The warm heart of Mother Russia

April 12, 2016 Steve English

Siberia! For 17 days! In December! We know what you’re thinking: Why in the world would anyone want to do that? But if you’re still reading this post, we know something else: You’re curious about the answer.

A massive 13 million sq km (5 million sq mi) stretch of mountains, lakes and grasslands stretching eastward from the Ural Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean, Siberia is legendary for its vastness. Its wide-open plains have summoned nomads, wanderers and exiles from both East and West for centuries, from the ancient Scythians to the Mongol Empire to the Cossacks, and Doctor Zhivago. And an average of just three people per square kilometre, it’s one of the best places in the world to lose and find yourself again.

Endless horizons at this view point of Lake Baikal. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Linking Moscow to Vladivostok — and, essentially, Europe to Asia — the Trans-Siberian Railway connects the region’s isolated communities to both the outside world and each other. The entire route is more than 9,000km (nearly 6,000 mi) long, making it the longest railway line in the world.

It takes a week of non-stop travel to get from one end of the line to the other, but to really appreciate this stretch of the world and all of its incredible sights and experiences, you’ll want to take your time. Spreading the experience out over 17 days really lets the romance of Siberia seep into your soul. And when you go in the wintertime, the beauty of the region is amplified immeasurably.

Moscow: Where it all begins

The Russian capital is where the Trans-Siberian begins, in more ways than one. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander III and inaugurated by his son Nicholas II, the last tsar, the railway presents a tangible link to Russia’s imperial past. Exploring the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square with a fresh dusting of snow beneath your boots lends a genuine Cold War spy-thriller vibe to the journey, a feeling you just won’t get in July.

Suzdal: A Russian time capsule

As one of the oldest towns in Russia, Suzdal oozes history. Largely spared the plague of drab concrete buildings that became a hallmark of communism, you’ll find a startling array of heritage architecture here, some dating as far back as medieval times. The main draw is the Suzdal Kremlin, a UNESCO-protected citadel topped with blue onion domes and golden spires that look all the more magical under a frosting of snow.

Yekaterinburg: End of the line (for the tsar, at least)

After crossing over the gorgeous Ural Mountains (and officially entering Asia), the next stop of note is Yekaterinburg. Here, you’ll really see the contrast between the Russia of old and not-so-old as boxy Soviet-era buildings brush up against dignified churches. Yekaterinburg also holds a significant place in Russian history as the spot where Nicholas II (remember him?) and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks. (You have the option to visit the site.)

Irkutsk & Listvyanka: December forever

The area surrounding these two towns is where you’ll really fall in love with the vast openness of Siberia. The largest freshwater lake in the world, Baikal is home to a variety of unique wildlife as well as some truly stunning wilderness, so be sure to stretch your legs and reinvigorate yourself with a hike in the woods (or, better yet, explore them with the help of a genuine Siberian husky dogsled team.)

Nothing beats dogsledding with a Siberian husky. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Nothing beats dogsledding with a Siberian husky. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

The Baikal region is also where the Decembrists, a group of Russian soldiers who led a revolt against the tsar, were exiled in the early 19th century. The exiles were warmly welcomed by their new Siberian neighbours, and their story reverberated down through Russian history, in part inspiring the revolution that would ultimately end imperial rule.

You shouldn’t leave town without partaking in a banya – a traditional Russian sauna. Here, you’ll get a good steam, a thorough scrubbing with a bunch of birch leaves, and a tasty tea. Winter banya are the real deal, though; once you’re through, you’ll be encouraged to jump into a snowbank or an ice-cold stream to cool off. Go with the flow, приятель.

Taking it all in on the shores of Lake Baikal. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Taking it all in on the shores of Lake Baikal. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Ulan-Ude: Buddha meets Lenin

A nexus of Buddhism in the middle of Russia? Welcome to Ulan-Ude, one of the most unique stops on an already unique route. This fascinating city is home to the Buryats, descendants of the Mongols and the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Some Buryat live in yurts and follow the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and the story of how they came to tame this hostile land is worthy of a post of its own.

Ulan-Ude’s other, more obscure claim to fame stands in the town square: a positively massive bust of Lenin. Weighing in at 42 tonnes and standing almost 8m (25 ft) tall, the bust was erected in 1971 on the centenary of Lenin’s birth and ranks as the largest Lenin head in the world.

An adventure on rails

Now, the prospect of spending the bulk of 17 days aboard a passenger train may be a tough sell for some, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how breezily the time seems to fly. One of the best features is that the train ride is an adventure in itself. Along the way, you’ll meet Russians of all stripes who’re taking the train simply to get from “A” to “B,” and after a while they become like family; drift down to the dining car at night and you’ll more than likely be handed a glass of vodka and be pulled into a rousing singalong.

A blanket of snow at a city park in Irkutsk. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

A blanket of snow at a city park in Irkutsk. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

You’ll want to keep your Russian-accented version of “Sweet Caroline” to a dull roar, though, lest you incur the wrath of the provinistas. Employees of the railway, these women patrol the cars and have a well-earned rep for being stern. But like everyone else in this part of Russia, you’ll be disarmed by how friendly they can be. Pro tip: Ply your provinista with chocolate, vodka or a small gift to curry favour — it’ll be the best investment you make.

Due to the considerable distance it covers and the breadth of experiences available along the way, riding the Trans-Siberian is one of the few journeys that truly lives up to the term “epic.” Your snapshots of snowbound taiga forests, isolated villages and iconic cities seemingly pulled out of a wintry fairy tale will astound your Instagram following. And being able to puff out your chest and say “I survived Siberia in the wintertime” will earn you bragging rights for life.

Let’s amend the question that led off this post. The question isn’t: Why would anyone want to visit Siberia in wintertime. The question is: Is it December yet?

Travelling in Russia during dinner is an experience you won't soon forget. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Travelling in Russia during dinner is an experience you won't soon forget. Photo courtesy Svetlana S.

Getting There

Does the idea of travelling to Russia in winter give you the right kind of chills? Check out the Epic Trans-Siberian Journey tour. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.

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