We interview Mark Smith, author of The Man in Seat Sixty One, and award-winning international train travel website. Mark has spent many years exploring the world’s railways. He has travelled the length of Russia on the mighty Trans-Siberian Express not one, but two times, and firmly believes that it is the best way to traverse this almighty country.
But first, here’s some facts about the Trans-Siberian Railway…
- At over 5,700 miles long, The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest in the world.
- It takes seven days to travel from Moscow to the end of the line at Vladivostock.
- There are three main routes. The popular Trans-Siberian Line terminates in Russia’s Far East, in the city of Vladivostock.
- The Trans-Mongolian Line cuts through Mongolia and eventually arrives in Beijing, China.
- The Trans-Manchurian Line also ends up in Beijing, but without the Mongolian detour.
Why do you prefer train travel to flights or bus tours?
With trains, and for that matter ferries or local buses, you travel across the surface of the Earth and actually get to see where you’re going. You get a real sense of distance, and you experience the journey not merely the destination. These days, people often forget that a journey can be as interesting as the destination itself, sometimes more interesting! And trains and ships are civilised, they treat you like a human being – you sleep in a flat bed, you can eat in a restaurant, you aren’t strapped into a seat or herded about and told what to do.
With bus tours, the tourists sit in their little westernised ‘bubble’ gazing at the real world through thick glass windows. On a train, especially in places such as Russia, China, India or Vietnam, the ‘real’ world is as much inside the train as outside. You may even get to talk to the locals, and you become a participant, not a mere spectator.
When was the first time you travelled Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express?
I travelled from London Victoria to Hong Kong in 1991, using the weekly Moscow-Beijing Trans-Mongolian Express. London-Moscow takes two nights and is just under 2,000 miles. The Moscow-Beijing train is a 6-night 5,000 mile train ride. Wonderful!
How would you describe the experience of travelling abroad the Trans-Siberian Express?
At the hotel before departure, two New Zealanders wound us up, telling us we’d have to be stoned out of our minds on vodka to survive this six-night Trans-Siberian train trip. So imagine our relief as an immaculate train number 4 was backed into the platform at Moscow Yarolsavski, clean, brightly lit, fresh bedding folded and neatly stacked on every berth, frilly curtains at every window, lacy tablecloths on the compartment table, and carriage attendants dressed like airline pilots stepping out of each door to greet us.
If you take the quality ‘firmeny’ trains such as train 3/4, the Rossiya or Baikal, you’ll find them surprisingly civilised, clean and comfortable, with beds at night, room to move around, and a restaurant for your meals. Just remember these are ‘real’ trains for real travellers, not deluxe tourist trains, so put away any ideas about bar cars with pianos, deluxe lounge cars or en suite showers!
What are your favourite stops aong the Trans-Siberian route?
I’ve always been limited by the time I could take off work, so I have always travelled straight through, preferring to spend more time in China or Japan at the far end. But the most usual stops are Irkutsk and Ulaanbaator, and I’m keen to see both on my next Trans-Siberian trip.
What is the longest amount of time you have spent on-board the Trans-Siberian train?
The longest was seven nights from Moscow to Vladivostok on train 2, the ‘Rossiya’ (‘Russia’), on my way from London Waterloo to Tokyo and Nagasaki in Japan. Funnily enough, this was a totally different experience to the six-night trip from Moscow to Beijing on train 4. The ‘Rossiya’ meant seven days of Siberia with its wooden houses and silver birch trees, there were no westerners at all on the train besides myself as far as Irkutsk. Few Russians use the train for the whole trip, they tend to use it for odd sections. So even I was going a tad stir crazy by the time we approached Vladivostok!
On the other hand, Moscow-Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian line was four days of Siberia including the best bit around Lake Baikal, then a total contrast, a day crossing Mongolia via the Gobi Desert, and then yet another contrast, a day travelling through the mountains of northern China, passing through the Great Wall itself to reach Beijing.
Most of the passengers were travelling all the way, there were many westerners on board as well as Russians, Chinese, Mongolians and so on, and a party atmosphere prevailed all the way. I’d do that trip again like a shot.
Trains in the UK are notoriously expensive. How do they compare in Russia? Is it possible to traverse this mammoth country on a budget?
In Russia, they don’t have cheap advance-purchase fares as we do, but fares are very reasonable. They are ‘real’ A to B transportation fares, not deluxe tourist experience fares, so a ticket from Moscow to Beijing can cost as little as £500 for 5,000 miles of travel and a bed for six nights. I think that’s a pretty good deal!
What is life like on board the Trans-Siberian Express?
You eat in the restaurant car, it’s not gourmet but it’s cheap and filling – on the Rossiya, Mischa in the restaurant car had my ham and eggs on as soon as I walked in! You meet people and talk, play chess, read, look out for landmarks along the way (the kilometre-by-kilometre guide in Bryn Thomas Trans-Siberian Handbook is great for this), and of course you sleep in a comfy berth at night. The train stops for between 10 and 20 minutes every few hours, a chance to stretch your legs, take photos, buy extra snacks or drink and have a quick look round. Just don’t wander too far and get left behind! On the Moscow-Beijing train I can’t ever remember being bored.
Is it really as scary as it is portrayed to be in the 2008 Hollywood thriller Transsiberian?
I’m not sure I’d trust Hollywood to accurately portray anything! It’s not scary at all. It’s safe, civilised, relaxed and pretty comfortable, as long as you don’t expect luxury.
Which is your favourite route, The Trans-Siberian, The Trans-Mongolian or The Trans-Manchurian line?
Without a doubt, the Trans-Mongolian route. Though I have yet to do the Trans-Manchurian route!
What is the most important thing to pack when going on a long train journey such as this?
Definitely a good book or two. Tolstoy’s War and Peace may be the most predictable title to take on a Trans-Siberian adventure, but it’s a heck of a good read and doubly so when you’re crossing Siberia. The funny thing was, I didn’t get as much read as I thought I would. Too much to do see, and too many people to talk with!
What is your advice on what not to take?
Too much luggage! Always make sure you can easily carry what you bring. A backpack with a tube of travelwash is better than three huge suitcases and mounds of unnecessary clothing. That goes for any trip, not just across Siberia!
Do you have any stand-out memories from travelling through Russia?
Many, such as passing the famous boundary obelisk in the Urals 1,777km east of Moscow, with ‘Evropa’ written on one side and ‘Azia’ on the other. We’d changed continents! Or rounding Lake Baikal, with great views of the Lake. Or on train 4, going along the train to sit and talk with the Chinese professor of aerodynamics returning from his first trip to the West, after he’d saved another traveller in my coach from the clutches of the mad Pole with the fiendish Polish vodka.
What is your top tip for someone who is considering a gap break in Russia?
The Trans-Siberian starts at St Pancras—it’s easier and cheaper than you think, just do it!
Enjoyed our interview with Mark Smith? Check out www.seat61.com for a wealth of information about Mark’s experiences and his advice for travelling by train worldwide.