Experience the Trans-Siberian Railway on Russia Vacations

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Trans Siberian Railroad Tsar's Gold train, Russia

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest rail journey in the world and undoubtedly one of the most famous. It’s an iconic journey that attracts Globetrotters the world over, much the same way as the Orient Express or the Trans-Pacific Railway do. For Globetrotters on Russia vacations, riding the Trans-Siberian Railway is an ideal way to see a vast portion of the country and experience the shifting landscapes and ethnic diversity of the world’s geographically-largest nation. As far as adventures in Russia go, they don’t get much better than this train journey.

The Brainchild of the Late Tsar

The Trans-Siberian Railway stretches 9,289 kilometres from Moscow to Vladivostok, making it the longest continuous rail line in the world. The Tsar Alexander III commissioned the railway because of the poor transit infrastructure in Siberia in the 19th century. As Siberia is prone to extreme weather conditions, it’s a nightmare to traverse during large portions of the year. For the summer months, river was the only means of transporting cargo, while in the winter, sledges and carriages used the frozen rivers as roads. This meant that movement of goods and passengers was limited and the economy of Eastern Russia suffered as a result. The Trans-Siberian Railway was meant to ease this burden of travel and provide an efficient means of transportation and trade between east and west.

Then-Tsarveich Nicholas (eventual Tsar Nicholas II) inaugurated the railway on May 19, 1891. The railway was divided into seven different sections, each of which were constructed simultaneously across the country. While portions of the railway were completed a few years after construction began, the entire railway was not finished until 1916, in the midst of World War I. As well, the portions that were completed in the intervening years were often inefficient. The Russo-Japanese War, from 1904-1905, pointed out many issues with the partially-completed railway, such as the inefficiency of single-track lines in the Far East.

Eventually, however, the line was upgraded and as of today, it stands as a pillar of engineering ingenuity. Around 30 percent of Russia’s exports travel along the rail line, proving it to be a large cargo transporter. As well, a significant number of Russian citizens use it to travel across the country. And of course, Globetrotters from all over the world enjoy Russia vacations and the chance to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and experience a rail line that has bewitched people for over a hundred years.

Trans Siberian Railway Map, Russia
Map of the Trans Siberian Railway

From Moscow to Ekaterinburg

The Trans-Siberian Railway begins in Moscow, the Russian capital. If you’re heading to only one city on a Russia vacation, it’s likely Moscow or St. Petersburg, as they have lion’s share of art and culture. In Moscow, you can visit the Kremlin or Lenin’s Mausoleum to get a sense of the years under Soviet control. Alternatively, you can head to St. Basil’s Cathedral or the State Historical Museum to see older highlights of the Russian capital. Regardless of your interests, Moscow will satisfy your curiosity. There’s a reason it’s one of the largest cities in the world.

Morning sun over the Moscow Kremlin and Moskva River, Russia
Morning sun over the Kremlin and Moskva River, Moscow

After taking in the sights of Moscow, you would head to Kazanskaya Station to begin your Trans-Siberian Railway journey. While there are a few alternate routes on the Trans-Siberian Railway, most Russia vacations aboard the rails travel through Kazan on the way to Ekaterinburg, also known as Yekaterinburg. Kazan is the old capital of the Tatars, Russian ethnic minorities who number around six million. The city is located on the banks of the Volga River and predates Moscow by 150 years. While Kazan has always had prominence for its Tatar population, the city enjoyed a boom in the 20th century due to its vast reserves of oil. It’s worth exploring Kazan for a few hours to get an understanding of the Republic of Tatarstan and the ways that its moderate form of Sunni Islamic culture has blended with Slavic Russian culture.

After Kazan, Ekaterinburg is the next major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s Russia’s fourth largest city and famous for its prominence in 20th-century Russian history. Ekaterinburg is the city where the Romanovs, the last royal family of Tsarist Russia, were assassinated. The Church of All Saints is dedicated to the Romanovs, who were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. As well, the city is ideally located in the Ural Mountains, which makes it a popular nature spot. If you stop here for an afternoon on your train journey, you could stretch your legs with a hike in the surrounding hills.

Church of All Saints, Yekaterinburg (Ekaterinburg), Russia
Church of All Saints, Ekaterinburg (Yekaterinburg)

The Heart of Siberia

East of Ekaterinburg, you begin to get into the heart of Siberia. The Trans-Siberian line continues to Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city and the capital of Siberia. As Novosibirsk is commonly considered the mid-point on the Trans-Siberian Railway, its tourist economy emphasizes the railway’s presence and there’s even a Trans-Siberian monument dedicated to the rail line. If you’re heading to Russia but want to avoid Moscow and St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk is a great destination to head to. Its mixture of monuments, museums, and updated accommodations make it easy for Globetrotters to visit on Russia vacations, and the wood-lace architecture from the 1890s makes it an attractive destination.

Traditional Wood Architecture in Irkutsk, Russia
Traditional wood architecture in Irkutsk

Irkutsk, further to the east (and familiar to anyone who passionately played the board game Risk growing up), is the other Siberian highlight. It’s far and away the most popular spot on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and its tourism boom has made it easier than ever to visit and explore at your own pace. Much of the city boasts gorgeous 19th century architecture with churches and museums, while neighbourhoods like the trendy 130 Kuartal Project shows off Siberian timber buildings, as well as upstart bars, cafes, and restaurants.

Irkutsk is also only 70 kilometres away from Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake at 1,637 metres. With its deep-blue water and mountain backdrop, Lake Baikal is the sort of picturesque lake that adorns computer backdrops and posters, but it’s also one of the many highlights you can see on a journey aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Borders of Mongolia and China

After Irkutsk, Russia grows increasingly Asian. Anyone familiar with only Slavic Russia will feel like they’ve entered a new country once they get to Ulan Ude and Chita. Near the border with Mongolia lies Ulan Ude, the Buryat capital that boasts a mixture of Mongol and Buddhist culture, with Slavic influences kept to a minimum. It’s a small centre, but extremely likeable and is many Globetrotters’ favourite eastern spot on Russia vacations.

Northeast of Ulan Ude is Chita, a Soviet city with almost no tourism infrastructure. Passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway rarely stop at Chita, but if you do choose to visit Chita, you’ll be among an elite class of Globetrotters exploring new territory on your adventures. The city was built on a grid layout and mostly caters to the cross-border trade with China. As such, it also offers access to some key Buddhist temples in Aginskoe and Tsugol.

Aerial Panoramic View of Ulan-Ude, Russia
Aerial panoramic view of Ulan-Ude

End of the Far East

The final stages of the Trans-Siberian Railway take passengers into the Far East, where Alaska is closer than Moscow and eccentric countries like North Korea are the nearest neighbours. The rail line passes through Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region and an undeveloped and provincial city located on the Bira River. Birobidzhan was the centre of a brief experiment in Jewish solidarity within Soviet Russia, so it’s worth a look to explore the rich history of Russian Judaism, but beyond that, it’s a bit of a backwater.

Winter morning frost with view of The Transfiguration Cathedral in Khabarovsk, Russia
Winter morning frost with view of The Transfiguration Cathedral in Khabarovsk

Continue on to Khabarovsk, a riverside city with broad boulevards and pre-Soviet architecture. With lots of parks and a picturesque location along the river, Khabarovsk is a lovely city to stroll. While the summer is warm, in the winter it’s called “the world’s coldest city of over half a million people,” due to its harsh temperatures. However, if you are passing through in winter, you’ll be able to see the ice sculptures that populate the town from January until the melt in spring.

The final stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway is Vladivostok, which is often called Russia’s San Francisco due to its combination of mountains and bays. Located on Golden Horn Bay, Vladivostok consists of Soviet housing blocks on rolling hillsides. The weather is lovely for the region and the proximity to North Korea makes it a curious urban centre. As well, the 2012 Asian Pacific Economic Conference brought a huge amount of infrastructure investment into the city, meaning that it’s in the midst of economic revitalization and constantly growing with new buildings, roads, and business opportunities for its citizens.

Travelling from Moscow to Vladivostok is a lesson in the broadness of Russian culture and an eye-opening experience. Most people’s assumptions about Russia are limited to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the opulence of the Tsarist Empire combines with the austerity of Soviet realism. Heading to Irkutsk and Vladivostok undercuts those assumptions, showing that Russia is far bigger and more varied than what we see on the news and in movies.

Zolotoy Golden Bridge across the Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) in Vladivostok, Russia
Zolotoy Golden Bridge across the Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) in Vladivostok

Travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway on Russia vacations allows you to explore this fascinating country from east to west, and experience the shifting aspects of its geography and culture. It may be the world’s longest rail journey, but it’s not just the landscape that shifts. The people, the customs, and the languages also change, showing you Russia in all its startling diversity.

Tsar’s Gold Private Train

Goway offers a Trans Siberian Railway experience from Moscow to Beijing (or vice versa). Travel aboard the Tsar’s Gold Private Train and experience an epic journey in comfort. From Moscow, you will enjoy the diversity of Russia on the Trans Siberian Line, before the train diverts south at Ulan Ude, along the Trans Manchurian Line, crossing through beautiful landscapes of Mongolia, before ending the train journey in Beijing, China.

Suggested Itineraries:
15-Day Trans Siberian Rail: Beijing to Moscow
16-Day Trans Siberian Rail: Moscow to Beijing

Traditional Mongolian landscape
Traditional Mongolian landscape
Trans Siberian Railroad Tsars Gold - Cabin Category II Classic, Russia
Trans Siberian Railroad’s Tsar’s Gold – Cabin Category II Classic
Trans Siberian Railroad Tsars Gold - Caviar Served, Russia
Caviar served aboard Tsar’s Gold