The steppes in style
Mesmerising landscapes on the world’s longest train journey
Siberia comes as a shock. Reading and dreaming has prepared me for a land in keeping with prison and political exile; for cold and wind and permafrost. What I don’t expect at the end of August is to be peeling off layers and putting on a hat; to be walking station platforms where petunias nod in a breeze; to be looking out a train window over fields of sunflowers.
In Irkutsk, which Chekhov thought “the Paris of Siberia”, we meet a corresponding warmth in the people. We stop just after 6am at a platform for tourist trains by the Angara River, and take a coach into town to snap wedding couples by the boat-shaped Church of Our Saviour. We are returning to the coach when the mother of one bride pulls half a dozen of us into her party. She puts tumblers in our hands, nudges an embarrassed best man towards us with a bottle of bubbly, and bids us join in a toast to the bride and groom. Then she has them toast us.
The only place in Siberia where there is a real nip in the air is in my train compartment, and that is only because Anton, the fresh-faced attendant, turns on the airconditioning full blast every time I step outside. I’m sure he is trying to be helpful. Anton, as is true of all train staff, is nothing like the attendants Eric Newby encountered while writing The Big Red Train Ride in 1977; those were attendants who, he found, rebuffed all requests as if they had been “trained to beat off packs of wolves”. And my train is nothing like Newby’s. He travelled the 9342km from Moscow to Vladivostok on service trains.
I am on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, a private train run by a British company that began operating in Russia in 1991, just before the Soviet flag ceased flying over the Kremlin. With Golden Eagle you spin out the journey to 12 nights, sightseeing at half a dozen places en route. Every compartment has its own bathroom with shower, as well as air-conditioning and a DVD player.
This year marks the centenary of the opening of a route running wholly through Russia (it originally went through Manchuria as well). Most of my fellow passengers have chosen Golden Eagle because they are of an age (late 60s on average) and income that makes them disinclined to join queues for a loo or a shower or spend the small hours downing vodka toasts with Russian squaddies. One British couple, a retired senior police offi- cer (who does enjoy his vodka) and a marketing director, have paid for a fabulously expensive Imperial Suite, which gives them a kingsize bed and private guide and touring car.
Among the 70-plus passengers are two sizeable groups — one from Britain, the other from Brazil — plus half a dozen Americans, a family of Israelis, two Argentinians and five Australians. Maria (65) and Zuly (75), the jolly Argentinians, step off in running kits and do laps of the platforms.
Our proper touring stops are at Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan-Ude and, on a day’s diversion to Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, a city with yurts in the shadow of skyscrapers. An hour from UlanUde, capital of the Buryat autonomous republic, we visit a town established by the Old Believers, a splinter group of the Russian Orthodox Church whose members were persecuted in the 17th century by a reformist patriarch (for continuing to bless themselves with two fingers rather than three) and last century by the Bolsheviks (for believing in a god other than Marx).
The head of their community centre, stout in both senses, puts our own journey in perspective by telling us her ancestors had walked for a year to get there.
Other stops become blurred in my mind, like the landscape I look at through the train window, which is not so much memorable as mesmerising: the ranks of silver birch, the steppes, running away from the line as if they might go on forever. Who says we live in a shrinking world? The Trans-Siberian tells you otherwise.
From Novosibirsk we travel by coach 32km to Akademgorodok, a city of scientists in the Golden Valley of the River Ob. Olga, a geologist as bubbly as her blonde perm, lectures us on the region’s mineral wealth, a sizeable measure of which is in the rings on her fingers and the pendant around her neck. Could we guess what name had been given to Siberia’s largest diamond, which weighed 342.5 carats? No we could not. The diamond was called “Twenty-Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”.
Some of Olga’s counterparts on our excursions make similar jokes about the way things used to be. One, having reminded us what happened under Stalin, goes on to
Golden Eagle TransSiberian Express at Lake Baikal, a steamdriven section of the journey, top; the bar lounge car and preparing meals for passengers, above; the town of Irkutsk, below