Americans Visit Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad
Dale Zurawski | July 21st, 2016
Americans are fat, eat hamburgers, and don’t know geography, said our Russian guide, Lada, summing up an unflattering stereotype. Parroting the official propaganda, she also mentioned the American invasion of Ukraine. My husband, Geoff, and I had climbed aboard the Tsar’s Gold train in Beijing. For 12 days we would be rolling along on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or TSR, the world’s longest, headed towards Moscow. The journey was the first leg of a three-month, around-the-world trip to celebrate our early retirement. But as our train pulled out of Beijing, my excitement was mostly drowned out by thoughts of how our marriage would survive nearly two weeks in a cabin the size of our closet. I also wanted to see how Russians function after downing vodka like wine.
We chose a luxury tourist train as opposed to the Russian train system. But even so, booking first class proved important: our fellow passengers in second-class, shared a shower with an adjacent cabin and a single unisex bathroom with the entire car. For those near a dining car, the bathroom users included the inebriated drinking the night away.
Compare that to first-class cabins. At six feet by seven feet, they are no larger than those in second class, but have a private bath and shower accessed only through the cabin. They have a bench on one side, folding down into bunk beds. The fight for the bottom bunk is worth it. Not only 3 inches longer and sixteen inches wider, the bottom bunk is closer to the toilet; that means you aren’t navigating a stepladder in the dark if you need to go to the bathroom before dawn. Although we were given a complimentary miniature bottle of vodka in our cabin upon arrival, vodka served on the train costs $2 for a 1.5-ounce shot. With a quart of vodka sold at train stations for a mere $5, it’s easy to see how Russians can drink so much. Traveling across the vast region to the west of Moscow opens a window on the country itself, no matter what class you chose.
Passengers on tourist trains pay a flat fee that includes all meals, guided tours at each of the five stops, and a Russian guide—in our case, Lada—who provides on-train lectures on days without city tours. Downsides of a tourist train include no freedom to stay an extra few days at stops along the way, and your contact with Russians is mostly limited to the tour guides. By luck, Knesia, a Russian university instructor who lived in England, lodged in the next cabin. She was a fellow traveler, not a tour guide, and provided an alternate point of view. Lada’s view of Russia, Knesia warned us, was on the conservative side.
Going first class is key for another reason. Siberian summers are hot. In second class, air-conditioning doesn’t work during the frequent and lengthy stops in stations and on sidings as other trains pass. In winter, Siberia is a desolate white wonderland. In summer, Siberia is a green birch forest, and swampy. The scenery might be monotonous, but it’s not deserted. Farmhouses and fairly large cities line the route.
Don’t take the TSR if you are hoping for great scenery. Except for Lake Baikal, the scenery is monotonous. At Lake Baikal, six days into the trip, passengers get off the train for an evening picnic with unlimited shots of vodka, and a chance to earn a bravery certificate for plunging into the icy waters of Lake Baikal. The water temperature was recorded as 72 o, hardly icy. Most of the train passengers went for a swim, then enjoyed live music, and an outdoor BBQ. For me, this was easily the best night of the trip. For lovers of train travel, the scenery can simply provide the backdrop for thought, reflective writing, or a good book. Personally, I love the feel of train travel. Even through monotonous landscape, I can rock endlessly and love the feeling of being suspended in space and time. Mostly I wrote my travel blog and read books including Mikhail Bulgakov’s 126-page “The Dog,” the shortest Russian novel I could find. Though billed as an absurd comic story, I found it to be a stereotypically depressing Russian novel.
Another feature of the scenery is other trains. In six days I counted four headed toward Mongolia loaded with tanks. I wasn't even spending that much time looking out the window. Having traveled through Mongolia, after leaving China, you experience the vast, deserted Mongolian steppe and the nomadic nature of a country where livestock still outnumber people. Given Russia’s military and industrial strength, I would say that Mongolia does not stand a chance if Russia ever decides to invade.
For Americans who fit the stereotype and haven’t heard of Ulan Ude, it’s the first city, and train stop, after leaving Mongolia and entering Russia. With crumbling sidewalks and mostly Soviet architecture, Ulan Ude is an ugly city. For Geoff, it confirmed his fear of a boring trip. But the next city, Irkutsk, changed his mind. Located near the mouth of Lake Baikal and with a European feel, Irkutsk is considered the Paris of Siberia. Its walkway along the Angara River is reminiscent of Paris along the Seine. A college town of 600,000, Irkutsk boasts nearly two-dozen universities and community colleges. By one estimate, only 6% of those exiled to Siberia were criminals. Many of the rest were wealthy aristocrats whom the Tsars considered a political threat. Being educated, they built up the town’s university system.
Our guide in Irkutsk told us a Russian joke: “There is a Chinese invasion, since there are so many Chinese tourists.” Less humorously, she told us that Western countries’ propaganda campaigns against Russia were keeping tourists away. I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Americans aren't coming to Russia because of a propaganda campaign—its because a commercial airline was shot out of Ukraine’s sky by a Russian rocket". But in a group setting, I didn’t want to come off as a brainwashed American. Throughout the trip, you could feel the pain of Russians due to the economist impacts caused by a lack of American tourist.
The more Lada and I talked, the more she opened up. Like the Irkutsk guide, she believed in a Western propaganda campaign to hurt tourism in Russia. She also believed that US troops had invaded Ukraine. She said there was corruption at every level in Russia. As an example, the information we got in Irkutsk about the universities being free if you are smart and test well was false. The admissions procedure is corrupt. Of her graduating class of 12, only two had been admitted thanks to good test scores. The others, she said, paid bribes. Corruption, low oil prices, and a lack of tourism have deprived young people of opportunities. Even university graduates with a degree in economics often ended up underemployed. Despite the economics degree that many of our guides had earned, few could even dream of the opportunities many young Americans enjoy. What struck me most about our guides was how powerless they felt.
The train took three days to cross Siberia. The stops in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg did not get much of my attention. I picked up a communal, train illness that gave me stomach cramps and a desire to sleep. I did, therefore, see quite a few bathrooms all along the TSR. Although first-class cabins have air-conditioning, they do not let you remain in your cabin during the stops at the cities. Bathrooms at the train stations and city restaurants were all clean and stocked with toilet paper.
Even with a lack of compelling scenery and long stretches between city tours, you won’t get bored; each of the three daily meals lasts two hours. There is a drawback to all that time spent eating; the only exercise you get is walking back and forth to the dining car and some walking on the city tours. That doesn’t provide enough exercise to compensate for the multi-course meals. With only skinny jeans to wear, it became painfully clear, only halfway to Moscow, that I had gained weight.
Only Russian cuisine is served in the train’s four dining cars. There are roughly 200 people on the train but you eat each meal with the same group of around 20. On a typical day, lunch and dinner included cabbage soup to start, fresh salad, cold cuts, caviar, pickled herring or smoked salmon, and a main course of pork, brown sauce, and boiled potatoes. Even the breakfast buffets included a main course. The chef walked through the dining car, encouraging passengers to try the regional specialties. His personal appeals worked. But by the end of a trip filled with fine Russian cuisine, I craved a burger and fries.
I rallied myself from my bottom bunk and my illness-induced sleepy stupor for our last stop in Kazan, Tartarstan, an autonomous region in Russia with a population half Sunni Muslim and half Russian. Kazan, Russia's third largest city, featured a White Kremlin two centuries older than Moscow’s Red Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin recently downgraded the region’s president to “governor”, said Marcel, our Muslim guide from Kazan, though the local government still makes most of its own decisions. As the region is on good terms with Russia’s central government, Putin gave money for the restoration of some century-old buildings and the construction of an Olympic-sized indoor pool for a World Aquatics championship held just before our visit.
In our last conversation on the train, Lada had two questions for me: do Americans eat Snickers bars and do we eat peanut butter all the time? I showed her the Snickers bar in my purse, and admitted I fed my kids a lot peanut-butter sandwiches for their school lunches. I told Lada about the US Freedom of Information Act, noting that personal freedom is a core American value. She thought that personal freedom was less important than the government taking caring of old people. Lada and I may never agree on politics. By the end of the trip, however, I felt far more understanding of Russians, including the apparently widespread need many feel to toss back more-than-occasional shots of vodka. The cheap vodka certainly helped this marriage survive the trip.
For the adventuresome travelers, now is a great time to visit Russia. Russians are very friendly on their own soil. Witnessing the effects of Putin’s policies is educational. So Americans visit Russia! Just don't fly over Ukraine- try a first-class cabin on the Tsar’s Gold from Beijing.
If you go private tourist train....
1. Golden Eagle Luxury Train
(15 days, from $17,695 per person, double occupancy)
(16 days, from $18,695 per person, double occupancy)
2. Tsar’s Gold Train
(16 days, from $8,840 per person, double occupancy)
(19 days, from $9899 per person, double occupancy)