Reports and Travelogues

The Transsiberian Dream

China, Mongolia, Russia: It’s not only the route that is spectacular.

And with the “Transsiberian by Private Train” special train, the adventure of the train journey tends to become part of the background; what’s happening on the journey is too exciting.

The sun shines brightly through the compartment window of the Russian “Transsiberian by Private Train” special train, which has just come to a stop in the station at the sleepy Mongolian town of Zamiin-Uud. A few minutes later, and the light suddenly dims. It disappears completely. Obscured by another train which has just drawn in on the next track, only some three metres away. All of a sudden, soldiers appear, guarding a prison carriage attached to the train.

The scene is threatening, and at the same time has a touch of surrealism. A few moments later, and Mongolian musicians in traditional costume appear on the platform and give a little concert to bid the visitors on the special train welcome. The whole situation now takes on the character of one big, fun adventure. And that is precisely what Karen Latimer from Alaska was looking for. On old tracks, in the “Transsiberian by Private Train”, the 56-year-old is fulfilling the dream of a lifetime. “I’m here on my honeymoon with my husband Douglas”, explains the former staff member of a police station in Anchorage. She is entranced by what’s going on at the station, and by the special train. “It’s the reason why we’re making the journey. It’s aroused our spirit of adventure, as part of a new life”, Karen Latimer says. She and her husband boarded the train in Beijing. Or, to be more precise, the Chinese special train which runs on the stretch of the Trans-Mongolian railway from the capital of the Middle Kingdom, through Inner Mongolia, as far as Erlian. After changing to the Russian “Transsiberian by Private Train” special at Zamiin-Uud, Karen and Douglas Latimer are now travelling through the steppes of Mongolia, as far as Russia. And it’s there that the rail odyssey finally starts to follow a legendary route.

On the discontinued line on the south-west shore of Lake Baikal, and later on the historic main line of the famous Trans-Siberian railway, which runs regularly between Moscow and Vladivostok, the hotel train rolls right across the forested landscape of Siberia, as far as the Ural mountains, and then on to the Russian capital. By then it will have covered almost 8,000 kilometres within 15 days. “Adventure with calculable risk” is the way the travel organizers Lernidee Erlebnisreisen describe their product. The Berlin-based company has been offering the journey in the “Transsiberian by Private Train” since 2001, from May to September each year. Lernidee have their eyes on clients from all over the world, and about half of them come from Germany. It all started back in the 1980’s, when company founder Hans Engberding, who had earlier studied Russian and geography in Freiburg, gave Russian language courses for tourists on the Trans-Siberian. “It nice that you Germans haven’t turned up in tanks”, an elderly Russian lady once said to him. It was not just that which gave his idea a further boost. “To create publicity for the courses, I issued a press release. I even got a response from the New York Times. And all at once I started getting enquiries from the USA”, says the “Transsiberian by Private Train” inventor today, happily sipping his beer in the dining car. The train, more than half a kilometre long with its 21 coaches, has in the meantime reached Ulaanbaatar. The capital of Mongolia, where high-rises with futuristic glass facades are now shooting up, and western-style dress is all the fashion on the streets, is the starting point for a whole series of experiences for the train’s guests, and they’re far from ordinary. Take, for example, an overnight stay in a typical Mongolian yurt (or ger), set in a dramatic landscape of steppes and cliffs.

Bending down, Karen Latimer passes through the small entrance to the tent house, to look around the inside of the yurt. On the wooden floor are two beds and a small stove. The interior is spartan, but Karen Latimer finds it fascinating. “The excursions here in Mongolia makes you forget the “Transsiberian by Private Train” completely for a time”, she says, obviously entranced. Her husband Douglas interrupts her. He is less happy about what’s on offer. More comfort and smaller travel groups during the excursions would have appealed to him more, but in Mongolia things don’t quite work like that. But a little later he’s smiling again, and clearly enjoying the view – standing next to a yurt, in the middle of Mongolia.

Travel back in time

The on-board staff are preparing dinner on the train. In the most opulent of the total of four dining cars the feeling of having travelled back in time is very real. It seems as if at any moment Leo Tolstoy or Tsar Nicholas II could step through the door of the coach, with all its atmosphere of bygone days. Chippendale furnishings stand on the light coloured wooden floor. The illumination is provided by small lamps, hanging next to red and white drapes on finely decorated walls. A look at the menu, and once again a step into Russia’s past: Among the dishes is traditional borsch, the typical beetroot soup which for centuries has been ladled into plates across the whole of that mighty country. Sasha Gagarin is keen to put the final touches on the four-course dinner. The 27-year-old waiter has been working on the “Transsiberian by Private Train” for two years. “A lot of people envy me my job. But I myself don’t see it as a dream occupation. It’s just lots of fun”, says the native Muscovite casually. Despite having a very limited amount of free time, he enjoys the contact with the guests, “from which now and then an acquaintanceship may come about”. The encounter with different cultures on the journey is also something he finds enriching; in particular, the “openness of the Mongolians is fascinating”, he says, as he passes around the vodka glasses.

The next morning the train is travelling across the Republic of Buryatia, a Federal subject of Russia in eastern Siberia. Instead of craggy steppes, the landscape is now dominated by leafy woodlands of birch, larch, and cedar. Not far now to the famous Lake Baikal, the beauty of which has been praised during a brief lecture broadcast by speakers in each compartment on the train. The track, running directly on the shore of the largest body of fresh water on earth, 636 kilometres in length, offers the guests on the “Transsiberian by Private Train” an extraordinary opportunity: For a short time they are allowed, at a speed of 30 kilometres an hour, to ride outside on the locomotive. As well as Karen and Douglas Latimer, a number of other passengers change from the train to a boat, which takes them to a smart hotel with its own landing stage on the lake, where they will be staying for one night. As the guests of Tatiana Tomofeyevna, Karen and Douglas are up early, watching together as the mist slowly clears from the surface of the water and the sun steadily bathes the lake and its wooded shores in golden light. In just a few hours, the natural panorama created by the morning has the effect of an entirely different world. And a few hours after that, Karen and Douglas are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the town.

They have both arrived in Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia. And here they find themselves immersed directly in the everyday life of Russia, having lunch with Tatiana Tomofeyevna. “It is an honour for us to welcome foreign tourists”, says the retired dentist. In her three-room apartment on the fourth floor of a house built in the 1940’s to accommodate railway workers on the Trans-Siberian, the 65-year-old regularly hosts visitors – and so also helps improve her pension.

Green fittings and white lace curtains, a green carpet to match, and a velvety upholstered sofa, again in the same colour, an opulent candelabra, and a black piano in the corner adorn the living room and dining room, where Tatiana Tomofeyevna and her grandson Alexei have already laid the table. There’s plenty to eat – and drink. One vodka follows another, accompanied by a few jokes to set the mood. But there’s not much time to exchange thoughts and ideas; after lunch with Tatiana, Karen and Douglas Latimer have an appointment with the cultural history of Siberia. This is inseparable from the region, and is particularly associated with the Decembrists. Named after the month, these were the army officers who on 26 December 1825 rebelled against the new Tsar, Nicholas I. The Tsar won the day, and punished many of those who had dared raise their hands against him with death, or exiled them to forced labour in Siberia. Many of them brought their culture and learning into this outlying region, which later won it a singular reputation. In Irkutsk in particular, where Karen and Douglas visit the home of the Decembrist Sergei Volkonsky. And to bring the day to a splendid conclusion they enjoy a piano concert in the stylish house. To the melodies of Tchaikovsky, as they would have been heard in the days of Sergei Volkonsky, the couple lean back and reflect on their adventures over the past few weeks. “It really has been the trip of a lifetime”, says Karen Latimer finally. Irkutsk is their last stop on the “Transsiberian by Private Train” programme. The next few days will be taken up with a flight to Moscow. There, and three days later in St. Petersburg, they are intending to get to know the soul of Russia, without a strict schedule, and to discover the cultural treasures of the largest country on earth.

Shuttling between cultural environments, the “Transsiberian by Private Train” will by then still be somewhere between the Siberian metropolis of Novosibirsk and the town of Ekaterinburg, steeped in history, where in 1918 the family of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, were murdered, the Tatar capital of Kasan, and the capital of Russia, Moscow. The end of the line for the “Transsiberian by Private Train” is at the same time the starting point for the tour in the opposite direction, to Beijing. New guests will be occupying the compartments and fulfilling the dreams of a lifetime. And once again the train will set off on its shuttle between different cultural worlds. Once again it will stop in Zamiin-Uud, that sleepy place in Mongolia where, at the start of this journey, vastly different worlds came to be just a few metres apart: Fascinated tourists, watchful soldiers, and folklore musicians.