Few journeys can evoke more romanticism and sense of adventure than the Trans-Siberian Express. This is a rite of passage for any serious traveller. Unlike most train voyages, joy is not found in finishing the activity, instead the focus is entirely on the journey itself and the many attractions along the way.
The train will allow you to abstract from everyday life and will give you precious time to think. People, places, sceneries, food, smells and legendary chess games will all become treasured memories of a lifetime.
It's the longest journey that one can make on a single train. The longest of the three trans-Siberian routes, between Moscow and Vladivostok, covers over 6000 miles through seven time zones and would take 8 days to complete should one not disembark the train. There are various variations one can take on this epic journey, however the one that offers the most cultural and scenic contrasts, is without any doubt the route between Moscow and Beijing. This incorporates the Siberian Forest, Lake Baikal, Mongolia, the Gobi desert and the Great Wall. To complete this route allowing time to properly enjoy all main attractions and places, absorbing both the scenery and the culture, one should budget 25 days, a long time but worth the effort. This is the ultimate social experience, for a travelling community of modern-day explorers, where lifelong friendships are forged over vodka shots in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.
The journey of thousands of miles begins with a single step and so we begin our journey in Moscow. A city that may look superficially European, but ultimately it is neither Western nor Eastern. It is a law unto itself.
Moscow is Russia’s New York City. Like its American counterpart, the city never sleeps. Moscow provides a sensory overload; a relentless stream of people on the subway, glamorous nightspots, and luxury shops, any cuisine you desire, golden-domed Orthodox churches and historical treasures.
If you survive a few nights in Moscow, then you are well prepared for the next phase of the journey through the Russian countryside. The Russian landscape is one of the principal attractions of the journey, with vast panoramas and a sense of immensity vividly captured in classic films like Doctor Zhivago. This journey also gives a great appreciation of the diversity of people in Russia, while at the same time helping understand how people gradually change from West to East.
Leaving from Yaroslavsky station, you enter a carriage proudly marked 'Moscow-Ulan Bator-Beijing. This is a euphoric moment. The scale of the journey suddenly hits you. A festive atmosphere can already be felt as you tread on board. You see for the very first time the other travellers with whom you will be laughing, arguing, flirting, drinking or simply observing - but never getting tired of.
You only have to go 30miles outside Moscow to be in a completely different world. You will spend the first few days crossing the vast forests of Siberia, which are occasionally broken up, by the brutalist architecture of the communist era. Along the way you can get off at various stations to stock up on provisions sold by women from the surrounding villages.
All three Trans-Siberian routes share the same main track between Moscow and Ulan Ude. After the Kremlin in Moscow the best places on this part of the journey are Kazan, to see the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia, Yekaterinburg, to see the site of the murder of the last Russian royal family (the city is also full of many historic buildings), Irkutsk, known as the 'Paris of Siberia', iconic Lake Baikal, and Ulan Ude, home to the biggest Lenin head in the world.
But the Trans-Siberian journey is so much more than a 'to-do list' of destinations and sights. What makes the Trans-Siberian Express unique is the communality of the experience with both Western travellers, and local Russians, Mongolians and Chinese for whom the train is a practicality. The epicenter of the social life on the train is the restaurant wagon, also colloquially known as the 'vodka wagon', for those for whom nutrition is less of a priority than losing one's inhibitions.
You will find that people here are generally more predisposed to spontaneous conversation and high-spirited interaction, than they would typically be on most trains in the world. Passengers are either consciously or sub-consciously aware of the fact they are on the most famous train in the world and therefore they rise to the occasion.
You will find a huge cross-section of society from farmers and construction workers eagerly returning to their families after many months away, to smartly dressed Russians with ambiguous career descriptions on their business cards, and of course Westerners embarking on the journey of a lifetime who are keen to entertain each other with anecdotes and generally revelry.
The train crosses the boundary from Europe to Asia in the pine-darkened slopes of the Ural mountains at kilometer post 1,777. An obelisk marks this spot and it will probably be the first and only time in your life that you can have one foot in Europe and one in Asia at the exact same time.
The next major destination is the Novosibirsk. It is the only region east of the Urals that does not have significant mineral resources but it was divinely compensated with the aesthetic quality of its women with high cheekbones and widely spaced eyes. The locals are indifferent to their reputation, but the tourists will immediately notice their presence.
Novosibirsk city is very much defined by the bold and brash architecture of its Soviet-era influence. It is a good location to experience a 'real Russian' city untouched by the tourism, and somehow with a Soviet era spirit.
The next major destination point is Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and the highlight of Eastern Siberia. Summer travellers enjoy views across the deep blue waters to soaring mountain ranges on the opposite shore. Winter visitors marvel at the frozen lake dusted in sparkling snow. Whether you swim in it, drink its water, skirt its southern tip by train, dog-sled over it in winter or just admire its 2000km of shoreline, most agree that Siberia doesn’t get better than this.
You are now in some of the most remote territory in the world but paradoxically this makes it easier for Westerners to socialise with each other, because social barriers are removed. To give a specific example, when Luca Faloni was by Lake Baikal, he bumped in to the director James Cameron and spent the evening drinking with him in a completely spontaneous encounter. Serendipitous events of this ilk are not rare in this part of the world.
Baikal is another major juncture because at this point you take the sister train; the Trans-Mongolian Express, which veers south just after Lake Baikal, stopping in the capital Ulaan Bator on its way to Beijing while the Trans-Siberian continues to Vladivostock. The Oriental influence is immediately felt. You sit in the train restaurant with ornate woodcarvings whilst watching the Siberian landscape gradually merge into the Mongolian grass plains.
The very word 'Mongolia' is synonymous with remoteness. It is a vast territory of 1.5 million square kilometers but with a population less than half the size of London. Long after the reign of Genghis Khan, nomadism remains a way of life in modern Mongolia. One travels through ruggedly beautiful gorges and sandstone mountains in search of golden eagles, desert gazelles and the Mongolian horses. The empty undulating grassy plains of the Gobi desert are the main attraction, occasionally enlivened by herds of Mongolian horses or clusters of yurts.
Ulan Bator is dynamic and incredibly fast growing, with an usual atmosphere, where temples from the past mix flawlessly with modern buildings, a symbol of the economic growth of the country. Surely a few days in the capital are a must for any visit to Mongolia, and the nightlife is also interestingly entertaining. However to make the very most of the experience, we recommended spending at least a few days living with nomads away from the capital.
It is possible to take part in very contrived and artificial 'indigenous' experiences in many areas of the world, but Mongolia is as close at it gets to the genuine article. There are no LED televisions hidden away to give tourists a false sense of 'authenticity'. There is simply no electricity, or at best, a basic provision powered by a small diesel generator. Mongolian nomadic living isn't for the faint-hearted as you will be witnessing human existence in one of its most simple forms involving killing your own meat, using river water, and sleeping in a traditional yurt far from any urban influence.
This might not sound attractive to modern travellers used to the amenities of modern life but a true nomadic experience in Mongolia will give an unique point of view to life, let alone being immerse in fantastic landscapes far from the industrialized world. There is no doubt that this form of existence is disappearing as Mongolia industrializes. And over time the experience will become more artificial to cater for tourists. If you still want to see Asia as it was 500 years ago it is best to visit soon.
Getting back on the train and heading towards Beijing the next highlight is passing through the Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan. This is one of the best parts of the Great Wall, which has maintained its original historic appearance. And here we come to the final part of the journey but by no means the anti-climax.
After the solitude of the huge Mongolian plains, the brash modernity of Beijing can come as a shock, or a relief. For a thousand years, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe. Today the city is a very different one, but it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country. Between the swathes of concrete and glass, you’ll find some of the most exotic temples, and grandest remnants of the Imperial Age like the ancient Forbidden City. More modern additions like the Art District also contribute to the magic atmosphere of this metropolis.
First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 22 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that intersect it.
Outside the centre, there are parks and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong the magnificent Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive urban sprawl.
Some of China's most pleasant scenery is surprisingly only a day-trip from the capital. Just to the north of the city, the Great Wall, winds between hilltops. Beijing is a city that it is hard not to enjoy and it offers a gentle introduction to Chinese culture for first time visitors to China.
You can of course take it another step further and take a fast train to visit Shanghai, but unless you are embarking on a round-the-world journey, this marks the conclusion of the Trans-Siberian experience. Five thousand miles and seven time zones later you have completed a legendary voyage, the memories of which will never fade. Most importantly you will have learned how true Buddha's words were when he said - 'It is better to travel well, than to arrive'.