‘The Trans-Siberian railway’ – for a train enthusiast, there can be few more evocative words. Yet although I have just celebrated forty years of travelling to Russia, and made a career out of studying and lecturing on the country, I had never been to Siberia before my first outing as Guest Lecturer for Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. Many of my students at Manchester University had finished their year of study in Russia with a trip on the Trans-Siberian, but I was not interested; I knew I would not be able to cope with the inadequate washing facilities, the daily scrabble to buy food from babushkas lined up on platforms, the long days confined to the train, and the being crammed into a small cabin with complete strangers. Sharing pickled cucumbers, vodka and conversation with Russian passengers did have some appeal, but not enough to compensate for the horrors outlined above. Of course, this is not the Golden Eagle experience; we all have en suite bathrooms, cordon bleu food, excursions almost every day, and no strangers taking up residence in our luxurious cabins. But having taken so long to do the trip myself, I was curious to know what had tempted my fellow travellers onto the Trans-Siberian Express, what were their impressions of the country, and what were their feelings about the trip as a whole. What follows are the accounts, and the often highly perceptive observations, of guests on the three back-to-back trips I made on the Golden Eagle between August and September 2017, two of which went from East to West (Vladivostok to Moscow), and one from West to East. Some people recounted their impressions while we were on the train; others emailed me after they had returned home and had been able to mull over their experiences.
Russian Family histories
The stories of clients whose family histories have been intertwined with the history of Russia were particularly fascinating. I recounted one such tale in my previous blog (‘100 Years of Revolution: from Lenin to Putin’). Eleanor, from Chicago, provided me with another amazing story. She had come on the Trans-Siberian Express to travel in the footsteps of her parents, who left Russia in 1925 to avoid living under the Bolsheviks (though they had not, she added, been much more enamoured of the Tsars; they were Jews living in Odessa, which had a terrible history of violent anti-Jewish pogroms). They took the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, and went from there to Harbin in Manchuria, intending to go on to the United States. However, there was an enormous Russian community in Harbin and life seemed good, so they stayed. Even before the Revolution, Harbin had a large number of Russian residents, most of whom worked for the Chinese Eastern Railway, which the Russians were constructing as a link to the Trans-Siberian. After the Bolshevik triumph, the railway workers were joined by tens of thousands of White Russians fleeing the Soviet Union.
By the time Eleanor’s parents arrived the Russian community included doctors, musicians, fur traders, and many other trades and professions; there were nice shops, restaurants, a lively cultural life, and a strong music scene. This suited her parents, since both were musicians. Her mother was a pianist but did not play professionally – though her family had owned a cinema in their home town of Dubassari, in present-day Moldova, and her piano playing had provided the background to the silent movies they screened. Her father earned his living in Harbin giving violin lessons and playing in a night club at the Hotel Modern, which still exists, and is still a hotel; Eleanor paid it a visit two years ago. The family did well and acquired a large house and even a yacht, and their first child, Eleanor’s brother, was born in the city. This pleasant life came to an end in the 1930s, when the Japanese occupied Manchuria. Faced with a large influx of Japanese taking the best jobs, many Harbin Russians returned to their old country. Discord began to develop between those who stayed, with Soviet and anti-Soviet factions developing, the latter including the virulently anti-Semitic Russian Fascist Party. It was no longer comfortable for Eleanor’s parents to remain. They considered going back to Russia, both unaware of the difficulties of Soviet life, and the horrors which were about to unfold when the Terror swept through the country. They were saved a terrible fate when friends warned them that although there was plenty of opportunity to play music, there was a desperate shortage of food. Many Harbin Russians headed to the major industrial cities of China, and in 1935 Eleanor’s family took this route themselves, settling in Tianjin for three years. This was where Eleanor was born. The family finally fulfilled their original intention and moved to the United States; now Eleanor was back to explore some of the places they had experienced on that long journey to a new life.
Russia beckons …
The guests on board the Golden Eagle proved to be extremely well travelled themselves, though in rather happier circumstances. Many of them had explored much of the world already, but felt that if they were to really appreciate its cultural and geographical variety, they had to go to Russia. As Carolyn from Australia put it, ‘I came to Russia because my closest friend, who had been to Russia twice herself, said that as a well travelled woman, I couldn’t consider myself fully rounded until I had been there.’ Visiting the major cities was not enough, neither for her nor for other Golden Eagle passengers; this huge country constitutes one-eighth of the world’s land mass and straddles eleven-time zones, and they wanted to experience for themselves its vastness. There was no better way of doing this than taking the Trans-Siberian.
A number of clients had strong memories of the Cold War era and the antagonism between Russia and the West, and wanted to see if those tensions had eroded since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sandy is an Australian farmer, like his parents before him; as landowners, they had been filled with horror at the appropriation of land by the Soviet regime and the forcing of private farmers into collective farms. He was pleasantly surprised by the openness of Russians he met on this trip and their willingness to discuss the follies of the past. ‘While much has been achieved by them in recent times’, he mused, ‘one can only conjecture how much further advanced their society would be if so many intellectuals, risk takers and entrepreneurs had not lost their lives. I saw so much potential for tourism, agriculture and manufacturing. You need passion, drive and resilience to develop such things in such a harsh environment’. He hoped that ‘the younger generation, freed from the restrictive shackles of state intervention in their lives’, would be the driving force in doing just that.
Sandy was travelling with his wife Judy, his cousin Tina and her husband, George. Tina told me that she and George ‘chose this particular trip as we were interested to see the Russian countryside and farming practices and it was infinitely easier to get across Russia in this way and not having to drive ourselves. We also wanted to do it in style and our local travel agent recommended the Golden Eagle as being her dream trip!’
Many guests had already visited Russia, in some cases many years previously, and were curious to see how things had changed. Ian, also from Australia, was there in 1972. One of his strongest memories was that ‘food was very basic and very limited – and that just to buy a loaf of bread one would have to queue to pay for the bread and get a receipt, then queue again to collect your bread.’ On this trip, ‘I was amazed at the variety of all types of food available’. He also observed a huge change in the countenance of the Russian people; in comparison with 1972, ‘they seem happy and very content’.
For Roly and Joyce, from Scotland, this trip was a complete change from the brave – or, some might say, foolhardy! – Russian adventures of their youth. In 1964, the year in which Khrushchev was deposed and the liberalisation of the country came to a halt, Roly and his mother drove a caravan from Helsinki to Leningrad. In 1965 they did the same thing, but this time from Newcastle to Moscow and Kiev. By 1973 Roly and Joyce were together, and the two of them did a camping trip by car to Moscow and Kiev. At that time, it was not possible to travel completely independently in the Soviet Union, and they were accompanied by a guide from the Soviet state travel agency, Intourist. Roly’s primary impressions were – again – of the scarcity of food, except for bread; and the multiple-queue shopping system which Ian had recalled with amusement. Roly also had a strong memory of Russian Orthodox believers, in this supposedly atheistic society, worshipping in the cathedral in Minsk. Joyce remembered the wooden houses and unmade roads even in the capital, and having to give up their passports when they entered a campsite, which she found a bit alarming. But there were more light-hearted experiences: ‘in the Kiev campsite we had Georgians giving us delicious wine and food but trying to ply us with icons. We were not seduced!’ Joyce, a University lecturer, was in Moscow again in 1999 to validate a course on Tourism and Museums at a postgraduate institute funded by the Hungarian financier and philanthropist, George Soros. The institute was founded by Theodor Shanin, formerly Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, who wanted to introduce Russians to a British-style education system. Life in this transformed country was not, Joyce observed, unreservedly good for everyone; some of the academics she met were paid so little that they were having to hold down four different jobs.
Joan and David, from the USA, had taken a riverboat trip in 1993 from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Joan remembered it being ‘a wonderful trip despite the fact that the services and food on the boat were not up-to-par. Perhaps there wasn’t the infrastructure for tourism at the time; nevertheless, it was great to be in a place that had been closed for the greater part of our lives. We stopped at little places on the river and canals, lovely places. I remember walking on Red Square for the first time. It was midnight and it felt like we were entering the heart of the Evil Empire. There had been so much propaganda from both sides by that time. In 1993 it seemed an extraordinary experience. This time, however, Red Square seemed more like a tourist attraction. There were mobs of people and a good deal of commercial activity. There were fence barricades in place for a special event that had recently been held. I understand that an ice skating rink is put up in the wintertime. It was very different 24 years ago. My husband chose the Trans-Siberian train trip, but I was all for it. On that first visit, the riverboat itinerary showed us only a small part of Russia, and I had always been curious about mysterious Siberia. Although I realise even now that there are still vast parts of Russia to be seen, I have a much better feel for the expansiveness of the land. Even though I was intellectually aware that a 13-day train trip westward from Vladivostok to Moscow would cover seven time zones, the day-to-day, hour-by-hour experience made it much more real. I asked myself how people travelled to Siberia in the past, in primitive conditions, to start a new life there. I had the benefit of a luxury train, good food and drink, friendly companions and wonderful lectures to entertain me on the way. How did they do it? I may never have the answer to that question, yet now I have a better understanding of the complexity and the difficulty of their lives. I also have a deep respect for the strength and individuality which helped their culture survive.’
Joan’s husband, David, told me that ‘the Trans-Siberian Railway had always been on our wish list of overseas trips. We had spoken with several people who had done it, including my godson who made the trip as a student some years ago, although not in the luxurious manner we did’. Thinking back to the 1993 riverboat cruise, he recalled ‘being astonished to find that dollars (and presumably other hard currencies) were welcomed, indeed preferred, almost everywhere we went. I recall, for example, that all the prices in the windows of the fancy shops along Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg were quoted in dollars. We certainly didn’t see that on this trip. Then again, there were no ATMs back in 1993! The one overwhelming impression I had from this trip was of prosperity. Modern skyscrapers, outrageous traffic jams, and all the rest. That said, a lot of the people we encountered on this trip, while they seemed more comfortable, did not seem as happy as those we met just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, the older people we encountered were clearly unhappy with the disruption and insecurity in their lives. The generation that has come along since we were last in Russia seemed better adapted, but still somewhat unsure of what they face in the future. For an American, it was interesting to see how they all seem to take Putin pretty much for granted, warts and all. This really doesn’t surprise me, given what I have understood to be the fundamental pillars of Russian culture and world view. When we were in Russia in 1993 Yeltsin represented hope diluted with uncertainty. Today, Putin represents stability and nationalistic self-respect. This, of course, has been the driving force of Russian culture since the 16th century.’
David was particularly surprised by our glimpse of contemporary life in Mongolia, a former Soviet satellite. ‘Who would have believed that ultra-modern skyscrapers, five star restaurants, and fancy gated townhouse communities would pop up just a short pony ride from the vast steppes that would have been perfectly familiar to Genghis Khan? Quite astonishing.’
Helen, from New Zealand, had first travelled to Russia in 2000. She was on a much tighter budget in those days and had no choice but to go with a low-cost tour company. The hotels they stayed in were ‘quite old and badly in need of maintenance. We stayed at an Intourist Hotel in Novgorod and I noted in my diary that the door to the room didn’t close properly, the handbasin wobbled around, the floor was uneven, the curtains did not actually fit the windows and there was no shower curtain in the shower room. It seemed that nothing worked properly! And this was the usual standard of the hotels we stayed at.’ Her impressions of Russia itself were equally negative. ‘The people did not smile; they did not seem to be very happy. They seemed to be wearing quite dowdy clothing. There were a lot of beggars in the streets and there didn’t seem to be a lot of goods to purchase in shops. Motor vehicles seemed to be quite old and beat up. Around Moscow there were lots of apartment buildings that appeared to need maintenance.’ She wondered if her impressions were influenced to some extent by her dissatisfaction at the low quality of her tour. However, this was end of the Yeltsin era, which had been a particularly difficult time for ‘ordinary’ Russians – in contrast to the ultra-rich Oligarchs, whom Yeltsin’s economic policies had brought into being. Despite her negative experience, Helen ‘always wanted to go back to Russia – I am very interested in its history and wanted to see what if any changes had happened over the last 17 years. This time I could afford a much better class of tour and my impressions of Russia were very different. I was impressed with the cleanliness and lack of rubbish in the city streets. I observed very well-dressed people, and very few beggars. It seems that a lot more Russians speak English, and there seems to be a lot more tourists than I recall on that first trip. Motor vehicles are now very up to date – it seems to be mainly Japanese cars now. I was amazed at the amount of building restoration work that has been done, particularly in Moscow. Russian people seem to be happier in general.’
Anne and David, from the UK, first went to Russia in 2004 with their two children, who were then aged 15 and 13. They did the standard one-week trip, spending three nights in Moscow, a night on a sleeper train, then three nights in St Petersburg. They were struck by the great improvement in the standard of living. There were ‘modern cars, even if some were second hand Japanese imports, rather than beaten up Ladas and Moscvitches. The buildings in Moscow had all been cleaned and were a stark contrast to the grey buildings thirteen years ago’. They were struck by the massive amount of building work being undertaken, particularly in Moscow, which included aesthetic improvements to parks and streets – but ‘perhaps this is in preparation for the World cup’, David pondered, ‘if I am being cynical’, and he did wonder if ‘some of the high rise apartments around Moscow may be next year’s slums. I appreciate that we did not see a cross section of true Russian life and that the excursions showed us the best that was on offer, but all the same, there was little evidence of poverty aside from the odd shanty town visible from the train’. They were pleased to find that the Russians were still friendly and helpful, as they had been in 2004.
Тina and George had visited Russia in 2015, but only went to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that their first visit had taken place only two years previously, they felt there were still considerable differences. Tina told me: ‘Our perception of Russia had been of oppression and dour faces. Guides were guarded in their answers and certainly didn’t voice their opinions. We felt sorry for the people of Russia after seeing the enormous wealth the Tsars had and how poor the people were. It seems Putin’s road to democracy is probably better than the communist experience the people went through. Moscow seemed to be much busier this time with many more tourists evident. Young people seemed to be dressed in a more Western style; this was not so evident two years ago. We felt much more welcome as tourists this time round.’
Toni and Ann, from the UK, had not been to Russia before, but Toni ‘had always wanted to see Siberia because my [Polish] father had been imprisoned there by the Russians when they invaded Poland. But we had not been confident enough to travel independently to a country which we knew very little about’. Their decision to actually make the trip was largely down to chance, however. ‘It may seem odd’, Toni told me, ‘but it was prompted solely by a brochure dropping through the letter box. The Golden Eagle seemed the ideal way to visit such a vast country (and in style!).’ Although he did take an interest in Russian politics and was curious to know if the portrayal of Putin in the Western media was accurate and justified, his knowledge of Russia’s history was minimal. Yet travelling through the country, listening to the guides and attending the on-board lectures prompted a fascination with Russian history which he intends to pursue. It also led to an understanding that ‘what happened post revolution is relevant to our country as well – and that sadly few of our politicians seem to have learned from it.’
Toni’s expectations of the country were completely over-turned. ‘I imagined Siberia to be a cold and barren wasteland. I thought the people would be oppressed, miserable and cold (in every way). I expected the cities to be austere and grey, the food to be bland and the hotels and restaurants to fall short of western standards.’ Instead he was amazed at ‘the sophistication of the cities, the beautiful buildings, wide boulevards, friendly people and very western lifestyle that at least some of them enjoyed (particularly in Moscow, which I loved)’. He acknowledged that we visited Siberia in the summer, when ‘the land was not covered in ice and snow’; but he was still impressed by ‘the amount of agriculture in the west and the huge amount of timber as we progressed east’, and the ‘gardens of housing in the countryside’ which reminded him of his childhood. ‘At home my father built numerous sheds in the garden of our home, nothing was thrown away or wasted, he had two allotments as well as our garden and grew all our vegetables, hoarded canned food and made his own sauerkraut. Visiting a dacha [just outside of Irkutsk] brought all this back home to me and I now realise why we ate so many pickled vegetables.’
The Greatest of the Great Train Journeys!
Many Golden Eagle clients are train enthusiasts who have undertaken other iconic rail journeys and are now ready for the ‘ultimate’ one on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Chris and Shirley, from the UK, decided when they retired ‘to compile a list of things to do whilst we were fit enough, and the Trans-Siberian Express was on the list. We’ve already done Venice Simplon Orient Express from London to Venice and Rovos Rail from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, so the Trans-Siberian would complete the “must–do” rail journeys’.
Ian had, as a teenager, ‘read a biography of a couple who had travelled the Trans-Siberian from Vladivostok to Moscow way back in 1969 and I always promised myself I would do that journey – although the Golden Eagle was pure luxury compared to the train in that book!’
Roly and Joyce, who had visited Russia so many times and remained so fascinated by the country, chose this particular trip because, as Roly explained, ‘we enjoy train journeys. Joyce’s father travelled back from China on the train and told of wooden seats, samovars and gambling’. This is not, of course, the Golden Eagle experience, though we did have a contingent from Hong Kong on one trip who delighted in playing Mahjong at all hours in the Bar Car!
David and Anne ‘have a fascination for unusual places’ and ‘a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express was at the top of our bucket list. We love train journeys’, David continued, ‘and sleeping on trains. I like seeing different places. Anne does not like packing and unpacking every night or two and cruises are not for us. So the Trans-Siberian seemed perfect.’
Steve, from Australia, chose the trip because he is ‘a huge fan of train trips. I had always wanted to travel to Russia and especially on the Trans-Siberian Express. I read and enjoyed the Eric Newby book The Big Red Train Ride in the 1980s which stoked my interest. In any case, I love long distance train travel and the Trans-Siberian Express seemed to be the ultimate train trip, especially in Golden Eagle style.’
His wife, Jenny, had to be convinced that spending that amount of money on a holiday was worthwhile, but enjoyed the trip so much that ‘I have now forgotten how much it cost! I knew intellectually that Siberia was huge’, she continued, ‘but it was only when we saw it day after day that the size of the place really sank in. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there would be huge cities there. I thought there would be bleak, soul-less communities where the sun never shone! The countryside was more varied and interesting than I expected’. They had not been to Russia before, but had expectations of what they would find there – most of which were challenged. Jenny ‘had always thought of Siberia as a forbidding place and in reality it is quite beautiful.’ Steve found it ‘more prosperous than I had expected, even after taking account of closed and decaying Soviet-era factories and collective farms as well as some grim villages in Siberia. I had always thought the Trans-Siberian Railway to be of strategic importance to Russia but was surprised at the extent of apparent dependence on the railway. There seemed to be passing freight trains every 30 or so minutes, plenty of well patronised passenger trains and what seemed like significant on-going investment in maintaining and enhancing the railway infrastructure. I think we can learn a lot about such things in this country. I had always known of the significant sacrifices made by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler’s Germany. At least twenty million casualties (many of those lives squandered, of course, by Stalin) is hard to contemplate. I was impressed that the sacrifices of men and women were honoured in most towns and cities but disappointed that many of the memorials seemed run-down and in need of maintenance. There were more cars and satellite dishes than I had expected, and the few shops we visited in rural areas seemed well stocked. I had thought there would be a greater overt security presence – police on the streets and around key infrastructure such as railway stations and public buildings – but this seemed not to be the case. Before this trip I had thought of the Kremlin in Moscow as being a sinister place and I was pleased to learn that I was wrong. One thing that particularly sticks with me is seeing ordinary Russians relaxing and how much they seemed to enjoy themselves. A couple of places come to mind. The beach goers, both families and young people, on the stony shores of a very cold Lake Baikal, and Muscovites on a hot Sunday afternoon in Gorky Park. Lots of picnics, games, entertainment such as acrobatics, comedy acts and jazz buskers. One of the highlights of the trip was the visit to a Stalin-era apartment in Irkutsk and meeting the owner and her grandson. It was a bit larger and much more comfortable than I had expected. As is so often the case, the outside appearance said little about the inside.’
Neazuddin – originally from Bangladesh, now resident in Scotland – had been invited on the trip by his brother, who lives in the USA. The trip was not only a great travel experience, but also enabled him and his brother to enjoy quality time together, which they had not done for years. ‘Russia was not as I expected’, he told me. ‘I thought our movements would be restricted and we would not be able to ask questions about the Soviet regime or the current administration. Yet people expressed their feelings freely. I was also impressed to see the technological developments in Russia, though it was shocking to see that Russian-made motor cars have been replaced largely with Japanese cars. I did not expect to see so many foreign cars on Russian roads. As we moved from East to West, I noticed that the scale of development was getting better and better. Perhaps this is because Siberia is very thinly populated and the weather is so harsh. However, the housing and living conditions alongside the railway track did appear to be poor.’
So did this trip fulfil expectations?
One of the great pleasures I had when talking to these clients – or friends, as they had become by the end of the trip – was discovering how much they had enjoyed it. My compatriots Chris and Shirley said that ‘everywhere we visited had a different emphasis – and we were thrilled to have seen so much.’ Neazuddin felt that ‘words are not adequate to express my satisfaction in all respects of the journey from Vladivostok to Moscow. The services provided by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains were marvellous.’
Sandy and Judy ‘thoroughly enjoyed your lectures, company and the whole crew. The format of the tours was great. The accommodation was excellent, the food and wines could not be bettered, and the staff were fabulous. We would not change a thing.’
A number of people commented on the camaraderie which developed between passengers; Joan was particularly impressed by the fact that there were 17 different nationalities on board the train (including the Russian staff and crew) and concluded that ‘the Trans-Siberian Railway must be on a world-wide “Bucket List”!’ Toni wrote to me from the UK to say that ‘having had a chance to reflect on the trip, I realise how much I enjoyed the whole experience, seeing and learning about this vast country.’ But perhaps the finest accolade comes from Carolyn: ‘It was one of the great travel experiences of my life. I was totally absorbed and enjoyed every single moment of it. I’m not sure I had any preconceived ideas about Russia or its people that were turned inside out, but it was a deeply enriching experience that enhanced my appreciation of the country’s vastness and rich culture. To begin in Vladivostok and travel through Siberia to Moscow over two weeks really enabled me to develop my understanding of Russia and its history.’