The trans-Siberian route sprawls across the barren but awe-inspiring plains connecting Russia with central Europe and China. A plethora of tour companies are now offering tailor-made rail crossings from Russia, across Siberia and into China via exciting destinations such as Mongolia and Manchuria. This method of travel offers unrivalled views of often inaccessible and unspoilt wilderness and allows for sights and scenes to be absorbed at the traveller’s own pace. In fact, you don’t even have to wait for the summer to embark on this epic voyage as many services run throughout winter, making it the perfect way to ring in the New Year.
Detailed itineraries are now available to cater for a range of tastes, and with tours taking from just a few days to up to three weeks, you can be sure to travel at leisure and see as much (or as little) of your chosen destination as you like. Many packages begin from either Moscow or St Petersburg, however those with a flare for adventure may find it far more fulfilling to make the entire journey by train. Thanks to Eurostar, it is possible to begin your rail trip from London St Pancras – if you’ve got the time to spare.
Taking the plunge
Detailed here is a sample itinerary of what travellers can expect based on a 12-day trip from St Petersburg to Beijing.
Your journey begins in St Petersburg where you will meet the driver of your long voyage and check into a hotel in the city. After completing a few bureaucratic obligations (China and Russia are fraught with them so be prepared to have visas at the ready) your time is your own to explore the many sights of the city. Pre-booked excursions are often available, but it may be preferable to take in the many museums, parks and religious sites at your leisure. The Peter and Paul Fortress and Catherine Palace are a definite must before embarking on the train to Moscow.
The overnight train to the Russian capital takes around eight hours and guests can expect to be greeted with breakfast and refreshments upon arrival. Again, passengers can embark on guided tours or can feel free to be left to their own devices in this magnificent and historical city. The Moscow Kremlin, Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and boat trips along the Mosvka River are all highly recommended. Moscow is also host to some of the world’s finest classical music and dance traditions so be sure to organise tickets to the world famous ballet and opera.
Travelling through the vast plains of Siberia is when your train journey will really come alive. Now is the perfect time to socialise with fellow passengers in the dining car, relax with a few local delicacies such as salmon, caviar and vodka and take in the breathtaking scenery. Highlights include the deciduous forests of the Ural Mountains, which gently give way to the Siberian Pine Forests. You’ll also cross major landmarks such as the famous River Ob at Novosibirsk and the huge Enisei River at Krasnoyarsk. Next you’ll circle Lake Baikal – the world’s largest – before following the Trans-Manchurian Railway to China.
The railway gauges are switched as you enter the border with China at historical Manchuria, where the origins of the Manchu Dynasty and the country’s last imperial line can be traced. Trains typically stop at the regional capital Harbin and passengers are provided with accommodation at a nearby hotel. Often called “The St Petersburg of China”, Harbin is host to an extraordinary example of European art nouveau along its main pedestrian street and now is the perfect opportunity to sample the delightful Manchurian Cuisine on offer. Those on winter excursions may also be lucky enough to catch the Harbin Ice Festival. Held for a month from January 5th, locals skilfully craft traditional ice and snow lanterns transforming the streets into a blaze of dazzling colour. Warm dress is a must here, as temperatures will drop well below zero.
Days 11-12 and beyond
Your last day in Harbin can be used to explore the magnificent old town, which is bustling with 19th century Russian baroch and byzantine buildings with their ornate spires and cupolas. A night train departs for Beijing and the last leg of your 9,593km journey. Once in the Chinese capital the east is your oyster, and after coming this far many people simply want to keep going. Travel operators offer further connections to Japan and beyond via a mixture of train and ferry, or you may simply want to explore this magnificent city for a few days alone. Either way, this epic train journey provides an intimate experience of the varied cultures and landscapes that make up this intrepid part of the world.
Unmatched in undulating sophistication, you get a real appreciation for the transition between east and west that extends far beyond the airport departure lounge.