Trans-Siberian railway: Slow and almost steady across the steppe

Michael Arditti signs up for a great railway adventure from the skyscrapers of Beijing, through Mongolia, and across Siberia – but starts aboard a bus

Michael Arditti
Friday 26 September 2014 10:41
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The first proposal for a railway across Siberia came in the 1850s from an English engineer, Thomas Duff, who, noting the preponderance of wild horses on his journeys in the region, put forward a scheme for trains that were literally driven by horse power. With the equine angle dropped, work on the line finally began under Tsar Alexander III in 1891. The 6,000-mile track between Moscow and Vladivostok was completed in 1904. A branch south from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude across Mongolia followed. The full route between Moscow and Beijing, on which I travelled, was opened in 1956.

The standard passenger trains along these ultra-long-haul tracks today are a good deal less sumptuous than that of the original Great Siberian Railway, with its smoking car, music room, library, private bathrooms and even a Russian Orthodox chapel. So, like many tourists, I chose to take a private train, Tsar's Gold, which offered greater comfort, as well as guided visits of the key Chinese, Mongolian and Russian sites along the way.

The tour began with three days in Beijing and its environs, comprising trips to the Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven and Ming tombs. The first surprise was how little of China's imperial heritage remained in the city. Eroded building materials, foreign invasions and Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution have all taken their toll. With Chiang Kai-Shek having transported to Taiwan the treasures that the British and French left behind, the Forbidden City is as much a mausoleum as Chairman Mao's tomb in nearby Tiananmen Square.

Beijing, like every Chinese city I visited, is in the grip of a construction boom. The cranes that fill the sky are now machines rather than birds. While the feng shui belief in clean angular lines means China has been spared the worst excesses of modern architecture, the downside is a dull uniformity. Moreover, just as few structures have survived from the imperial era, so jerry-building is blighting contemporary development. Our guide joked about "an office block so ashamed of itself that it collapsed and left the government to make excuses".

Those excuses would be rare. Two weeks before I flew to Beijing, the Chinese government peremptorily banned all private trains, thereby requiring me to take a 16-hour coach journey to the Mongolian border. By chance, this brought about the highlight of the trip when I broke the journey at the Yungang Grottoes, an extraordinary series of caves containing 51,000 carved Buddhas ranging in size from less than an inch to nearly 60ft high, the finest of which are exquisitely coloured and carved.

From there, I proceeded to the border and my first encounter with the train that was to be my home for the next 10 days. Unfortunately, the change in schedule left me crossing the Gobi desert at night. My initial glimpse of the Mongolian countryside was not until I approached the capital, Ulan Bator, the following day.

Ulan Bator is the coldest capital city in the world, its winter temperatures regularly drop to minus 40C, but on my summer visit it was hot and humid. I toured Buddhist monasteries and temples, whose evil-looking masks and statues attest to the persistence of ancient animist beliefs; I watched newlywed couples being photographed beside a monumental stature of Genghis Khan which, to Western eyes, did not augur well for a tranquil marriage; I ate at a local grill where chefs wearing "Kiss me I'm a Mongolian" T-shirts mixed cooking withlightness of touch.

The more adventurous members of the group then left for the "Mongolian Alps" to spend the night in a yurt and drink fermented yak's milk. I opted instead for a hotel room and a chance to shop for locally made cashmere.

The next day we met up for a display of traditional skills: male wrestling; female archery; and a demonstration of throat singing from a man with a voice so gravelly that he made Tom Waits sound like Lesley Garrett.

We returned to the train and set off for the Russian border where, after our passports had been examined by a hatchet-faced official straight out of Central Casting, we entered Siberia.

This was the longest and, it has to be said, least enjoyable leg of the journey. This vast region not only constitutes 77 per cent of Russian territory, it also makes up about one -10th of the Earth's entire land mass. The distances between big cities are immense; Irkutsk to Novosibirsk, for instance, covers about 1,150 miles and takes 31 hours, with a seemingly unchanging view over forests of silver fir and birch trees.

Although the train was well appointed and I was alone in one of the more spacious compartments, life on board could be claustrophobic at times, and at 6ft 2in tall, I was several inches too big to lie comfortably in my couchette as we rattled along the rough Russian railway tracks.

The stops along the way may not have been prime tourist destinations, but each had its own, at times eccentric, headline attraction. Ulan Ude boasts a 25ft statue of Lenin's head, the largest in the world; Irkutsk is where you'll find the house of exiled Decembrist Prince Sergei Volkonsky; Yekaterinburg has the Cathedral on the Blood, where the last Tsar and his family were shot; Kazan has a 16th-century Kremlin, built at the behest of a ruler whom, despite the Dick Emery overtones, I have learnt to call Ivan the Awful.

The final point of call was Moscow, where we had a whistle-stop tour taking in the Kremlin, Red Square, the university and the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of the 2012 Pussy Riot protest.

Throughout Russia, but particularly in Moscow, the churches were full, not just of elderly women but of young and middle-aged men: evidence of the religious revival that has followed the collapse of communism. And yet, the close links between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and President Vladimir Putin have left many wondering whether this is a good thing.

It was in Moscow that I bade farewell to my fellow passengers and the train which had been my home for the past 10 days. The journey hadn't been quite what I expected, and I can now be confident in recommending the experience only to those with broad minds, healthy backs, deep pockets and a height of no more than 5ft 10in.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (ba.com) is the only carrier with non-stop flights to both Beijing and Moscow from the UK. Air China (airchina.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Beijing; Aeroflot (aeroflot.com), Transaero (transaero.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com) fly between London airports and Moscow, and easyJet also flies from Manchester.

Getting around

A range of options are available for travelling on the Trans-Siberian, from local journeys aboard rattly old trains that need no advance booking, to private trains such as the Tsar's Gold. Railbookers (020 3327 0869; railbookers.com), offers the Trans-Siberian journey from Beijing to Moscow, on board the Tsar's Gold, for £5,999pp. The 14-night trip includes hotel accommodation in Beijing, Ulan Bator, Irkutsk and Moscow, and a "Superior Plus" cabin aboard the train. The price also includes off-train excursions, all meals and a "generous drink allowance".

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