Trans-Siberian

Creating this website forces me to take a look back into my own travelling history. And here we are, in 2002, right at the beginning of my first longer trip, and the first time of really travelling outside of Europe. With my parents we went on holidays, every year, two weeks, usually with Christian groups and usually somewhere south where the sea was warm. Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia. Only once we got out of Europe, to Israel (and Egypt’s Sinai), the Holy Land, how fitting for a Christian family. My first time on an airplane. As a teenager, I would take tours with my friends, often on a bike, the first going to Lake Constance (about 160km). Later we discovered the BDP, a youth organization that offers trips around Europe. Sweden, Corsica, Slovenia. I wasn’t dreaming about anything further away. But in my last year in school something changed, I was suddenly determined that I wanted to serve my mandatory social service not in Germany but somewhere else, Africa was my intended destination. There was only one posting and I wasn’t selected. Thankfully, I went to Russia instead.  

I greatly enjoyed my time in St. Petersburg, took several smaller trips around Russia, worked overtime to get more holidays and hatched the great plan for the end. I would not go back to Germany the usual way, I would take the Trans-Siberian all the way to Vladivostok, head back to Ulan-Ude, cross into Mongolia, on to China and take a plane back from Hong Kong. I had a lot of idealism, a lot of explorational spirit but not much clue about anything. I did not have any fear but the feeling that I can do everything that I want. The sky is the limit.

It is time for a word of warning, this blog makes great use of my wealth of travel photography from around the world and one day I want to have a beautiful collection from every country on this planet. I was already happily taking pictures when I went to Russia but I had not much of an idea what I was doing.

In early 2002 I invested 600€ in a 3,3 Megapixel Pentax Optio 330. I loved it; my friends used to call it the “little sweetheart” as I always had it with me. It was the smallest camera on the market and I could fit it into my pocket. Looked horrible but I was always ready to snap away. If I look at the pictures nowadays the quality is awful. The worst is yet to come. Memory cards were expensive. I remember paying something like 75€ for a 128MB card, you read correctly MB. I was short on cards and the trip was long so I even reduced the resolution to 1024×768, that means I transformed my 3,3 MP camera into a 1MP camera. So, if the 3,3 MP pictures look horrible what do the 1,1 MP pictures look like? I let you decide. One of the worst decisions I have taken in my life. So please, don’t expect high quality pictures but a look into a past that has in many ways already gone, writing this post, I checked several locations and some are unrecognisable nowadays, Russia in the early 2000s was still a place in transformation. If you see the pictures for that, they are quite enjoyable.

You can take the train straight to Vladivostok, train no. 1 leaves Moscow every day and about 180 hours later reaches its destination. But there are plenty of other trains, many of them optimized for travelling between cities, leaving in the evening, arriving in the morning. There are also boats in some areas. I made use of all these transport options (today, there is even a highway running all the way). I take the train from St. Petersburg to Nizhny Novgorod, a boat on the Volga to Kazan, I visit the Raifskiy Monastery in the countryside. On by train to Yekaterinburg. The metro plan shows 26 stations, five of them already in existence, 21 planned. Now, 17 years later we are at 9 stations finished. You can’t make that stuff up. I didn’t have an eye for that back than but Yekaterinburg’s Afghanistan monument is striking, gone is the glory of fighting that usually marks Soviet monuments, a lone soldier, tired and exhausted mourns his fallen comrades. All over the former Soviet Union Afghanistan monuments are well worth having a look at.

Tobolsk is one of the oldest cities in Siberia, the Kremlin is beautiful. Bypassed by the Trans-Siberian, as was the wish of the city council, it has become a backwater. The level of alcoholism I encounter during my morning visit (early train) is striking. Men sit around in groups passing a bottle along, down in the lower town I encounter several men who have trouble walking. I have never seen anything like that anywhere else in Russia.  

Another train to Omsk, a simple stone commemorates the victims of the Stalinist repressions, nearby, a painter put a piece of paper as a warning on a freshly-painted bench, it became part of it. My train leaves at 19:20, that is what the timetable says, but all trains in Russia run on Moscow time, I am now three hours ahead so that means 22:20 local time. Novosibirsk has an impressive Lenin ensemble. Many Siberian cities have not much to offer to the tourist eye, some (like Novosibirsk, the name meaning “New Siberia”) have only been built for the railway, other were small places before trains started running. They grew quickly as their development was a priority in Communist times. The real beauty of Siberia lies in the landscape, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt as well. It is in not spectacular, the southern part of Siberia is mostly flat, the forest sometimes broken up by a mighty river. When I started, I had plans to head along on of these rivers to the very far and isolated north. It turned out this is not so easy; it needs a lot of time and ships are scarce. The river Ob is running through Novosibirsk, a train ride away in Krasnoyarsk you encounter the majestic Yenisei, all of them making their way north.

After Krasnoyarsk, the Trans-Siberian turns south but I proceed east to Bratsk. When the Bratsk Reservoir was opened in 1967 it was the largest artificial lake in the world. It uses the water of the Angara, that leaves Lake Baikal and contributes to the Yenisei. Besides that, Bratsk is nothing to talk about. A “raketa”, a hydrofoil river ferry brings me to Irkutsk. The ride takes eleven hours and we only stop at a few villages.

Irkutsk is one of the Siberian towns with more history but still not much in the way of sights. For me it is most important as the gateway to Lake Baikal. I take another “raketa” to travel the lake from its southern end to the aptly named Severobaikalsk (North Baikal) at its northern end. About 550km and this is not yet the full length of the lake. Bad luck, it is very hazy and the landscape hides behind a white layer. At one point a boat approaches, we stop and the hydrofoil sinks back into the water. Three sheep are loaded onto the boat, we proceed.

Severobaikalsk is a small town that was founded in the late 1970s as work on this part of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) was started. The route of the BAM had been considered as the original Trans-Siberian was planned in the late 19th century. Because of areas of permafrost and a mountain range to cross the more southernly route was chosen. In the 1930s construction of this second line was begun, mostly with prison labour, but a renewed push to finish the so-called “Project of the Century” was only started in the 1970s. Soviet Sino tensions in the 1960s brought the fact back into view that the Trans-Siberian runs very close to the Chinese border and being the only link between east and west could easily be broken in the case of conflict. It was also hoped that opening up of this part of Siberia would be a source of economic growth. The BAM runs east all the way to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, from where a branch line heads down to the original Trans-Siberian at Khabarovsk. As I am going both ways, I decided to take the BAM eastwards and return on the Trans-Siberian. I have a perfect guidebook to show me the way (Athol Yates & Nicholas Zvegintzov, Siberian BAM Guide) and there is one sight that will disappear soon. But first, let’s explore Severobaikalsk.

I team up with an Austrian, we take the train for an hour and then follow the instructions. “From the railway station, you walk along a tarred road for about one hour … up a long hill until you reach the 42km marker on the hill’s summit. A further 200m past a long stretch of white highway protection barriers is an overgrown dirt logging track off to the left. After about one hour of walking along this track you pass under power lines and after another hour the track changes into a walking path that winds up the Akukan valley.” It wasn’t that easy, the path was narrow and we reached some forks where we could only guess which one to follow but finally we reach our destination. In the 1930s prisoners were sent to the Akukan Gulag (via Lake Baikal not the non-existent railway) to mine the mineral mica that was used in electrical installations. Not much remains, a few broken down wooden huts, some rusty buckets and the broken down mine shafts. The place leaves a powerful impression nonetheless. First the isolation and secondly it is full of mosquitos, you cannot stop, we constantly keep walking as otherwise we are being eaten alive, they come from everywhere and have no mercy. Imagine being here as a prisoner. Walking back, we have time to kill in a small village, and old man knows about the Gulag but the young history teacher does not.

In Severobaikalsk I am staying at the guesthouse of Zoya and Nikolai Belski. My guidebook recommends them warmly, even extends thanks to them in the acknowledgements, they tell me the main author stayed a long time with them, they even have a copy of the book but they do not know that their mentioned in the acknowledgements, not speaking English they never had a serious look into it. The next day, I rent a bike from their neighbour, a golden road bike “made in USSR”. I follow the coastline quite a bit. As I return with a flat tire and a bottle of vodka for their neighbour, Nikolai exclaims that I truly understood Russia. As I say goodbye the next day, Zoya wishes me all the best and tells me to come back with my wife. Nikolai frowns as he hears that, “He’s still young [I’m twenty], he needs freedom”, “nu ladno (allright), come again with your girlfriend.”

The BAM had to cross the Severomuysky Range and this proved troublesome. From the start a 15km long tunnel had been planned but the geological work was poorly executed and the difficulties grossly underestimated. As the work crews hit an underground lake they got basically washed out of the tunnel, it took 18 months alone to drain the lake. It became clear that the tunnel could not be completed until the planned opening date of the BAM in 1984. Because of this, and also to facilitate the transport of material for the construction of the eastern part of the line a 28km bypass was built over the mountain that was so steep that passenger trains were forbidden to use it. When the BAM was finally inaugurated in 1984 it was in fact not possible to travel its full length. As the tunnel construction was delayed even more, a 54km bypass was opened in 1989 to finally open up the line to passenger traffic. A marvel of engineering itself, bridges had to be built to gain height, tunnels were cut into the mountain as well. At one point the train enters a tunnel and at this moment you already see the exit, just 50m higher, where you will leave the mountain moments later. If the train would be long enough you could take a picture of the end and the front of the train being outside while the middle part is inside the mountain. The bypass is steep is well, speed is limited to 20km/h. In 2002 the originally planned tunnel is nearing completion (it was finally opened in December 2003, only 19 years late) so I have to take this bypass now. It is a very beautiful train ride. I spend all the time at the window. I switch trains in Tynda, allowing me a short walk around town, another BAM construction with a beautiful train station.

Komsomolsk on Amur has not much going, I want to explore a nearby cave but abandon the attempt as some unpleasant youths try to steal things from me, better not to go alone into the forest with them around. They manage to take the torch I had just bought for the cave. I have left Siberia by now and reached the Russian Far East. Another train to Khabarovsk, the Dormition Cathedral has just been finished. It is the time in Russia when it became popular to rebuild churches destroyed in the 1930s.

Eight more hours to Vladivostok. The name means “rule over the East” and I am stunned by the city I find. It is built where the land ends, part of it jutting out like a finger into the sea and the harbour cutting deep into the land. The terrain is hilly and some islands are lying in front of the city. The Soviet apartment blocks do not make the nicest impression but this place has potential. A nice city beach gives the main street a focal point. I spend two hours searching for a place to sleep with an acceptable price (anything less than 10$), I end up in the apartment of a weird old lady that seems to want my money but nothing else.

Since reaching Khabarovsk, Chinese influences, shops, restaurants, people are clearly visible and there is another quirk, nearly all the cars are used ones from Japan and have the steering wheel on the wrong side.

The time is running, I always though a month would be plenty of time but as I do the detailed planning, I realize I have to hurry up. My very convenient one-year multiple entry visa is finally coming to and end. I have reached Vladivostok, the end of the Trans-Siberian but my journey doesn’t end here. I am heading back west to Ulan-Ude and then turning southeast to Mongolia and China, to Beijing (what many people wrongly consider of being the Trans-Siberian). I still like this plan but now I also realize its main flaw. I will have taken plenty of trains all over Siberia and the Russian Far East but I miss out on the most beautiful stretch, the journey between Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude, where the Trans-Siberian is hugging the shore of Lake Baikal.

So far, I have avoided very long train rides but now I am looking forward to a 66 hours journey from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude. Funnily, for the planning of my trip, I actually rely on the German railway system. The Russian Railways do not yet have a proper website with timetables but to my surprise the German system has all the trains in it. Fortunately, Russia has by now an electronic ticketing system so I can buy tickets for several trains when it is convenient. I like the Russian trains; they are well adapted to the need of this country, because of the distances, sleeper trains are the norm. The lowest class is platzkartny, it’s also the cheapest and the one I like the most. More expensive is coupe, where the carriage has nine compartments with 4 beds and a table each. Platzkartny has the same compartments but they are open to the hallway and on the side are 9 pairs of two beds each. I prefer them to coupe as you can potentially communicate with the whole carriage and you have more opportunities to look outside. In coupe, if you are stuck with idiots you are stuck with idiots in a small confined space. In platzkartny if you don’t like your direct neighbours maybe you like the ones sitting a bit further away. Train rides are long and social affairs with many families bringing massive amounts of food. Every compartment has a small stove, often wood fired, where you can get hot water. I always enter the train with enough instant noodles, especially my beloved Lapsha Doshirak (Kake Lomi to the initiated), beef taste being my preferred and instant mashed potatoes. I love sitting on the trains, looking out into the landscape with a book in my hands. My preferred bed is the lower one of the side beds in the 4th or 5th compartment, the lower bed is easily transformed into two nice seats for the day. Back then I knew all the bed numbers so I could try to get the one I want when buying tickets. In bigger cities, the train usually stops for 20 minutes allowing you time to wander around and get some more supplies if needed. Plenty of small shops are usually arranged on the platform to allow a trainload of people to buy stuff at the same time. I’m ready to start on the journey. It turns out to be one of the more annoying trains as we have a group of alcoholics in our carriage that tend to be quite loud, they bring our carriage attendant close to a nervous breakdown as she tries to impose some order. A highlight for me is the short stop in Birobidzhan, the main town of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The train station is marked with Cyrillic and Hebrew letters and Yiddish is an official language. In the 1930s, plans for a Jewish homeland led to its establishment. Conditions were fairly bad and the concept mostly failed. Still, today it is a town of 77.000 people. I’d love to stop but I have no time left.    

The only thing I remember from Ulan-Ude is the massive head of Lenin standing in the city centre. I take a trip to the Ivolginsk Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia, it is the first time I see a prayer wheel but those being powered by a motor seem a bit superficial. My last stop in Russia is Kyachta, formerly an important trading city but now a shadow of its past. On to Naushki, where I board the train to Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia, I’m coming.

Something is still missing, no report on Russia is complete without a small collection of Lenins.