by Caroline Eden, The Telegraph, August 1, 2018
The World Cup effect has put Russia back on the map for UK tourists despite recent diplomatic fallouts between the two countries. According to Russia specialist, Regent Holidays, bookings for trips along the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia’s 9,289 km (5,772 mile) backbone, are up by almost 90 per cent, compared with June 2017.
Before you book your own Russian rail adventure, here are 10 facts about this seven-day perception-shifting adventure that takes 143 hours to complete.
British timber helped built it
In 1916, despite the First World War and a civil conflict that saw the destruction of 60 per cent of Russia’s railway network, the Trans-Siberian between Moscow and Vladivostok was finished. Before, the eastern end of the journey involved dipping into China, a detour that is now part of the Trans-Manchurian route. Of huge importance to the economic, military, and history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, challenges in completing the railway were manifold. Workers were terrified of coming into contact with Amur tigers so convicts were conscripted instead. Local trees were not right for use as sleepers, and so much of the timber had to be imported, some from as far away as Britain. And then there was the weather, floods, permafrost, relentless mosquitoes and almost impenetrable taiga forests to contend with.
There's a legendary lost city
Some towns have fantastically long tongue-twister names like Uyarspasopreobrazhenskoye (4,227km from Moscow), more commonly known as Uyar. Others sum up their surroundings – there is Zima (4,940km), meaning ‘winter’ in Russian, and Ozero (531km), meaning ‘lake’. Ozero, located just beyond the city of Nizhny Novgorod (a World Cup 2018 host city), sits near Svetloyar Lake, which some Russians believe is the site of Kitezh, a mysterious, lost, sunken city.
And a town named after a purged Bolshevik leader
Kirov, 917km from Moscow and a stop on the Trans-Siberian, is named after Stalin’s right-hand man, Sergei Kirov. Kirov rose through the Communist Party ranks to become head of the party organization in Leningrad. His assassination in 1934 marked the beginning of Stalin’s purge of Soviet society, in which millions of people were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. The railway station of Kirov is one of the northernmost stations on the route.
Tayshet is stuck in the middle
At the railway station of Tayshet, when the train clocks 4644km, crack open a can of Baltika beer, a litre of vodka or a bottle of too-sweet champansky as this is the half-way point between Moscow and the final destination, the eastern terminus of Vladivostok (9,289km).
The final stop was once closed to foreigners
Until 1990, Vladivostok was a city off-limits to all foreigners, and even Soviet citizens needed a special permit to enter. President Ford of the USA was one rare exception. He visited the city in 1974 for an arms summit with Leonid Brezhnev.
There's an unlikely Buddhist monastery
Twenty miles from Ulan Ude (5,642km), the capital of the Siberian Buryat Republic, is Ivolginsky Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The centre of Buddhism in Russia, it has been visited several times by the Dalai Lama and pilgrims regularly travel here.
It crosses 16 major rivers (15 of which you've probably never heard of)
The route crosses 16 notable rivers: the Volga, Vyatka, Kama, Tobol, Irtysh, Ob, Tom, Chulym, Yenisei, Oka, Selenga, Zeya, Bureya, Amur, Khor and Ussuri. The Amur is the widest (1.2 miles), the River Ob is world's seventh longest, the Selenga River derives from Mongolian verb seleh (to swim) while the Yenisei is the largest river system flowing to the Arctic Ocean.
It goes underground
The longest Trans-Siberian tunnel is the one at Tarmanchukan, built in 1915. Beginning 8,140km from Moscow (and finishing at 8,142km) it is 2,030m long.
Bowie rode it because he was afraid of flying
David Bowie once hopped aboard. Frightened of flying, Bowie used the Trans-Siberian to get home to the UK after his 1973 tour of Japan. A ferry across the Sea of Japan connects the two countries.
There's a station built entirely from marble
Completed in 1904, Slyudyanka-1 (5,312km) is the only railway station in the world built entirely from marble. It is tantalizingly close to Lake Baikal, arguably the highlight of the entire Trans-Siberian journey and the deepest lake in the world. In the past, when the train paused at this railway station for 15 minutes, speedy runners would attempt to dash the 500m or so from the station down to the shore to dip a hand, or toe, into the lake for good luck. More than a few passengers ended up stranded attempting the sprint. Today, perhaps to deter people from doing likewise, the train only pauses here for two minutes.
Ride it yourself
Regent Holidays offers a 13-day group tour aboard the Trans-Siberian, from Moscow to Vladivostok, costing from £2,285 per person (excluding flights, various departures).