Tim Littler, Founder and President of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, reflects on 25 years of providing rail journeys across Russia.
As 2014 draws ever nearer, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains are looking forward to celebrating 25 years of landmark rail journeys.
This time has flown by, and as Founder and President, our anniversary has led me to reflect on how times have changed, particularly in relation to the company’s most popular destination – Russia – which is certainly a more open and vibrant country than it was back in the late 1980s.
I remember how it used to take us 2 to 3 hours just to get through immigration compared to the 2 to 3 minutes today.
My abiding memory of our first ever tour we operated in the Caucasus is that there was lots of arguing, mainly between myself and the Russian Railways representative who sat, wearing a US baseball cap and shell suit, drinking vodka for pretty much the whole journey. We were travelling in some old cars that dated back to 1914 and had been cleaned up. I remember that they were equipped with showers, which was great, until we found they didn’t work. When this was questioned the response was ‘the contract says there are showers – it doesn’t say anything about water!’.
Our first ever trip along the Trans-Siberian route in 1996 was also a mammoth record-breaking event as it took us 28 days, 72 different steam locomotives across 13,000kms to get to our final destination. A massive undertaking and logistical nightmare when I look back now and despite this we were still only 10 minutes late arriving into Vladivostok!
‘One thing that has always been good is the quality of the infrastructure. As they were funded by the military they were never starved of funds so have always been in good condition; but that didn’t mean they were like Swiss railways, they were just better than other parts of the crumbling USSR.
Thankfully now the Golden Eagle is one of the most prestigious trains in the world and is testament to how far we have come and Russia has come in such a short space of time.
Gone are the days when tourists would have limited sightseeing opportunities, almost stumbling upon amazing scenery and historical architecture by accident. Russia’s new found wealth in the post-Communism era has also seen significant investment in restoring the rich heritage of the country. The six year restoration and re-opening of the Bolshoi Theatre in 2011, at a reputed cost of somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion, turned the clock back to the late 19th century, replacing thousands of Soviet hammer-and-sickle signs with imperial double-headed eagles and this is indicative of the type and scale of project restorations now taking place right across Russia.
Nowadays, guide books detail almost every corner of the region meaning guests have greater expectations – and it’s up to us to not only meet them, but exceed them. The challenge in a business like ours always remains to constantly improve, offer new experiences, new journeys and create long-standing memories.
Over the past 25 years, I genuinely think we’ve achieved this.