Intrepid Traveler: Trans-Siberian Express

The storied train underwent a recent facelift and is again carrying passengers through the expansive, untouched Russian steppe. Euan Ferguson rides the rails.

Thrum hubble flitter hurp and, every so often, a more musical hurple hurp. The chassis beneath me rattles away softly, sono­­rously, hour after hour; the bed is yielding, the pillow soft, the moon high above the forests as my nose settles toward it for another of the best sleeps of my life; and in the morning there will be porridge and jam and cream-colored linens and hot coffee in glasses filigreed with silver. I am being sent to Siberia and the experience is, at the moment, enjoyable. Hard to see, frankly, what all the moaning was about.

There can be few journeys in which the mode of travel and the part of the world being traveled through can fail to reflect each other in quite such frantically different ways. It's like flying business-class over a war zone. You can sit in the bar car of the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express as dusk falls and watch your rather smug reflection—washed in the warm red of the car's lighting, dancing with light from tinkling bottles and jewelry, bouncing back, mile after mile, from dark, wet bro­ken huts and muddied broken con­crete and dripping cold trees and more broken peasant concrete— and begin, rather quickly, to appreciate that the Romanovs had it coming. That if com­­munism, forcible armed unforgiving com­munism, was ever going to get a good grim toehold, it would be in this country: un­bearably large, impossibly cold and dif­fi­cult, desperate for minimal warmth and succor, and strangely amenable, for a while, to the utter loss of individual liberties their guarantee necessitated. And then, of course, the great experiment, long-soured, died—some animals proving to be far more equal than others—and capital­ism triumphed, and hence I am trundling through the Si­­berian steppes in luxury.

The Golden Eagle, a private train refitted at a cost of $25 million, is an attempt to bring such luxury, more normally associated with the Orient-Express, to one of the world's most romanticized journeys, the rail trip from Moscow to Vladivostok. Over the years, countless travelers' tales have sprung up: of strange bonds between strange na­­tionals forged over the samovar and the vodka; of the sharing out of last food and cigarettes; of spies and princesses and days spent snow-jammed in sidings, huddled for warmth and reminiscences. It was, by all these earlier accounts, a fraught, tricky, mes­merizing ex­­perience. And I had worried, a little, that giving the journey the five-star treatment would sanitize it to the point of blandness, that the "underfloor bathroom heating" and "state-of-the-art DVD" would render it some kind of Marriott on wheels.

Fortunately for me, there were enough little things going very Russianly wrong to make the trip, in the end, ter­ribly human. The DVD was state of the art in, perhaps, 1986. The underfloor heating in the en suite bathroom did work, but you had to endure lengthy, daylong ar­­gu­­ments, no common language but mys­ti­fi­cation, with your carriage attendant to get him (finally, on day three) to hit an old but­ton that locked out the computer con­trol (set, apparently, to be a degree or two colder than the air outside, which was in every single sense positively Siberian) and let you toast your own toes at your chosen temperature. The food was, thankfully, not five-star inter­national but featured instead rather a lot of soups with pickles and sour cream. And in the evenings, we gathered in the bar or the restaurant car and moaned a little and, yes, bonded, and then most cares were forgotten, and toasts drunk, and the pianist played Chopin as cold trees and broken wet wooden huts flitted by outside the rattling windows.

It slowly became apparent, to me at least, that the fancifying of the journey has not, at all, robbed it of its romance. The journey's the thing, the sheer distance covered. Each morning, you would meet the eyes of your fellow passengers, at break­fast or on some windswept concrete station platform; there was a strong shared sense that, together, we had all traveled somewhere new, somewhere romantic. Another time zone had been crossed overnight, another 500 miles swept under the reliable rattling chassis, and even though the immediate view, of some more broken Stalinist concrete, was almost always less than prepossessing, there seemed a strong joint sense of satisfaction that we were simply able to stand there, together, and be seeing it.

On day four, a few miles outside Yekate­­­r­­inburg, our bus trip took us across the Europe-Asia divide to a marker post on a grim motorway. Despite the clanking tour­ist gimmickry—the "border guard" who got on board to pretend to shout scarily for our passports, the plastic cele­bratory glasses of fizz in the drizzle, the inevitable shop of tourist junk, the fact that I was, very apparently, on an organized bus trip as part of an organized train trip, fol­lowing a guide with a flag and clutching my little earpiece—there was, still, a strange sense of achievement, quiet smiles swapped with my new friends. And, always, just a few yards away from the bus or the motorway, there was the line of trees: And I knew, had I decided to go mad for a second and dart away from the group and sprint into the treeline, then that would be me lost forever. This is not, often, an inhabited land. Siberia—from Sibir, literally "sleeping land"—is threateningly huge, cold, and uncivilized, and its existence around us all began to act like a physical presence, drawing us together.

I began to look forward to these day-trips. Because, frankly, for all that I had looked forward to, the views from the train, they weren't up to much, at least not on my six days from Moscow to Irkutsk. It is a flat, flat country. The Urals sound romantic; in reality they are minor lumps. The trees which you see out the window about 20 yards away all the time are mainly silver birches and start off being lovely. After a few hundred miles they become, perhaps, mesmerizing. Very shortly after that they become, very simply, trees. Occasionally, the train rounds a corner and finds a bit of a view, a clearing in the trees, a river at dusk, small boys fishing, and you press your nose to the window to drink in the experience in the too-short seconds while it lasts.

So it was a relief from the trees to stop and tour, for instance, Yekaterinburg, where the Romanovs met their ridiculously nasty deaths for having, metaphorically at least if not literally, driven too often past the cold peasants while sitting in a warm bar with a self-satisfied look on their inbred faces. Their passing is marked, now, by the re­­build­ing of a cathedral, one of many being built and rebuilt in the new Russia, which has taken to religion with remarkable—but I'm not sure quite how healthy—haste. There was quite a lot of stopping to look at cathedrals. Too much stopping, but I didn't really mind, be­­cause we were out and seeing Russia. Mad, contradictory Rus­sia, where the beau­tiful flash­­ing gold of a rococo doorway or the perfectly turned heel of one of the world's most beau­­tiful women, dressed in a cheap copy of a designer classic but still look­ing like a million rubles, contrasted, every­where, with the most brutal architecture in the world, executed in the world's ugliest in­­vention, concrete, which Stalin bred like his land breeds trees, and which now cracks, damp and black and broken, at every turn.

Seldom on my trip was the contrast more severe than in Novosibirsk. Here, in the largest town in Siberia, a city built on World War II (Stalin simply moved all armaments and industry production here because it was so far away from Europe that German bombers would literally drop out of the sky before they could reach it). We visited the opera house, completed in 1945 by the city's women and children, lifting bricks and mixing mortar by hand. It is magnificent, wonderful, vast, and we spent a fascinating hour backstage, watching the props and the velvet and the dancers and the wonderfully ornate flats, swinging down from the cavernous heights, while a harpist practiced La Bohème in the orchestra pit. An hour later we were in an academic town some 19 miles away, built in the fif­ties as a Stalinist experiment, in which all scientists and thinkers were dropped with their families into a preplanned, contained environment to work and think and breed and stay, forever. It is breathtaking ugli-­ness in both its physical presence and in its brute denial of individual freedom and thought. It felt like something not just out of this time but out of this world.

But, like everything by now, it was feel­ing special just because we were able to say to ourselves, We may never—no, we will never—be here again, but we were once here, and together. An hour or two later, back in the restaurant car, some more sweet tea, and perhaps a Russian les­son, or Sasha, the pianist, would give us a break­down, with a ludicrously well-ex­­ecuted illustration on the upright in the bar car, of the dif­­fer­ence between the Moscow and St. Petersburg schools of clas­sical com­po­si­tion, and all was, on the surface, organized and safe and expensive and pleasant again, but inside, we were all, I suspect, a little changed, a little more thoughtful.

I left the train in Irkutsk. It took me seven hours and five time zones to fly back to Moscow. I was unprepared for how de­­pressed it made me to leave, strangely unhappy to say goodbye to a few peo­ple. They had a week left (and, I suspect, the better views). Mongolia and the long way rattling down to Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan. More concrete, yes, and more getting on and off buses and more pickled soup and more trees. But more nights, too, to think and talk and drink and to know at least, of this long, strange journey, that they can say they have done it, and have done it together.

How to Go

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express will make 11 trips in 2008; the first departs on Feb­ruary 17 (from $11,200; 44-161/928-9410; Most last 15 days and run either eastward from Moscow to Vladivostok or west­ward (the same route in reverse). The eight towns that the train stops in along the way include the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, Listvyanka on Lake Baikal, and the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. The UK-based GW Travel also offers an additional five-day pack­age to the Kamchatka Penin­sula for excursions such as heli­copter rides over the area's volcanoes and a dip in the hot springs. The com­pany will also arrange your flight to or from Vladivostok. The Golden Eagle has 21 carriages, among them two dining cars, a bar car, and 12 sleeper cars. There are two classes of overnight compart­ments, both offering en suite cabins with LCD TVs and underfloor heating. We rec­-om­mend the more spacious Gold Class: 77 square feet (as opposed to just 60 square feet in Silver Class).