St. Basil's, Moscow

24 Aug 2012 Trans-Siberian Train – Part 1

Yaroslavsky Railway Station

Yaroslavsky Railway Station, Moscow (by Andy Volykhov)

Getting Started

The Trans-Siberian Express – a train ride that I had wanted to take for so long,  but it was so far off the beaten path that I had put it on the back burner.  Don’t misunderstand – I love off-the-beaten-path destinations, but Siberia seemed too remote, even for me. I don’t know why I had such a longing to see Siberia. Maybe the Russian novels that talked of Siberia as a place of exile had resonated with me and my feelings of being a misfit.

And now, here I was in Moscow with my traveling buddy Kay, sitting in a taxi on the way to the Yaroslavsky train station to start our big adventure. As we rode along, I thought about the strange path that had brought me to this point of fulfilling my dream to do the Trans-Siberian Express train. I had really thought that this was perhaps one travel experience that I’d never have. But then fate took over.

As a tour director, I had begged and cajoled my employer to assign me to their brand new tour in Russia and the Baltics. I had originally missed the deadline to apply because I thought it would be better to wait until the second year of the tour’s operation so that all the kinks would have been worked out. And I wouldn’t have to listen to all the suggestions for improvements that inevitably come from people when they take a brand new tour. Somehow it makes them feel like they’ve entered into some kind of partnership with the tour operator. So I was going to request this tour the following year.

But then, I ran into a fellow tour director at the airport in Madrid. We had both just finished up our tour series in Spain – I was headed home, and he was headed to Russia to work on the team that was finalizing development of the new Russia tour. Talk about fate stepping in! As we talked about Russia, I got excited and started kicking myself metaphorically for my decision to wait until the second year. I wanted in right away. I wanted to be one of the tour directors who had some input on the improvements that would need to be made.

Russian words

Favorite terms translated into Russian

On my long flights home, I plotted how to convince my boss to assign me to the Russia tour this year. I wrote a long email explaining just why I was the perfect tour director to lead the tour. After all, how many other tour directors had read so much Russian literature and so many biographies of famous Russians. Probably not many.

My boss answered by saying that they wanted me to work in Italy. Oh, no. Call me crazy, but I have never had the urge to visit Italy. People never believe me when I tell them I’ve never been there and have no desire to ever go there. They start naming off all the obvious sites that I’m missing out on, and they blather on and on about how wonderful it is. That may be true, but Italy is still not on my bucket list.

This was the third time that my employer tried to send me to Italy. I’d turned them down the first 2 times, and now I was going to turn them down again. How many times would I be able to turn something down before they figured that I was just too much of a prima donna to be bothered with. It’s not common for tour directors to turn down work – especially in Italy.

Being a tour director involves a lot of competition regarding getting the tours that you want. The tour operator that I work for asks us to fill out an online wish list of the tours that we want to do. I promise you that I never put Italy on my list. So why did they keep trying to send me there? Well, it’s because the tours in Italy just happen to be some of the most popular ones we run, so they always need additional tour directors to meet the increasing demand.

I had failed to put Russia on my wish list since I was going to wait a year, but now I wanted to go to Russia – not to Italy. So I begged and pleaded. And eventually my persistence paid off. I was assigned Russia & the Baltics – and not Italy!

Russian flag

Russian flag

My schedule of tours in Russia went from early June to the end of September with 3 ½ weeks off in August. Now what was I going to do with those weeks of freedom? Normally when I had that much time off, I’d go home to recuperate and play with my dogs.

But not this time – this was Russia. I was not going to waste time flying home and back. I was going to see more of the country. But where exactly should I go?

Just as I was pondering that question, I got a phone call from my traveling buddy Kay, who was feeling itchy to get on the road again. We had been taking a trip every 3-4 years, and it’d been a few years already. She’d done some traveling on her own, and of course, I do a lot of traveling on my job. But our trips together are far more adventurous than anything we do individually.

When she said that she was feeling a desperate need to get out of town and do some traveling, I said, “How about Siberia?” She was a little stunned, never expecting to hear me suggest Siberia. But when she picked herself up off the floor, she responded that Siberia wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but why not?

So we began to plan. The planning itself was unusual for us because we usually just decided on a place to start, bought tickets, and took off with no itinerary and no advance arrangements. But since my time was limited, we needed to make an itinerary in order to utilize our time in the best way possible.

St. Basil's, Moscow

The iconic image of Moscow - St. Basil's Cathedral

Moscow is the western end of the Trans-Siberian Express. To go all the way to Vladivostok takes 7 days if you don’t stop anywhere along the way. Of course, Kay and I wanted to stop at several places along the way so we needed to figure out what would be possible. A couple of specialty travel guides about the Trans-Siberian Express train both recommended a company called Monkey Business. That name doesn’t instill a lot of trust, but it came with good references.

So Kay and I, continents apart, each downloaded the Monkey Business catalog for the Trans-Siberian Express train route. If I’d had any doubts about the name, they disappeared when I saw the professional way they had organized everything. The catalog had all kinds of choices – where to stop, how many days, what to do at each stop, including good descriptions that helped us choose where to spend our time.

We soon realized that we would not be able to make it all the way to Vladivostok because we’d be stopping along the way and we didn’t want to make our stops too short. We decided that we’d go as far as Mongolia, and then I’d have to head back to leading tours in Russia & the Baltics. Sounded good.

Monkey Business was exactly what we needed – an inexpensive, organized way to travel on our own without joining a group. We made our choices and booked our itinerary. We decided not to stay in hotels, but instead in homestays so that we could meet local people in their home environment and learn something about the culture in the various places we stopped.

But right now, we’re still in the taxi – haven’t even reached the train station to depart on this great adventure. Don’t worry. In my next post, I will tell you about my adventure – what I saw besides birch trees and what I learned about the people in Siberia.

About the author:

Kate is a seasoned traveler and tour director who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. Although she continues working as a tour director in many countries of the world, she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her three Dalmatians. You can visit her at KateBenzin, at her blog Traveling Forever, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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Kate Benzin
6 Comments
  • Gina
    Posted at 13:25h, 24 August Reply

    I’d love to go to Siberia one day, too. Taking that train is a dream of mine. Excited to hear more about your experiences on it!

  • Sandy
    Posted at 06:19h, 27 August Reply

    This would be one of my dream trips too. I can’t wait until Part 2 !

  • Irene
    Posted at 10:27h, 04 September Reply

    the beginning is fascinating and intriguing. Fotos are very professional. And what a pleasure to read about the adventures of Kate and Kay again!

  • Jenn
    Posted at 02:32h, 13 September Reply

    I never ever thought of travelling to Siberia. I have images of lots of snow and nothing around for miles. I’m off to read part 2 you have me intrigued 🙂

    Cheers, Jenn

  • David
    Posted at 04:13h, 13 September Reply

    For anyone with a love of train travel – even if it hasn’t yet been realized in this jet-dominated age – the Trans-Siberian express has to be among the top of the short list of “must do” train trips along with the train across Australia, and the Indian luxury trains….

    So it was great to read how Kate got her mojo together and finally made a dream come true – lots of useful advice even in part I…so I look forward to future parts to get more details of the trip and tips on what to bring, what not to bring, and essentials to know about…

  • Jeanne
    Posted at 08:27h, 25 September Reply

    Captivating intro leads the reader from the memory of reading Russian novels through the randomness and serendipity of everyday life. Masterful accompanying pictures educate and present a peak into Russia.

    Wonderful educational travelogue.

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