As this train snakes across Russia, it retraces the history of a tumultuous country. Patrick Horton rides the Trans-Siberian rails.
The day looks unpromising from my restaurant car window as our train snakes around Lake Baikal in Siberia. True, the mist and drizzle add atmosphere, but shortly I’m to ride on the engine, then enjoy a boat trip and in the evening, a lakeshore barbecue.
Mist turns into rain for the boat ride but gradually the clouds recede and by evening we are blessed with blue sky, mountain views across the lake and a warm golden glow from an evening sun.
I have challenged a fellow traveller to a swim, the prize a bottle of red. I win, a worthy prize for submerging in eight-degree waters and am warmed up by the following lakeside barbecue plus vodka.
We are travelling on the Golden Tsar, a luxury version of the Trans Siberian trains run by Lernidee, a German tour operator. A Chinese train runs to the Mongolian border, where Lernidee’s own train takes over for the 5000km – plus trip to Moscow with stops in Ulaan Baatar, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinberg and Kazan.
Home for the nine-day journey is a comfortable and cosy two-berth compartment. Each carriage has a toilet and a shower room. Two carriages down is our ornately decorated restaurant car where splendid meals are served with a flourish.
Larissa, our Russian guide, has superb English, is well informed and importantly, is appreciative of Aussie humour. Something is planned for every day, either on the train or on city excursions. With samples, Larissa teaches us about the companionship between vodka and caviar; we get an appreciation of Russian history while I learn some basic Russian and order my drinks from a waiter tolerant of my mispronunciation.
Our Golden Tsar journey started on the edge of the khaki landscape of the Gobi Desert, but overnight it gave way to the rolling, unfenced green hills surrounding Ulaan Bataar. For a mostly nomadic nation, the capital’s skyline has expanded upwards and outwards since my last visit 12 years ago. The colourful Gandantegchenling Monastery, however, remains timeless. The chants of the Buddhist monks wash around their prayer room, also occupied by a four-storey-high Buddha glistening in gold. It is the day before the Nadaam festival of wrestling, archery and horse-racing and in the main square, a jolly crowd has collected in national costume.
Overnight we glide into Russia; our passports, left on our bedside tables, have been quietly retrieved, stamped and returned.
Ulan Ude provides a much-needed walkabout among colourful timber houses from Tsarist times. A massive head of Lenin, balancing on a tall plinth in the main square, holds the record, we’re told, for the largest in the country.
Overnight had brought us to Lake Baikal and after the evening’s party, the train takes us next morning to Irkutsk. In the early 1800s, many members of the Russian intelligentsia were exiled to Siberia for rebellion against the Tsar. Irkutsk became a centre of intellectual and social activity, influencing the city’s cultural and architectural heritage. We visit an exile’s mansion for a musical recital, once commonplace in such homes.
After Irkutsk we reach the Siberian steppes. In July it’s abundantly green stretches of pine, larch and silver birch are patchworked with swathes of purple, white and yellow flowers. In winter this would be harsh countryside blanketed in snow, with trees bereft of leaves. Villages of wooden houses with large vegetable gardens growing potatoes and cabbages break up the landscape, but little changes in the outside view all day.
In Yekaterinberg, at the Church on the Blood, there’s a film-set scene with men in pre-revolutionary Cossack dress. The following day is the 96th anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by the Bolsheviks. The church has been built on the site of their murder.
We enjoy our last dinner in Asia as we cross the Ural Mountains into Europe and Kazan, capital of the Tartar Republic. Crowning the city’s skyline overlooking the Volga River is the city’s Kremlin or fortified citadel. Here is the palace of the republic’s president, the oldest church in Kazan in companionship with the Kul Sharif mosque and the mausoleum of the Khans, the old rulers of Tatarstan.
By next morning we reach Moscow and leave our small but comfortable home for something larger in a central hotel. The sightseeing is not finished: Larissa explores Red Square with us and in the evening, there’s a trip on Moscow’s underground for its artwork stations.