The Great Railway Journey (TransSib)
I’m embarking on the greatest and longest railway track in the world, the TransSib for an epic journey that will take me almost all accross the complete Eur-Asian landmass. I fly from Amsterdam to Moscow and then after visiting Moscow for a few days, I board the train for an almost 8.000 kilometre journey from Moscow to Beijing.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railways connecting Moscow with the Russian Far East. With a length of 9,289 kilometres (5,772 miles), from Moscow to Vladivostok, it is the longest railway line in the world. There are connecting branch lines into Mongolia, China and North Korea. It has connected Moscow with Vladivostok since 1916, and is still being expanded.
It was built between 1891 and 1916 under the supervision of Russian government ministers personally appointed by Tsar Alexander III and his son, the Tsarevich Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas II). Even before it had been completed, it attracted travellers who wrote of their adventures.
Route description of my journey
The railway is often associated with the main transcontinental Russian line that connects hundreds of large and small cities of the European and Asian parts of Russia. At a Moscow–Vladivostok track length of 9,289 kilometres (5,772 miles), it spans a record eight time zones. Taking eight days to complete the journey, it is the third-longest single continuous service in the world, after the Moscow–Pyongyang 10,267 kilometres (6,380 mi) and the Kiev–Vladivostok 11,085 kilometres (6,888 mi) services, both of which also follow the Trans-Siberian for much of their routes.
My journey will immediately deviate from the the official TransSib route.
Moscow –> Kazan –> Yekaterinburg
I’m gonna use the more southern Ural Line which connects Moscow with Kazan and Kazan with Yekaterinburg.
818km/508ml Volga river
The main route of the Trans-Siberian Railway begins in Moscow at Yaroslavsky Vokzal, runs through Yaroslavl, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Ulan-Ude, Chita, and Khabarovsk to Vladivostok via southern Siberia.
A second primary route is the Trans-Manchurian, which coincides with the Trans-Siberian east of Chita as far as Tarskaya (a stop 12 km (7 mi) east of Karymskoye, in Chita Oblast), about 1,000 km (621 mi) east of Lake Baikal. From Tarskaya the Trans-Manchurian heads southeast, via Harbin and Mudanjiang in China’s Northeastern Provinces (from where a connection to Beijing is used by one of the Moscow–Beijing trains), joining with the main route in Ussuriysk just north of Vladivostok. This is the shortest and the oldest railway route to Vladivostok. While there are currently no traverse passenger services (enter China from one side and then exit China and return to Russia on the other side) on this branch, it is still used by several international passenger services between Russia and China.The third primary route is the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which coincides with the Trans-Siberian as far as Ulan-Ude on Lake Baikal’s eastern shore. From Ulan-Ude the Trans-Mongolian heads south to Ulaan-Baatar before making its way southeast to Beijing.In 1991, a fourth route running further to the north was finally completed, after more than five decades of sporadic work. Known as the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM), this recent extension departs from the Trans-Siberian line at Taishet several hundred miles west of Lake Baikal and passes the lake at its northernmost extremity. It crosses the Amur River at Komsomolsk-na-Amure (north of Khabarovsk), and reaches the Tatar Strait at Sovetskaya Gavan. On 13 October 2011, a train from Khasan made its inaugural run to Rajin, North Korea.
My journey however, will immediately deviate from the TransSib,I’m gonna use the more southern Ural Line which connects Moscow with Kazan and Kazan with Yekaterinburg.
From Yekaterinburg I’ll take the Trans Siberia Express as described above and further beyond in more detail and from Ulan Ude I’ll be following the Trans Mongolian primary route through Ulaan-Baataar to Beijing.Here’s a detailed list with railway stations, distances (in kilometres and in hours). Also indicated are some points of interest and river crossings. The complete Trans-Siberian route can be done in 7 to 9 days and the route I’m doing (Trans-Mongolian route) in 6 days. But I decided to stop a lot along the route and get out at several cities and areas of great natural beauty, to do some walks/hikes/treks and even a real roadtrip. More of that in upcoming blogs.
Confused? Here’s a recap of the above in a map (I travelled the Blue Ural Line from Moscow via Kazan to Yekaterinburg, the Red Trans-Siberian Line from Yekaterinburg to Ulan Ude and the pink Trans-Mongolian Line from Ulan Ude to Beijing (excluding a bit of that line in northern Mongolia (between Darkhan and Ulaan Baatar) where instead I did a road trip through northern and central Mongolia)):
Yekatarinburg –> Omsk –> Novosibirsk –> Krasnoyarsk –> Irkutsk
Irkutsk –> Ulan Ude –> Darkhan
Ulaanbaatar –> Beijing
Tickets Ulaanbaatar –> Beijing
Depending on which train you are and even in what direction you move, in a non stop journey, you will have chances to get out of the train at several railway stations. Some stops are only 2 minutes and you are not allowed out of the train except maybe your head for a quick cigarette puff, if the provodnitsa (the lady who is in charge of law and order in your train compartment) is in a good mood.
At other stations there short 5 to 15 minute breaks and if your quick you can buy some food or drinks from the shops or whenever they are still allowed to enter the platform (which is much less allowed nowadays than I read in several travel guides) from local people selling dried fish, souvenirs, vases (really!) or noodles/ramen.
And then there are a few stations where the stops are longer than 20 minutes up to 1 hour. At those stops you can visit the local station hall or the square in front or maybe occasionally even the city or village. Keep the train in mind though, because it can leave without even a whistle sign! Ask the provodniza whether you can stray from the train as far as you expect to go.
Demand and design
In the late 19th century, the development of Siberia was hampered by poor transport links within the region, as well as with the rest of the country. Aside from the Great Siberian Route, good roads suitable for wheeled transport were rare. For about five months of the year, rivers were the main means of transport. During the cold half of the year, cargo and passengers travelled by horse-drawn sledges over the winter roads, many of which were the same rivers, but ice-covered.The first steamboat on the River Ob, Nikita Myasnikov’s Osnova, was launched in 1844. But early beginnings were difficult, and it was not until 1857 that steamboat shipping started developing on the Ob system in a serious way. Steamboats started operating on the Yenisei in 1863, and on the Lena and Amur in the 1870s. While the comparative flatness of Western Siberia was at least fairly well served by the gigantic Ob–Irtysh–Tobol–Chulym river system, the mighty rivers of Eastern Siberia—the Yenisei, the upper course of the Angara River (the Angara below Bratsk was not easily navigablebecause of the rapids), and the Lena—were mostly navigable only in the north-south direction. An attempt to partially remedy the situation by building the Ob-Yenisei Canal was not particularly successful. Only a railway could be a real solution to the region’s transport problems.The first railway projects in Siberia emerged after the completion of the Saint Petersburg–Moscow Railway in 1851. One of thefirst was the Irkutsk–Chita project, proposed by the American entrepreneur Perry Collins and supported by Transport Minister Constantine Possiet with a view toward connecting Moscow to the Amur River, and consequently, to the Pacific Ocean. Siberia’s governor, Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, was anxious to advance the colonisation of the Russian Far East, but his plans could not materialise as long as the colonists had to import grain and other food from China and Korea. It was on Muravyov’s initiative that surveys for a railway in the Khabarovsk region were conducted.Before 1880, the central government had virtually ignored these projects, because of the weakness of Siberian enterprises, a clumsy bureaucracy, and fear of financial risk. By 1880, there were a large number of rejected and upcoming applications for permission to construct railways to connect Siberia with the Pacific, but not Eastern Russia. This worried the government and made connecting Siberia with Central Russia a pressing concern. The design process lasted 10 years. Along with the route actually constructed, alternative projects were proposed:
- Southern route: via Kazakhstan, Barnaul, Abakan and Mongolia.
- Northern route: via Tyumen, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Yeniseysk and the modern Baikal Amur Mainline or even through Yakutsk.
The line was divided into seven sections, on all or most of which work proceeded simultaneously, using the labour of 62,000 men. The total cost was estimated at £35 million sterling; the first section (Chelyabinsk to the River Ob) was finished at a cost £900,000 less than the estimate. Railwaymen fought against suggestions to save funds, for example, by installing ferryboats instead of bridges over the rivers until traffic increased. The designers insisted and secured the decision to construct an uninterrupted railway.Unlike the rejected private projects that intended to connect the existing cities demanding transport, the Trans-Siberian did not have such a priority. Thus, to save money and avoid clashes with land owners, it was decided to lay the railway outside the existing cities. Tomsk was the largest city, and the most unfortunate, because the swampy banks of the Ob River near it were considered inappropriate for a bridge. The railway was laid 70 km (43 mi) to the south (instead crossing the Ob at Novonikolaevsk, later renamed Novosibirsk); just a dead-end branch line connected with Tomsk, depriving the city of the prospective transit railway traffic and trade.ConstructionIn March 1890, the Tsarevich (later Tsar Nicholas II) personally inaugurated the construction of the Far East segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway during his stop at Vladivostok, after visiting Japan at the end of his journey around the world. Nicholas II made notes in his diary about his anticipation of travelling in the comfort of “the tsar’s train” across the unspoiled wilderness of Siberia. The tsar’s train was designed and built in St. Petersburg to serve as the main mobile office of the tsar and his staff for travelling across Russia.On 9 March 1891, the Russian government issued an imperial rescript in which it announced its intention to construct a railway across Siberia. Tsarevich Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas II) inaugurated the construction of the railway in Vladivostok on 19 May that year. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was overseen by Sergei Witte, who was then finance minister. Similar to the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US, Russian engineers started construction at both ends and worked towards the centre. From Vladivostok the railway was laid north along the right bank of the Ussuri River to Khabarovsk at the Amur River, becoming the Ussuri Railway.In 1890, a bridge across the Ural River was built and the new railway entered Asia. The bridge across the Ob River was built in 1898 and the small city of Novonikolaevsk, founded in 1883, grew into the large Siberian city of Novosibirsk. In 1898 the first train reached Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal about 60 kilometres (37 miles) east of the city. The railway ran on to the east, across the Shilka and Amur rivers and soon reached Khabarovsk. The Vladivostok to Khabarovsk section was built slightly earlier, in 1897. Russian soldiers, as well as convict labourers from Sakhalin and other places were used for building the railway.Lake Baikal is more than 640 kilometres (400 miles) long and more than 1,600 metres (5,200 feet) deep. Until the Circum-Baikal Railway was built the line ended on either side of the lake. The ice-breaking train ferry SS Baikal built in 1897 and smaller ferry SS Angara built in about 1900 made the four-hour crossing to link the two railheads.The Russian admiral and explorer Stepan Makarov (1849–1904) designed Baikal and Angara but they were built in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, by Armstrong Whitworth. They were “knock down” vessels; that is, each ship was bolted together in England, every part of the ship was marked with a number, the ship was disassembled into many hundreds of parts and transported in kit form to Listvyanka where a shipyard was built especially to reassemble them. Their boilers, engines and some other components were built in Saint Petersburg and transported to Listvyanka to be installed. Baikal had 15 boilers, four funnels, and was 64 metres (210 ft) long. it could carry 24 railway coaches and one locomotive on the middle deck. Angara was smaller, with two funnels.Completion of the Circum-Baikal Railway in 1904 bypassed the ferries, but from time to time the Circum-Baikal Railway suffered from derailments or rockfalls so both ships were held in reserve until 1916. Baikal was burnt out and destroyed in the Russian Civil War but Angara survives. It has been restored and is permanently moored at Irkutsk where it serves as an office and a museum.In winter, sleighs were used to move passengers and cargo from one side of the lake to the other until the completion of the Lake Baikal spur along the southern edge of the lake. With the Amur River Line north of the Chinese border being completed in 1916, there was a continuous railway from Petrograd to Vladivostok that remains to this day the world’s longest railway line. Electrification of the line, begun in 1929 and completed in 2002, allowed a doubling of train weights to 6,000 tonnes. There were expectations upon electrification that it would increase rail traffic on the line by 40 percent.The additional Chinese Eastern Railway was constructed as the Russo-Chinese part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, connecting Russia with China and providing a shorter route to Vladivostok. A Russian staff and administration based in Harbin operated it.EffectsSiberian agriculture began to send cheap grain westwards beginning around 1869. Agriculture in Central Russia was still under economic pressure after the end of serfdom, which was formally abolished in 1861. To defend the central territory and prevent possible social destabilisation, the Tsarist government introduced the Chelyabinsk tariff-break (Челябинский тарифный перелом) in 1896, a tariff barrier for grain passing through Chelyabinsk, and a similar barrier in Manchuria. This measure changed the nature of export: mills emerged to produce bread from grain in Altai Krai, Novosibirsk and Tomsk, and many farms switched to corn (maize) production.The railway immediately filled to capacity with local traffic, mostly wheat. From 1896 until 1913 Siberia exported on average 501,932 tonnes (30,643,000 pood) of grain and flour annually. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, military traffic to the east disrupted the flow of civil freight.The Trans-Siberian Railway brought with it millions of peasant-migrants from the Western regions of Russia and Ukraine. Between 1906 and 1914, the peak migration years, about 4 million peasants arrived in Siberia. Despite the low speed and low possible weights of trains, the railway fulfilled its promised role as a transit route between Europe and East Asia.War and revolutionIn the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the strategic importance and limitations of the Trans-Siberian Railway contributed to Russia’s defeat in the war. As the line was single track, transit was slower as trains had to wait in crossing sidings for opposing trains to cross. This limited the capacity of the line and increased transit times. A troop train or a train carrying injured personnel travelling from east to west would delay the arrival of troops or supplies and ammunition in a train travelling from west to east. The supply difficulties meant the Russian forces had limited troops and supplies while Japanese forces with shorter lines of communication were able to attack and advance.After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the railway served as the vital line of communication for the Czechoslovak Legion and the allied armies that landed troops at Vladivostok during the Siberian Intervention of the Russian Civil War. These forces supported the White Russian government of Admiral Alexander Kolchak, based in Omsk, and White Russian soldiers fighting the Bolsheviks on the Ural front. The intervention was weakened, and ultimately defeated, by partisan fighters who blew up bridges and sections of track, particularly in the volatile region between Krasnoyarsk and Chita.There was traveling the leader of legions professor Thomas Garrigue Masaryk from Moscow to Vladivostok in March and August 1918, on his journey to Japan and United States of America. The Trans-Siberian Railway also played a very direct role during parts of Russia’s history, with the Czechoslovak Legion using heavily armed and armoured trains to control large amounts of the railway (and of Russia itself) during the Russian Civil War at the end of World War I. As one of the few organised fighting forces left in the aftermath of the imperial collapse, and before the Red Army took control, the Czechs and Slovaks were able to use their organisation and the resources of the railway to establish a temporary zone of control before eventually continuing onwards towards Vladivostok, from where they emigrated back to Czechoslovakia.World War IIDuring World War II, the Trans-Siberian Railway played an important role in the supply of the powers fighting in Europe. During the first two years of the war the USSR had secretly agreed to a neutrality and non-aggression pact with Germany. While Germany’s merchant shipping was interdicted by the Western allies, the Trans-Siberian Railway (along with its Trans-Manchurian branch) served as the essential link between Germany and Japan. One commodity particularly essential for the German war effort was natural rubber, which Japan was able to source from South-East Asia (in particular, French Indochina).As of March 1941, 300 tonnes of this material would, on average, traverse the Trans-Siberian Railway every day on its way to Germany. According to one analysis of the natural rubber supply chain, as of 22 March 1941, 5,800 tonnes of this essential material were transiting on the Soviet railway network between the borders of Manchukuo and the Third Reich, 2,000 tonnes were transiting Manchukuo, 4,000 tonnes were sitting in Dairen, 3,800 tonnes were in Japan, and 5,700 tonnes, on the way from South-East Asia to Japan.At this time, a number of Jews and anti-Nazis used the Trans-Siberian Railway to escape Europe, including the mathematician Kurt Gödel and Betty Ehrlich Löwenstein, mother of British actor, director and producer Heinz Bernard. Several thousand Jewish refugees were able to make this trip thanks to the Japanese visas issued by the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara, in Kaunas, Lithuania. Typically they would travel east on the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific Ocean where they would board a ship bound for the USA.The situation reversed after 22 June 1941. By invading the Soviet Union, Germany cut off its only reliable trade route to Japan. Instead, it had to use fast merchant ships (blockade runners) and later large oceanic submarines in an attempt to evade the allied maritime patrols. On the other hand, the USSR became the recipient of lend lease supplies from the USA. Even though Japan went to war with the USA, it was anxious to preserve good relations with the USSR and, despite German complaints, usually allowed Soviet ships to sail between the USA and Russia’s Pacific ports unmolested. This contrasted with Germany and Britain’s behaviour; their navies would destroy or capture neutrals’ ships sailing to their respective adversaries. As a result, the Pacific Route – involving crossing the northern Pacific Ocean and the Trans-Siberian Railway – became the safest connection between the USA and the USSR.Accordingly, it accounted for as much freight as the two other routes (North Atlantic–Arctic and Iranian) combined, though cargoes were limited to raw materials and non-military goods (locomotives, clothing, foodstuffs etc.). From 1941–42 the railway also played an important role in relocating Soviet industries from European Russia to Siberia in the face of the German invasion.The railway transported Soviet troops west from the Far East to take part in the Soviet counter-offensive in December 1941, and later east from Germany to the Japanese front in preparation for the Soviet–Japanese War of August 1945. Although the Japanese estimated that an attack was not likely before Spring 1946, Stavka had planned for a mid-August 1945 offensive, and had concealed the buildup of a force of 90 divisions; many had crossed Siberia in their vehicles to avoid straining the rail link.TodayThe Trans-Siberian line remains the most important transport link within Russia; around 30% of Russian exports travel on the line. While it attracts many foreign tourists, it gets most of its use from domestic passengers.Today the Trans-Siberian Railway carries about 200,000 containers per year to Europe. Russian Railways intends to at least double the volume of container traffic on the Trans-Siberian and is developing a fleet of specialised cars and increasing terminal capacity at the ports by a factor of 3 to 4. By 2010, the volume of traffic between Russia and China could reach 60 million tons (54 million tonnes), most of which will go by the Trans-Siberian.With perfect coordination of the participating countries’ railway authorities, a trainload of containers can be taken from Beijing to Hamburg, via the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian lines in as little as 15 days, but typical cargo transit times are usually significantly longer and typical cargo transit time from Japan to major destinations in European Russia was reported as around 25 days.According to a 2009 report, the best travel times for cargo block trains from Russia’s Pacific ports to the western border (of Russia, or perhaps of Belarus) were around 12 days, with trains making around 900 km (559 mi) per day, at a maximum operating speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). However, in early 2009, Russian Railways announced an ambitious “Trans-Siberian in Seven Days” programme; according to this plan, $11 billion will be invested over the next five years to make it possible for goods traffic to cover the same 9,000 km (5,592 mi) distance in just seven days. The plan will involve increasing the cargo trains’ speed to 90 km/h (56 mph) in 2010–12, and, at least on some sections, to 100 km/h (62 mph) by 2015. At these speeds, goods trains will be able to cover 1,500 km (932 mi) per day.Developments in shippingOn 11 January 2008, China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany agreed to collaborate on a cargo train service between Beijing and Hamburg.The railway can typically deliver containers in 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 of the time of a sea voyage, and in late 2009 announced a 20% reduction in its container shipping rates. With its 2009 rate schedule, the TSR will transport a forty-foot container to Poland from Yokohama for $2,820, or from Busan for $2,154.One of the most complicating factors related to such ventures is the fact that the CIS states’ broad railway gauge is incompatible with China and Western and Central Europe’s standard gauge. Therefore, a train travelling from China to Western Europe would encounter gauge breaks twice: at the Chinese–Mongolian or the Chinese–Russian frontier and at the Ukrainian or the Belorussian border with Central European countries.Trans-Siberian route in 7 daysIn 2008, the Russian Railways JSC (state company) launched a program for the accelerated delivery of containers cargo by block trains from the Far-Eastern ports (Vladivostok, Nakhodka and others) to the western borders of Russia, called “Transsib in 7 days”. Within the framework of the program it is planned to decrease the cargo delivery time from the Far East from 11 days in 2008 to 7 days in 2015. The length of the routes is about 10,000 km. The speed of delivery via the block trains should increase from 900 km per day in 2008 to 1,500 km per day in 2015. The first accelerated experimental block-train was launched in February 2009 from the Vladivostok station to Moscow. The length of the route was about 9,300 km, the actual time of the experimental train’s delivery was 7 days and 5 hours, the average route speed was up to 1,289 km / day. The maximum route speed of the train was 1,422 km / day.
End of the line?
Is Beijing the end of the line? Not really. You can actually travel in a circle using the Trans Mongolia, Trans Manchuria and Trans Siberia lines :-).