Highlights of a Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway

From raucous carriage rides to the peace and serenity of Lake Baikal, Nomad Tom reveals the best experiences for passengers on board the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Photo © iStock.com/Kirzaa

When you think of Russia, images of Red Square, the Kremlin or the canals of St. Petersburg spring to mind. But far to the east is a land as infamous as it is untouched: Siberia. 

Occupying roughly 10% of the earth’s land mass, Siberia stretches from the Ural Mountains in eastern Europe to the edge of the Pacific Ocean in East Asia.

Vast distances and untouched, rugged wilderness are blanketed by a powerful winter’s chill, and all waiting to be explored.

All Aboard The Trans-Siberian Railway

There's no better way to experience the landscapes of Siberia than as a passenger on board The Trans-Siberian Railway.

Covering more than 5,500mi (9,000km), this legendary train can cover that distance in just one week. Outside the window, you’ll see Taiga forests rippling over the mountains and valleys, and many military equipment graveyards, home to hundreds of dormant tanks, helicopters, and big guns.

To break up the journey, hop off the train to explore local villages. Tatarskaya is the medieval home of the Tatars and iconic wooden houses. In Tyumen, visit the Fine Arts Museum and walk along the Tura River, once the entry point to Siberia. Omsk is a snowy wonderland and the home of the coveted Faberge egg.

The Siberian village of Omsk. Photo credit: iStock.com/alekskai52

On board the train you'll become gruzovoy tovarishch (carriage comrades) with fellow passengers. Knowing a few words of Russian can turn a pleasant journey into a great adventure. Sharing shots of vodka with train staff and other passengers is mandatory – as tradition states, it is “To ensure your own health and the health of the train.” 

Inside the restaurant cart on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Photo credit: iStock.com/Mike Sheridan

Exploring Irkutsk Oblast

In Irkutsk, the beating heart of Siberia, you’ll find glorious 18th-century Orthodox churches, military palaces, and a strikingly Soviet skyline. 

Irkutsk serves as a kind of north Asian nexus and is a dizzying blend of Asian and Slav cuisine. Irkutsk is best experienced during the powerful Russian winter, when the rich diet of Kievan meat, vegetable stews, and refreshing borscht soup will keep you warm. Be prepared for substantial offerings of sour cream and dill with almost every meal you eat, as well as a few nips of vodka "for your health".

It’s easy to rent a vehicle in the city or join a nature group for an adventure outside of the city. Most of the towns have tourism offices to assist in organizing accommodation when heading into the wild.

Here, learning the Cyrillic alphabet and mastering a few key phrases will make your life easier. Tourism in Siberia is rather uncommon, and while you’ll be welcomed, there’s very little information in English and adequate translators are few and far between the further you from Moscow.

Cathedral of the Epiphany, Irkutsk. Photo credit: iStock.com/Alexastr80

Lake Baikal

The deepest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal is nestled between ancient forests, snow-capped mountains, and quaint lakeside villages. Here, which season you choose will drastically alter your experience: for a relaxing lakeside retreat alive with water sports and eco-tourism, choose summer.  

A view over Lake Baikal in summer. Photo credit: iStock.com/avdeev007

However, Siberia is famous for its freezing cold winters, and the architecture, culture, and food are designed to maximize enjoyment in low temperatures. Enjoy the evenings relaxing in a sweltering banya (Russian sauna) and listen to the howling wolves in the evening.

The largest lakeside village is Listvyanka, comprising warm wooden chalets and fish markets selling the local delicacy of kopchenaya (hot smoked trout). During the day, you can go skiing on the lakeside mountains, hiking, and hunting, or rent a snowmobile for a breakneck race through the forest.

Watching a winter sunset in Irkutsk, Russia. Photo credit: iStock.com/Sasin Paraksa

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