If you have been following our blog, you will know that for the past four months we’ve been traveling in China, Mongolia, and Russia. What you may not have noticed, is that over the past four months we have traveled over 8,000 miles almost exclusively by train! On June 6, we flew from Mumbai to Hong Kong, and we did not take another flight until October 11, when we flew from Moscow to Yerevan, Armenia. Our route from Hong Kong to Moscow was continuous by rail, except for a few side trips where we rented a car or took a bus.
We put together a map of our route over the past four months, showing our major stops and side trips. We were pretty amazed to see how much of our planet we’ve now seen out the window of a train!
We have already posted a few times about our journeys in China. You can check out our post on learning Mandarin at the Omeida Chinese Academy here, or our post on our trip to Sichuan Province here. The main thing to note about train travel in China, is the mind-boggling extent of their high-speed rail network. Almost every major city in China is connected with super-fast, comfortable, and efficient high-speed trains. Even more impressive is that it most of the system was built in the last ten years! Buying tickets is easy through an app, even if you don’t speak any Chinese. Old-school sleeper trains do exist in China, but the high-speed rail service is almost the same price, and much faster, so we traveled almost exclusively by high-speed rail in China. It is possible to fly domestically in China, but because of the availability and affordability of high-speed rail connections, the thought never even crossed our minds.
Our route in China started in Hong Kong. First we traveled to Yangshuo, where we spent two months learning Mandarin. In between our classes, we took a week-long break to travel from Yangshuo to Sichuan Province, where we explored the capital Chengdu and the nearby Sichuan Mountains. After finishing our classes we took high-speed trains along the coast of China, stopping at Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing.
From Beijing, we took a train across the border with Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar. This route, referred to as the Trans-Mongolian, takes passenger from Beijing to Ulan-Ude in Russia via Mongolia. In Ulan-Ude, it connects to the Trans-Siberian line. To save money, we took a local Chinese train car to Erlian, a sleepy (and beetle-filled) town on the border with Mongolia. We killed a few hours walking around the town, ate our final Chinese dinner, then walked over the border and boarded the official Trans-Mongolian train. We delighted in the decadence of the train, which had charming purple and green decorations. The border crossing wasn’t too painful of an experience, through the timing in the middle of the night was not ideal for getting rest.
Apart from exploring the capital of Ulaanbaatar, our main activity in Mongolia was a road-trip in the Mongolian countryside. You can read our blog post about the road-trip here. After returning to Ulaanbaatar, we took another sleeper train across the border with Russia to Ulan Ude. Trains in Mongolia are comfortable and reliable, but due to the extremely sparse population outside of Ulaanbaatar, there is only one main rail line running north-south between the borders with China and Russia.
Similar to the China-Mongolia crossing, the Mongolia-Russia crossing occurs in the middle of the night, so the process involves being woken up every time you have just fallen asleep in order to fill out a form, hand over a document to an immigration officer, show the contents of your bag, or have your documents handed back to you. It does not make for a great night of sleep!
Russia – The Trans-Siberian Railway!
The bulk of this post will be about our train trip through Russia, since that is new information for you all. Russia is well connected by rail all the way across Siberia to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. However, there are no high-speed trains in Siberia, and there can be multiple days between major stops. To give you an idea of distances, the train trip between Vladivostok and Moscow takes more than six straight days. Even though we broke up the journey with stops along the way, we still had multiple journeys of over 24 hours, and we really got to experience life aboard a train.
The official Trans-Siberian, or Trans-Mongolian train, refers to a specific train number, for example: trains 1/2 run between Moscow and Vladivostok, trains 3/4 run between Moscow and Beijing via Ulaanbaatar, trains 5/6 run between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar, and trains 19/20 run between Moscow and Beijing via Manchuria. These trains have a very high standard of comfort, are quite expensive, and are the most touristy. However, there are also hundreds of “local trains” that connect cities throughout Siberia, with only a slight reduction in comfort and at a fraction of the price. During our trip in Russia, we traveled exclusively by local trains.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time on the train. We always traveled in “kupe” class (aka second class), which is a closed 4-bed compartment. The beds were comfortable enough that we could sleep soundly through the night. During the day we would relax, read books, or catch up on writing. One fun challenge was putting together meals for our trip. We would often board the train with a box full of dried, instant meals, such as noodles, mashed potatoes, or oatmeal. Every train car comes equipped with a samovar, a hot water boiler, and during the day we would make countless trips to the samovar to refill our thermos for tea, coffee, soup, etc. The train is quite shaky, so it’s actually quite an art to fill from the samovar without having any scalding water spill on you.
Each train car also has a “provodnitsa”, usually a stern middle-aged Russian lady, who is in charge of all the passengers in their car. Her job is to make sure the train car is clean, everybody behaves, and to deal with any problems that may arise. The provodnitsas have a reputation for being strict, bossy, and even rude. However, we didn’t have any problems with our provodnitsas, except for a small one on day 1 when Chiara accidentally used the informal form of “hello” and was promptly corrected! In fact, we appreciated being aboard their tightly-run train compartments. We always felt that our belongings were safe and that our compartment would be clean. Every few hours they even vacuum the carpet inside your compartment!
Leg 1 – Mongolian Border to Irkutsk
The first leg of our trip took us from the Mongolia Border to the city of Ulan Ude in the Republic of Buryatia, a region with a lot of Buddhist influence. We only stopped in Ulan Ude for 2 days, but we felt there was much more to explore and wished we had spent more time there. The city is very relaxed, so it was a nice way to ease into Russia. They also have the largest Lenin head in the world!
From Ulan Ude we took the train to Irkutsk, which is the city most people base themselves in to explore Lake Baikal. After arriving in Irkutsk we spent 8 days volunteering with the Great Baikal Trail (GBT) organization, you can read about our amazing experience here. After returning from camping out on Lake Baikal, we spent 5 days in Irkutsk, mostly relaxing and getting our lives together (aka doing about a months worth of laundry) after a crazy month of train travel, road trips, camping trips, and minimal showers from Beijing to Russia.
Leg 2 – Irkutsk to Tomsk
Tomsk was a last minute addition to our itinerary. We knew we wanted to break the trip up between Irkutsk and St. Petersburg, but we didn’t know exactly where we wanted to stop. Fortunately, we met two interesting people during our volunteer experience on Lake Baikal, Nastia and Igor, who live in Tomsk and kindly offered to show us around the city.
Tomsk is a charming college town, home to five major universities and seven research institutes. It is also one of the oldest cities in Siberia, founded in 1604. The city is full of youthful energy and is absolutely teeming with university students. As with most college towns, the dining options are tasty, numerous, and affordable. During our tour around town with Nastia and Igor, we visited many well-known educational buildings and university museums.
Tomsk is also known for its beautiful historic wooden houses that were constructed in the traditional Siberian-style, and have been well-preserved.
Overall, we really enjoyed exploring Tomsk and soaking in the laid-back, college-town vibe. We also hit it really lucky with the weather. We were able to enjoy 70 degrees weather while admiring the autumn foliage visible throughout the city.
Leg 3 – Tomsk to Biysk and the Altai Mountains (Do Not Try This at Home!)
This leg was a little crazy with the transport connections. I would not recommend it to anyone unless they have their own car and speak at least a bit of Russian. We really wanted to see the Altai Mountains, but because of their remote location, near the borders of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, we were worried we might not ever be closer than we were on the trans-Siberian railway. So, we decided to hop off the train in Biysk and try to make our way through the mountains on local transport.
The Altai Region is known for its snow-capped peaks, pristine forests, crystal-clear lakes, and swift-moving rivers. The main highway running through the mountains to the Mongolian border is known as the Chusky Trakt, and some call it one of the most beautiful highways in the world. Considering how rugged the terrain is, the Chusky Trakt is surprisingly not-too-windy and the pavement is well-maintained. The road is also relatively flat, with the highest elevation being only 1,715 meters. This means you are treated to excellent views of the 3,000-4,000 meter peaks that rise up on either side of the highway.
To start our journey we took a bus from Biysk to Gorno Altaisk, the largest town in the Altai Republic, and a jumping-off point for excursions into the Altai Mountains. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that the public transport along the Chusky Trakt was pretty lacking. Our guesthouse informed us that there is a minivan that leaves every morning from Gorno Altaisk and drives all the way along the Chusky Trakt to the town of Kosh Agach near the Mongolian border. The journey takes 7 hours, and if you want to get off somewhere you just tell the driver. However, once you get off the minivan you are on your own, and there is no guarantee you’ll be able to find transport back. We decided to take the minivan all the way to the end and decide what to do after that, that way we can at least say we saw the whole Chusky Trakt.
The drive along the Chusky Trakt was beautiful, but certainly not the relaxed sightseeing trip we had hoped for. For starters, we were packed like sardines in the minivan. The driver was also a little bit aggressive overtaking other vehicles, to the point that one of the other passengers had to throw up in a bag. Our driver had a partial eye-patch to cover up what (we assume to have been) a fist fight injury. That didn’t make us feel particularly confident in his visibility! Our only stop was 30 minutes at a roadside restaurant for lunch, then back in the van. We didn’t have any time to stop for photos or take in the scenery, so on our outbound journey we had to experience the scenery through the car window. After 7 hours, we finally arrived at Kosh Agach.
Kosh Agach was nothing special, but we spent one night there to try to get our bearings. The town is located in an arid steppe, close to the borders with Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Many of the inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs — we even stumbled upon a Kazakh one year old’s birthday party, which we mistook for a wedding due to the presence of a DJ and the large number of guests.
On our drive up the Chusky Trakt we made note of several beautiful tourist camps by the river we wanted to get back to, the only question was, how? We asked around town and discovered that public transport was not running that day, or ever maybe? Our last resort was hitch-hiking. Fortunately, we were only trying to backtrack approximately 2 hours to the riverside lodges in the town of Chibit. After about an hour by the side of the road with Chiara holding a sign in Russian, a nice man, who was going in our direction, picked us up and took us to Chibit.
Chibit is a tiny town in the Altai Mountains, with a few riverside resorts offering cabin rentals. We stayed in a very scenic little cabin on the river for two nights.
The resort also had an excellent banya (Russian sauna), with a “plunge pool” in the icy stream that flows through town. The proper banya technique is to sit in the sauna until you can’t bear the heat any longer, then run outside and jump in the freezing-cold river. Repeat approximately 2-3 times for maximum health benefit.
After a few days relaxing and soaking in the mountain views, we decided to try and get to the next town on our list, Onguday. Onguday is about two more hours down the Chusky Trakt towards Gorno Altaisk. This time there was a van going in our direction but we had to call the driver the day before and reserve a seat, again good thing Chiara speaks Russian and had a Russian SIM card! Surprisingly, the van worked perfectly and we got dropped off on the side of the road in Onguday.
Onguday was not really a tourist stop (I think we actually confused it for another town we passed), but the surrounding mountains had some very nice fall foliage, and there were a few good hotels in town. We spent a few days in Onguday, hiking around the river and mountains. Because Onguday was a much bigger town, it actually had a public bus going to Biysk, yay! On our last day, we took the bus to the Biysk train station where the fun all began and waited for our next train to continue our trans-Siberian journey.
Leg 4 – Biysk to Kazan
The train journey from Biysk to Kazan was a doozy! In total we spent 52 hours on the train (and crossed 4 time zones!). By the end, we were starting to crack. On our previous trips we had no problem spending one night on the train — we even found it relaxing and enjoyable — but when you have to sleep two nights in the same compartment the fun starts to wear off (and you begin to turn on each other). Fortunately, right as we were starting to get cabin fever, we arrived in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Tatarstan is a predominantly Muslim republic, with people descended from the Golden Horde (relatives of Genghis Khan) and conquered by Russia in the 16th century. The people of Tatarstan have their own language, Tatar. Relative to the rest of Russia, they have more autonomy than other provinces, and they are richer due to the supplies of oil and gas. Kazan is a popular location for Russian tourists due to its unique culture, scenic location on the Volga River, and being less than a days train ride away from Moscow.
We found Kazan quite charming, and we really enjoyed our 3 days there. The main tourist attractions are the immense Kul Sharif Mosque, built in 2005, and the Kazan Kremlin. Everything is easily accessible on foot, and there is a nice Arbat (pedestrian street) called Bauman that runs the length of downtown.
From Kazan it was less than 24 hours on the train to St. Petersburg, our next stop.
Leg 5 – Kazan to St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg, founded by Tsar Peter the Great, is a monument to the opulence of Imperial Russia and a favorite stop for tourists from all over the world. You can hardly walk a city block without seeing some monumental, impossibly-ornate, historic building. In fact, you can hardly see any modern-looking buildings at all in downtown St. Petersburg. The entire city looks like it was created out of the imagination of someone with an intense appreciation for European Art and unlimited money, which it sort of was. St. Petersburg is also a cultural hub in Russia, with many museums and performance venues, including the world-famous Hermitage.
We fell in love instantly with St. Petersburg. Well, I did, because Chiara had already been once before. We spent about a week in St. Petersburg, and it wasn’t nearly enough. During our visit we spent one full day at the Hermitage, we even got free entrance and a tour from Serge, an art restorer and family friend of our friend Barbara. Equally impressive as the immense collection of European Art is the Hermitage building itself. A large part of it was once the winter palace of the tsars. Built in the 18th century, Catherine the Great stored her immense collection of art there. The interior spaces are art exhibits in themselves, with malachite columns, domed ceilings, huge frescoes, giant statues, and richly painted rooms done by famous artists at the time.
After a few more days of sightseeing, we went to see a performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre, which was absolutely breathtaking despite our horrible cheap seats. Sitting normally, we could only see half the stage. Contorting our bodies so that we were draped over the row in front of us, we could see about two thirds of the stage.
Later on, we met up with a fun young Russian couple, Nastia and Andrei, who we also met on Lake Baikal. Together, we went on a free art walk through downtown.
After a wonderful week in St. Petersburg, we took an overnight train to Moscow, only 9 more hours on the train before our train journey was over!
Leg 6 – St. Petersburg to Moscow (Last Train in Russia)
We boarded the train in St. Petersburg at midnight, slept for 8 hours, and arrived at 9:30 am in Moscow, the end of our train journey. In Moscow, we stayed with a friend of Chiara’s mother, Natasha, who has an apartment near downtown. Natasha was a wonderful host, she smothered us with motherly love and stuffed us full of food. I got to meet her sons Petya and Liova, who Chiara had met before. The apartment also came with three eccentric cats and a 60 year old turtle that were a constant source of entertainment.
From Natasha’s apartment, we would make daily excursions on the metro into downtown. The Moscow Metro deserves a post of its own — maybe we’ll even do one soon. The stations all have architecturally beautiful interiors, with vaulted ceilings and column-lined galleries, and some even house interesting works of art. The soviet-era trains are extremely efficient and trains arrive every minute. The extent of the Moscow metro is also quite impressive, and most tourist destinations are within walking distance from a metro stop. Due to the circumstances of the construction of the Metro during the Soviet Union, an entire mythology has sprouted up around the Moscow Metro, and many people believe in secret underground bunkers built by Stalin, or secret train lines that only a few privileged government officials know exist.
During our daily excursions, we saw many famous sights including: the Kremlin, Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre, and the New Tretyakov Art Gallery. We also got a healthy dose of performance art with a concert by the Russian Philharmonic, a Pushkin play, and a Georgian musical performance.
While in Moscow, we met up with another friend, this time a Russian friend named Dasha who we met in China. Together we walked along the Old Arbat (historic pedestrian street) and visited the homes of two famous Russian writers, Gogol and Gorky. Unfortunately, the weather in Moscow was not great, it was cold and rainy most of our time there. Even so, we had a great time, and I actually enjoyed Moscow just as much as St. Petersburg. Moscow, to me, felt much more like a real big city, with people living, working, and taking part in the urban hustle. Moscow also has a lot of beauty, history, and culture, and can hold its own with any city in Europe.
On our last day in Russia, Natasha and Lyova took us on a driving tour around Moscow. We visited Moscow State University, and drove through many noteable parts of town. Natasha has seen Moscow change enormously during her lifetime, and it was really interesting to hear from her about the history and landmarks of her city. That evening, she spoiled us further by taking us out to a performance of Georgian music and taking us on a walk around Zaryadye Park, a fantastic new public space adjacent to Red Square. A perfect day to end our time in Russia.
After a week packed with sightseeing, again not enough time, we said our goodbyes to Natasha, and trains, and flew from Moscow to Armenia where I am now writing this post.
8,000 Miles Later
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I’d like to congratulate you on making it through 8,000 miles with us. You can collect your prize when we see you next.
Over the next month we will be traveling in the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) and then flying to Istanbul, Turkey. From there, we don’t know exactly what we are doing, but we are going to try to squeeze in as much of Europe as we can before we have to return home to the US. Stay tuned for more updates!