The Trans Siberian Railroad was the biggest, most forbidden exotic trip we could imagine. Bella and I had grown up during the Cold War. We remember when the Soviet Union represented all that was wrong in the world, threatening our very identity as Americans. We were trained to crawl under our desks with our heads between our knees in school, hoping that the metal desks would offer just the protection we’d need to survive a nuclear holocaust. Remember, the US Olympic team didn’t even attend the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow over the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.
In my senior year of college I attended “International Relations”, which was taught by a Major in the Unites States Army, specifically from the Special Forces branch. He was the first Green Beret I’d ever met in person. He and his map with pins in all the countries he’d been to was my inspiration to see the world. He spoke about trying to get into the Baltics on vacation and being forcibly rejected, whilst yelling “what about Glastnost”. He always told us an economic system that couldn’t produce usable toilet paper couldn’t last. Our trip from Lithuania to Kaliningrad offered me a chance to experience exactly what he warned against.
In 1990, Sergei Fedorov was playing hockey for the Soviets in Portland Oregon and defected so he could play in Detroit for my beloved Red Wings. He risked everything he knew to walk away from his country to play hockey in a city he had never visited because he was attracted to our ability to buy whatever we want, particularly blue jeans. He was quickly followed by Vladimir Konstantinov and eventually five Russian players helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 1997. I still have the jersey with #91 on the back.
Uncle Sam sent me to Germany in January 1990, just two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world had changed when East Germans could drive their Trabants into West Germany without fear. I didn’t dream it would mean one day I could cross from the West into the East without fear of arrest and banishment to a gulag in Siberia.
All of our experience taught us the Trans Siberian Railroad would be forever forbidden to us. Yet we dreamed of this forbidden trip. When we went to Lithuania in 2016 we struck on the crazy idea of visiting Kaliningrad, which of course required a visa. They’re not cheap and they require a “letter of introduction” meaning somebody in Russia has to vouch for you. We figured out that could be managed by a website offering that service for about $250 or so, and a three year visa was not much more than a single entry. We figured we’d get the visa and give it a shot, and then plan this trip within the three years of validity.
Once we had gone through the effort to answer the incredibly invasive questions (Were you ever involved in an armed conflict? Do you have any knowledge of explosives? List all the countries you’ve visited in the last 10 years, organized by month and year.) we started planning this trip. We realized we couldn’t keep this trip among the two of us and decided to include our sons. That meant they needed visas, too. The cheapest route we found was aptly named passportsandvisas.com.
Once we bought our round trip tickets to Moscow, Bella worked on scheduling the train. Originally I had petitioned to take the train from Ulan-Ude through Mongolia and ending in Beijing, but that turns “Trans Siberian” into “Trans Mongolian” and violates the spirit of the trip. So Moscow to Vladivostok became the goal.
We boarded a double decker in Moscow headed for Kazan.
Attendant checking in passengers.
We had read about the amenities on the Russian trains and were prepared for much worse than we encountered. The train leaving Moscow was particularly nice.
Rumor had it the toilets on the trains would be quite lacking.
All they really lacked was a shower. They do have a drain at the bottom, so a couple of Army vets like us figured we could improvise our own shower and never felt like we lacked for basic hygiene. Not every train we rode would have the push button flush, but you’re expected to refrain from flushing when the train is stationary since they do simply evacuate onto the tracks.
Every train had a samovar. I don’t have any idea where I learned that word and I’m not even sure if it is correct, but each car had an endless supply of hot water. The attendant sold packets to make coffee, tea, and all manner of other snack foot. Of course you need a cup in which to make the coffee.
Ask the attendant for a stakan. You’ll get a glass, a metal sleeve with a handle, and a spoon. And don’t think you can keep it, because they keep track of them when loaned out.
Leaving Kazan we had a short overnight ride to Yekaterinburg. This was the oldest train we rode, closer to the rumors we’d read. The first train had two electrical outlets in each cabin. This one had two in the hallway. We had heard charging our phones would be a chore so we all traveled with big battery packs, at least 20,000mAh sized. On our first train our next door neighbor used an extension cord with four outlets on it in the hallway. When they got off the train en route to Kazan they left it behind. Their loss was our gain. It proved to be useful for the rest of the trip. We used it this evening to keep an eye on our devices in our own cabin.
We learned to live by the posted schedules. The time on the left is always Moscow time. Everything related to the train runs on Moscow time. The second column denotes the amount of time at each station. We made sure we hopped off whenever it was longer than 15 minutes or so.
Nearly every station has a small store selling food and drinks
Often stations had a display with a train that once ran the rails.
We saw more metal detectors throughout Russia than we ever expected. Police were everywhere, walking in pairs or threesomes. We never felt unsafe, nor did we ever feel threatened.
The bigger stations had bridges over the tracks as seen in some of the photos above. Not all.
We were fascinated watching those guys cross the tracks. At one stop we crossed like that, visited a grocery store, and upon our return we saw a train approaching the station. The attendants yelled at us to hurry, waving us across excitedly. We were glad they were paying attention. Once that train occupied the near tracks we might not have been able to get all the way around it to make our train before it pulled out.
Some stops had stores, and others had locals walking around selling wares like fur hats, dried fish, and homemade pirogues. And those were great!
That’s a retired train with ours in the background. We had made it, all the way to the end of the Trans Siberian.
The distance we traveled was staggering. You can look at a map but you really don’t get a sense of the scale until you’re really on the ground. We had spent nine nights on the train and one in a hotel in Yekaterinburg. We were 9288 kilometers from Moscow. That’s 5771 miles. For perspective, Boston is only 2983 miles from Los Angeles. We were seven time zones separated from Moscow and our flight back took nine hours. Our flight from Toronto to Warsaw took only eight hours and traversed six time zones.
This trip across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railroad was the fulfillment of a long time dream. I can’t express how much we enjoyed it, boredom and all. I think this trip belongs on everybody’s bucket list. It wasn’t that expensive but it sure was rewarding.