13 Jul 5 absolute must-stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway
Russia – the biggest country in the world. Its territory spans almost 10,000 km from west to east, that’s a fourth of the equator’s length! In order to really get a grasp of what the country is all about, seeing just one or two spots probably won’t do the trick. That’s why the Trans-Siberian railway is so awesome: in the midst of bunk beds and card games on the train, you actually get to explore Russia from various angles and experience daily local life in a couple of Russian cities en route to the Pacific.
That’s why today we compiled a list of the 5 must-stop cities on the Trans-Siberian railway, along with what makes them tick and what makes them so special.
1. Kazan (around 800km or 12 hours from Moscow)
The first city you absolutely have to pay a visit is Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan [side note: Russia is a federation and that’s why there’s a total of 22 republics under the umbrella of the Russian government, each with their own administrative organs; Tatarstan is one of those republics].
Most probably the name “Kazan” derived from the Tartar word for “melting pot”, and we couldn’t have thought of a better city to wear it – especially as it applies to cuisine. Original Tatar cuisine alone is already yummy, but on top of those elements from surrounding peoples have found entry into Tartar cooking customs. That’s why you’ll not only be able to indulge in sweet sweet Tartar chak-chak but also pungent Uzbek plov and juicy dumplings and aromatic teas from China.
Kazan’s Kremlin which many think is actually more beautiful than its Muscovite counterpart is located right in the city center and is the city’s most ancient part.
With this varied mix of a Muslim mosque and a couple of orthodox churches, you won’t even be able to tell that you’re actually in the midst of Russia’s Muslim world.
The just now mentioned mosque within the Kremlin that is the Qolşärif Mosque, a masterpiece of architecture that was built in order to revive Tartar culture. The mosque that stood in its place didn’t survive a long time as it was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible shortly after it was built in the 16th century.
And how could you possibly leave Kazan without making a couple of extensive walks through the city center and the Kremlin embankment? On the ice-skating rink there (which is, by the way, the longest in Europe with a length of one kilometer) you’ll be able to prove yourself as a true ice ballerina.
2. Yekaterinburg (around 1,800km or 1 day and 6 hours from Moscow)
Yekaterinburg, originally named “Sverdlovsk”, is our second stop on our way east. Located right in the middle of the Ural mountains it’s also a very important city tying together East and West Russia. And if you’ve ever been here in the 80s and 90s, you’d barely believe your eyes coming back here nowadays.
The city’s young generation made it their mission to turn old, factory-ridden, gangster Yekaterinburg into a hip, artistic place that represents the liberal, progressive vision of the city young people have in mind. Weirdly interesting small businesses, street art and a slightly overexaggerated affection for homemade jam make this place feel like it’s Portland, Oregon.
So what’s so hip about Yekaterinburg? Well, art, for example, plays a very big role in everyday life here. Local artists and art fans dedicate their life to their craft and organize exhibitions and performances all year round. At Galereya Sviter (Галерея Свитер) every couple of weeks they bring in new artists to display their work, thereby encouraging the local community to participate as much as possible.
In Yekaterinburg you can also get your fair share of time travel. While the Yeltsin Center, a cultural institution dedicated to younger Russian political history, will let you dive deep into post-Soviet politics, the place of execution of Nicholas II and his family who were killed by the Bolsheviks will even allow for a glance behind the scenes of late imperial Russia.
3. Novosibirsk (around 3,400km or 2 days and 8 hours from Moscow)
From artistic Yekaterinburg we’re off to young dynamic Novosibirsk!
Novosibirsk is a city that’s always in motion and seems like it hasn’t left its cocoon yet as it is still changing every single day. Every time you come back here you’ll see new buildings, new cafes will make you get to know a slightly different Novosibirsk every time you visit.
But first things first: What is Novosibirsk? It’s the third largest city of Russia and because it has a population of over one million it’s considered a millionik (миллионик). Until 1925 in honor of the last Tsar Nicholas II, the city used to be called Novo-Nikolaevsk.
Novosibirsk is a very young city – both demographically and historically speaking (the city was founded in 1893). The many many higher education institutions (there’s over 50 here) might explain why so many young people are drawn here. The biggest part of Novosibirsk’s academic life is going down in Akademgorodok ( lit. “academic town”, Академгородок) a little bit outside of the city center. It is undoubtedly Siberia’s most significant research and education center and a very worthwhile visit. You can literally feel the intellectual atmosphere pulling you into its ban roaming the streets of the academic town.
Nature lovers will also appreciate the fact that Novosibirsk is the ideal gateway to the Altai mountains. Simply take a train to Barnaul (around 2½ hours to get there) and the adventure can begin.
4. Irkutsk (around 5,100km or 3 days and 11 hours from Moscow)
Irkutsk is our fourth stop and another city of great historical significance. In the 18th century, for example, 30 percent of the population consisted of people living in exile due to e.g. the revolt against Nicholas I and the December Revolution.
One of the absolute highlights of every Trans-Siberian trip is Lake Baikal and Irkutsk is the ideal docking point to the lake. Taking a train around the lake will make you be in awe of how beautiful nature can be.
Listvyanka, a small fishing village not far from Irkutsk, is one of the most popular spots around the city. Riding waves on a jet ski, exploring the underwater world of Lake Baikal or simply taking a relaxing boat trip are all viable options there. Most people, though, come here for the open air museum Talzy, an exhibition of more than 20,000 pieces, including handcrafts made out of wood dating back to as far as the 17th century.
Out of the 26 islands in Lake Baikal, Olkhon Island is the only inhabited one, but it’s so much more than that. Olkhon is also the historical, cultural and archaeological center of Lake Baikal with many many important findings that make the history of the lake a bit less of a mystery. Olkhon is located close to the middle of the lake not far from the lake’s deepest point (1,642m) – that also makes the Baikal the deepest freshwater lake in the world.
5. Vladivostok (around 9,200km or 6 days and 2 hours from Moscow)
More than 9,200km and several days later we’ve finally arrived at our final destination: Vladivostok! [side note: of course, you can also start your Trans-Siberian journey here and make your way west].
Vladivostok has undergone an impressive transformation. Originally only intended to be a military post in Russia’s Far East, it turned into a port and finally the city that it is today – and all that in just over 150 years. 2012 marked a very important year in the history of Vladivostok as it hosted the Asian Pacific Economic Conference where serious infrastructural projects for the city were put in motion.
Being the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok plays an integral role in Russian international politics and diplomacy. Back in the day the port used to be closed to the public but they changed that a couple of years ago. Now, strolling through Vladivostok’s port, you can get on warships and even a submarine and see for yourself how it must feel to navigate one.
Enough of the hustle and bustle of the city? Well, then it’s time to hike up one of the numerous observation decks from where you can try to make out the border of China and North Korea. Sometimes you’ll wish sometimes carried you around the city because it’s so hilly but on the other hand, it makes the city super charming as well.
Amongst Chinese lanterns and anise liqueur, you might as well treat yourself with a juicy pungent meal from one of the authentic Chinese restaurants here. The Chinese border is not far and the strong Chinese community here is evidence of that.
Winter in Russia can be freezing, yes; But people here take it to the next level. People here love walking over the frozen sea, fishing and after they’ve cut out a little hole into the ice they even go for a dip. It’s definitely not for everyone but makes for a hell of a story.
But swimming doesn’t always have to be a next-level dare. In summer, for example, people don’t give a damn about the fact that swimming in Sportivnaya Harbour is forbidden and dive right in.
The Trans-Siberian railway has something in store for nature lovers, art junkies and history geeks alike. You just have to figure out what your interests are and let yourself be guided by them. That’s the very first and the most essential step in planning your Trans-Siberian adventure the right way. To be more inspired read our Essential guide for Trans-Siberian Railway trip.