On the Trans-Siberian: from Moscow to Irkutsk

With my backpack on I walked to Yaroslavski train station in Moscow. I had a long train journey ahead: 9289 kilometers and seven time zones. This was the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok - the world’s longest train journey. Non-stop it would take six days. But since I wanted to visit Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and Khabarovsk along the way, I gave myself three weeks.

To Yekaterinburg, 9289 kilometers to Vladivostok
I was familiar with Russian long distance trains, and knew there would be a samovar with hot water in each carriage. Therefore I bought instant noodles and instant coffee. I also knew I usually sleep less well in third class - one big compartment with 54 beds - so I would mostly travel second class this time. I had a top bunk in a cabin with four beds and a table in the middle. My fellow passengers in the cabin were a guy who mostly slept through the journey and a lady in her 50s from Omsk called Tatyana. She had been in Moscow for a seminar by a guru. To my opinion Tatyana was typically Russian, being closed at first and then open and talkative. And from my Dutch point of view she was very rude and very friendly at the same time. So what happened?

Tatyana woke me and the quiet guy up at five in the morning by calling her husband next to our beds. The phone call lasted half an hour, after which I thought I’d be able to sleep again. She then, however, opened a can of fish, and a terrible smell filled the cabin. By Dutch norms this was rude, and I therefore thought she was indifferent or even hostile. But when I got back from the samovar with instant noodles she helped me put them on the table, and even put a cloth around it so I wouldn’t burn my fingers. It was after that when we properly introduced ourselves and got to know each other’s stories. This is how I would describe Russians from a Dutch perspective: closed at first, open after that and with a whole different set of norms.

Speaking about Dutch people - my train was full with them (or us). I got to know nine Dutchies drinking beer in the restaurant car, and counted 14 at least. All of them were travelling separately or in couples, but booked railway tickets through the same Dutch travel agency. It was a coincidence I was there since I booked my tickets through Russian Railways. A couple asked me to translate between them and a Russian fellow passenger - an old former police officer from Astrakhan. This went well for 15 minutes, until I ran out of subjects I could talk about in Russian. I had two fun evenings in the restaurant car with the Dutch, after which I arrived in Yekaterinburg.

I spent a full day exploring the pleasant city of Yekaterinburg on foot and by bus. My favourite spots were the 19th century Sevastyanov house and the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery. This cemetery is internationally-known for graves of gang members killed in the notorious gang-wars of the 90’s. Some of their graves are grotesque, like one with a mural of the deceased wearing an expensive suit and holding the keys to his Mercedes. Other graves were of local people. I also saw graves of soldiers, with murals as well. One of the murals depicted a group of soldiers taking cover behind an armoured vehicle with burning buildings on the background. Since I found it inappropriate to behave like a tourist on this part of the cemetery, I didn’t take pictures here. But it’s worth a visit, since the graves tell stories. And the many trees make it a nice part of the city.

To Irkutsk, 7473 kilometers to Vladivostok

To reach Irkutsk I had to spend three nights on a train, 49 hours in total. So how would I kill the time? Looking back I met people on every leg of this journey, but of course I didn’t socialise with people dozens of hours in a row. I had a tablet with me, and usually spend time on trains watching movies, writing, reading and sleeping. Every couple of hours the train would stop, allowing me to stretch my legs and sometimes buy food or drinks. Though I have to admit I was quite grumpy sometimes, partly due to loud people in my cabin. On one of the stops they exited the train, and I told my girlfriend on the phone about my mood. When I was done calling the door of the cabin next to me opened and an Australian called Nick appeared: ‘’Seems like you are having a good time’’. I felt embarrassed, but we had a nice chat anyway. We later met up for dinner in the restaurant car, joined by a Canadian girl I met in Yekaterinburg (Lea) and a Costa Rican guy who boarded in Novosibirsk (Manuel). The four of us unboarded the train in Irkutsk early in the morning.

Irkutsk has many old wooden houses, and my hostel was in one of them. The interior looked brand new, the shower was fine - a luxury since Trans-Siberian trains don’t have showers. There were a lot of foreign backpackers here, many of them on their way to Mongolia. In the afternoon I explored the city with Nick, Lea and Manuel, walking along the waterfront, historic buildings and old churches.

Near Irkutsk is the deepest freshwater lake in the world called Lake Baikal. I took a bus to the lakeside town Listvyanka, where I would stay two nights. The lake is so big that it looks more like a sea, since I couldn't see the end of it and there was a tide. On the second day I hiked to a village called Koty. The path went uphill through forests. It was a sunny autumn day, and the leaves had many colours. I made it to a viewing point. Then the path went down again towards cliffs and beaches. There weren’t many visitors. The exception was Koty, where a group of Chinese tourists just got of a boat. From there I took a boat to Listvyanka, making it back to Irkutsk the next day.

I had done more than half of the journey between Moscow and Vladivostok. But some of the best parts had yet to come, as I wrote in “On the Trans-Siberian: From Irkutsk to Vladivostok”.

Practical advice on traveling here

I wrote a guide on doing the Trans-Siberian under “How to do the Trans-Siberian”. For tips on destinations along the Trans-Siberian, read “A guide to 13 stops on the Trans-Siberian”.