Whistle-Stop History of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Whistle-Stop History of the Trans-Siberian Railway

They go hand-in-hand, the phrase “journey of a lifetime,” and the Trans-Siberian Railway. The desire to fulfill this travel dream has been encouraged over the years by books, movies and imagination.

Traveling the Trans-SiberianIt’s more than just a set of rail cars efficiently moving passengers from A to B. Many call the Trans-Siberian Railway a 6,000-mile “state of mind,” elegantly transporting travelers from one experience to another. It’s a journey of adventure from Moscow to Mongolia marked not so much by miles but by geography and landscape. Landscape that reflects – no, is – the spirit of place.

Mongolian steppe at sunset, with <i>gers</i> dotting the landscape <br />Photo credit: Andrew  Barron

Mongolian steppe at sunset, with gers dotting the landscape
Photo credit: Andrew Barron

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Railway, hugging Lake Baikal shores for nearly 100 years <br>Photo credit: GW

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, on tracks that have hugged Lake Baikal shores for nearly 100 years
Photo credit: GW

The Trans-Siberian Railway has been a part of Russian and Soviet history for more than a century, even as tracks were laid down and pioneering cities and industries sprang up around the iconic rails. Passengers riding these rails in history have included locals, but also dissidents exiled to Siberia, soldiers on their way to war, and of course forced labor and convicts who helped built the rail line itself.

Along the rails are concentrated a diversity of countries, religions, languages, cuisines, and topography that can be experienced in a time span of just over two weeks, across multiple time zones. Along the way are endless Siberian taiga forest, Mongolian steppe and desert, Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake in the world, and a final landing in Vladivostok, the end of the epic line.

As the scenery changes, so does the local food sold by platform sellers along the way: from bulochki, little sweet buns, in Moscow to seafood in Vladivostok, and perhaps Chinese, Mongolian, and Siberian in between.

By the NumbersThe numbers alone are hard to grasp. Depending on where you begin and end, the Trans-Siberian is:

  • About 6,000 miles long
  • 80 train stations along the way
  • 160 hours of pure journey time
  • At least 7  time zones, depending on where you travel
  • 15-16 days
  • 3 countries: Russia, Mongolia, China
"Here ends the Trans-Siberian Railway line. Distance from Moscow: 9288 km"<br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

“Here ends the Trans-Siberian Railway line. Distance from Moscow: 9288 km”
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Rail HistoryThe Trans-Siberian Railway is as timeless a wonder today as it’s been since the final rail was laid in place. Why was such a long railway built through some of the least populated and harshest parts of the world? In the 1850s, entrepreneurs imagined a railroad linking Moscow with the Pacific Coast via Siberia as a way to transport goods back and forth: ruble signs were in their eyes – money to be made.

Building the RailsPlanning the Trans-Siberian Railway took 25 years; construction officially began in 1891 when Czar Alexander III’s son, the czarevich who would become Nicholas II, laid the first rail in Vladivostok. The Russian government didn’t want foreign money or foreign partners, so the project was funded solely by Russia’s treasury.

Nothing was easy: There weren’t enough professional engineers to oversee the project, so Russian soldiers, conscripts and convicts were brought in to work. The topography was a challenge, requiring blowing up mountains for railroad tunnels and building bridges across rivers and canyons. The extreme weather didn’t help, either, for building the rails and for retaining workers.

The Trans-Siberian took 12 years to build – not bad, all things considered. The most famous route – the classic Moscow-Vladivostok and reverse – has been running since 1916.

Old Port Baikal, in the early days of the Trans-Siberian Railway <br>Photo credit: Port Baikal Railway Museum

Old Port Baikal, in the early days of the Trans-Siberian Railway
Photo credit: Port Baikal Railway Museum, Siberia

Riding the RailsYou could simply stay on the Trans-Siberian and never get off during your journey, but why? The best tours are those (like MIR’s) where you stop at towns and see the sights, enjoying Russian and Siberian places like Lake Baikal, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, and Kazan as well as taking in Russia’s history in Moscow’s Red Square and the Kremlin.

A Tran-Siberian stop and symbol of Tatarstan, Kazan's Kul Sharif Mosque was built in 2005 <br>Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

A Tran-Siberian stop and symbol of Tatarstan, Kazan’s Kol Sharif Mosque was built in 2005
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Moscow is the beginning, or the end, of a Trans-Siberian Railway journey <br>Mark Stephenson

Moscow is the beginning, or the end, of a Trans-Siberian Railway journey
Photo credit: Mark Stephenson

Most travelers say they are deeply moved by the sights, sounds and landscapes along the Trans-Siberian Railway. But for many, the most memorable experiences are interacting with Russian people as they tell their stories about living in Trans-Siberian country and how their lives have been impacted by it for generations.

And for generations to come.

Travel the Trans-Siberian Railway with MIRThere are many tours and many routes on MIR’s scheduled tours that allow you to explore the history and personality of the Trans-Siberian Railway, riding on luxury, comfortable, or regular trains. You can also book a custom, private journey.

 (Top photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev – Trans-Siberian Railway train along the Circumbaikal Route, hugging Lake Baikal)



PUBLISHED: September 10, 2014

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2 thoughts on “Whistle-Stop History of the Trans-Siberian Railway

  • Am so ready for one of these adventures!!

    • Helen Holter

      Thanks for your comment, Dorian. This classic Trans-Siberian Railway route is a traveler’s dream, my travel dream: listening to Old Believers singing near Ulan Ude, hiking at Lake Baikal, simultaneously hearing both the call to prayer in a mosque and bells chiming in a church next door in Kazan. And of course, there’s magnificent Moscow – a treasure in itself!