By Chad Bascombe
Traversing the Great Siberian expanse is one of the pinnacles of any intercontinental traveler’s experience. The world’s largest country by far, even without its former Soviet Republics, Russia is a juggernaut of a nation, spanning seven time zones and 17 million square miles of plains and permafrost, beneath which lies much of the world’s oil wealth. Interest in exploring the great continent is growing these days as Russia’s economy is experiencing a resurgence fueled by petro-dollars and heady entrepreneurs. Until recently though, for those looking to experience the Russian landscape, the long journey to Moscow was reserved for not only the most adventurous travelers, but indeed, the most hardy.
The trans-Siberian railway was the stuff of legend. An east to west journey with posts in Europe and Asia, reaching Moscow by train was not for the faint of heart, or stomach. Endless hours of cramped quarters could create rifts between even the closest of traveling companions, and sub-par food often required the will of Stalin to keep down.
But private rail travel can restore romanticism to this most epic of Russian experiences. GW Travel offers luxurious accommodations that rival the famed Orient Express. The British company has recently debuted the new $25 million Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express on a market already dominated by its similarly equipped Siberian Tiger luxury train.
Your journey begins once you step off the plane, where you’ll be shuttled to a stay at the Hotel Vladivostok’s four-star Hotel Hyundai in the city of Vladivostok for a reception dinner among your fellow travelers. A military city formerly closed to foreigners and home to the Soviet Union’s Pacific fleet, Vladivostok soon gives way to stops as diverse as Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and the Siberian city of Irkutsk, whose storied wooden architecture and cultural attractions have earned it the moniker “Paris of Siberia.”
As the cities fade, natural wonders abound, not the least of which is Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, nestled among the hills near the small village of Listvyanka. During winter departures, a huge lake serves as a backdrop for Siberian dog sledding and Ski-Dooing, both arranged by the company as are many other off-train excursions at most stops. At the lake, you can enjoy barbecue where the land meets the sparkling water’s edge.
Back onboard the train, the chef’s culinary acumen bridges traditional and world cuisine and is complemented by the train’s expansive wine collection. Pre- and post-dinner drinks are of course available in the newly styled bar car, befitting its status as the train’s primary social space. Open until the last person leaves, it’s a great place to observe the countryside, lounge or enjoy Russia’s famous vodka.
From Moscow, extensions are available to former capital St. Petersburg, or head eastward from Vladivistok to the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire. In fact, it’s not uncommon for vacationers to charter the line from Beijing and travel the 21-day Silk Route, an equally compelling, though southerly, trans-continental alternative that makes stops in China and Kazakhstan before traveling north to Moscow.
Westbound-15 Days Gold Class
$12,000 Twin/$17,000 Single
$18,000 Twin/$25,000 Single
Web site: gwtravel.co.uk
Phone: +44 0161 928 9410
Great Train Trips
Travel author Eric Newby famously remarked “The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride. All the rest are peanuts.” Nevertheless, these three alternatives offer their own awe and excitement. – C.B.
Eastern and Oriental Express, $5,700
The journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Singapore is, to say the least, picturesque. Stops include Kanchanaburi, the site of imposing 13th-century Buddhist temples, and a day in Bangkok, where the dinnertime departure passes villages, rice fields and water buffalo.
Qinghai-Tibet Railway, $170
Dubbed the “Train to the Roof of the World” the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the first to link the autonomous region of Tibet with the Chinese capital of Beijing. A feat long considered impossible, the two-day route carves through the region’s remote, permafrost-covered mountain ranges at extremely high altitudes with cars equipped to counterbalance the thin air.
Deccan Odyssey India, $4,900
The majestic Deccan Odyssey considers itself a royal luxury train service, an assertion that’s hard to dispute given its richly appointed cabins. The 21-coach rail service includes a conference room with Internet service, steam bath, library and other amenities found in upscale hotels, like 24-hour room service and Ayurvedic massage. Off-train excursions include trips to beaches in Tarkali and Goa, the historic Gangapur Dam and a final stop in Bombay.