This August I was lucky enough to join the Tsars Gold Private Train on a journey across Russia. Starting in the heart of Siberia at beautiful Lake Baikal, we travelled over 5000 kms by train all the way to Moscow…finishing in sunny Red Square under the colourful onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, what an incredible adventure! And what a great opportunity to find out the answers “first hand” to the nitty gritty questions that I have had over the years from our clients about this unique journey. I am now back at my desk in Melbourne and have written this journal with the aim of explaining in detail what the Tsars Gold Private Train is all about. Thank you for taking the time to read it, hopefully I’ve answers most of your questions. And please do not hesitate to give me a call, I look forward to speaking with you soon to help plan your very own Trans-Siberian Adventure.
Saturday 4th August 2018
Enjoyed a great view over Uluru during the flight…and Singapore Airlines were excellent as usual. Purchased a wifi pack during the flight to Beijing which was a new experience for me, messaging from the sky! My luggage was checked from Melbourne all the way to Irkutsk which was very handy. Landed Beijing late evening and picked up a boarding pass for connecting flight then headed to the lounge for a shower.
Sunday 5th August 2018
An early morning flight with Siberia Airlines to Irkutsk, it was very comfortable, and I slept. On arrival we drove an hour to Listvyanka village on the edge of Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest and largest lake (by volume) in the world. Over 20% of the worlds fresh water is in this lake, quite amazing! After a tour of the village we took a ferry to the old port to meet the Tsars Gold Private Train. In the late afternoon we set off along the historic Circum-Baikal railway line, winding along the beautiful lakes edge stopping for a swim in the chilly waters. According to legend a swim in Lake Baikal will add 10 years to your life, an offer hard to resist – as was the shot of vodka afterwards! A fabulous BBQ dinner followed…shashliks, roasted veggies, salads…a range of drinks, deserts and pastries, coffee and tea. The whole event was set up within about half an hour by the wonderful train staff, with traditional Russian games, even a piano accordion, it was quite a spectacle! Later in the evening I retired to my cosy cabin and drifted off to sleep to the sound of laughter and music at the end of an incredible day.
I joined half way along the 14 day itinerary that had started a week prior in Beijing. A route heading north through the Mongolian Gobi desert and grassy steppe and into Siberia. The private train consisting 21 carriages carried 180 guests along with 80 staff who took excellent care of us all. I have to say it didn’t feel like there were that many people onboard. We were divided (according to cabin category and language spoken) into colour coded groups of about 20 travellers and looked after by a dedicated English speaking guide. Our guide Andrej from Irkutsk was a gem, really knowledgeable and had a great sense of humour. The organisation onboard was really very impressive. And clear communication of daily program kept us all in the loop. Daily program notices in each carriage and briefings by speaker into each cabin…even weather reports and what to bring on each excursion (eg. you will need a headscarf for the church visit today)….we could not have been better looked after! Some of the other travellers in my carriage described the trip as a “logistical masterpiece” and I have to agree. The itinerary really worked like clockwork.
|OVERALL TRAIN LAYOUT|
At one end of our Tsars Gold train there were 4 berth Standard carriages (Category I), then a range of 2 berth Classic and Superior carriages (Category II). In the middle were 4 dining carriages decorated in different styles, each group dined in the same dining carriage throughout the trip. Towards the front were the en suite carriages…Nostalgic Comfort (Category III), Bolshoi (Category IV) and Bolshoi Platinum (Category V). At meal time it was a case of walking up or down the train (depending on your cabin location) to the central dining carriages.
|MY CABIN & CARRIAGE|
I travelled in a 2 berth Classic cabin (Category II). This category is a modified public train carriage with 9 cabins and shared toilet at each end. One of the cabins had been converted into a shared shower room, which is spacious – ie. a whole cabin with shower cubicle, basin & mirror, a bench seat and plenty of hooks (yes you could swing a cat in there). Bookings for the shower worked really well with an appointment list on the door, just put your name on the list to reserve a 15 minute timeslot. There was always a time available and plenty of hot water. We had two attendants looking after our carriage, Sergei and Nadia who kept everything in order and worked alternate shifts so there was someone available 24/7 if you needed anything. They were very friendly and helpful and by the end of the trip they were hugging us and laughing like old friends, it was really delightful. The carriage and toilets were kept spotless, even the windows were kept clean inside and out which helped for taking photos as we travelled along. They serviced each cabin like a hotel room, with bedding prepared for evening and packed away for daytime travel.
CATEGORY II CLASSIC/SUPERIOR
I had my own cabin (yes lucky I know) but most cabins had two travellers in each. From Australia I carried 16kg of checked luggage plus about 4kg of carry on. This was a good move. The cabins are compact but well designed. Available space for sliding luggage under the seat/bed measured 70cm length x 55 cm width x 36 cm height. You can also lift the whole seat/bed to utilise the other half of the space enclosed by a steel frame. This second area measured 80 cm length x 40cm width x 36 cm height. Thirdly there is space in the cabin above the corridor but it’s up high and not convenient to access. A soft sided duffel bag with wheels or hybrid backpack is the best option to fit in the available space. On my trip there were quite a number of travellers carrying medium to large suitcases. Taking a look into open cabins as I walked to and from the dining carriage I couldn’t help but notice they were definitely in the way! A rigid suitcase really isn’t practical for this kind of trip, your journey will be much more comfortable if you can manage to travel light!
Monday 6th August 2018
For a good part of the night we were stationary and I had an excellent sleep. For some nights along this journey the train is moving most of the time and on others hardly at all. It depends on the distances that need to be covered between points of interest. In this case we didn’t have far to travel to get back to Irkutsk so we could take our time. Booked a 6.30am shower and it was glorious! Around 8am our Tour Director “Anke” gave the morning introduction by speaker into each cabin covering what was planned for the day. I walked the long walk to breakfast, about 5 carriages and met up with my new Norwegian friends who had taken me under their wing the night prior. Breakfast was a delicious spread of fruits, cold meats, salads, cheese, muesli, fruit, yoghurt and a hot dish (choice of eggs or porridge). Plenty of coffee and tea and pastries and chocolate if you desired. Arrived in Irkutsk at 9.30am and took our overnight bags, leaving the main luggage on the train. Onto the coaches and off we went for our sightseeing tour. The highlight was a visit to the Decembrists Museum, complete with private musical performance – a grand piano and opera singers, it was really wonderful. After our tour we were welcomed to the Marriott with traditional Bread and Salt and then it was time for a rest and some wifi. Late afternoon we headed to the pedestrianised shopping street of “Kvartel 130” for some souvenir shopping then out to dinner at a private summer house or “dacha”. Stunning flower and vegetable gardens and a delicious home cooked meal complete with a kind of moonshine made on site. Returned to our hotel for the night.
Tuesday 7th August 2018
Back onboard we relaxed for the morning with an interesting regional talk “The Conquest of Siberia” then later enjoyed a delicious 4 course lunch in our dining carriage (salad, soup, main and desert). In Russia the main meal of the day is lunch and it was the same to an extent on the Tsars train. Although we certainly never went hungry the evening meal was generally lighter. In the afternoon we had vodka and caviar tasting hosted by Andrej our group guide. It was hilarious and a number of bottles of vodka were polished off as we travelled along through Siberian forests of pine and silver birch. In the early evening we enjoyed another regional talk “The Trans-Siberian Railway” which was also fascinating. A lighter dinner at 7pm and clocks back by 1 hour before bed. An enjoyable, educational and relaxing day onboard.
Wednesday 8th August 2018
A lovely hot shower then delicious breakfast. We made a mid-morning stop at the city of Mariinsk to change locomotives and had a walk around to stretch our legs and take some photos. I took the opportunity to check out the 4 berth Standard cabins (Category I). These are also converted public train carriages, well maintained and comfortable. There are no shower cabins but all travellers have access to the shared showers in the higher categories. It’s also worth mentioning that the walk to the dining carriages is further as these cabins are positioned at the end of the train. We continued on to Novosibirsk arriving early afternoon to a musical welcome on the platform. During our sightseeing in Novosibirsk we visited the enormous Opera House (the largest in Russia) visited a local farmers market and took a walk along the sunny River Ob waterfront. Returning to the station, we took a look around this impressive building before boarding the Tsars train to continue our journey. At dinner we were surprised by a world class violin performance by a native Novosibirsk musician. It was really wonderful to see such talent close up! A few wines after dinner and more laughter with new friends. Clocks back another 2 hours before bed.
Wednesday 9th August 2018
The train lag had started to catch up with me and I woke at 4am and it was bright outside. Dozed for a while then read. Enjoyed a fairly relaxing morning on board and arrived in Ekaterinburg just after lunch on a very rainy day. First stop for our sightseeing program was the Europe / Asia border complete with champagne, chocolates and a balalaika performance. Some fun photos as we stood one foot in Asia and the other in Europe. Back in the city we visited the Church of the Blood, and learnt about the Romanov Tsar family assassination during the Russian Civil War. It was too wet for walking so we took a scenic drive around the beautiful city including some free time for shopping. Back on board the Tsars Gold for dinner and clocks back another 2 hours – Moscow time!
Thursday 10th August 2018
From a rainy day in Ekaterinburg, we arrived to beautiful sunshine in Kazan and a forecast of 24 degrees. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, one of the 22 Republics in Russia, established as an administrative area for non-Russian ethnicities. Approximately half the population are Russians (mostly Orthodox Christians) and the other half are Tatars who are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The name Kazan literally means ‘boiler’ or ‘cauldron’ and the city is a real melting pot of cultures who coexist in relative peace with churches and mosques side by side. We started our tour at the UNESCO World Heritage Kremlin complex, the highlight of which is the iconic white and blue Kul Sharif Mosque. Stunning views over the city and river from the hilltop Kremlin. Next stop the Tartar district with colourful lattice homes then a traditional pastry and soup lunch and a central hotel. Some free time for shopping along the pedestrianised Bauman Street, packed with street performers and buskers along with some great shopping. In the late afternoon we went to a colourful folk show in a local theatre. Back on board for our last night on the train. Fabulous starter of Champagne, caviar and smoked salmon. Our group guide Andrej distributed souvenir passports for the trip and a bravery certificate for those of us who took a swim in lake Baikal…all very amusing! Tour director Anke also gave a speech and we thanked all the train staff and gave our tips (as a group). Delicious last dinner on board and more drinks to celebrate a wonderful journey together.
Saturday 11th August 2018
After breakfast we gave individual tips to our group guide Andrej who was most appreciative. Also to our carriage attendants Sergei and Nadia who insisted on hugs and kisses…no handshakes! (There is a guide to tipping in the Tsars Gold journey log book, however I am happy to discuss with you if you have any questions). Just before midday we arrived in Moscow to the wonderful Kazansky Railway Station. Porters carried our luggage to the coaches and we drove through the city centre to the magnificent Kremlin and Red Square. Another lovely sunny day, we visited the Cathedrals of the Kremlin then walked to Red Square for photos in front of the iconic St Basils Cathedral.