Ride the rails across Russia, China and Mongolia: the longest — and most epic — train journey in the world.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, linking Moscow to Beijing, is the longest continuous rail line on Earth. Spanning six time zones, and covering almost 5,000 miles and over one third of the globe, this is one of the world's most epic journeys — with a number of fascinating places en route where you can get off board and explore for a few days. Regional manager Jo Hoban and Russia specialist John Cole dig out their diaries and share some of their most memorable experiences.
Beijing (1) is like no other city. Outwardly modern and frenetic, it holds pockets of its long and fascinating history deep within the very heart of the city limits.
Met on arrival by my charming guide Thomas, and somewhat feeling the effects of my nine-hour overnight flight, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of everything around me.
Skyscrapers seem to defy gravity, their upper limits hidden by the city's famously hazy atmosphere. The sheer number of people jostling on the roads and pavements outside of the car window is simply staggering.
I'm staying in a traditional, family-run guesthouse at the heart of the city's hutong district and this makes for a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city.
It's a really authentic experience — my room is traditionally furnished and set around a garden courtyard that once would have been home to several generations of the same family.
Exploring Beijing and the Great Wall
The last two days have been simply wonderful. I've not only seen the modern side of what Beijing has to offer — visiting the city's Olympic Park and wandering down Wangfujing market street, (starfish on a stick anyone?) — I've also immersed myself in its history.
"Standing at the gates to the Forbidden City amidst the hustle and bustle of Tiananmen Square is an experience I'll never forget. If you can ignore the noise and the interested stares of the nearby Chinese tour groups and simply focus on the history that surrounds you, you will realize that you are standing at the foot of a complex that required the efforts of over a million workers to construct and subsequently played host to emperors, concubines, servants and slaves for over 500 years. By comparison, at the same time all of this was going on in China, the British royal family were celebrating the wedding of Henry V, dining off stale bread in place of plates!
I've also fulfilled a lifelong dream of standing on the Great Wall of China. We recommend a section an hour's drive outside of the city at Jinshanling and it really is well worth the journey. Here the wall is at its majestic best, stretching out over the hills and mountains beyond, restored to allow easy access but yet still ramshackle enough to convey a sense of history. It's also almost devoid of other visitors, which makes for excellent photo opportunities as well as allowing you to walk along it untroubled but for a few persistent souvenir-sellers.
After a day spent practically glued to the window and a peaceful night listening to the sounds of the train (which I boarded yesterday in Beijing), I arrive in Mongolia. Whilst Ulaanbaatar (2) is not the most picturesque of cities, the sights here contain a wealth of history and a certain dilapidated charm. The highlight, however, is heading into the vast steppe beyond the city for an overnight stay in a traditional ger (felt tent) and the chance to spot the world’s last living prehistoric horse species, the Takhi, in Khustaii National Park.
"Those that have had the privilege to visit Mongolia say that they are struck by its breathtaking scenery as well as the warmth and welcome of its people — and my stay in Khustaii does not disappoint. Heading out into the rolling hills beyond my camp accommodation on horseback is a wonderful way to take in the magnificent scenery. After the noise and life of Beijing, it's a stark but tranquil contrast. When the horses do finally come down onto lower ground for food and water as the sun begins to set, the sight is simply beautiful and very moving.
"My accommodation for the evening is a warm and cozy ger with a wood-burning stove at its heart, which is kept well attended by Degii, my host. Although she speaks little English, she's fascinated to see an English girl traveling on her own and ensures that I am kept well fed and warm throughout my stay, even slipping in at 5am to relight the fire before I wake up. For someone who strangely does not sleep well abroad, it's one of the most peaceful and restful nights I've ever spent away from home and leaves me refreshed and ready to board the train to Russia the following day.
One of the most beautiful examples of a small Siberian town is Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal (3), my destination after 30 hours spent traveling over the border from Mongolia.
This quaint town, made up of a few larger hotels and a myriad of other tiny but decorative wooden 'gingerbread' houses, is nestled in between two pine-covered valleys and is where many Russians themselves choose to relax.
Indeed there is a legend that Lake Baikal emanates some sort of mystical energy that will refresh the soul of even the most world-weary traveler. Whilst I don't know if this is true, the entire town does have a general air of relaxed sleepiness that is highly contagious!
On board the train
I've had many wonderful train experiences as part of this journey but one special memory of my time on board has been sharing a compartment with the most fantastic babushka (the affectionate term used for a Russian grandma). Having established that I was much too thin an Englishman to survive a Russian winter, she took me under her wing and over the course of the journey fed me some of the most delicious home-cooked Russian food. Although she spoke no English — and my Russian is fairly limited — we became firm friends for the journey. She was genuinely moved when the time came for us to go our separate ways and I was very sad to say goodbye.
"You hear a lot about how unfriendly Russians can appear, but once you've cracked the exterior grumpiness with a joke or a shared glass of vodka, you'll always see the truth of what really lies beneath — a warm, friendly and generous people who are intensely proud of their very beautiful country and its long and truly fascinating history.
"Arriving in Moscow (4) at the end of the long track from Beijing feels like an achievement. Standing at the heart of the city, Red Square, surrounded by centuries of Russian history and culture feels like a fitting end to the most wonderful journey. The city sights really do live up to their billing. Surrounded by St Basil's and the Kremlin, it suddenly hits home that you have traveled through — and are now standing at the heart of — one of the world's most historically and politically influential nations. This feeling is staggering and makes the journey in itself eminently worthwhile."
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