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Roberts trip to Russia

Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Featured Destinations | 1 comment

Trans-Siberian Golden Eagle Luxury Express Train ~ August 2012.

They advertise this as “Voyages of a Lifetime on a private train”, which is exactly what it is. Angela and I enjoyed a fantastic trip from the end of July to mid-August, travelling eastwards from Moscow to Vladivostok. We also choose to go in summer as the winter trips are probably just about seeing lots of snow and ice and drinking lots of vodka on a warm train. We also drank lots of very good vodka now in the summer. During summer, the days are long, the weather is good and warm and Siberia is spectacular, with many green trees, mainly the Siberian Larch that is a frost-hardy native tree to Russia with a conspicuous white bark, grasses of different colours and many veldt flowers. 30% of the world’s trees are growing in Siberia. There are many rivers with some of the longest in the world and many lakes. We started in Moscow because we had to go to Slovakia first and then took the hydrofoil on the Danube from Bratislava to Vienna and then flew to Moscow after two days in Vienna.

Now having done the trip this way around, we would advocate starting in Moscow after a day’s rest, which is easier to get to than Vladivostok (for starters the plane trip is 8 hours from Moscow, which is a long flight after having done nearly 15 hours of flying to get to Moscow), and it is easy to get back on Aeroflot from Vladivostok via Beijing, as SAA have daily flights from Beijing to JHB, which is overnight and gets to JHB at 08:15 after a 14:45 hour flight that enables one to have a good sleep.

The train track follows a route in southern Siberia close to the Chinese border. They have more recently built another more northerly line, called the BAM line, which is strategically placed away from the sensitive Chinese border and closer to the vast untapped resources of Siberia. At that time it was then the largest post WW2 engineering project and consumed as much resources as was used to fund the space race of the 1950’s and ‘60’s due to the formidable terrain.

 What we saw and experienced was very different to our expectations which were based on stories of gulags, Dr Zhivago, the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other stories of hardship in the more northern latitude Siberian wasteland. Of course Siberia is not a wasteland as there are vast resources of oil, gas, coal and many minerals, and includes the intercontinental ballistic rockets, as well as huge hydroelectric schemes. This was the reason for the forced labour slave camps (gulags), where most inmates never survived. The last one only closed in December 1987 and has now been restored as a memorial and reminder of the period of Soviet communist terror and atrocities.  Of the estimated 20million people that were sent to these gulags, the death toll was over 90%.

The train travels through really beautiful country side, but one has to remember that plants and crops only have 4 months to grow before the harsh winter sets in. Siberia has the world’s largest variation between summer and winter temperatures; an average of -51 degrees C in winter (with lows of -72 C recorded) and an average of +21 to +37 degrees C in summer with +65 degrees C having been recorded in Eastern Siberia.  Apart from the resources, there is a large timber industry and some agriculture. The latter is restricted by the long cold winters. Apparently it is quite easy to obtain land in this area by negotiating with the government, as there is still only limited private ownership. Siberia makes up 77% of the total Russian landmass but has only 28% of the Russian population. The territory is vast, covering nearly 10% of the earth’s land surface.

There are only a few roads in Siberia and these are impassable in winter. Even the east-west Amur Highway completed in 2004 is still not fit for all traffic in winter. The need to move the minerals and coal out of Siberia, and the strategic requirement of transporting soldiers to the east of the country necessitated the building of the trans-Siberian railway route from 1891 to 1916. This was a hazardous and expensive undertaking which took many years to complete, with lots of people losing their lives. For the first number of years there was no rail connection around Lake Baikal, connecting the west to the east, because of the very difficult terrain, and trains were transported across the lake on ferries and in winter when the lake froze to 1.5 meters deep, tracks were run across on top of the ice and horses were used to pull the carriages.

The Russian Railways (RZhD) is enormous with very, very long freight trains passing our train every couple of minutes. It is the government owned national rail carrier of the Russian Federation, headquartered in Moscow. The Russian Railways is the most profitable organisation in Russia and operates over 86,000 km of common carrier routes as well as a few hundred kilometers of industrial routes, making it the second largest network in the world exceeded only by the United States and it is the essential artery of Russia, the world’s largest country. Its value was none more so than in keeping Russia from defeat during the Second World War when the Nazi Wehrmacht isolated Western Russia, the Ukraine and the Caucasus. The Trans-Siberian railway kept Russia alive with round-the-clock supply of coal, grain and iron ore.

The Railways also are one of the largest companies in the world employing one million people (but down from 5 million at the end of the Soviet communist area) and is also a monopoly within Russia. Most of these railway people in Siberia live in villages along the railway, living in small wooden houses, many with blue doors and shutters, which are supposed to provide some religious protection. Each has a garden with vegetables and flowers and huge piles of wood cut for the long winter.

 The annual turnover of the RZhD is US$40 billion a year. The railways account for a considerable chunk of the Russian GDP, and it is said that if you want to know how well Russia is doing, ask the RZhD. By providing a direct transport link between Asia and Europe, the railways can cut by more than half the time it takes ships via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, at cheaper costs.

The Golden Eagle Company is owned by GW Travel of the UK with Tim Littler as founder and president. He was commissioned by the Russian government after the fall of communism to establish a tourist train. The first trains that they ran were not at all luxurious, with long-drop toilets onto the tracks, and they were accompanied by a rail carriage of KGB agents to ensure that the tourists behaved themselves.

GW Travel hires the carriages from a company that was commissioned to renovate the old carriages to their luxury specifications. There are two attendants to each carriage (with basic or no English, but extremely willing to please); a doctor on board; laundry service; a guitarist; and a harpist for entertainment in the lounge car; and at least 5 managers; and what looked like four carriages for all the other support staff. 53 staff members were on board to attend to the 90 guest passengers from all over the world. We were the only ones from Africa. They also outsource the very good catering, and deal with a further 56 outsource entities to keep the train going. This is thus a seriously big endeavour to keep running smoothly – which it does. We were on time in Vladivostok after 12 days of train travel with numerous stops and tours. 

The carriages are pulled by engines belonging to the RZhD and GW asked that their train travel slower to prevent the rocking and rolling, especially at night to afford the guests a good sleep, but they were told under no circumstances, as the railways are so busy and have to keep to a tight schedule. Notwithstanding, we found that a generous dollop of good Russian vodka made for a reasonable sleep. With trains departing from stations on the stated minute, it makes getting off the train to stretch legs at the small stations on route risky, as there is no waiting for anyone.  

We booked on Silver Class because we doubted that the extra charge for Gold Class would be worth it. We were in the first carriage next to the staff quarters, where all the smoking passengers had to go to smoke, and if they left the inter-leading door open, which they frequently did, we suffered when we left our carriage door open. We complained about this and when we arrived at Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, 15 Brazilians left the train to continue to Beijing, and we were upgraded to one of their Gold Class cabins. In hindsight we now think that the extra money was perhaps worth it for a slightly bigger compartment and better equipped bathroom and away from the cigarette smoke.  All cabins have bathroom en suite with showers and proper toilet. Both the food on the train and at the external restaurants we ate at when touring the various cities on route was very good and at each meal wine, beer and of course vodka was available – as much as you could drink. This was also the case at the bar on the train, but spirits except vodka had to be paid for unless you travelled Gold Class.

One of the nicest things about the train was that everything was included in the fee paid up front; all 3 meals per day, on the train or in city restaurants; all wine (which was a selection of good international wines and not the Russian stuff), beer and vodka; all transport off the train to and from the airports and on the tours; the English speaking guides on the tours; and even all tips – I always find it quite stressful to decide whom to tip and how much to tip, so it is wonderful to have this all taken care of.

The total distance of the trip is 10 650 kilometres, counting the sojourn into and back from Mongolia, making this the world’s longest train journey.  The trip takes 14 days; 12 days on the train and one day each in Moscow and in Vladivostok, through many time zones (we had to change our watches seven times), across taiga (coniferous forests that lie south of the tundra zone), tundra, permafrost and steppes. The line includes the largest railway bridge in the world, the 2.4 kilometre span across the Amur River.

The first 9 days travel was at night and each day we went on a tour for most of the day in the city we arrived at in the morning. The last three days in East Siberia, where there are no towns of any size, we had very well-presented and extremely interesting lectures by a retired British army major, called Gordon Corrigan, who has written a number of books. The lectures included: “The making of the USSR – the Russian Revolution”; “Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of Russia in 1941 and WW2 on the Eastern Front”; “Genghis Khan and the making of the Mongol empire”; “The Mongol way of waging war”; “The Russo-Japanese war 1904-05”; and “Supplying the Red artic convoys 1941 – 45”. The lectures on the various wars were out of the ordinary in that he did not only focus on the war itself, but he spoke about the reasons why, and the build up to the war.

Apart from this we also had two lectures by Marina, one of the tour managers, who learnt English at school in Russia out of a book and never having seen an English person. This enabled her to be selected to work with Tim Littler when the Russian government asked him to establish the tourist train, although she could not understand his accent nor his rapid speech, she guessed what he was saying for her translations to the government! She now works for GW and speaks English well. She talked about the “Operating tourist trains in Russia” and “Born in the USSR”. There were also Russian language lessons and a large selection of DVD’s on Russian topics that one could borrow and view on the TV in one’s own compartment.


After a welcome dinner the night before, the tour began in Moscow. We were collected early from our very respectable hotel, the Marriot Royal Aurora, as they had organised early entrance tickets for us to avoid the crowd at the Kremlin Armoury (which is more a museum of the Tsars’ wealth and magnificent jewellery, than an armoury); the Red Square; St. Basil’s cathedral; and the Gum department store. After lunch we visited a few other sites, but the highlight was riding on the metro and seeing some of Moscow’s truly magnificent stations. The metro is extensive with 300km of tracks and 182 stations. The stations in the city centre are beautiful architectural masterpieces with marble-clad walls, statues, stained glass windows and chandeliers. Nine million passengers use the subway each day. We made sure not to go during rush hour! During the Stalin era of the 1930’s most of Moscow’s historic buildings and churches were demolished and instead monumental stone government buildings were erected including seven “wedding cake style” skyscrapers, known as Stalin Gothic. The “Stalin” apartment blocks are huge, ugly structures that in the Soviet era and had no lifts, no heating for the freezing winters and no cooling for the summers. There is a theory that this and the hard life and the vodka caused the mothers to look so downtrodden, whilst their daughters were so magnificent (and still are!)


At mid-morning of the second day, we arrived at the city of Kazan, which lies at the confluence of the mighty Volga and Kazanka Rivers in European Russia.There is a dispute as to whether Kazan was founded in the middle ages by the Volga Bulgars or by the Tartar of the Golden Horde (Mongol invasion). The city is home to another Kremlin (which means a walled fortress or citadel) that was declared a World Heritage site in 2000. The beautiful Kazan Kremlin dates back to the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and was later conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 and a Christian centre was established. Initially there was discrimination against the Tatars (descendants of the Mongol invasion and occupation), but today it is said that the Muslims and Christians famously live amicably side by side. We visited the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin and the Kul Sharif Mosque. Both were in the Kazan Kremlin and both were exquisite architectural structures.  Right up until the 1990’s most of Kazan was covered with two-story wooden buildings. These were demolished and the people relocated, but fortunately a few streets were retained for historical purposes, with their intricately carved doors and window shutters. Today it is a modern city.

Yekaterinburg (formerly known as Sverdlovsk)

Overnight the train travelled over/through the Ural Mountains (just over 1800meters). There are no very high mountains in Russia. The Urals are rich in mineral deposits, precious and semi-precious stones. The city is built on the banks of the Iset River and is east of the Urals, considered to be the divide between Europe and Asia; therefore the city is in the middle of Eurasia.

The city is famous for being the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, where he studied engineering; the shooting down of Francis Gary Powers in 1960 in his American U-2 spy plane; being selected by Yeltsin during the 1991 attempted coup as a reserve capital for Russia; during the 1930s, as one of several places developed by the Soviet government as a center of heavy industry, during which time the infamous Uralmash was built for the production of arms and germ warfare; during WW2 many state technical institutions and whole factories were relocated to Yekaterinburg away from war-affected areas (mostly Moscow).

BUT known more famously, or should I say infamously, for “The Church of the Blood” which now marks the place where the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas 2nd and his family were butchered to death, ending the 300 years Tsar government and bringing in an equally severe and brutal communist government. Tsar Nicholas had become very unpopular because of his ineffectual rule, and during his reign, Russia from being one of the world’s great powers had been reduced to an economic and military basket case. The serfs and peasants had suffered greatly under the wealthy landowners of the Romanov era for 300 years. The people objected to the questionable relationship of Empress Alexandra to the “mad monk” Rasputin. This together with a disastrous defeat by the Japanese (1904-5), whom the Muscovites considered to be no better than monkeys, and millions of soldiers returning in coffins from the WW1 front against the Germans, led to various uprisings which the Tsar put down ruthlessly, as well as anti-Jewish pogroms, earning him the name of Bloody Nicholas. The fact that the Empress was of German origin also did not help. The Tsar did make a feeble attempt at offering democracy by holding elections in 1906, but the voting was heavily weighted by class: one nobleman’s vote equalled 45 of those of the factory workers, and a merchant 3 times that of a peasant farmer. This was naturally unacceptable and resulted in the boycott of the elections. Thus after his forced abdication in March 1917, it was no wonder that the Tsar and his family were placed under house arrest by Bolsheviks, the majority of which were by now the considerably grumpy serfs and peasants that made up most of the party. Later they were transferred to Yekaterinburg to a “house of special purpose”.

Moscow instructed the local Bolsheviks to kill the royal family as they were concerned that the White Army would free them, as they were approaching the city, although during the Russian civil war the White Army was against the Reds but not necessarily pro-Tsarist. On 16th July 1918 the Tsar, his wife, their four beautiful young daughters and their 14-year old son, Alexei, who had haemophilia, were taken down to a very small cellar together with their doctor and three servants, and then killed in the most horrible and brutal manner by 11 soldiers crowding in this small cellar.

As a result, much blood was splattered all over the walls and floor. The soldiers buried the bodies after pouring sulphuric acid over them and the location was kept secret for many years. A persistent rumour went about that Anastasia, one of the daughters had escaped, and many women falsely claimed to be her over the years. These claims were unsubstantiated when the bones were finally discovered and DNA tests carried out. A reference sample from Prince Philip, the closest living relative of the Romanovs, was used.

The details only came out after the death of Yakov Sverdlovsk, who orchestrated the slaying, and where facts of his involvement and the horrendous murders (of which I am not going to go in to here) were covered in his papers.  The city was named after him in 1924 as a “reward”. Interestingly, when Boris Yeltsin was the communist chief in Yekaterinburg he was ordered by Moscow to flatten the House of Special Purpose because they thought that it was a rallying point for the still present pro-Tsarists. Rather than cause dissention he claimed that it had to be demolished to widen the road.

On the way to the marker of the Europe/Asia divide, we witnessed a mass grave, now with tombstones of 18000 people executed by Stalin and buried in the forest. Either 1937 or 1938 is against each name and the unknown. Many bodies were able to be traced as the Soviets kept comprehensive records. These bodies were discovered when the east-west highway to Moscow was being built. Stalin was responsible for unspeakable atrocities during his reign as he began fearing opponents around every corner and would wipe out entire villages.


This is a modern “Soviet” city with the largest opera house in the world. They have a rich culture of arts and science. It is the largest city in Siberia and the third largest in Russia. Factories were also moved here during the WW2. It is near the site of Russia’s largest coal deposits and is situated on the banks of the man-made Ob Sea created when the hydroelectric scheme was built on the Ob River. The city was founded in 1893 at the site of the river bridge (870m long) across the Ob for the future Trans-Siberian train and became one of the largest industrial centres in Siberia during the Stalin era. Also well known for the center for Akademgorodok scientific research built in Novosibirsk with a multi-facility scientific research complex constructed about 30 kilometers out of the city. We visited the mineralogy department and saw a replica of the Cullinan Diamond. The lady in charge gave us a hilarious lecture on the effects that the various mineral crystals have on the human body.


Built on the banks of the Angara River, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal, on the cross-roads of the old trade routes for tea, silk, furs and other goods between Russia and China, and is famous for its classic architecture of old wooden houses. It is also the place where the Decembrists, who were named after the failed December 1825 revolution in Senate Square, St. Petersburg, when they refused to pledge allegiance to the new Tsar Nicholas 1, were exiled to. Some were hanged and others were sent to Siberia where they were sentenced to hard labour. These were well educated people, nobles, and highly ranked soldiers that eventually settled in Irkutsk after their imprisonment, having been banned from returning home. Despite the place being considered one of the most inhospitable places in Russia many of the wives and fiancées elected to accompany their men to this place of hardship. The brave Decembrists spirits were not broken and they started farming, teaching the locals natural science and mathematics, undertook hydrological studies of the Angara River and built a church. They made a great contribution to the history, geography and economy of Siberia. We visited one of the old wooden houses that belonged to the Decembrist’s Prince Volkonsky which was used as a center for the organisation and is now a museum, and later we were entertained to a wonderful private concert of Russian singing and music. We also visited a privately owned Dacha in the country where we had typical Russian food and of course vodka!

Lake Baikal

This is without doubt one of the highlights of the trip and one of the longstanding items on our travel bucket-list that we were able to tick off. Lake Baikal, also known as the Pearl of Siberia, is 635km long and is the deepest lake in the world, containing 20% of the world’s fresh water. The water is crystal clear due to several species of sponge that keep filtering the water. Even the ice formed in winter is so clear that one can see through it. The lake is so large that it has created its own microclimate which supports a unique diversity of plant and animal life with 80% found nowhere else, including fresh water seals called Nerpa and a fish related to the salmon and trout, called the Omul, which is a delicacy. High levels of oxygen in the water have created ideal conditions for many creatures that have become extinct elsewhere.

The Circumbaikal railway line was built from 1901 to 1904 to link the east and west sections of the trans-Siberian line but the track was so tortuous and slow because of the 200 odd bridges and 33 tunnels as the line was cut into the mountain slopes that plunged down to the Lake. This later became a bottleneck when traffic increased.  An improved route was established after WW2 helped by the damming of the Angara river and the use of vast amounts of dynamite. Today the branch line is an interesting tourist line around the edge of Lake Baikal. The train is pulled by a shunter locomotive with a catwalk and rail around the front of the engine. We were allowed to take turns in standing on this front part of the train, which provided great views on the edge of the lake.

Ulan Ude

This started off as a military outpost on the confluence of the Uda and Selenga Rivers. In 1949 the Trans-Mongolian line was built from here to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. Then area is settled by the Buryat people known for the stiffest resistance throughout history to infiltration of their culture. It is the center of Buddhism in Russia. We visited a village of the Old Believers, who are a religious sect that fled to Siberia after persecution by the Tsars of the 17th century. Their optimism and religion helped them to survive under the Tsars and under communism and now in an area dominated by Buddhism and Shamanism. Having preserved their religion, traditions and culture, they are now recognised by UNESCO as one of the cultural treasures of the world.

Ulaan Baatar

The border crossing into Mongolia was interesting in that we were told that, because our showers drain directly onto the tracks, we were not to shower during this time as the Mongolian border police still look under the carriages to check for Russians trying to escape into Mongolia! The countryside in Mongolia (or at least this part) was covered with grassland and rolling hills and very few trees, which made for good farming country with lots of cattle.  Mongolia also encompasses the harsh Gobi desert in the west.

Ulaan Baatar, which is in what is known as the Republic of Mongolia or sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia, is considered to have the coldest winters of all world capitals, with temperatures down to -50 degrees C, but mid-summer temperatures of up to +40 degrees C.  The city also has the unusual feature of many permanent gers situated in amongst the modern high-rise buildings. A ger is a tent-like abode normally used by the nomadic Mongols since ancient times as it is made of skins and poles, well insulated with wool; it is easily put up and taken down. During the time under Russia and the Stalin era, Stalin was opposed to the nomadic way of life as it worked against his ideals of enforced collective farming and industrialisation which resulted in the permanent gers in the city, making up 25% of the housing. It is also well known for cashmere products – so guess who had to go shopping?

We went out of the city to visit a nomad family and ger for lunch and I was looking forward to riding a Mongolian horse as this was on offer to anyone interested. It is well known that the main reason behind how Genghis Khan was able to conquer such a big territory, the largest empire ever, in a relatively short time was due to the mobility of his army which was provided by their sturdy and magnificent fast horses, of which each soldier had 3 or 4 so that he always had a fresh horse to go into battle. This, combined with the special bows and arrows they had which they were able to shoot from horseback, using a specially design saddle with a high back that made it almost impossible to fall off. Anyway the horse I was given was a real old moke that was more interested in eating than going anywhere!  In retrospect, although being disappointed, I suppose they would never risk tourists falling off and breaking bones in such a remote place.

That evening in Ulaan Baatar we were taken to a Mongolian restaurant in the main square with a folk performance that involved musicians who emitted strange throat singing which came out as very deep-toned bass “voices”, and a young maiden that did the most amazing contortion tricks on top of the table. At times it looked as if she had turned herself inside out, never to recover!


It was a major fortress city and now is a key fishing port and the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet, and is the spot where the Japanese virtually annihilated this fleet during the Russo-Japanese war, and the city received heavy bombardment. The city has been likened to San Francisco, but while it is beautiful in its own right, I do not see any resemblance. During the Revolution and civil war, it was the main entry point for the American, British and Japanese support for the White Russians. They departed when it became obvious that the Bolsheviks were winning to which Lennon remarked “it’s a long way but it is ours”.

This is exactly what it is, as one gets the feeling when you are there that Vladivostok is a very, very long way from anywhere. The magnificent recently restored station is the final destination of the Trans-Siberian Express. The history during the Stalin era was horrific with an estimated 4 million people sent to Vladivostok by rail in cattle cars and then shipped for 10 days in a prison ship to Magadan to the north, from where they were marched to gulag camps to work in the gold mines. One prisoner’s revolt aboard the ship was put down by the guards by spraying them with water which then turned to ice in the sub-freezing conditions. However the city is now thriving since the opening up by Gorbachev in 1986 of what was previously a restricted area closed off to foreigners since WW2. A trip up Eagle’s Nest Hill provides a great view over the city, the river and the Golden Horn Bay.

Final remarks – Russia is not for Sissies!

In the 1990’s during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, all the industries, companies and many of the state enterprises were privatised virtually overnight when the state moved away from a planned economy to a market economy. An assessment was undertaken to determine the value of all these entities (which itself must have been an impossible task), and the total value was then divided by the number of Russians. Vouchers based on this to enable civilians to become shareholders were distributed to all and sundry, and as would be expected, many people, especially in the outlying villages, had no clue what was going on or had any idea of the value of their vouches. Unscrupulous people made them ridiculously low offers or even offered bottles of vodka for their vouches. So overnight hugely wealthy people were created and this was the origin of the Russian oligarchs (tycoons), and the wealth gap increased dramatically. This is still the case today. At the time of privatisation, the economy collapsed and inflation went through the roof. Many people that had been saving up all their lives for their retirement lost their investment overnight and became destitute. In many cases this led to prostitution, drug abuse and alcoholism.

This desperate situation was made even worse by the fact that the state had looked after their workers by providing employment, albeit with low wages, and everything was taken care of for life; free education; free medical services; low cost of transport; low housing costs; etc., and these privileges no longer existed as everything had been privatised.

The situation also led to the formation of a mafia that today is considered one of the strongest in the world. Amongst other things, a protection system ensures that successful businesses have to pay for the safeguard of their businesses.

Despite the above, Russia is an interesting and very worthwhile place to visit. It is still a seriously large country, even after the breakup of the previous USSR. We learnt an enormous amount about the cultures, the history, the geography, and we saw some stunningly beautiful countryside.

1 Comment

  1. Nicely written story – looking forward to planning a trip to Russia now!

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