By Train from Beijing to Moscow
By Anne Jardine
A Trans-Siberian Rail Journey has been on my ‘to do’ list for a while … being a 60-something solo traveler, I figured it was time to get on with it! After researching all manner of tour companies offering variations on such an experience, I settled on the Road Scholar (RS, formerly Elderhostel) itinerary, traveling west from Beijing to Moscow. On my three other RS trips in Central and SE Asia over the past four years, I have appreciated their educational focus and knowledgeable guides.
It is much more expensive to use a private train as offered by RS, but there are some real comfort benefits while traveling such a long distance and you also get the benefit of enjoying travel companions you stay with throughout the trip, expert guides, day excursions, and overnight stops in 4-star hotels along the way. The RS itinerary calls for 19 days from Beijing to Moscow, of which 2 of those are travel days to Beijing, 3 days in Beijing, 10 days traveling by train to Moscow, 3 days in Moscow and 1 departure day.
I purchased the most basic class that RS offered on the private train, the Zarengold (Tsar’s Gold). The Standard Classic carriage has nine cabins, and either a toilet at both ends of the carriage, or one toilet and a shower. We had the one toilet, one shower combo in our carriage. The shower is shared between two carriages or 18 cabins, so you must book your 15 minutes shower time slot.
I had two ‘loo’ concerns. One was sharing one toilet with the occupants of 9 cabins. The other was negotiating my way down the corridor of a speeding train at night. Oddly, we all seemed to manage just fine. No personal or property damage came from those late night forays and PJ’s became very acceptable attire in this familial environment.
The Standard Classic cabin has two bench seat beds across from each other with a small table between the beds and below the very large window. There is plenty of storage under the beds and over the sliding, locking cabin door. Strangely, the only electrical outlet is in the corridor so bring a good power bank. I paid the 30% single supplement to have the cabin all to myself. And I am so glad that I did!
Unlike a ship, this train did not have any other ‘gathering’ spots beside an assigned time slot in the restaurant car. A lot of time, when on the train, is spent in your cabin … so much time, in fact, that our carriage started to resemble a college dorm on wheels. The train days were spent amid lots of laughter, standing in the corridor sharing stories and evening ‘cocktails’ in each other’s cabins. Those will be some of the most enduring memories of the trip.
Having said that, we all really enjoyed those two overnight hotel stops in Ulaanbaatar on train day 3 and in Irkutsk on train day 7. So simple to get off, with just an overnight bag, tour around, enjoy your hotel room’s en-suite loo, take a long, long shower, connect to WIFI and then get back on the train and continue the journey.
But let’s start at the beginning. Flying into Beijing, there is a three-day tour before boarding the Chinese private train. The land tour quickly hits the high spots of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. Be prepared for huge crowds, at any time of the year. The Chinese population is on the move as a result of a good economy, access and interest. The significant number of international travelers pale in comparison to the crowds of Chinese Nationals that have the financial means to travel in their own country.
We boarded the scrupulously clean and comfortable Chinese private train on a 16-hour journey to the Chinese-Mongolian border town of Erlian. It offered a good opportunity to settle in with fellow travelers, attend the first ‘in-train’ lecture in the restaurant car, learn a little history of Mongolia, and catch some sleep before the border crossing. We then got on the bus to the town of Zamyn Uuud to embark on the Tsar’s Gold bound for Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. This train had 187 guests on board, with 15 different tour groups and 40+ nationalities. It was not just Road Scholars on the move!
Anne’s vodka tip: While vodka on the train is inexpensive, it is not a bad idea to buy a bottle for your cabin at the border duty free, especially if your restaurant car is not next door! I was in car #11. My restaurant car was #4. There were exactly 28 doors to open, traverse, and close with a glass of vodka in hand. It is tough, tough work, in a bouncing train going at speed, to stay upright, hang on, open and close doors. It requires the balance and core strength of a Pilates master. On full train travel days, you will be doing that three times each way for meals and at least once for a lecture. My carriage mates reported their ‘Fit Bits’ recorded over 8,000 steps just to eat!
I loved our time in Mongolia. It is wild and wonderful. We met incredibly friendly people, ate delicious food including yak stew, tried our hand at archery, and shopped for the finest cashmere in the world. On one memorable occasion, we sat in our bus in uncommonly bad traffic in Ulaanbaatar being regaled by our local guide with stories of his time growing up amongst the ger (yurt) dwellers out on the steppes. He shared that he was a practicing shaman, having learned at the lap of his grandparents.
Generally, the local guides were excellent and shared historical information as well as personal stories that helped us understand what it is like to grow up in a culture so different from our own. We also had two guides on our journey from beginning to end. One was a longtime train employee who held audio lectures over the PA system in multiple languages commenting on the area, town, and landscape we were traveling through. Tamara was our Road Scholar guide with an art/culture background that gave us an insider’s appreciation of the artwork we saw along the way.
Back on the train, we headed for Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world, containing 20% of the world’s fresh water. This was the start of what turned out to be a trip through hundreds of miles of spectacular, vibrant gold birch forests.
After visiting the lakeshore village of Listvyanka with its wooden house museum, we returned at sunset to have the ‘must do’ dip in the 52 degree Fahrenheit lake. Not for the faint of heart or those with pacemakers. A few of us crazy enough to give it a go were rewarded with a reviving vodka shot and lakeside barbeque.
On we went across Siberia with several stops along the way. The highlight of Irkursk was our visit to the Museum of the Decembrists who bravely led an uprising to force the Russian Senate to abolish serfdom and institute democratic reforms in 1825, quickly put down by the tsar of the day. The history was interesting but the first class vocalist and pianist in period dress in the restored 1820’s drawing room transported us back to that time.
Named after Catherine the Great, Ekaterinburg just east of the Ural Mountains is best known for the location of the 1918 massacre of Tsar Nicholas and his family by the Bolsheviks. We had a literally and figuratively chilling walk through the forest to the gravesite of where the two younger children allegedly met their horrible end in an abandoned mine shaft.
Kazan, the sixth most populous city in Russia and about 500 miles east of Moscow, was a far cheerier place. Center stage is the monolithic Qol Sharif Mosque serving the Muslims of this republic of Tartarstan since 1552, standing peacefully beside the Russian Orthodox Peter & Paul Cathedral. Its population is equally divided between ethnic Tartars and ethnic Russians.
We arrived in Moscow after 12 days riding the rails, ready to take on the Kremlin, Red Square and a formidable number of churches, government building and monuments. The beauty of Moscow totally took me by surprise. Yes, I had seen pictures of colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral, but in my mind, the rest of Moscow must surely be grey, Stalin era buildings of absolutely no architectural interest. I was utterly mistaken. The city is filled with beautiful, historic Greek Revival, Neo-classic buildings and oligarch mansions that line the Volga River. Mixed in are wildly modern structures that suggest a creative bent, well beyond what I had credited as “Russian”. But that is exactly why I travel so much. To open my mind and dispel my non-fact-based preconceived notions, replacing them with the firsthand knowledge that travel brings.
The venues were amazing, the museums overwhelming and the very cosmopolitan food, delicious. However, the highlight for me was our time at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics dedicated to space exploration. The opportunity to meet with and talk to a real cosmonaut, and veteran of eight space flights was the thrill of a lifetime for me. One of those flights was as commander of the US Space Shuttle to the International Space Station. That is Road Scholar at its educational finest. For all the wonders of crossing China, Mongolia, and Siberia, for me, the crowning glory was being able to interact with a real astronaut. Travel really is very personal, is it not?
A Word About Visas
Tourist Visas are required for most citizens traveling to China and Russia. A ten-year visa is easily attainable for China and a three-year visa is recommended for Russia since it is a lengthy application process. A visa is not required for Mongolia if the stay is less than 90 days. Road Scholar offers a visa-expediting service for a service charge as well as the visa cost set by the embassies.
However, since I live in Washington DC, it is easy for me to get my own visas and it gives me an opportunity to visit the embassy or consular service center for the various countries. My experience getting a Russian visa was one of the most amusing!
I got an email that I could pick up my passport with visa at the Russian consular services on Friday July 13th at noon. That turned out to be two hours after the US had served indictments on 12 Russians accused of election tampering. With trepidation I walked in and requested my passport, hopefully with a travel visa inside. A gruff, squarely built chap was at the counter. He stated that he would not give me my passport until we had a short discussion in Russian. I replied that it would be a very short conversation since I didn’t speak any Russian, at which point he harrumphed, left and came back with my passport. While flipping through its pages, he grumbled that I had been given a three-year visa and by that time I should be fluent in Russian. As he passed it over with a barely discernible smile, I realized that this must be Russian humor … best served with vodka, I dare say!”
Follow Up FactsDuring 16 days of adventures on and off the train, Road Scholar’s Trans-Siberian Railway Journey from Beijing to Moscow, offers the grace of old-world adventure on a private train with experiences that include six expert-led lectures and 21 expert-led field trips. This itinerary will be offered in May, August and September 2019. After concluding the tour in Moscow, participants may extend their Road Scholar travels, journeying on by train to spend three days in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia.
While Anne Jardine often traveled in her business career, in her retirement years she has ‘adventured’ into 43 countries, over 7 continents, preferring to combine volunteer work, travel and exploring off the beaten track. She is a big believer in the adage that ‘travel is the only thing you can buy that leaves you richer’. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.