In 1891, Trans-Siberian Railway construction began simultaneously in Chelyabinsk and Vladivostok, after years of discussion and research. I cannot find a definitive number of people who died building the train tracks, but the struggles of building the tracks are well documented. Many of the people who built it were forced laborers and soldiers. When I took the trains from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia those builders were all I could think about as the train whizzed by the birch trees outside the window. “How many people died here trying to lay these tracks?” It seemed incomprehensible that the train could even pass through these landscapes, as isolated as were.
Construction of the railway understandably was hindered by the severity of Siberia itself. Siberia’s outer boundaries are staggering: from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, stretching vertically from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the territory is 13.1 million square kilometres (5 million mi²). As a Canadian I can sympathize with its population density: accounting for the majority of Russia’s land area (77 percent), Siberia only houses 30 million people. Sparsely populated to say the least.
Built as a testament to national pride and also to unite the vast Siberian territory with existing Russian trains, the Trans-Siberian network took many years to complete. The undertaking was a colossal one that took place in some incredibly punishing landscapes. From the taiga forests to the mountains and lakes of the land, the area is unforgiving in climate and topography. The construction “proved a nightmare for the few qualified engineers.” Source. The trains required 50 bridges to cross the Angara River’s tributaries, let alone the seemingly insurmountable problem of Lake Baikal. Around Lake Baikal, builders had to navigate the mountains — they did so by building tunnels through them — and the many rivers that fed into the enormity of Lake Baikal itself. The lake is the largest in volume in the world, and home to 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
Today the main and longest route of the Trans-Siberian Railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, a total of 9,289km (5,771 mi). There is more than one route that you can take, however. Initially the trains ran on what is now the Trans-Manchurian line, through Chinese territory. This line is linked to the Trans-Mongolian line, which was built in the mid 1900s from Ulan-Ude in Siberia to Beijing, through the Gobi and Ulaanbaatar. The trains cross into China at Erlian, shortening the route by a few thousand kilometres.
The newest of the routes is the Baikal Amur Magistrale route (BAM), which was only inaugurated in 1984, although initial discussions for the route began in the 1880s. It runs parallel and north of the main Trans-Siberian route, and was supposed to be a strategic alternative to parts of the train routes that could be vulnerable in conflict.
I initially started researching the history of the Trans-Siberian Railway lines years ago, and travelling on them is the reason that I quit my job to travel the world in the first place. I wanted to experience this journey myself. That may sound rash, but when I was a kid I saw a documentary about the Trans-Siberian Express and vowed to visit the region one day. As I saved up working as a lawyer, I decided to incorporate the trip within a longer one — a year-long round-the-world extravaganza. After that, I would return to work as a lawyer again.
Except — just kidding, Mum! — I’m still travelling and writing. But we can blame the trains for that too, at least in part. So wonderful were the weeks I spent navigating the landscapes of Siberia and seeing the shockingly large Lake Baikal in person that I extended it further. I ate omul, a smoked Baikal trout, for breakfast with my Uzbekistani hosts. I saw freshwater seals. I learned about Olkhon, the largest lake-bound island in the world and the birthplace of Siberian shamanism.
And I got into the crazy rhythm of train life. There was a lot of vodka consumed with Russian soldiers and families alike, though it was not a drunken debauchery. The locals well outnumbered the tourists on my trains! Every carriage had an attendant, who usually spoke only Russian. Communicating was an exercise in futility, and often I was simply scolded for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It felt like an unimpressed grandmother was following me around Siberia.
On the longer train trips, for example the one heading into Ulan-Ude in Siberia, the train would stop for a bit occasionally enough time for a food vendor to hop on with snacks. The trains run on Moscow time, despite the fact that Russia is a huge territory with more than one time zone. So while it might be dark outside, if it’s morning in Moscow that is what the clock says inside the train.
I also needed to get my “train legs.” Balance is not my forte, so walking the length of the trains was difficult for me at first. Soon enough I was skipping to the dining car without a care in the world. It might have been the vodka, though.
With a long history and thousands of kilometres through some of the harshest landscapes in Russia, I felt fortunate to even get to remote places I never expected to visit. Even if you do not love train travel, this is a trip to remember. If like me your mind immediately drifts and you have the itch to write when you step onto a train, this might be the trip of a lifetime.
· The Medicine Train in Siberia (National Geographic)
· In Siberia (Colin Thubron)
· Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (David Greene)
G Adventures runs a number of departures on the Trans-Siberian Railway encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.