Journey: St. Petersburg to Shanghai by train 2002
Taking the famous Trans Siberian Express trough Russia was our oldest wish, here at Comtourist. The mythical 9000 km train journey between Moscow and Vladivostok was something we just had to do, it would be our first great journey trough the former Soviet Union. In 2002 it was time to go and we started planning our journey. There are basically two options, the "real" Trans Siberia Express to Vladivostok and the Trans Mongolian route to Beijing via Mongolia. We decided to start in St. Petersburg, take the Trans Mongolian route and end the journey in Shanghai. We had three fantastic weeks in the train and some of the worlds most interesting cities.
This was our first visit to Russia, so we really wanted to see Moscow and St. Petersburg. We had little time but both cities made a great impression. We would take three weeks for the journey and have stopovers in Irkutsk, Ulan Bator and Beijing. It turned out to be a great journey with many highlights. The three days in the train between Moscow and Irkutsk turned out to be the very best part of the journey. The Trans Mongolian express follows the route of the Trans Siberian Express until Ulan Ude where it diverts to Beijing trough Mongolia. Slowly riding trough the endless steppes and deserts of Mongolia and see the great Chinese wall from the train was an unbelievable experience. l. Next time we will do the real Trans Siberia Express making some more stops in Russia and ending in Vladivostok. The Comtourist crew did not yet have digital camera’s during our journey in 2002, we only shot a small amount of photographs. We did shot lots of video and many pictures in this article are still shots from the video material.
Moscow and St. Petersburg
We had spend much time in the former Eastern block by 2002 but never been in Russia or an other former Soviet country. The Soviet Union was gone already for ten years but arrival on Pulkovo airport was still a typical Soviet experience. Very strict looking border officers check every passport in detail, mirrors above the tourist help to check their luggage. Our hotel would be an other real Soviet experience. Hotel Moscow a giant Soviet hotel at the beginning of Alexander Nevsky prospect looking over the Neva river was not yet renovated during our stay in 2002. It was really hot in St. Petersburg so we spend a day on the beach of the famous Peter and Paul Fortress. Due to limited time we did could not explore the city as much as we liked, we did visit the famous Hermitage museum and the Church of Our Savoir on the Spilled Blood with the typical onion shaped domes. After two day’s in St. Petersburg we took a night train to Moscow were we arrived in the early morning on Leningradsky train station. Our stay in Hotel Russia on Red Square was one of the highlight of the entire trip. Hotel Russia was the biggest hotel in the world until it was demolished in 2007. It was build in 1967 to house Communist Party representatives from the whole Union during congresses and other party events and tourist during the rest of the year. Every large concrete part of the hotel breathed classic Soviet hotel architecture, it is a great shame this hotel was demolished! We spend two days in Moscow visiting the Lenin Mausoleum, the Kremlin, the State university on Sparrow hills, Arbat and Tverskaya Street and the Lubyanka KGB headquarters. Comtourist have been back in Moscow after 2002 so we have covered much more attractions in the Russian capital.
The Trans Siberia Express
The Train journey to Siberia’s main city Irkutsk starts in Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station, is 5,153 km and takes 3 days and nights. Many people ask if spending three day’s in a train isn’t boring, the answer is that is really exiting. Doing the Trans Siberia Express feels a bid like setting up camp in a train. You sit back relax and see the endless Russian wilderness passing by. The train will stop at every main station for 15 or 20 minutes, during this time passengers can stretch their legs and buy some goods on the platform. The main stations between Moscow are Nizhny Novgorod (former Gorky), Perm, Yekaterinburg (former Sverdlovsk), Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. Every train wagon has two toilets, a cattle for boiled water and a Provtnika looking after the passengers. Second class passengers have a four person sleeping cabin, the beds are long enough for persons with a length until 1.85M. We spend the evenings in the Restaurant wagon eating Borsch and smoked fish and drinking Beer and Vodka with the Russians. Late in the night the challenge was to find our cabin in a very long train and climb in our beds. The motion of the train makes you sleep very well, in the morning the Provotnika will bring tea and coffee. The three days in the train were the absolute highlight of our journey and maybe the number one experience of the journeys Comtourist made so far! More: Story Russia, Photos Russia
Siberian Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
After three days in the train we arrived in Irkutsk one of Siberia’s biggest cities. We spend a day in Irkutsk itself where we walked trough this interesting city with both wooden Siberian houses build by exiles and grand concrete Soviet architecture. We took a long walk trough the city seeing the Lenin statue on Lenin Street, the football stadium where we actually saw a match and did some shopping in Comtourist favourite Tsum warehouse. We ended up at the Island of youth were we had some beers and tried to order some food without much success. The Russian waitress kept referring to the Russian menu and ignored our effort to depict a sausage and bread. We finally just pointed to an item on the menu, ending up with some croutons. The next day we drove to the fishing town Listvyanka on Lake Baikal, the biggest fresh water reserve in the world. We wanted to take a tour with a hydrofoil from Listvyanka harbour. One of the problems in this part of Russia is that almost nobody speaks English, so we were very afraid that this was a one way trip and that we would get stuck on the wrong side of the lake. Everything worked out however, we were dropped in a nature reserve were we spend half an hour before going back to Listvyanka. Locals were smoking fish (mainly Omul) in the harbour that tasted really good. We had a home stay in a little Soviet time housing project near the lake. The next day we went back to Irkutsk to catch the train to Ulan Bator.
From Irkutsk we took the train to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Many Mongolian traders and smugglers also entered the train in Irkutsk carrying bags with all kind of goods like video tapes, clothes, cosmetics, alcohol etc. It is amazing how many hidden compartments exist in a Russian train. They also tried to hide their goods in the cabins of passengers sometimes almost ending up in fights. Mongolians can be very aggressive especially when they have drunk lots of Vodka. The last big city before Mongolia is Ulan Ude, it was a shame that we could not make a stop here to see the biggest Lenin head ever made in the USSR. Border procedures on the Russian - Mongolian border in Naushki took several hours. The searching of the train by Russian border guards was somewhat funny as they were already paid by Mongolian smugglers. The journey continued in the late evening so the first sight of Mongolia would be in the early morning, and what a sight it was. We opened the curtain in our train compartment and saw the endless green steppes of Mongolia. Every now and then Nomads appear on the plains with their cattle and their Yurts (named Ger in Mongolia). Mongolia’s open steppes look very different from the Russian Taiga’s along the Trans Siberian railroad. After a day the train arrived in Ulan Bator where we had a hotel for two nights. Mongolia’s capital feels a bid like Soviet Siberia meets Asian Buddhism. In the winter temperature will go 40 degrees below zero, but in the summer Ulan Bator is not very warm either. Sukhbaatar Square with the Soviet style Government palace was one of Ulan Bator’s highlights. Sukhbaatar’s Mausoleum (the leader of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution) resembling Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow stood in front of the Government palace. The Government palace is now renovated in typical kitschy post communist style as seen in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the Mausoleum has disappeared all together. Other highlights we saw ain Ulan Bator were a Lenin Statue and the Buddhist Gandantegchinlen Monastery. In the evening we hit the Ulan Bator night live drinking expensive Vodka and enjoy some Asian style Karaoke. After our day in the capital we drove to Elstei Ger Camp a tourist resort in the Mongolian steppes. During the trip to the camp we saw a deserted Soviet army base and many Nomads with their herds. The Elstei Ger Camp exists of twenty Ger’s, a restaurant and a toilet building. Activities like horse riding, wrestling against Mongolian wrestlers and playing on traditional instruments are arranged in the camp. A hike was also organized where tourists visit a Nomadic family on the plains. Here the hosts will offer home made Airag (also called Kumis as light alcoholic fermented mare milk drink) and Aaruul (dried yogurt). The hosts will also show how they milk their horses, fetch their cattle and make their Airag. A single Nomad family has a large herd with horses, yak’s, cows and goats that wander free on the steppes. The night in the steppe was freezing cold, our Ger was well heated so we had a pleasant night. From the Ger camp we went back to Ulan Bator by bus where we boarded the train to Beijing. The train journey from Ulan Bator to the Chinese border was another great experience and goes straight trough the Gobi desert. We saw Bactrian Camels, an endangered species that only lives in the wild in Northwest China and Mongolia. We arrived at the Chinese - Mongolian border near Erlian in the late evening, Chinese march music was played on the platform and border guards saluted the train. The train was driven in the hangar to change the bogeys as China has a different railroad width (1435mm) compared to Russia and Mongolia (1520mm). The train carriages were lifted up two meters by hydraulic arms, the Mongolian bogeys were then replaces by Chinese bogeys. We followed the whole process of changing the bogeys taking about two hours from inside the train. More: Story Mongolia, Photos Mongolia
Beijing, the Great wall and Shanghai
Border procedures between Mongolia and China were taking place in the middle of the night but were much smoother then between Russia and Mongolia. The landscape had changed dramatic again when we woke up in China, the terrain was hilly, green and densely vegetated. Close to Beijing the train went trough a valley between two sections of the great wall, a majestic sight. We only had two full day’s in Beijing so were on a tight schedule again. Our hotel was close to Tiananmen Square so we were well positioned to check out central Beijing. We spend a day around Tiananmen Square were we visited the famous Forbidden city, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Great hall of the People and the National Museum. The maze of narrow alleys were many people live in old houses (called Hutongs) around Tiananmen Square were actually the most interesting part of central Beijing. Especially since we found that many were gone some years later when we visited Beijing again. We spend the second day by making trips to the Great wall and the Ming Tombs. There are many locations to see the Great Wall, we were at Mutianyu, 79 km from Beijing. The Ming Dynasty Tombs are located 50 km from Beijing, the main attraction is a 7 km road called the Spirit way flanked by enormous statues. Now it was time for our final train journey from Beijing to Shanghai a distance of 1,463 km. We took the night sleeper train with six person compartments. We spend two days in Shanghai, the sixth biggest city in the world (14 million people) and a very exiting city. The contrast between the Bund with British colonial buildings and the skyscrapers of the Pudong area is stunning. On Nanjing Road the main shopping street in Shanghai we could count 12 Mc Donald’s restaurants in only one part of the street. Shanghai seems to be the place were China’s growth, success and scale all come together. We did a Shanghai harbour tour, took the psychedelic Bund Tunnel train to Pudong were we climbed the Oriental Pearl Tower. We spend the last day for some shopping and enjoyed the fantastic Chinese food. This was the end of our trip we travelled all the way from St. Petersburg to Shanghai by train, a great experience that we can recommend to everybody, weather you like countries like Russia and China or not. More: Story China, Photos China