Trans-Siberian Express

15 August 2017

A classic Soviet steam engine (P36 class) pulls our Golden Eagle train in a photo-op by Lake Baikal.
MOSCOW (Москва)

Before boarding the train, I had a couple of days to revisit Moscow,
now more renovated, spotless, and impressive than when I was there a dozen years ago.

With my recent Russian student Aleksandr in front of awesomely eclectic St. Basil's Cathedral, nothing else like it.

Aleksandr and his wife Xenia standing in front of the Museum of Russian History in Red Square. They had just given me a good "off the beaten path" walking tour.

One of the "hidden gems" Aleksandr took me to see was small, sparkling St. Clement's Church. Saw many ornate Orthodox churches during my three weeks in Russia, but this Sunday service was the most moving. Singers harmonized behind the golden altar panel as young and old worshipers seemed deeply devout.
(Храм Священномученика Климента Папы Римского в Замоскворечье)

Despite destroying most churches during decades of anti-religion campaigns, communists left intact St. Basil's in Red Square and these beautiful church buildings located inside the Kremlin.

From our hotel roof looking across Red Square to St. Basil's with Kremlin stars and wall on the right.

THE GOLDEN EAGLE (Золотой орел)

Route of the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia
The legendary Trans-Siberian railway...
  • the longest single train journey in the world
  • 9,258 kilometers; 6,152 miles
  • spans 8 time zones across Russia
  • hits major cities in each region east of Moscow
  • vital historical link uniting European and Asian Russia
The Golden Eagle runs a handsome "czar-style" tourist train on this route with many excursion stops, plus a bonus jaunt into Mongolia. It exceeded expectations in every way.

At Lake Baikal, we had photo-ops with the usual diesel engine (shown above) as well as a steam engine beloved of train enthusiasts (opening photo).

Lounge and bar car (left) and dining car (right). Not bad at all.

KAZAN (Казань)

First excursion stop was Kazan ~ a big shock. I'd ignorantly expected a dusty, tawdry, provincial outpost. Instead, it was a big, sleek city with a beautiful, historic hilltop and a kilometer-long downtown pedestrian street.

Kazan is about half Tartar (descendants of Ghengis Khan's Mongolian wave; now Muslims) and half ethnic Russians. This striking mosque stands on the historic hilltop fortress. Kazan is the center of Tatar culture and the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Tartarstan.

In Kazan's long pedestrian street was a fountain featuring a statue of pigeons in a fountain. Taking the meta to the next level, there were no actual pigeons on it.

YEKATERINBURG (Екатеринбург)

Almost every city we visited will host a game when Russia gets the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Here is the new stadium for the games in Yekaterinburg.

We had excellent weather through the two-week train trip so I won't complain about light shower when (obligatory cliche photo) I stood astride the continental divide between Europe and Asia just outside of Yekaterinburg in the Urals.

On the way to the continental divide, was a simple alphabetical memorial to the many thousands of local people who were killed in Stalin's prison camps.

Yekaterinburg is also famous as the place where the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, son, and four daughters.

From the train not long after departing Yekaterinburg,
I saw this rainbow over the Ural forest.

NOVOSIBIRSK (Новосиби́рск)

The day in Novosibirsk was not as enthralling as other stops but I did manage to get this sweet shot of the big opera house with Lenin looking over his shoulder as the patriotic youth point to the cool-gesturing skateboarder.

Young Matt and Stuart had a hard time keeping up with the demanding excursions.

IRKUTSK (Иркутск)

The long, fascinating day in Irkutsk blew me away. Out of many interesting events, the highlights for me were the apartment visit, the concert, and the dacha and banya experience.

Tatiana and her two grandkids hosted us in her apartment, candidly answering many personal questions about her life in the Soviet era through today.

A superb private concert at the restored mansion of Decembrist Prince Volkonsky focused on Russian songs of the period.

You hear about the Russian fixation on the country house, the dacha, and we got to visit a nice one (above) to dine, experience an authentic banya, and of course drink vodka, lots of vodka. Right: the charming couple who hosted us.

After sweating in the banya (a Russian sauna), getting beating with oak leaves, and drenched with freezing water, it was time for some homemade honey vodka. I'm not a drinker and I consumed more vodka that evening that I have the entire rest of my life. Between shots, lots of fresh cucumbers with dill seemed to have magic anti-inebriation power.

LAKE BAIKAL (о́зеро Байка́л)

Long narrow Lake Baikal has some crazy stats:
  • the world's deepest lake
  • reaches a depth of over one mile (5,387 feet; 1642m)
  • the world's largest freshwater lake by volume
  • more water than all five Great Lakes combined
  • nearly 400 miles long
  • thousands of unique species of flora and fauna
You've gotta "swim" in ice-cold Lake Baikal then take an early morning shot of vodka.
There I am up to my waist at least.

Dinner barbecue then fireworks celebrating the millionth mile of Golden Eagle train travel.

But Baikal's best is Brit Brenda in blue.

ULAN UDE (Улан-Удэ)

The drive from Ulan Ude to the Old Believer's village included some nice vistas.

The Old Believers broke from the Orthodox church due to changes in rituals in the 1600s. Yes, they do indeed like colorful surroundings. They served a delicious lunch followed by strong harmony singing, dancing, cultural lessons, audience participation, and good humor.

Giant Lenin head behind our city tour guide in Ulan-Ude.

We never saw a statue of Stalin but Lenin's statues survived the fall of the Soviet Union and inevitably loom over a big Lenin Square. ("Part of our history" <sigh>)

After Ulan-Ude, we had took a short detour down to Mongolia. I've made a separate Mongolia post to confine this post to Russia.

KHABAROVSK (Хаба́ровск)

With guide Tonya at Lenin Square in beautiful Khabarovsk.

Wide tree-lined boulevards; manicured parks everywhere; several kilometers of walkways along the waterfront; and even a beach. Can this be the Russian Far East?

From the Amur River up to the beach to the waterfront walkway to the stairs through the park up to the Grado-Khabarovsk Cathedral.

Winters are long and severe but for three temperate summer months Khabarovsk blossoms. And Brenda and I loved it in August.

Vladivostok (Владивосток)

Photo from the train traveling between Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok.

This important Russian port on the Pacific was overcast when we visited, and its photogenic modern bridges were hidden in fog, but we got a general overview of the city.

My favorite spot in Vladivostok was a place I found wandering around: Stumbled on this new (2015) statue to the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the courageous Russian dissident, writer, and historian who survived many years in a Soviet gulag prison camp.

After Vladivostok, we (British Brenda and I) went on to visit Kamchatka and then doubled back to visit Khabarovsk (the one key city on the railway that the eastbound Golden Eagle train omits).

Each day on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express was brilliantly designed and flawlessly executed by a warm, dedicated Russian team. I'd been dreaming about someday making this grand journey and it was better than I'd dared imagine.