Even in the winter Lake Baikal is a fantastic stop off point with Russian saunas offering the perfect way to warm up after ice walking from Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty. Outside of winter and Lake Baikal totally comes into its own with public ferries over to Olkhon Island offering Buryat family homestays, walking trails and boat rides alongside quieter beaches and bays on the eastern shores.
Clambering aboard a train bound for Siberia in the winter can sound, at best, akin to a sentence as opposed to a holiday but don’t be put off by a little bit of snow. Ok, a lot of snow. Thermal layers and a solid pair of slippers complement carriage heaters so you can enjoy ice-covered lakes, frozen forests and warming bowls of borscht whilst keeping toasty in some remarkable conditions.
The chance to swap bunks for beds and packets of Smash for home-cooking is really worth thinking about as homestays in Listvyanka and Olkhon Island, on Lake Baikal, are an experience you won’t want to miss. Meet the Buryat people – descendents of Mongolians who settled here centuries ago, many of whom still practice Buddhism and live in traditional yurts – and find out more about life on the lake.
Three quarters of Russia falls into Siberia but only a quarter of the country’s population, with the Ural Mountains on the eastern outskirts of Yekaterinburg signalling the start of a region that stretches to the Pacific. Far from being bleak and foreboding, many of Siberia’s qualities stem from its remote nature with cities such as Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, plus Lake Baikal, offering train hopping adventurers no end of fun and games.
Ulaanbaatar alone is well-worth a week on a train and as the Mongolian capital holds both Tibetan Buddhist influences in the Gandan Monastery as well as memorials to Genghis, including the Chinggis Brewery, passengers can rest assured of a warm welcome. Top tip: A few miles outside of Ulaanbaatar you’ll find horse riding, arrow shooting and star-filled nights in ger camps in Terelj National Park.
You don’t have to be a teacher to pass on the nuances of the English language and often the simplest of sayings will go a long way over the course of a ten day train journey. Make notes, share food, play cards and, above all, smile. A language swap with fellow passengers is a great way to pass the time, make new friends and find out more about the journey from west to east.
Located on the banks of Lake Baikal and sporting several traditional guesthouses and Buryat family homestay options, Listvyanka is one of those locations you won’t have heard of but you’ll never forget. Boat trips on the lake, smoky Russian saunas and early morning dips all add up to loads of things to do in Listvyanka with hearty home cooking just what you need after a week’s worth of Pot Noodles.
Guided walking tours of Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Khabarovsk or Irkutsk invite train passengers into the cultural heritage of Russia as well as peeling back the curtains that have long hidden the people currently presided over by Putin. Find secret cafés, untangle Cyrillic script and listen to local tales as you visit the iconic sites and lesser-known monuments on a guided walking tour, off the tracks.
As the only shower hose is to be found on the Trans Mongolian, in a small shared washroom between the deluxe first-class cabins, it’s probably not worth packing your loofah. However, fear not, you’ll find plenty of chances to freshen up off the train with fully-equipped guesthouses and Russian banya saunas offering respite from wet wipes, hand gel and early morning queues for the bathroom.
Take it from this writer; staying on-board the Trans Siberian Express is an experience that you’re only going to want to do once in a lifetime. Cabin fever, boredom and one too many games of chess can all start to weigh heavy; so, do your mind, and body, a favour and take time to step foot on what you’re whizzing past as this might not be a journey that you’ll want to do ever again.
At the end of each carriage you’ll find a samovar that pours out piping hot water, perfect for porridge, tea and oodles and oodles of noodles. Yes, they’re affordable, lightweight and tasty, sort of, but noodles for lunch, dinner and supper is not the best way forward. Mix things up and don’t be afraid to visit the dining car or buy from babushkas to supplement supplies bought in the cities.
Conditions can get cramped with up to six passengers per carriage so bear this in mind if you’re keen on personal space and ‘me time’. Also, people use the loo and sometimes on a jerky jumpy railway they can miss and ‘forget’ to clear it up. Just saying! Be prepared to be positive, grin and bear it, and refrain from sounding off just because someone’s turned the light on at 4 o’clock in the morning.