The Trans-Siberian Railway is not so much a single railway line as a set of tracks and routes that cross Russia, Mongolia, and China. Direct trains from Moscow run to Beijing via either Mongolia or Manchuria. The other line, the official “Trans-Siberian” line, stays in Russia and ends at Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.
This is what the trains and stations look like.
Our plan was, and is,* to take trains across Russia and Mongolia to Beijing, with stops along the way. This is known as the Trans-Mongolian line. We’ve previously written about the various Russian stops that we made along the Trans-Mongolian line, and will post shortly about our time in Mongolia. This post, however, is just about our time on the train since it has felt like a completely different journey from our town time.
*As of this post, we are in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We plan to continue to Beijing by train, though we are in a bit of a pickle. Apparently, the Chinese Embassy here stopped issuing visas to non-Mongolians for a few weeks last month. It looks like they have started issuing visas again, so we have our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to pick up our visas tomorrow. Otherwise, we’ll have to fly out of Mongolia since we are land-locked between Russia (where our visa has expired) and China.
When we planned our year-long adventure, we had very few concrete ideas of what we wanted to see or where we wanted to go. One thing that I knew for certain was the I wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad and I wanted to see Lake Baikal. I even put up a picture in my office of Lake Baikal in my office several months before quitting as inspiration to remind me of the adventure that was awaiting me!
Our trip through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway feels like it finally got started after visiting Vladimir/Suzdal. Prior to that, we’d had an overnight train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow that left late in the evening and arrived early morning, as well as a 2 hour trip from Moscow to Vladimir. Our trip from Vladimir to Ekaterinburg on the other hand was a full 23 hours! We’ll cover our train experience in an upcoming post, since at this point it feels like we’re living in two separate universes — train life and town life.
You can stop looking. We found Pikachu in Ekaterinburg.
by Michael (with substantial content written by Elizabeth — thanks!)
Our guidebook and various websites on the Trans-Siberian Railroad suggest that travelers visit some of the preserved old towns outside of Moscow. Since the towns are filled with glittering churches and because Russians are obsessed with all concepts ring- or circle-related, they have nicknamed these towns the “Golden Ring.” Looking for a taste of life outside of Russia’s main cities we heeded this advice, stopping off first in Vladimir (on the main train line) and then Suzdal (not on the train line) to see cute towns and old churches.
The train to Vladimir was easy enough; it was a bit less than two hours from Moscow, and after a bit of searching for luggage lockers at the Vladimir train station (we found none) we located an attended room with baggage storage in the basement. We opted to store our luggage after getting off our morning train to Vladimir so that we could visit Vladimir and surrounds before continuing on to Suzdal to spend the night.
Our first item of business was to catch a local bus out to the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, a small church on a smaller hill in the middle of a floodplain near Bogolyubov (about 12km northeast of Vladimir). We were pleasantly surprised at how frequent the bus service for this rural route ran — we missed a bus and only had to wait about 10 minutes for the next bus (#152) to arrive. The church is something of a pilgrimage site (I think) and we were greeted in the small town of Bogolyubov by a couple of nuns handing out hot tea and fried dough (perfect for a cold, drizzly day).
Monastery in the middle of Bogolyubov — this is where we ran into the tea-serving nuns.
I like to run.
Back in San Francisco, I regularly ran a Saturday morning 5k called Parkrun. Launched in the UK, Parkrun events are held all over the world,* usually on Saturday at 9:00 a.m. Each runner brings a barcode and volunteers record the runners’ times. Due to the high popularity of Parkrun in the UK and the popularity of San Francisco as a tourist destination, about half of the runners any given week in SF are tourists. I’ve met plenty of travers, some who I still follow on Strava (an app used to track running routes/statistics).
*While there are Parkruns all over the world, there were none close to anywhere we visited so far, until Russia. There is now a Parkrun in Stockholm, Sweden, but it was not operating until after our visit.
I was never able to convince Elizabeth to run the San Francisco Parkrun, but she agreed to join me on runs in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Getting off our overnight train, the first thing we noticed was that Moscow is colder than St. Petersburg. We were visiting from September 16-18, so hardly winter. By the end we were talking about caps and gloves.
That didn’t stop us from enjoying the sights. Having traveled for about five months at this point, we are a bit “palaced-out” and “museumed-out” so fancy rooms and great paintings aren’t as much of a draw. Despite this, the Moscow Kremlin was a great half-day. The artifacts, jewels, and clothing in the Armory is impressive. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the dresses — apparently one Tsarina fainted five times during her marriage ceremony from her tight corset.
Looking for a taste of Russia beyond Saint Petersburg, we planned a day trip to Vyborg (pronounced Vee-bork), near the border with Finland. Vyborg was part of Finland for large parts of its history, and although Stalin deported all of the Finns after the Great Patriotic War, it is now is a common day trip for Finnish tourists on the weekends.
There’s a “fast” train that has only a few stops and takes about an hour and a half from Saint Petersburg, so we got up early enough to catch it. We were careful on timing — not realizing ahead of time that we could use kiosks (in English) instead of the ticket window (not in English) — so we ended up with an hour for coffee and a walk around Lenin Square before our train left.
The Revolution is officially over? Or the Revolution is officially “over there”?
We originally planned to visit Russia because we wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. We added Saint Petersburg, which isn’t technically on the Trans-Siberian Railway line, because we would already be in Russia and everyone we talked with that had been said it was great. We had no idea we would end up staying for seven days.
Views from the Summer Gardens — one of the many beautiful gardens that we visited during our stay.
But a couple things happened, one that we underestimated the importance of and one we didn’t expect: money and beer.