A Travellerspoint blog

Eastern Trans-Siberian Railway

Heading West from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude

In 2012, I travelled from Mongolia to Australia using land transport as much as possible. I started this challenge by travelling through Mongolia and across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I began in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and travelled west from Irkutsk to Moscow making a number of pit stops along the way, writing a blog about my adventure titled “Overland from Ulanbaatar to Seattle".

Fast forward to August 2017. My plan is to do a solo trek retracing the route of a Russian delegation that started in the village of Kyakhta (Russia) in 1820, some 230 kilometres south of Ulan Ude and finished in Beijing (China) some three months later. This trek gives me the wonderful opportunity to get to my starting point of Kyakhta by taking the eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude.

I am accompanied on the train journey by three friends, the oldest being a feisty, energetic 92 year old who always receives an astounded smile when people very openly ask her age. We start in a very hot and humid Seoul, spending a day withering in the heat checking out traditional Korean handicrafts in the shops along Insadong Street. It was a national holiday so we admire the men and women parading in their hanbok, the traditional Korean dress.

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We catch the plane the next day arriving in a substantially cooler Vladivostok which is our starting point. We arranged to make short stops in three cities on our journey along this eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway: Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude.

I had imagined the cities in eastern Russia as being cities of dour, grey, dilapidated concrete buildings, broken sidewalks and people wearing brown cardigans. How wrong I was. The central, historic sections of these cities are clean, colourful, full of swish cafes with yummy gooey cakes and pastries, top class restaurants, museums, promenades, and people making fashionista statements.

Vladivostok

The seaside city of Vladivostok is either the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian line or its starting point, depending on which way you are heading. The city is located on a peninsula that juts out into Peter the Great Gulf, is sheltered by steep hills with Amursky Gulf on the east and Golden Horn Bay to the south. Although it was closed off until 1990 to all visitors, it has since reinvented itself as a gritty but cosmopolitan city with a wide array of sights to see. It is easy to walk around although the hills may test the lungs and legs.

We manage to visit some of the more popular attractions:

• the Funicular Railway to Eagle’s Nest Lookout. The funicular costs two rubles, and it takes less than two minutes to get to the top of the hill. The lookout, crowded with Chinese tourists, gives the best panoramic view of the city, the Russian Pacific Fleet parked just off the coastline, and the two structurally impressive suspension bridges over Golden Horn Bay and Eastern Bosporus Strait. The viewpoint itself is looked over by the statue of St Cyril and St Methodius, the inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet.

• Ardrnyev Regional Museum. This museum is a powerhouse of information and its fine display of exhibits range from stuffed wildlife, archaeological artefacts, ethnographic exhibits, and photos from the early days of Vladivostok. Lots of ladies sit on chairs and make sure you walk through the museum in the correct direction.

• Svetlanskaya Steet. This is the main commercial street lined with buildings of fabulous architectural styles ranging from art nouveau, German gothic to Russian baroque. No excuse is needed to take rest stops and indulge in a latte in any of the little cafes lining the street. Many sights are easily seen or accessed from this street: Nikolai’s Triumphal arch, Bortsov Revolutsii square with the monument to the Fighters for Soviet Power in the East, the historical GUM department store. Take a break from the crowds by hopping over one block to the north and walk down the quiet, picturesque pedestrian street of Admirala Folkina and continue west to the harbourside promenade on Sportinvaya Harbour.

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The railway station, with its hipped roof, arches, mosaics and ceiling murals, is in the central part of the city, right next to the Sea Passenger Terminal. A brass plaque outside the station informs you that should you miss your train, you will need to walk 9,288 km to Moscow. If you are walking to the station from central Vladivostok, look to the west side of the street for the Lenin statute in Privokzalnaya Square and further down the street, the house in which the actor Yul Brynner was born.

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We board electric Train 001M in the late afternoon and easily find our cabin in a second class carriage. We ensure that the provodnitsa (she who looks after the carriage) becomes our very best friend as I know that life on a Russian train can be miserable should one get on her wrong side. There are two upper and two lower bunks, and linen is provided. We also score a meal with our ticket and it is the saddest, most tasteless and anaemic meal I have ever come across. It took a while, but we finally figured out we had eaten boiled chicken and rice…all glaringly white.

Our carriage is a mixture of fellow travellers – foreigners from Sri Lanka, Portugal, Australia and Germany and plenty of Russians, some partaking in the favourite pastime of drinking vodka. The water boils continuously in the hot samovar at the end of the corridor which is all important for our cups of tea, instant coffee and cup ‘o soups. There are no plugs provided in the cabins for charging the range of electronic gear people now tend to carry, so competition is fierce for the plugs located on the wall in the corridor.

For 12 hours and 45 minutes we rattle and roll through the Siberian taiga looking at what seemed like an endless wall of birch trees until we reached Khabarovsk.

Khabarovsk

My only regret about Khabarovsk is that I did not have more time to spend in the city. It is a city of attractive buildings, parks, squares and boulevards. It is located on the shores of the wide and rambling Amur River, about 20 km from the border of China. Our time is spent strolling: through Lenin Square, along Muravyou-Amurskiy Street and along the riverside promenade watching swimmers brave the waters. You can’t miss the blue domed Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumption and the gold domed Church of the Transfiguration. Although we only visit the Far Eastern Military Museum, there is a cluster of other top notch museums such as the Far East Regional Museum along Shevchenko Street.

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We are picked up the next day by our guide Antonoli to visit the small Nanai village of Sikhachi-Alyan, located some 75 km outside Khabarovsk. The Nanai are native people who traditionally lived on the Ussur and Amur Rivers. The main reason for our visit is to see the petroglyphs, dating back about 13,000 years old, etched into some of the river stones. There is also a small museum where we are given a very detailed overview of the interesting looking displays covering early tools, fishing boats, traditional village houses and embroidery….but nothing is written in English.

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Our highlight is the rather tasty soup, fish and fresh berries served for lunch. I am just hoping that the fish has been caught upstream from the industry outlets along the river.

Ulan Ude

The next morning is the start of the 50 hour and 24 minute rattle and roll of Train 099 to Ulan Ude, the longest stretch of our trip. We pass typical Siberian landscape of meadows full of white, yellow and pink flowers, thick stands of birch trees and Siberian pine trees. Occasionally we pass small villages of wooden houses, low, rolling hills encased in morning fog and clear flowing streams. It is mesmerizing and gives way to the luxury of daydreaming, sleeping and imagining, with the occasional visit to the dining car for a meal.

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Ulan Ude is the end of the line for me. My friends are continuing on to Irkusk and so we part ways the next morning. I spend the day exploring the city, enjoying every moment starting at the giant 7.7 m high head of Lenin in Ploshchad Sovetov Square which is a wee bit surreal. I stroll down ul Lenin pedestrian walkway with its statues of hummingbirds and martyrs, ending at Virgin Hodegetria Cathedral, near the Selenge River. The streets around the cathedral are lined with old, traditional wooden houses with amazingly detailed wood filigree carvings. I pop into the museum on Ul Lenin which is small, but has some enlightening displays on the history of the city and maps showing the tea trade route between Russian and China.

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Kyakhta

Although not on the Trans-Siberian Railway, I mention this small town as it is the start of my trek from Russia to China, through Mongolia. Despite consisting mainly of run down wood buildings, the town exudes history and charm. For some 150 years, this was the fortress city where all trade between Russia and China was carried out. It would have been a noisy, raucous, dusty place where traders made millions buying and selling tea and other commodities. A gazillion camels would have shat, farted and spat while being loaded with candles and silk going to Russia and furs, cattle and gold being transported to China.

Gorodskoy Park with the ruins of the Cathedral of Trinity and the Gastinie riadi building, the stock exchange building for tea, takes you back to the hustle and bustle of the camel caravan days. The museum in Kyakhta, the oldest in Siberia, is antiquated and musty but I find its room after room of exhibits of camel caravan pictures, maps of old trade routes, and cabinets full of stuffed animals and display of insects on pins fascinating, despite all being in Russian.

Remains of the Cathedral of Trinity

Remains of the Cathedral of Trinity

Picture of Cathedral of Trinity

Picture of Cathedral of Trinity


Picture of camel caravan carrying goods

Picture of camel caravan carrying goods

Map China-Russia tea trade route

Map China-Russia tea trade route

Wood houses of Khyagt

Wood houses of Khyagt

Uspenskaya Church

Uspenskaya Church

Some Trans-Siberian train logistics

Visa: For a tourist visa, apply at the embassy or consulate in your home country and read the requirements carefully. Your visa application will consist of a completed visa application form (which can be filled out on-line in Australia), a confirmation and invitation document, and voucher showing your hotel bookings. The easiest is to work with a reputable agent who can provide the necessary documents.

Tickets: Although you can buy tickets independently, once we figured out our stops, we worked through our agent to organise our tickets. All of our tickets were issued electronically via email.

Time travel: One quirk of travelling by train is Russia is that all train schedules are based on Moscow Time. Figuring out the local time and then Moscow time to ensure you don’t miss your train can boggle the mind.

Posted by IvaS 16:55 Archived in Russia Tagged trip railroad Comments (0)

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