Real Russia by rail

The line across Siberia is the world's longest train route. Neil McGowan is your on-board guide


WHERE DOES IT GO?

Moscow to Beijing via Siberia, the Gobi, and the Great Wall of China. The world's longest direct train route takes a week to cover the 9,001 kilometres from Moscow to Beijing on the historic Manchurian routing. The alternative Trans-Mongolian route via Ulan Bator to Beijing trims 16 hours and 1,136km from the trip. Weekly departures operate year-round on both routes to Beijing.

SURELY YOU MEAN MOSCOW-VLADIVOSTOK?

The Moscow-Vladivostok route may appeal to "completists" not deterred by an absence of air routes home to Europe from the far end. Grim domestic flights back to Moscow, sporadic car ferries to Osaka (48 hours), or pricey flights to either Seoul or provincial Japanese airports are the other ways out of "Vladik" (as it's known to locals). Vladivostok-Pyongyang rail services are indefinitely suspended (despite appearing in timetables), but may resume once Russian-bankrolled rebuilding of the onward Pyongyang-Seoul rail line is completed (no dates projected - rarely a good sign for such projects).

Two peas under the completist mattress however, are that the original line ran from St Petersburg to Vladivostok (no such train runs direct these days), and that in any case, the "Trans-Siberian Railway" is the section from Perm to Ulan-Ude... a stretch that is, in any case, common to both Vladivostok route and Beijing routings. The saucy seaport of Vladivostok is a cheerful place for those who brave all of this, despite lacking much to amuse casual visitors.

SO MOSCOW-BEIJING IS A MORE ATTRACTIVE OPTION?

A compelling practical advantage to the Beijing route is this: while Vladivostok would be dwarfed even by Portsmouth, Beijing is the transport hub for much of east Asia. Many routes from the capital are still on sale at non-capitalist prices, notably train links to Vietnam and Thailand, and ferries to Japan. Multiple discounted airfares back to the UK will suit those not continuing around Asia. The chance to visit Mongolia en route is the clincher for many.

APART FROM SHEER DEVILMENT, WHERE'S THE ATTRACTION IN ALL THIS?

Compared with North America, Russia's interior remains resolutely airlocked. Mongolia is barely served by air at all, except from Moscow, Almaty, Seoul or Beijing (and now from Berlin). The Trans-Sib is Siberia's diamond necklace, opening Siberia's jewels to visitors who would otherwise be at the tender mercy of "Soviet legacy" domestic airlines. Quite apart from carbon-friendly benefits, the Trans-Sib is an 18-carriage cultural ambassador... defying the commonplace wisdom that Asia is a place you reach after a dozen hours in an aerial tin can.

ISN'T IT MURDER ON THE TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS?

They built the railway to alleviate this very problem. The "civilising" of Siberia began in December 1825 when the intellectual plotters of a failed liberal coup attempt were exiled to hard labour in Siberia. In their steps would trudge the novelist Dostoevsky (in manacles, on a charge of treason), and the dramatist Chekhov, fleeing a first-night fiasco and resolved to returning to his medical career in obscurity. Chekhov would barely have recognised travel conditions a decade later - oak-panelled 1890s sleeping cars carried the respectable bourgeoisie of his plays in carriages that offered not only comfortable berths but also a palm-court salon ("with pianoforte") and even a chapel wagon with its own priest.

Sadly neither priest nor piano are available to modern travellers, but the dining car still serves Russian cafeteria favourites at café prices, you can rent a shower cubicle (£2) with at least tepid water - and even satellite internet connection. For your other ablutions there is a wc/washbasin cubicle at either end of each (strictly non-smoking) carriage. Determined smokers are consigned to a wind-blasted area between the carriages.

I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE, SOMETHING BEGINNING WITH 'T'

Yes, a tree - another one. Once this game becomes repetitive you can make friends with your fellow travellers, 75 per cent of whom are locals going about their normal lives, quietly perplexed that a foreigner (undoubtedly an eccentric millionaire?) wouldn't have chosen to fly instead. The dining-car multi-tasks as a lounge bar, and is the perfect place to play your own small role in international diplomacy, understanding ("Za zdorovya! Down the hatch!") and vodka-tasting.

However, most "Ungrateful Children Of The Bourgeoisie" will be tempted to break the journey at least once (see box, right). Beware being stranded without an onward reservation, though. Russian visas are usually tightly-dated around the travel plans you detailed on the application. Despite the image of bears fishing through ice-holes, Siberia's summer is more notable for forest fires in mid-30C heat; T-shirts are the favoured fashion on board - leave your black tie or cocktail dress at home with your Hercule Poirot novels.

IF YOU'RE STILL NOT PUT-OFF...

With Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visa procedures to navigate, there is much to be said for getting a specialist agency to book it for you. The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; www.trans-siberian.co.uk), for which I work, and Regent Holidays (0870 499 0911; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), are two UK bonded operators - trips range in price from £450 to £2,000.

Those willing to jump the visa hoops unaided can accomplish a non-stop trip for around £275 in rail-fares, but are advised to pre-arrange stops nevertheless, as there is precious little help on offer at Novosibirsk Central at 6am. The train is notoriously punctual - despite all those trees, they never have the wrong kind of leaves in Siberia.

STOPOVERS: GULAGS & THE GOBI

Perm was entirely off-limits in the Soviet era, but expects foreign visitors on the Doctor Zhivago-trail in 2007 - the book's 50th birthday. Fictionally renamed "Yuriatin", the city is the backdrop for much of the novel's action. Excursions are possible (under three hours by road) to the last surviving soviet gulag-camp, Perm-22 - now a museum run by the gulag-survivor's group, Pamyat.

Baikal is a lake on a scale hard to fathom - from tip to toe it's as long as the distance between London to Edinburgh, and is 1.5 miles deep. Home to unique wildlife species, the entire surrounding area is National Parkland. The east coast (access from Ulan-Ude) has the most unspoilt environment, although softies may prefer the villages that have a ferry service and one or bars on the Irkutsk side.

Ulan Bator (or "Red Hero") is an apt name for a former Mongolian settlement of gers (camel-felt framed yurts) built-up into a Soviet-style city during the Communist era. The Lamaist monasteries and temples of the former Urga are now rededicated, and the heady mix of saffron-clad monks, soviet grot, new-age coffee-shops and internet cafés is uniquely Mongolian. Head off by 4x4 to Karakorum on a two- to three-day Gobi trip, but be ready to conjure it in your imagination: Genghis lived in a ger just like present Gobi herdsmen, and there's no trace of the pleasure-domes his grandson did decree... except for a single turtle statue. Although neither the 19th-century post horse-town of Tomsk, nor the horse-riding or rafting centres of the Altai Mountains, nor the stone-circles of Khakhassia nor the shamen and throat-singers of Tuva are directly on the Trans-Sib route, their devotees will find them an accessible canter, yodel, paddle or womble away.

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