Sunday, February 4, 2001

Jeremy Atiyah on a winter break in Siberia

Jeremy Atiyah on a winter break in Siberia

Published: 04 February 2001

This might seem eccentric, but I'm taking a winter break in Siberia. Seriously. I was here last autumn and asked myself then: why pussyfoot around? Just as Arabia is best experienced when the sun is sizzling your brains, so the only sensible time to do Siberia (I reckoned) was in the depths of winter when your ears were liable to shatter into splinters if you lost your hat.

That's why I'm here now, sitting and reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in an apartment that doesn't need curtains because the windows are opaque with ice. Am I nurturing an obsessive desire for extra ladles of porridge or fishbone soup, or grams of bread if I am lucky? Not at all. Because as I keep saying: Siberia these days is more of a winter resort than a gulag.

Take Irkutsk, for example. All these funny, crooked wooden houses encrusted with deep snow and ice sparkling in the sun. Steam rising. Every single person in the whole city wearing furs. I don't mind the temperature dropping to minus xC, if it allows me to see groups of young men wearing Rod Stewart-style wigs which are, in fact, hats; not to mention armies of stunning women dressed up like the friends of the Duchess of Windsor.

All right, the cold creates some inconvenience. The front door of my block freezes on its hinges so that the colder it is, the more force I need to open it. Step out, and my nostrils and eyelashes then freeze equally solid. I also need to watch out for the open manholes in the pavements, which sometimes disappear under piles of snow. This morning, near my home, I noted footsteps leading to one of these holes, then vanishing. Another wino bites the dust.

The only other drawback of severe cold is that Siberians tend not to talk if they can help it. I can understand this. To open your mouth, is to undo a layer. Some walk with fags in their mouths, apparently as a means of generating extra warmth, and the local trams are foggy with their wordless breath.

But this needn't bother a tourist. I walk around town, exclaiming aloud over weird snow and ice formations: one great pile of frost, for example, sits three metres thick, like a shaggy beard hanging from a wall-vent; and the rubble of months of impacted snow, when ripped up with the help of pick-axes, resembles marble shot through with rich seams of soot. I liken my interest in these phenomena to the interest of desert-dwellers, arriving in England for the first time, in wet-stained paving stones and puddles.

So there you have it. At the end of the day, you can sit in a cafe that looks like Catherine the Great's bedroom. Siberia is not one big gulag any more. In the middle of Irkutsk, a giant slide has even been built out of ice-bricks, for no conceivable reason other than fun. Last Sunday I watched the massed ranks of citizenry hurtling down here, ten abreast: toddlers in fur hats the size of sheep, sliding with their feet in the air, followed by elegant ladies in heels and long coats with waists and pleats, going down standing up, only to be sent flying at the last moment by some out-of-control babushka on a plastic tray.

Everyone was laughing. And this was Siberia. In mid-winter.

Saturday, February 3, 2001

The complete guide to The Trans-Siberian Railway

The complete guide to The Trans-Siberian Railway

It's not glamorous, the food is appalling and you'll probably have to share a bathroom. And if that isn't enough to put you off, there's a tangle of complications to be negotiated before you've even sorted out the necessary visas. But that's all part of the charm of the world's longest unbroken train journey, says Jeremy Atiyah - it's an experience you'll never forget

Published: 03 February 2001

Why can't i find a train called "the Trans-Siberian Express" in my railway timetable? Because there isn't one. There is only a railway, loosely called the Trans-Siberian, which has lots of different trains running along it. Some of these make short hops from one Siberian town to the next, some go straight through from Moscow to Vladivostok. There is even one which starts in Berlin and terminates in Novosibirsk, bypassing Moscow altogether. A branch line goes from Siberia through Mongolia to Beijing, while yet another goes via Chinese Manchuria to Beijing (a few years back, one more line opened up allowing passengers to travel between Moscow and China via Almaty in Central Asian Kazakhstan, though there this line carries no straight-through service).

Some purists argue that the true and authentic Trans-Siberian railway is the wholly Russian line running from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. They say that the original purpose of the railway was precisely to link these two cities, as indeed it first did in 1904. They prefer to describe trains which go via Mongolia or Manchuria to Beijing as "Trans-Mongolian" and "Trans-Manchurian" respectively.

But let us not get bogged down in semantics. The fact is that, these days, the majority of Trans-Siberian trips do not involve a visit to Vladivostok, but begin or end at the Chinese capital Beijing and end or begin in Moscow.

Is it the longest train journey in the world? Of the several different routes that run right across Siberia, the longest of them all is indeed the longest unbroken train ride in the world. This is the Moscow to Vladivostok train, the Rossia, which departs on alternate days from both ends of the line throughout the year. To cover its 9,289km (5,773 miles), it is scheduled to take 153 hours and 49 minutes, which works out at about six and a half days and 60km/h (38mph). Of the two weekly trains that run in both directions between Moscow and Beijing - one Russian train via Manchuria and one Chinese train via Mongolia - the longer one covers 9,001km, via Manchuria, and takes a mere 148 hours and 57 minutes.

(Delays, by the way, are surprisingly infrequent on the Trans-Siberian railway. You may arrive a couple of hours late, but after six days is this bad? Tracks are seldom, if ever, blocked by the Siberian snow and frost).

Can I travel by rail all the way from the UK? You certainly can, though the London-Moscow leg of the journey, which only takes two days, is far more expensive than Moscow-Vladivostok or Beijing. Tickets are available from Rail Europe (08705 848848, for between £300 and £400 one way, depending on the route. To pick up a Moscow train, the fastest way is to get to Cologne, which is less than six hours from Waterloo via Brussels. Note that you will also need a transit visa for Belarus if you take this option. The overall rail time from London to Vladivostok or Beijing, without stopovers, will be between eight and nine days.

For those interested in very long train rides, incidentally, it is worth noting that the world's longest train journey including changes, is probably from Faro (on the southwest tip of Portugal), to Saigon in southern Vietnam - via Siberia, of course. Assuming your connections work out all right, it should take between two and three weeks to cover the 20,000-odd km.

Doesn't it get boring after the first few hours/days? Well, the scenery isn't as variable as it might be. In winter, it's birch trees and snow; in summer it's birch trees and sodden grass. But that is only a quarter of it. The main joy is the sensation of having slipped into a parallel universe where all sense of time disappears (an effect of entering a new time-zone every 20 hours or so). For a week of your life, all your worries and responsibilities will disappear, to be replaced by vodka parties, chess matches and profound ruminations on life. As for watching heaped-up ice-rubble glow blue on the surface of a frozen lake hundreds of miles long, or waking up before dawn to catch long-skirted Russian soldiers running through thigh-deep snow to commence the border inspection - well, these are certainly not the sort of thing you do every day.

Are there luxury trains for tourists? No, thank God. That'll be the Venice-Simplon Orient Express you're thinking of. The trains that cross Siberia are designed for local traffic and your travel companions will largely comprise Russians too poor to fly, plus the odd Kiwi backpacker, slouching around in tracksuits and slippers rather than in dinner suits. Furthermore, the food in Russian restaurant cars is reassuringly appalling. And in the second-class compartments, two toilets will be shared between as many as 40 people. Taking a shower, of course, will be completely out of the question (except in Chinese deluxe-class; see below).

Having said that, I should add that conditions are by no means bad. Carriages are warm, even in the depths of the Siberian winter. Clean bedding is provided for everybody in second class and above. Compartments contain not more than four beds, and people without reservations are not allowed to enter the carriages. The toilets are kept clean by the carriage attendant. A samovar of boiling water is available in every carriage for drinking and washing at all times. And edible, even tasty, food can be purchased from freelance grocers at station platforms along the way.

For plenty of people, then, second class on a Trans-Siberian train will be fine. The difference between first and second class, in fact, often doesn't seem worth paying for. The one upgrade that might strike some as worthwhile is to a special deluxe class which exists on the Chinese train only, running between Beijing and Moscow via Mongolia - this is the only class in any train on the Trans-Sib which allows passengers to take a shower.

If nothing else, is the train a cheap way of getting to China? In the unlikely event that you are travelling between Moscow and Beijing only, the answer is yes. A one-way train ticket (about £200, if you buy it in the station) will be cheaper than the equivalent flight.

But if you're starting from Britain, you would have to be mad to take the train merely as a means of saving money. Flying to China is cheap, after all: low-season return flights from the UK to China are often available for less than £400 through discount agents. Air Tickets Direct (0870 8761199, is currently quoting £343 while Bridge the World (020-7911 0900, proposes a one-way ticket for £276.

The only people for whom the train might conceivably work out cheaper are those who need to travel just one way - such as those going home to Australia. But even in this case, don't forget that the actual train ticket from Moscow to Beijing will only form one component of your trip. One much larger expense will be the cost of getting to/from Moscow before/after your train journey. As mentioned, the one-way train fare between London and Moscow is getting on for £400. Even one-way flights between the UK and Moscow are unlikely to cost less than about £150. If you are fortunate, you'll currently get a Finnair ticket via Helsinki for £151 from Norvista (020-7409 7334; Otherwise, there's Aeroflot (020-7491 1764), direct, at £218.10.

Another significant cost will be your visas: a set of Russian, Chinese and Mongolian visas currently costs a minimum of £85, even assuming that you do all the running around yourself. On top of all that, you will have to add in the cost of a night in Moscow.

In other words you'll be lucky to have any change from £500 to get from London to Beijing, one way only. And this does not take into account the cost of food and drink for the six days that it takes you (though this needn't be much: the price of food bought from platform vendors is almost negligible). But what you have to tell yourself is that as a means of seeing both Moscow and Beijing, and having a great holiday of 11 or 12 days, the basic Trans-Siberian experience - at about £1,000 including the flight out and the flight home - is a bargain.

How do i get visas? Russia is the only tricky one. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. If travelling independently, you'll need to buy something called "visa support" from an organisation inside Russia first. Many hotels can do this for you, as well as travel companies such as Maria Agency based in Moscow (e-mail - you'll need to pay by credit card for the service, an amount up to around US$70/£45). After the company has telexed the "visa support" to the embassy in London, you can apply to the Russian consulate at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and a further £30 is required for five-day processing.

For Chinese and Mongolian visas, the procedure is much simpler - but again, get your operator to do it if you have one.

Can i get decent photographs from the train? In theory, yes. The snag is that you probably won't be able to open any of the windows and if you find one that will open the carriage attendant will shout at you if you try opening it. What's more, the exterior of the windows is usually extremely grimy. But here are a couple of tips: first, borrow a rag from the carriage attendant to clean your own compartment window while it stops at one of the first stations (you'll need to be tall to do this). Second, walk right through to the back of the train, from where you can get great pictures down the track along which you have passed.

Can I get off the train along the way? Two or three times a day the trains stop for about 20 minutes, giving you time for a leisurely amble round a Siberian train station. But if you actually want to get off and spend the night somewhere, then you will need to decide in advance where and when you are going to do it. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because there is, as yet, no such thing as a Trans-Siberian rail-pass, allowing you to get on or off wherever you feel like it. There are only point-to-point tickets, issued with reservations for particular trains on particular dates. In other words, you need a new and separate ticket for each leg of your journey. And note that tickets for repeated short journeys become much more expensive than one straight-through ticket.

The second reason is that to obtain a standard Russian tourist visa, you'll need to specify in advance where you are going to be on each night of your trip. This usually requires having already booked (and paid for) your accommodation and tickets when you apply.

Is that as horribly complex as it sounds? Frankly, yes, which is one very good reason - especially if you are a first-timer in Russia - for putting the whole thing into the hands of a tour operator from the very outset. An affordable, experienced agency such as the Russia Experience (020-8566 8846; can book all your connections and find you affordable accommodation in all those obscure Russian towns that you had never heard of until you read its brochure.

The Russia Experience also has ways of booking tickets cheaper than buying them independently (it does the basic Moscow to Beijing, including visas, accommodation in Moscow and airport transfers for £330). You may dislike the inflexibility of travelling on a pre-arranged itinerary, but when you get off your plane in Moscow and the temperature is 20 below, and you are surrounded by thuggish taxi drivers, you will be glad someone is waiting with your name on a piece of paper. Other specialists include Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711;; Intourist (020-7538 8600, and Gateway to Russia (07050 803 160;

Can I use the Trans-Siberian railway as a means of getting to Japan? In the old Soviet days before tourists were allowed to cross the border between the USSR and China, Japan used to be the main destination of tourists travelling across Siberia. Trains pulled into the ferry terminal of Nakhodka, the civilian port close to Vladivostok, scheduled in time to meet the boats bound for Yokohama and thence Tokyo.

But these days, unfortunately, ferry services are much curtailed, and they no longer dove-tail with train arrivals. Only in the summer time are there some occasional sailings linking Vladivostok with Niigata and Fushiki; the journey takes nearly two days and it is very likely to cost upwards of US$400 (£280). These services are operated by the Far Eastern Shipping Company (15 Aleutskaya Street, Vladivostok, 007 4232 497403).

Where can find out more? One essential companion is the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable (£9.50). The best specialist guidebook is the brand-new fifth edition of the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, published next Monday by Trailblazer (01428 607571,, £12.99. The Lonely Planet Guide to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (£16.99) has a useful section on the Trans-Siberian railway. Slightly dated, but still readable perspectives on the journey are to be found in Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride (Picador, £6.99) and Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar (Penguin, £7.99). For a melancholy overview of Siberia in general, see Colin Thubron's latest book, the superb In Siberia (Penguin, £7.99).