When we go on vacation, we usually try to keep the travel time as short as possible. However, the journey itself can become an exciting and comfortable adventure. This is what the idea of cruises is based on. By the way, they shouldn’t necessarily be sea ones. MGIMO teacher, political geographer and member of the Russian Geographical Society Igor Okunev has been spending his holidays for several years now, traveling around Russia by train, preferring the most distant routes.
Perhaps not everyone knows that among wealthy foreigners, train rides from Moscow through all of Siberia are very popular. Tickets for special tourist trains along the Trans-Siberian Railway cost thousands of dollars. This means that people find something in their travels in Russia that we, by force of habit, do not notice. And knowing some nuances, everyone can arrange a luxurious land cruise, which many travelers will envy.
— Igor, how did the idea to spend holidays on long-distance trains come about?
— Like any geographer, I love to travel, and in different ways. But it was as if I was afraid to ride long-distance trains. Especially when it comes to business trips, time is critical. I visited a lot of places in our country, but at some point I realized that for me Russia is an archipelago, separate islands that do not unite into a single country. You arrive in some wonderful city, look at the surrounding sights – and go back.
I really wanted to connect this huge space in my mind. On one of the holidays, my wife and I got on a train and rode along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. This journey turned out to be very interesting, and the next time we set off across the country by a different route – along the Baikal-Amur Mainline to its final destination – the city of Sovetskaya Gavan.
— About a week on a train – is it not tiring?
— It seemed to me that this huge space would amaze me with its endlessness. I saw the trip as a kind of quest. Since I consider myself an impatient person, I wanted to see if I could endure a long journey. I thought that this would be some kind of conquest. But it turned out I was wrong. Our travels were not at all tiring and monotonous. I will even express a paradoxical thought: a trip to Vladivostok is psychologically easier than a ride on a high-speed train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
— Yes, because you sit on a “Sapsan” and wait all four hours for when you finally arrive. And if you take a train to Vladivostok, you no longer think about the end of the journey. The road becomes a goal, and you see it as an adventure.
— The Trans-Siberian Railway is not just a very long railway. What does this railway mean for a professional geographer?
— Travelling along the Trans-Siberian Railway is like reading “War and Peace”. If a person lives in Russia, then they simply must read this novel. This is part of our culture. Yes, the book is big, it has its own special rhythm, but once you get a grasp of it, it’s impossible to stop. It is the same here: you are gradually drawn into such a long journey, and it reveals its charm already on the way.
In order to understand Russia, one must have an idea of its space. Traveling by train makes it whole and lasting. This is a very interesting feeling, the plane does not give you that.
How did you prepare for such a journey?
I’m interested in seeing my route on a map first. By the way, I highly recommend taking a good atlas with you on your trip. This will allow you to better feel your own connection with the geography of your trip, and in turn connect geography with history and culture. There are many layers here. For example, the entire history of the Russian Revolution is a series of events along the Trans-Siberian Railway. How the Czechoslovak Corps rode or how Kolchak retreated. Another idea for reflection: Russia was able to overcome the internal split precisely thanks to communications along the Trans-Siberian Railway. You can study the history of evacuation during the Great Patriotic War and the work of the rear in the cities of the highway. Etc.
I look not only at the cities on the route, but also, for example, which rivers we will cross. It is interesting that in our country almost all of them flow north or south, and the railway goes from west to east, thus crossing almost all the great Russian rivers. The river is always very beautiful. In addition, Russia can be measured not by hours, but by rivers.
Where are the most beautiful places in your opinion?
— I confess that I was especially impressed by the road after Irkutsk, this is where real beauty begins! You just sit and look out the window, and there seems to be a movie going on. Around – infinity! First Lake Baikal, then the mountain part begins. Imagine, for two whole days you go through the mountains, and the landscapes change all the time. Insanely beautiful! Regardless of whether you are going along the Trans-Siberian Railway or along the BAM, although, for me, the second way is even more interesting.
After Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude, Chita, and then – that’s it, there are almost no large centers, and for more than a day, to Khabarovsk, you simply disappear. I’m talking about the Trans-Siberian. And on the BAM, the last big city is Krasnoyarsk, and then go Bratsk, Severobaikalsk, Tynda. But it was the tiny substations that seemed interesting to me. They were built by representatives of different regions of the USSR, who took part in the construction of the highway. Each republic wanted to be noted. This is how stations appeared, bearing an architectural and ethnographic imprint. Passing by, you feel like a member of a kind of mini-excursion.
— What is BAM today?
— BAM is under construction right now. It’s different here than anywhere else in the country. For example, everywhere in Russia there are very strict controls at railway stations. This is very inconvenient for the traveler: you do not have time, as happened in previous years, to run out to the station square in order to look around a bit. This can only be done at large stops, where the train stops for at least half an hour. If less, then you run a great risk of not having time to return to the train due to security procedures.
But at BAM this is not there or almost none. Everything, as in our childhood, is open and calm, including home-made food vendors at substations. Due to its openness, the BAM space is somehow alive, or something…
— What is the difference between the way along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok and along the BAM to Sovetskaya Gavan?
— Two trains go to Vladivostok from Moscow. One, branded, lasts six days, the second – seven. In the first, by the way, there are SV cars. The main thing is to make sure that the train passes Baikal during the day. We drove along the lake for half a day, and it is unforgettable.
With BAM it will be a little more troublesome. There is no direct train, you need to make two transfers. First you go five and a half days to Tynda, then another train travels a day and a half to Komsomolsk-on-Amur and another night to Sovetskaya Gavan. There are no SV carriages, a maximum of compartments.
— Are you traveling with the whole family?
– Only with his wife. It would still be difficult for a small child, as in our case. Even taking into account the fact that we bought the entire coupe as a whole. It seems to me that it is important that there is personal space in such a journey. How important is who you will be with in a small room for a whole week. It must be a close friend or family member. Although people are different. We are rather introverts, but there are those who need communication. My friends traveled long distances in a reserved seat car. While you are driving, you can learn a lot of interesting things about life. Carriage talk is a whole genre.
There must have been funny things on the trip…
– I remember how we were driving, carefully following the route on the maps. And apparently, so hard that they were exhausted, fell asleep during the day and drove through the Kemerovo region. Imagine sleeping through a whole region the size of a small country!
– And the most vivid impression?
– The brightest thing is the moment of arrival. Not only is it seven days on the road, and finally the final station. But at the same time you go out, and in front of you is the Pacific Ocean.
“Right here and now?”
– The fact is that in Sovetskaya Gavan and in Vladivostok, the stations are located next to the ocean coast. The stations are located on a high bank, the impressions are amazing. This is especially striking for a continental person.
Another strong impression is crossing the rivers. Volga, Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei. The train passes through the Angara along the crest of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station. Then the railway crosses the Lena, though in the narrowest part of this river. The giant bridge across the Amur in Khabarovsk – by the time it opened in 1913, it was a technical miracle. In a sense, one of the symbols of Russia, because the last object erected during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In unclear weather, at the beginning of this bridge, its end is not visible. There is a similar bridge at BAM in Komsomolsk-on-Amur.
— Is it true that the Trans-Siberian is so popular with foreigners?
– Yes! How much I talked with foreigners, for them it’s just a dream. The real dream about Russia is to ride the train for a week. For Europeans, even two or three days on the road is already something crazy. And let’s say there are no through trains across America, only with transfers. One train runs for a maximum of three days. Therefore, it is not surprising that in our SV car, except for us, all the passengers were guests from abroad. They travel mainly to Lake Baikal. They get off in Irkutsk, and then some of them get on a train to Vladivostok. By the way, such demand must be taken into account and tickets for the SV car should be bought in advance.
By the way, about pragmatics. How much does such a trip cost?
– Tickets to the Far East are expensive. I don’t know how it is now, but in 2019, when we drove, when buying on the day of the start of sales, one seat in the SV compartment cost 40 thousand rubles. Then the price grew and could reach 60 thousand. This is the cost for one way. Back we already flew by plane, here their prices. In general, I think this is about the same expenses as if we were going on a traditional vacation, say, to the south.
– How is the food situation? Newspaper chicken and boiled eggs?
“Eating now is very easy. The conductor ordered complex breakfasts, lunches and dinners. They are hearty and inexpensive, about a thousand rubles a day per person. The dining car is more expensive. You can, of course, go and celebrate something. For example, crossing the border between Europe and Asia. Well, traditional tea in branded glass holders is a must!
– In expensive cruise trains there are showers in the compartment …
– There is a large shower cabin in the staff car. Looks pretty neat. It costs, as far as I remember, 150 rubles.
– Situations are different. And if somewhere in an inaccessible place in Siberia, a passenger needs urgent medical care?
We had one dramatic story. Someone felt bad when we were somewhere in the Trans-Baikal Territory. At the station, the train was stopped, and after a while a helicopter flew in to pick up the patient. I thought it was well thought out and organized.
What else do you need to know to make the trip successful?
– Why else do I insist on traditional paper maps: if you rely on a smartphone and do not download it in advance, then there is a risk of being left without them. We must be prepared for the fact that there will be no access to the Internet half the way. And mobile communications are not available everywhere, in Siberia – only at major bus stops. Otherwise, to enjoy the trip, take a good mood with you and do not hesitate to be inquisitive.