A Trans-Siberian Railway Journey

A trip made from Beijing to Warsaw on the Transiberian Railway in February 1991.

I had left Canada for the winter with a 'Round-the-Pacific' plane ticket that had taken me on an excellent 4 month trip to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Hongkong. There the flights ended, and the reasoning I had had originally was if I was tired of travel by then I'd just get a flight back to Canada. But if I was still fit for more I'd try and go home the long way round, with the railway across Russia.

And when the time came I still felt good so I caught the train to Beijing and checked around for a ticket Beijing-Moscow-Warsaw-Berlin.

This is the ticket:

After two weeks had gone by in Beijing my travel date had finally arrived. $290 CAN Beijing-Warsaw, second class sleeper. Interestingly enough german was a more important language on the ticket than english, I thought from that the Soviet Union had dealt much more with East Germany than it did with English-speaking countries.

It was a long way to go, all the way across the top of Asia.

There are two trains that take the trans-siberian, the Chinese train, that cuts across Mongolia and takes six days, and the Russian train, that skirts across Mongolia to the east and takes a day longer. My train was the Russian one.

All aboard for Moscow! Train left Feb 16th at 20.32

It took a day and a half just to get through China, during which the temperature got colder and colder. The coldest of the trip, -30 Celcius, was where we crossed the China/Soviet border.

Here we had some time to wait as they had to change the bogies on all the cars from Chinese gauge to Russian gauge.

Customs also took a lot of time. For the westerners it was extremely easy, but for the Chinese (such as this couple) they were very strict. Ninety percent of the train travellers were black marketeers like these, bringing cheap chinese goods into Russian and Poland. Some of the Poles were saying they made $4000 a month doing this.

As soon as the Russian border appeared the other kind of black marketeer showed up, offering to sell rubles at 20 to the US dolar (compared to an official rate of 5.3). They would be more and more of them as the train got further west, sell champagne, vodka, russian hats, military watches. It was said that half of the economy of Moscow at the time was black market.

The scenery here was very much like the Canadian prairies, as were the willow and poplar trees that dotted the landscape.

In one car almost all of us western tourists were grouped. All young backpacker types, most returning from long trips through India, S.E. Asia, China, or Australia. Lots of interesting stories.

By trip end we all had had time to get to know each other well, and that really made the trip worthwhile.

Day after day the trip rolled on. Here we are looking at the frozen surface of Lake Baikal. After the first day in the Soviet Union the rolling prairie had given way to birch and spruce forest,and it stayed that way all the way to Moscow.

Omsk, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, the towns and cities rolled by also, most remarkably scruffy looking, either old unpainted wood houses like this, or ugly apartment buildings that looked just like multistory carparks. almost no farms or fields, the whole region must be forestry, mining, or oil/gas.

Temperature warmed up after the border, and stayed -10 C or so the rest of the trip (note the flip-flops)
The train would always stop a few times a day, giving us time to run around a bit outside while the locomotives were changed, bogies and suspension checked, passenger and cargo taken on, etc. Apparently this is the busiest train line in the world. All is double tracked and electrified.

It was also nice to buy food from the little platform shops or the old women with baskets full of goodies. Almost always it was something strange but after China we were old hands at picking out what was edible.

The meals on the train were good, but bread, two kinds of soup 'meat+fried potato+red cabbage+fried egg' and caviar on bread was it for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Since the menu was written in Cyrillic and all the waiter spoke was Russian at least it made for easy ordering.

Crossing the Volga

Heavy snow in the Urals, a day from Moscow.

Feb 22nd arrived in Moscow. Six days on the train! The longest train ride in the world was over. We decided to stick together, which was a lot nicer, and together we bargained with people who approached us for rooms. After some bargaining we shouldered our packs and followed one of them through the subway system.

Just to follow someone was appreciated, as not only is the subway system huge but everything is written in Cyrillic.

The majesty of the subway was somewhat expected, what was the biggest surprise was the vendors selling floweres and/or erotic posters.

Our guide eventually split us up into two groups and mine ended up at this apartment building, where we dumped off our stuff and headed out to the city center to reserve our place on a train out of Moscow.

The ticket reservation was a big problem. Three and a half hours of waiting in a lineup. I was planning to spend a little more time in Moscow but was happy to get a place at all, and so settled for the train out the evening of the next day.

Did have time to go to a Bolshoi performance afterwards, which was excellant.

Lithuanian? flag. The Soviet Union was in the progress of breaking up.

In the evening we had the opportunity to get to know our Russian hosts (first and third from the left in the photo), a young couple. The train touts bring people to them, in exchange for half of the money, which seemed pretty steep. Of course it was all illegal, especially as we had to pay in US dollars ($5.00 a night). A great way to stay in Moscow, as he spoke English and was happy to talk with us until late and explain the situation in Russian now.

The next day we wandered around the city. Unfortuneately some sites like St Basils above were blocked off for a military parade. In general Moscow had a lot of the usual ugly apartment blocks on the outskirts but the center had many big impressive buildings, like Vienna.

Inside the Kremlin.

Rally. Pro-government, but....

...still a lot of soldiers around.

Many people wearing fur, lots of pretty women to look at, western rock music on the radio, melting snow to splash through, those 'so Russian' fur caps, and as a reminder of home, kids packing their hockey sticks on the subway.

Caught the train that evening, and (after getting kicked off unexpectedly in Warsaw) things went quite smoothly.


After short visits with relatives in Germany....


... a friend in Holland, and more relatives in England, I bought a one-way ticket and flew home from London on March 11th.