Today I am going to take you on a trip that only a few years ago I would have thought was impossible. In 2006, I had an opportunity to take the National Geographic Tour of the Trans Siberian Railroad from Vladivostok, Russia (in the Far East part of that country) to Moscow — a fourteen-day 6,580-mile rail trip on board the Golden Eagle luxury train, undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest rail journeys.
I flew from Las Vegas to Seoul, South Korea and took Vladivostok Air into Vladivostok. I have to admit I was so glad to land safely. You know the old saying, “Sit down, hold-on, and shut up”? It was like that, except the only problem was, there was nothing to hold on to, not even a seat belt, so I had no choice but to shut up. I was too frightened to say anything.
My First stop was Russia’s biggest Cold War secret: Vladivostok is the home of the Russia Pacific Fleet. To any American this might seem like an interesting tidbit, but to me as a military widow and veteran, it was more than that. This was very exciting because both my husband and I were in Military Intelligence in the 70s and could not have been able to fly over Russia or the Far East. And there I was by myself, walking the streets. It was a strange feeling but a good feeling; I could almost see my husband smiling.
Until 1990 Vladivostok was off limits to all visitors. Even Soviet citizens needed special permits, and foreigners, with a few exceptions, such as President Ford in 1975 — required nothing short of divine intervention.
From the hills surrounding Golden Horn Bay is where the city was built. I was told that there is an underground city with a working hospital and living quarters, although I have no personal knowledge of this. Several nearby inlets are also used with reportedly the most modern ships kept away from the prying eyes of tourists.
Vladivostok is also a major commercial fishing port, similar to San Francisco, and had a population in 2006 of around 700,000 people. What I remember most was walking through the city and feeling like I was back in time. There are holes in the roads left over from some sort of explosives. The few gloomy stores were filled with stuff. Crossing the streets was next to impossible as I did not see any street lights, stop signs or cross walks. The roads were clogged with cars, and they did not have assigned lanes for traffic.
The residents do not have late model cars. There are clearly lots of wealthy people in the city, although I I probably do not want to know how they made their money. The fishing village is perfectly placed to be an important trading center in the Far East and the Pacific Rim.
Before I boarded the Trans Siberian railroad, I had a wonderful lunch at the beautiful Railway Station Restaurant. Most people don’t equate “wonderful lunch” with “railway station” — but it was great.
My rail carriages were a mixture of old and new gathered from around the country. Today you have a very different Golden Eagle Train, which has its own carriages. The real Trans Siberian railroad train is quite different — much more rustic, shall we say — and to most people would be unacceptable for travel.
As the train wound through the rolling hills in a misty forest of beautiful oak, elm, and maple trees, it took me back to my home in Western Pennsylvania. I saw forts that have not changed in centuries, and then I would arrive in modern cities where English is spoken.
Ulan Ude is a pleasant city of 360,000 and is capital of the Buryat Republic, founded in 1668 as a military outpost. This was the center of Buddhism in Russia; at one time, there were hundreds of monasteries in this area, but most were closed and the monks imprisoned. In 1946, it was chosen again to be a center for Buddhism. I took a side trek and went up in the mountains to the village of the Old Believers.
In the village, I enjoyed a home cooked dinner of traditional food like roast chicken, corn, potatoes, and of course apple pie for dessert, followed by a folk music performance. The Old Believers live in a fort-like atmosphere with no plumbing, electricity, and of course no modern bathrooms. They grow their own vegetables and raise their own meat, which is allowed to roam freely around the living quarters. I was treated like royalty.
One interesting thing about the Old Believers is that because of lack of medical care, their life expectancy is in the 50s. We had a 94-year old man with us and they really did not know what to do with him. All he wanted to do was eat. The Old Believers are a religious offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church who fled to Siberia from the persecution of Russia’s 17th-century Tsars. Optimism and religion helped these people persevere under the Tsar, under Communism, and in an area dominated by Buddhism and Shamanism. Having preserved their traditions and religious rituals, in 1991 they were recognized by UNESCO as one of the 19 cultural treasures of the world.
In Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, I traveled by bus up to our restaurant in the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, where I saw lush green rolling hills and the smallest horses I have ever laid eyes on.
Bright yellow homes sat along the road, as well as the traditional nomadic Gers dotted all across the countryside. I dined in Ger in the park and enjoyed a meal of yak, French fries, and a tossed salad. I will always remember the experience of visiting a Nomadic family in their Ger.
There is nothing like the Mongolian Throat singers. I have to admit: I could listen to the men for hours, but the women — what a horrible screeching sound they made. It was like running your fingers down a black board. Painful!
My next stop was Port Baikal, and we took a ferry across the Angara River to a charming village. We visited the Museum of Wooden Architecture, depicting Siberian life of the 17th Century. The day that I was there, the locals were getting ready for an event. The children were dressed in traditional garb and were practicing for an upcoming pageant. The animals roamed freely and were not afraid of us.
Lake Baikal, the Pearl of Siberia, is the deepest lake in the world and holds 20% of the fresh water in the world. It holds over 50 species of fish and omul, a whitefish species of the salmon family native to Lake Baikal.
For five hours we wound our way through tunnels along cliff-hugging tracks above the lake with a vista of snow capped peaks along the shoreline. What I remember most is riding on the outside of the engine part of the way and our omul barbecue. In 1996 Lake Baikal became an USESCO World Heritage Site.
Next was Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia. Here I visited the beautiful mansion of Maria Volkonskaya, wife of Count Volkonskay. This home today exhibits the artifacts of the women who followed their husbands into exile.
We enjoyed a private concert with an atmosphere of the 18th century before returning to the train. This town was very modern, and the women dressed professionally with suits and high heels. This was a contrast to the old believers with their colorful gypsy-like dresses.
Yekaterinburg is a beautiful modern city that is known for being where Imperial Russia ended in 1918 with the execution of the last tsar and his family. The site is marked with a simple marble cross. The building is gone; however, there is the church of Our Savior of the Blood, which commemorates the assassination of the Romanov Family.
They also have a museum with some remaining fragments from Gary Powers’s US spy plane, which was shot down in 1960.
Kazan, the beautiful capital of Tatarstan, is settled along the banks of the Volga River. This beautiful city bustles with lively pedestrian streets and a vibrant and colorful central market. Here we had the pleasure of hearing a private piano concert.
Moscow was our final stop onboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I toured the city and checked into the beautiful Marriott Grand Hotel. Here I enjoyed a special farewell reception in St. Basil’s Cathedral and dined in a famous restaurant with local entertainment. We had Vodka and goulash that night. In fact, we had Vodka virtually everywhere, and it got to point we were pouring it in the plants as we toured museums and churches. This was more difficult that it would seem, as there was a lot of security around us watching what we were doing — but a person can only drink so much vodka! Moscow was the only place that we had any problems. We were bribed at the train station by the guys who gathered our bags and took them to the bus, and we also had a camera stolen at the restaurant.
One of the things I remember most was when we were crossing the border from the Far East into Siberia. We had given ourpassports to our tour director for safekeeping. We were on the bus back to the Far East when we crossed the border and were stopped by a very large man in a military uniform. We were all frightened when he asked for our passports. When we told him we did not have them, he told us in Russian to get off the bus. So we in panic got off the bus, not knowing what was going to happen. To our surprise (and everlasting relief), with broad smile on his face he said in perfect English, “Have a glass of champagne and some chocolates!” — and we got to meet his grandchildren. This was only one of the many wonderful experiences I had.
For many people, the Trans-Siberian Railroad does not immediately come to mind when they think of a great adventure — but this trip, with its spectacular views, its peek into a marvelous, scandalous, and storied history, its unique cuisine, and its friendly residents, is definitely not one to be missed. This is the perfect Bucket List kind of trip, and there is no better time to travel than right now. The luxury market is offering incredible value for your money. I can help you get there!
By Sara Raney