No amount of reading or dreaming can prepare you for the greatest of all train journeys – The Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok. A train trip across seven time zones and covering almost 10,000km end-to-end that is made even more unforgettable if enjoyed onboard the luxurious Golden Eagle.
In operation since the time of the Soviet Union, the Golden Eagle Trans Siberian has been offering train trips across Russia and, now, Eastern and Western Europe, for almost three decades.
The trains are well appointed but unpretentious and what the company lacks in arrogance it compensates with with bubbly, caviar and excessive amounts of unique moments.
The program was exclusive, as was the price tag, and packed with the small details that make a trip memorable. But what made the journey truly unique was the crew, some of which have worked for the company for as long as the Founder and President, Tim, can remember.
Tim joined my departure as it coincided with the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Trans-Siberian journey and we shared many a dinners lost amidst travel stories and anecdotes from decades dealing with the world’s closest countries. Tim’s passion for the railway industry, where he started to work in his teenage years, transpired throughout the journey. His fascination for restoring an old Soviet locomotive that pulled the train out of Moscow’s station on our first evening was proof that this is not just a business but a loving passion of this British former wine merchant.
Our second evening in Moscow offered a flavor of what was to come for the next thirteen days. The bus took us to the overtly opulent Turandot, next door to the classic Cafe Pushkin where we had lunch.
The walls were covered with classical frescoes excessively painted in gold, the light was dimmed to a pale hue and I wondered if it was truly an old building or the reconstruction of a mad architect. Our guide confirmed it was the latter. The dome shaped ceiling and the circular upper floor were a means for the sound to reverberate and I found myself listening to the conversations from across the room.
The food was exquisitely rich and the atmosphere gave the group a chance to get to know each other in the intimacy of the smaller, round, shared tables.
Golden Eagle certainly provides a uniquely comfortable and private way to travel across the world’s most remote areas but it also opens the door to experiences that would be off limits to the independent traveler.
Onboard the train, casual attire dominated, yet the glamour of champagne was never too far. At tea time, we got served caviar instead of biscuits and the chefs prepared fine-dining meals every evening.
The cabins were compact and functional, unless you can afford the premium suites.
On paper, some visits seemed standard tourist-brochure recommendations. The extraordinary is insulted by factual descriptions.
Golden Eagle started to mention some of the “bonus” experiences on their marketing materials only recently.
“We didn’t want to steal the surprise.” Tim admitted. Several of the guests were repeat customers having experienced the fabulous hospitality in other itineraries like the Silk Route or the Venice to Istanbul journey, so they knew the program would not be disappointing.
We were wowed and left speechless on many occasions with instances that felt like magic. I saw passengers cry, overtaken by the emotions of a beautiful opera performance or a poem read out loud that reminded them of a moment gone by.
In some cases a great experience meant being able to enjoy a sight without the crowds. In Moscow, we visited the Kremlin’s Armory, where the Tsar’s treasures are kept, one and a half hours before its official opening. Ear pieces on, we listened to the guide providing us with incredibly insightful and personalized knowledge of the Tsar’s jewelry, costumes and carriages, embroidered with diamonds and precious stones. We were marveled at the tiny waists of the Tsarinas and their fairy tale carriages. By the time the masses arrived, we are well on our way out having had the entire collection all to our small group.
One evening, in Irkutsk’s Decembrist Museum, a professional baritone joined one of our guides, local to the area, who turned out to be a soprano. The couple filled the room with an alluring performance accompanied by the music of an 18th century piano. She was wearing an evening gown and a Russian presenter introduced and translated each performance as we sipped champagne and sat on red velvet chairs, in the same room where Siberian royalty used to discuss politics and war at the end of the 19th century.
In Lake Baikal, we got to ride on the outside platform at the back of the train, while the fully restored 19th century steam locomotive pulled the carriages through the picturesque shore of the world’s deepest lake. Words can’t describe the exhilarating feeling of freedom we all experienced as we entered one of the 120 tunnels that were built to enable the railway line through Siberia’s mountains.
The smoke from the coal locomotive filled the fresh Siberian air in one of the tunnels, the smell was pungent but real and when we came out, literally, at the end of the tunnel, an explosion of green and blue filled our dark accustomed eyes as we danced to the rhythm of the train wheels against the tracks.
Later in the day, we had the chance to take a dip in the lake. Even in the “warmer” summer temperatures the water was not much above the 5 Celsius mark. A few of the guests braved the cold only to jump right out straightaway. Vodka was the answer to a quick warm-up.
For lunch, the train stopped in the middle of the Baikal line for us to enjoy a private BBQ by the lake. There was no traffic on this line as it was abandoned when the more efficient one was built, so we could block the tracks without any complaints. We spotted seals in the distance while the music from an old Russian radio blasted next to the chef.
On wild and remote Lake Baikal, we fished and had a picnic on a lost creek feasting on fish soup made the local way, by a local family, speaking only Russian, and who freshly smoked the fish we caught (plus some they had brought themselves in case of failure), on an open fire, in front of our eyes. By that point, we had all got used to the omnipresent vodka as a lunch drink and too much dancing and Russia’s elixir sent us into a deep slumber on the pebbled beach, under the soothing warm sun.
Siberia is a beautifully rugged part of the world where living conditions are harsh and even in the summer temperatures are not far from 10 Degrees Celsius. The real Siberia can only be understood through the eyes and lives of those who have found a way to survive there. Interacting with the locals without the language barrier or being invited to spend a night in one of their quaint green and blue wooden houses with banyas or saunas provided a unique perspective to the group. To those who wanted, local families welcomed us to their houses for a truly Siberian experience.
On our last night onboard, with a bittersweet taste and the sadness of having to leave the world of Royalty and privilege behind, Tim opened a bottle of decades old port wine. I could smell its vanilla scent from the other end of the restaurant car as soon as the bottle was decanted. Wondering what special vintage he was sharing for the grand occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Golden Eagle, I scrutinized the bottle.
It was no less than 100 years older than me. The smell stayed in the air as I took the glass to my cabin while we awaited the Russian immigration officers to stamp our passports at the border with Mongolia. I woke up the following morning with the refined perfume of old barrels and vanilla still lingering in the cabin and I resolved that I had found the perfect gift.