From top left, clockwise: Lake Baikal from the train; Sapsan high speed train in St. Petersburg; the Rossiya at Zabaikalsk station; Vladivostok station.
It was during a late July night in Southern Finland as our Helsinki – Leningrad Express rumbled towards the Russian border when Misha somberly warned us: “We are about to enter the land of the enemy”. Misha’s expression turned stern and foreboding as Lee, Bernie, Betty and I sat dumfounded in our compartment, wondering what to expect next. We were on an organized professional railway tour of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the height of the “cold war” and Misha was our guide/interpreter, leading us to this forbidden land.
But that was my second trip to the USSR, the first was a Trans – Siberian escapade in 1974 and the third took place during July, 2016, which included a long – awaited reunion with the Trans - Siberian Railway. These pages include a description and my impressions of that first rail trip 42 years ago in contrast with my most recent trip to ride that same iconic train, just a couple of months’ ago. Soon after my first Trans – Siberian rail adventure, rail journeys became the focus of my travel excitement and since then I have logged thousands of miles on both rickety and modern railways, bone - shattering roads, tranquil and wind – swept waterways of South East Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and North America. Each of these trips provided mind-expanding experiences and an insatiable urge for more.
Birth of my Railway Infatuation
Bob, my childhood friend, and I would dice with death as we played the dangerous game of wandering along the high – speed mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad near Wilmington, Delaware. But this close – up intimacy with fast – moving trains only fed my hungry hobby for railways. Prowling alongside that magnificent four-track main line, I watched strings of maroon passenger coaches hauled by great green electric locomotives swishing by every few minutes. While my first trip was only 60 miles south, to Baltimore, I could imagine myself riding every one of those magical vehicles to their destinations, and beyond. Many of these travel fantasies eventually became reality and geographic boundaries to future travel quickly fell away; anything became possible. resistible urge to do more.
Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous GG1 Locomotive
I soon began to realize that I was somehow different from most other people when it came to travel choices. My travel pleasures were other people's pain and discomfort. I planned trips to places from where others were escaping. I rode trains other people shun with disgust; one such train was the Limbe to Monkey Bay rattletrap operated by the Malawi Railways. Coaches were filthy, the condition of the toilet unspeakable (use only when holding your breath) as we endured the nine-hour slog through central Africa – “the worst day of my life” my wife exclaimed with disgust. I thought the trip was exhilarating, though one had to step carefully when entering the loo. I traveled through war zones with keen anticipation, not out of a sense of bravado but just to capture the experience, looking for that special moment of satisfaction, which perhaps has been shared by few others.
The Limbe to Monkey Bay “express”
The romantic lure of the Trans – Siberian Railway became a powerful travel urge tugging strongly ever since I read and re-read the travel agent’s brochures in early 1974. I had never been overseas and had no great interest to travel, but somehow, the Trans – Siberian was different. I loved to ride trains, and this one certainly appeared worthy to become my first international rail adventure. In December of that year, I took the plunge that hooked me on overseas travel for the rest of my life.
To Russia 2016
On a warm July morning in 2016, as I sat in my compartment with keen anticipation, dead on time at 04:02 am Moscow time (11:02 am local time) the Rossiya slid smoothly out of Vladivostok station and began its six – day trek to Moscow over the Trans – Siberian railway. This time I rode only to Irkutsk to explore a little – known railway along the rugged shoreline of Lake Baikal, formerly part of the Trans – Siberian main line. That is, until the 1950’s, when construction of a dam inundated a portion of the line requiring re-routing. The remaining old rail route snakes along the mountainous shore of the lake through 38 tunnels and concrete embankments and a tourist train operates from Irkutsk making the line accessible for those interested in experiencing a day trip over this spectacular line.
Along Lake Baikal on the Circum – Baikal tourist train
I also played “tourist” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, visiting the usual sights, but also found some interesting railway museums in each of those cities that displayed locomotives and train sets that played a major role in the development of the Russian Railways. One of these famous locomotives was number 293 that brought Lenin back to Russia in 1917 to kick – start the Russian revolution. Actually, he disguised himself as a railway fireman on this locomotive so he could cross the border undetected. I was fortunate to view this famous locomotive on display at the Finland station in St. Petersburg. I also wanted to ride one of the grand overnight express trains linking these two great cities and settled on the country’s only privately – owned train, the Grand Express. Return journey was by Sapsan, more than twice as fast, as the overnight trains take more than eight hours, while the high – speed Sapsan services do it in less than four.
While the internet abounds with many trip reports of recent journeys by intrepid travelers on the Trans – Siberian Railway; none of these accounts are from the perspective of a professional transport economist nor do they contrast recent the experience with the travel on the same train operated during the period of the USSR. These pages are intended to fill this literature “gap”.
Lenin’s 293 Locomotive
Vladivostok was a “closed city” during my first trip, so I could not travel further east than Khabarovsk. One of my goals during my latest trip was to finally visit this “mysterious” city of the east and to experience the entire Trans – Siberian route. My other goal was to compare the experience of riding the Russian rails under the USSR and now; how was the quality of the coaches compared with before? Had the brusque and boorish attitude of railway staff of the USSR improved with time? Would I recommend this trip to other railway and travel enthusiasts who are in search of a new adventure but want to do it in relative safety and comfort?
The Rossiya preparing to depart Vladivostok station
My most recent book describes these Trans – Siberian trips, as well as other rail journeys in Russia, and is now available on Amazon and can be easily accessed from the “publications” page on my web site: www.thomaslkennedy.com, or click on the front cover image below for those interested.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!