The most beautiful rail journeys: “Begin construction of the railway immediately!”

… ordered the Tsar – the 100th anniversary of the Trans-Siberian Railway

The Amur was getting in the way of the Tsar’s plans. The Siberian river is almost three kilometers wide at Khabarovsk, right where the Tsar wanted a bridge. The Trans-Siberian Railway had already been running between Moscow and Vladivostok since 1905, but the route crossed into Chinese territory. It was too delicate a situation for Tsar Alexander III. At the end of the 19th century he ordered his engineers: “Begin construction of the railway through Siberia immediately!” And so a second line was built, a prestige project, an all-Russian railway line from Moscow to the Pacific, complete with a bridge over the Amur.

Through taiga and tundra

The tracks grew toward one another from the east and the west. Around 650 kilometers were completed each year, like adding a stretch from Hanover to Munich, but building on swampland and permafrost soil, passing through deserted taiga and tundra, crossing over rivers. Occupational hazards included decompression sickness! Viktor Mikhaylovich Parschin holds up a spherical diver’s helmet, copper colored with brass hinges. “The helmet alone weighs 20 kilos,” explains Parschin, a lecturer at the Railway Academy in Khabarovsk and Director of the Railway Museum, located right next to Khabarovsk Bridge. The divers had the job of examining the condition of the Amur riverbed.

 

The construction of Khabarovsk Bridge began in 1913. Laborers worked day and night, in ten-hour shifts, even through the bitter Siberian winter. The first locomotive finally rattled over Khabarovsk Bridge in 1916, to great fanfare – the all-Russian Trans-Siberian Railway was open. Two arches of the original bridge still remain as part of the museum on the riverbank. Right next to the museum, on the new flat bridge, the Trans-Siberian continues to run along the route it has traveled for one hundred years. Every night a train departs from Yaroslavskaya railway station in Moscow toward the Pacific. Some continue into China, some pass through Mongolia, others into Manchuria.

 

The trains are usually full to capacity. Svetlana Orechovich has worked as a sleeping car conductor for three months. The 30-year-old with delicate features comes from a Russian-Korean family from Kazakhstan and grew up in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. She says she loves the changes of scenery. The journey to Moscow takes one week. The train arrives there at eleven in the morning, which means she can spend a whole day in the capital before her return train departs, shortly after midnight.

In the aisle next to the conductor’s compartment the samovar is bubbling away. One car further down are sailors, young guys from the Russian navy in blue and white striped shirts. They have completed their year of military service – and they are charming. Always friendly, racking their brains for phrases in English.

Jack Frost and birch forests

Foreign travelers almost always book for the summer. Yet a winter Trans-Siberian journey reveals its own charms. The bright glare of the morning sun, villages rolling past outside, a flat landscape covered with thick piles of snow. Wooden houses with colorful window shutters, smoke rising straight up from their chimneys. Light as clear as icicles. And birch forests, endless birch forests. Do-dong, do-dong, the train beats out the steady rhythm of its journey. The villages always look just like Boris Pasternak describes them in Doctor Zhivago, except these days a satellite dish is perched on practically every wooden house. Not even ninety towns are located along the route of almost ten thousand kilometers. Many of them only came into being when the railway was built. “The railway company gave away the land alongside the route so that people could cultivate it and feed everyone,” explained Parschin at the museum. “First they built a banya, then churches, a hospital, schools. The railway had its own police, its own court.”

The train stops for half an hour at certain stations. The travelers stretch their legs, the navy boys start a push-up competition, smokers light up. Women lay out their wares on cardboard boxes: smoked fish, pelmeni swimming in soup, blini, pirogi, pirozhki, sushki. You can always get your fill for a handful of rubles.

Borscht, soljanka and Sasha’s minibar

And if not, there is always the dining car, where borscht and soljanka are served, and there is Sasha with his minibar. Alexander Iljin, known as Sasha, has been riding the Trans-Siberian for seven years. He loves to share a joke with the ladies on board as he pushes his cart down the aisle. The 65-year-old from Ussuriysk worked at a mine for thirty years; before that he was in the Soviet Army, stationed in the GDR. “I like to travel through my home country,” he says, and he searches for a few words in German.

Perhaps the most beautiful stretch of the Trans-Siberian runs along Lake Baikal – which you only get to see if you book a trip on the luxury Zarengold train. It chugs along this dream stretch at 30 kilometers per hour. At the southern end of the world’s deepest lake it runs through 39 tunnels, over 50 protective galleries and 23 viaducts. This was the most expensive part of the route to build, and it is still called the “golden buckle” to this day: the jewel on the steel belt of the all-Russian railway.

Felix Willeke is taking his seventh trip on the Trans-Siberian. The marketing manager at a German tour operator accompanies groups on their travels. Russian Railways is “a well-organized and extremely reliable company,” he says. “You can set your watch to the schedule.” Many guests who travel the Trans-Siberian are fulfilling a life-long dream, he explains. On one trip Willeke met a woman whose late husband was an expert on Russia. “After his death she decided to take a trip in his memory along the world’s longest rail route. We were coming from Ulan-Ude and she was sitting in the dining car. When she caught sight of Lake Baikal there were tears in her eyes. And mine too.”

All distances are measured from Moscow. A bronze plaque marks kilometer zero on Red Square. The final milestone of the Trans-Siberian Railway stands at Vladivostok Station. It reads 9288 kilometers.

 

How long does it take to travel the Trans-Siberian? Not long enough. The final day has arrived. No longer will I hear the soft krr-dong, grr-dong, brr-dong. There’s so much more to see in this wide, empty landscape.

2016-05-19

Barbara Schaefer

Picture credits: Barbara Schaefer

 

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