow to the first station in Siberia.

Five hours in, the first of the massive river crossings takes place: the train slows to a dull rumble as it makes stately progress across the Volga, the mother river of Russia. Look at the map of Russia: in the time it takes to get from London to Glasgow, you have barely moved beyond Moscow. This is not a train of grande vitesse. Czech locomotives haul the expresses at an average of only 40mph.

Time to meet your fellow travellers. The huddle in the smoking compartment is usually a bunch of soldiers on their way to some godforsaken Siberian outpost. On the odd occasions when they are not smoking or drinking, they are likely to be sleeping in third class, which feels like a mobile youth hostel, with 50 others in uncomfortable intimacy. It is more tolerable than it sounds, though, and provides an excellent way to meet Russian people.

Most travellers settle for a second-class kupe. You share a compartment with three other people, but get a degree of privacy - and a bed. Your room-mates may be other travellers (the line is popular with Australians taking the long way home), or students keen to reach Omsk or Tomsk but who cannot afford the high airfares. On the expresses that run to China - the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian - you can expect to encounter traders whose business is often conducted with questionable legitimacy. The wealthiest tourists can be found in two-berth compartments.

If you demand superb scenery as well as interesting company, you are in the wrong country. On the Trans-Siberian, even when crossing the range where Europe ends and Asia begins, the vista barely wobbles from unremitting pines and plains. Where, exactly, does the Urals Express go? You will look in vain on a modern map of Russia for the destination shown in the schedule: Sverdlovsk. Fourteen years ago, the city reverted to its historic name of Ekaterinburg, awarded by Peter the Great.

A monument at the station testifies to its status as the gateway to Siberia; on your way out, pause to admire the triumphant murals on the ceiling of the waiting room. Ekaterinburg is the Birmingham New Street of the Trans-Siberian. Change here for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or even a midnight train to Georgia. Or check out the Museum of History, Science and Technology of Sverdlovsk Railway Department, just next door. You can learn how the East was won with the iron road, see a Siberian-sized train set, and even get to drive a train.

The city is a former gold rush town in the Ural Mountains. Today, it is booming again; Boris Yeltsin, who was born here, saw to that during his time as Russian president. In a previous role, as Communist Party boss in the city, he ordered the evidence for its most notorious event to be demolished: the house in whose cellar Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed while under house-arrest in 1918. Today, the main sight is the Cathedral of the Spilt Blood - a 21st-century creation built on the spot where the massacre took place. It has a flight of 23 steps that are supposed to replicate the steps to the cellar in which they were shot.

Now, where's that eastbound train? In Ekaterinburg, you discover that the nature of a 6,000-mile railway is that the schedule can be uncomfortable. The departure to Novosibirsk is due at four in the morning. So rather than pay for another night's accommodation, head for the Malachite Relaxation Complex. Malachite is a mineral that is said to bring you good luck, and the "Relaxation Complex" turns out to be the city's top night club. After 75 years of the Communist Party, this is where the locals properly party. The look of the venue, and the dancing, are both strangely mechanical, which is appropriate if you are about to be transported from an all-night club to an all-night train rolling relentlessly east into the heart of Siberia.

"Siberia" comes from a Tatar word meaning "sleeping land". If this were a country in its own right, it would still be the biggest nation on earth. To carve a railway through a hostile environment using the primitive technology of the 19th century was an extraordinary achievement. The real purpose of the Trans-Siberian was not to move people around, but to allow the incredible mineral wealth of Siberia to be brought to market. Yet along the way it has created communities ranging from a huddle of houses to cities of more than a million souls. Between Moscow and Vladivostok there are nearly 1,000 stations - one every six miles. Some are halts that are known only by a number.

The expresses stop at about 80 stations, such as Tayshet (change here for those Siberian salt * * mines). They dally for anything from one minute to half an hour; at longer stops, the platform is filled with freelance grocery stores selling anything from sausage to ice-cream. Most travellers, though, make do with the on-board catering.

The buffet car opens from dawn to late at night, but has an hour's "technological break" that often coincides with lunchtime. The menu is in four languages, including one which is fondly imagined to be English, but shows no prices; happily, they are so low that you would find it difficult to spend more than a fiver on a meal. Everything is prepared to order, though bear in mind that bread loaded in Moscow four days ago won't be at peak freshness. And "seaside salad" is an ambitious concept when you are in the middle of a vast continent.

To wash it down, you can pay the rouble equivalent of 50p for a pre-mixed gin and tonic up to £30 for a bottle of Scotch. Not a cubic inch of space in the buffet car is wasted: you could be having your dinner when the waitress asks you to stand so she can remove a couple of bottles of vodka from the case under your seat. Vodka isn't a drink, say some young Russians - it's a cure, and a necessary sedative for the train-weary new recruits who are heading for the "Chicago of Siberia": Novosibirsk.

Now, I have been lucky enough to visit both Chicago and Novosibirsk, and I reckon even after a couple of shots of cheap vodka I could tell them apart. Chicago has the world's second-busiest airport; when first I arrived in Novosibirsk, 11 winters ago, it was aboard a Lufthansa plane where the empty seats outnumbered the passengers by 12 to one and the arrivals hall was a shed.

Yet while Novosibirsk cannot boast soaring skyscrapers nor a world-class art museum, Chicago can only envy the location where the Big Red Train Ride, as Eric Newby described it, traverses Russia's greatest river: the Ob. The only thing concise about this river is its name. At Novosibirsk the Ob is already half a mile wide, even though it is still a thousand miles from its mouth on the Arctic Ocean.

It says much about Russian railway engineering, and the general level of architecture in Novosibirsk, that of the six postcards of the city I was offered in the post office, by far the most attractive was that of the station. This green and white palace of the railway, presiding over the east bank of the Ob, is better still in real life. You enter through a fairly triumphal arch into a cavernous hall decorated with the icons of communist achievement. A pair of cherubic Young Pioneers gaze skyward in the general direction of a mural of soldier-peasant-worker synergy at its most potent.

Not everyone on board the train behaves in a cherubic fashion, which is why the rules are clearly displayed. The passenger is forbidden: "To carry poison; to be in a state of insobriety; to over-indulge in strong drink; to play at games of chance." (I guess that rules out Russian roulette, then.) In return, "Employees of the railways are obliged to be pleasant and polite to passengers and to take regard of their wishes and desires." The rules continue off the rails: at the Restaurant Amur in Ulan Ude, another possible stopping-off point, the menu includes a list of the charges for breakages, starting at 80p for a smashed ashtray to £30 for a wrecked chair.

On the scale of penalties, these are trivial compared with those imposed in Tsarist Russia. The next significant stop, Irkutsk, developed as a trading post where silk from China was exchanged for mammoth tusks from the Arctic. It was where the Decembrists - early revolutionaries - were consigned without the benefit of the railway. In December 1825, a group of Russian aristocrats rose up in protest against the autocratic rule of the Tsar. They were quickly suppressed, and 121 of them were exiled to Siberia - a one-way ticket to oblivion. Handily, their wives and families were allowed to accompany them, and funds from friends helped them build grand mansions that constitute the main attraction today. But you must leave the city to discover where, for a while, the Trans-Siberian Railway gave up. Until a line could be cut through the difficult terrain around the south of Lake Baikal, passengers were taken to the lake shore and loaded aboard ferries to cross the lake and head by river to Kharbarovsk.

Today, little disturbs the surface of the world's deepest freshwater lake. There is wave after wave of statistics about this banana-shaped gouge in Siberia. It measures over a mile from top to bottom. It holds one-fifth of the planet's fresh water. But my favourite is the one that tour guides use to annoy visitors from Belgium: "Our lake is bigger than your country."

Under communism, visitors to Russia had to stay in grotty, overpriced hotels. Many of them are still going. Luckily, there's an alternative: you can stay with a family, and get dinner, bed and breakfast for £25 - plus an insight into Siberian lives. But don't expect running water and a flushing loo at that price. Siberian villages are still medieval in many ways, which is part of their appeal. Man has made only the faintest impression on this land, as you discover on a hike through the hills north of the lakeside village of Listvyanka: on a spring day, with snow-clad mountains on the far side of the lake, wild flowers everywhere, and as close to tranquility as many of us will get.

This part of Lake Baikal is the same latitude as Clacton. But unlike the Essex resort, Baikal has a legend. It's said that if you put your hand in, your life expectancy increases by five years; put a foot in, by 10 years; immerse your whole body and you'll live 25 years longer. There's one other difference from Clacton; at Baikal, even in the middle of summer, the water is only four degrees above freezing.

The next section of line, from Irkutsk around the southern end of Lake Baikal, was where Rudolf Nureyev was born - on a train - in 1938, as his mother made the six-day trip from her Ural Village to join her husband, a soldier and devoted Communist, in Russia's Far East.

At the curious shambles of a city that goes by the name of Ulan Ude, the Trans-Siberian begins to splinter. The Trans-Mongolian sets off for Beijing; at the next big city, Chita, the Trans-Manchurian does the same thing. The Trans-Siberian, meanwhile, begins an enormously long dog-leg, due east to Kharbarovsk where it turns due south, to avoid Chinese territory.

Some people think that trains are like hospitals and prisons: you want to get out of them as fast as possible. After a week's worth of travelling, when you have exhausted the free in-train entertainment (a newspaper, called Gudok, which means "whistle"), you may start to agree. It might be murder on the Orient Express, but it can get fairly grim on the Rossiya, too.

For the final 300 miles, the long and winding railroad shadows the border with China. Something of an end-of-term mentality infuses the train; the man with the drinks trolley knocked on the door and asked me to change money with him. No wonder Lenin was bolshie by the end of his 1917 journey in a sealed train through wartime Europe.

The final kilometre post reads 9,288. This was the point where Tsar Nicolas II officially opened the Trans-Siberian railway across his empire. After nearly 6,000 miles, all change: this train terminates here, at Russia's Land's End, where the Pacific Ocean begins.

Things may come and things may go, but the Trans-Siberian rolls on forever - or will it? As the economics - and safety record - of aviation improve, Russian travellers are switching to the air; Moscow is a mere 11 hours away from Vladivostok on one of five daily flights. In capitalist Russia, the viability of the flagship Rossiya train, designed to connect the capital to the ocean, begins to look unsustainable. So get there soon, to collect your own, slightly blurred, set of memorable moments - and an understanding of how preposterously big this country is.

The first of Simon Calder's reports on the Trans-Siberian will be screened on BBC1's 'Holiday', at 7pm on Monday

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

You could try to organise the trip independently, but the best way is to arrange everything - connecting flights/ trains, visas, hotels and train tickets - through an operator such as The Russia Experience (0870 068 1000; www.trans-siberian.co.uk). Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) has some interesting itineraries, including a Trans-Manchurian trip to Beijing.

The best guide is Bryn Thomas's Trans-Siberian Handbook (Trailblazer Books, £12.99).

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