Air travel might be quicker, but taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing is an experience that few could forget
A week on a train might seem like something we should all avoid, but break it up into chunks of two or three days at a time and the Trans-Siberian Railway has endless benefits. It is a relaxing and sociable way to travel to China, and the scenery alone should be enough to convince someone that this is the trip for them.
My friend and I started our journey in Moscow, a vibrant city which is a far cry from the Hollywood-generated impression of a grey, depressing metropolis, inhabited by the eternally unhappy. Red Square is a sight to behold, and a walk along the Moskva River towards Gorky Park should not be missed, whatever the weather. The metro system is a triumph of extravagance and decadence, with chandeliers adorning the marble ceilings.
For budget accommodation, try Napoleon Hostel (Maly Zlatoustinskiy Street, Dom 2, 4th Floor, Moscow, 101000). The staff are extremely friendly and the dorm rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The nightlife in Moscow is exciting and cutting edge, with several mega-clubs, as well as an impressive selection of bars and restaurants. If you feel like sampling the high-life for one night only, head to the rooftop bar in the Ararat Park Hyatt (4 Neglinnaya Street Moscow 109012). Sip on a delicious cocktail while admiring some of the best views that Moscow has to offer.
Our first stop was Nizhny Novgorod, some four hours from Moscow. Aside from the grand and lavish buildings that had been left to ruin and the smaller but just as elegant kremlin, the city has little to offer.
The next day we boarded the train for our first two-day stretch. The four-person cabin in second class is comfortable, as well as being a great way to meet people, even without any knowledge of Russian. Omsk was the next destination and, while not the most aesthetically appealing of cities, it does offer a taste of the real Russia. And perhaps this is what the Trans-Siberian is all about. For a city the size of Birmingham, Omsk has a distinctly relaxing small town feel to it, and it is worth a visit.
After one night in Omsk, it was back on the train to continue our journey east. Two days passed comfortably, hand gestures and laughter defining our brief friendship with our cabin-mates, before we arrived in Irkutsk. Busier and more hectic than the previous two stops, Irkutsk was more of a struggle if you speak no Russian. We wanted to head to Lake Baikal but it took us a while to find the best way to get there.
To avoid any problems, head straight to the tourist information centre confusingly hidden down an alley off Karla Marksa Street, where it meets Lapina Street. Alternatively catch the number four tram to the bus station where there are three or four daily buses to Khuzhir, which is on Olkhon Island, in the middle of the lake. The journey takes about six to seven hours. There are many places to stay in Khuzhir, ranging from cabins and homestays to the ever-popular Nikita's Guesthouse, the social hub of the island.
Lake Baikal combines spectacular landscapes with an unrivalled sense of serenity and peace. There are deserted beaches that look across to the mountains on the other side of the lake, yet there are also a large number of travellers, giving Olkhon a distinctly sociable feel while at the same time providing a breathtaking escape.
Three days was not enough, but we had to return to Irkutsk to catch our train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. Be prepared to wait a few hours at the border while the relevant checks are made. If possible, try to arrange your accommodation before you arrive: send an email to the Ulaanbaatar Guesthouse (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the owner will come and pick you up from the train station. He and his wife run the guesthouse, which is clean and friendly, with dorm beds for around £2.50. They also organise tours and car and motorcycle rentals. If you have time, it is well worth a trip into the desert to stay in a gir (traditional Mongolian tent) and feast on all sorts of yak related food.
Finally, we continued our journey into China and arrived in Beijing, feeling strangely sad that the train journey was over. Still, never mind, we had 6 weeks to enjoy China's rail services.
If travelling in the summer, it is advisable that you purchase your tickets beforehand, as many of the trains will be sold out. Prices vary between operators, so it is worth contacting a few. You will have to have decided upon your itinerary as the tickets are date specific. These operators can also sort out your visas (as well as the letter of invitation required for Russia).
However, if you are travelling outside of peak times, just head to the train station in Moscow and buy your tickets there. This way you could end up paying almost a third of the price you would pay in England.