A Journey to the Heart of Siberia
From the quaint port city of Vladivostok to the teeming sprawl of Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a truly remarkable route unlike any other in the world.
An Odyssian route
Covering the better part of 10,000 kilometres, across two continents, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the main thoroughfare from which a vast, diverse, proud and dynamic nation can be discovered. The largest country in the world has no shortage of rich, turbulent history, fierce art and culture and powerful music.
It is important to understand that in a developing nation, where the rate of car ownership is far lower than it is in most western nations, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the main source of mobility for many Russians. It is also a central driving engine of the Russian economy.
Rather than cars full of tourists, the Trans-Siberian is brimming with Russian nationals: soldiers, wealthy businessmen, students, teachers, nuns. You could learn more about life in Russia within the confines of this locomotive than in any one city or town in the country.
Seeing Russia and Siberia from all sides
My experience with the Trans-Siberian Railway was one of the most special chapters of my life. I had recently finished a teaching contract in South Korea, and was travelling back to Canada. I saw the Trans-Siberian Railway as a perfect opportunity to travel from East Asia to Europe, which I subsequently backpacked across until I reached Spain.
Each city in Russia has its own distinctive and memorable sights, from Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square in Moscow to Russia’s formidable Pacific Fleet in Golden Horn Bay in Vladivostok.
Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, is a short trip from Irkutsk in the heart of Siberia. It is equally breathtaking in summer and winter. The smoked omul, a fish endemic to Lake Baikal, is a delicacy in the area. You might want to think twice about ordering some though, as it has been on the endangered list since 2004.
A journey of the self
The Trans-Siberian journey, for me, was a precious opportunity to reflect on my experience living abroad, and on the fact of my current journey home after having spent so long away. It was quiet and peaceful as I watched the Russian landscape go by.
Soaking up the culture, language and cuisine was a novel challenge, but one that came quite naturally aboard the train. Despite the language barrier I found myself plunged into many conversations, including a memorable chat with a soldier travelling home to Kazan, on leave from his post in Siberia.
We laughed and chatted about the weather, politics and life. I quizzed him on his military uniform and his posting. He even showed me a picture of his family, which I found particularly touching. We felt more like old friends than new acquaintances. Before he left, he gave me two oranges, and the epaulettes from his military uniform. I will never forget the sense of friendship and benevolence with which he bestowed these items. It took be aback then as it still does now.
I found the Trans-Siberian Railway to be so much more than a means to get from A to B. It is a bridge between two diverse and vibrant continents, linking countless cultures and ethnic groups. It is a concentrated hub of Russian culture, language, and cuisine in and of itself. And more than that it is not just a physical journey but a mental one that brings the concepts of travel and experience acutely into view.
I am reminded of the sage words of Paul Theroux:
Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.
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