20 Oct 5 reasons to take the Trans-Siberian Railway in winter
Winter is the best time to travel to Russia. The Trans-Siberian winter train tour is the best way to travel to Russia.
When thinking about mysterious “Russian winter”, such associations as everlasting frosts, bears on streets full of snow banks, reindeer, Russian troika ride with bells, people wearing valenki on feet and fur coats together with ushanka (ear-flaps hat) appear in one’s head.
Some of these images are true some are funny, but still Russian winter is worth experiencing and it will surprise you no matter you are in a fur coat or in Canada Goose.
Joseph Brodsky famous Russian and American poet wrote “Beauty in low temperatures is real beauty” and the phrase means that cold weather, climate has a great influence on the Russian way of life, culture and traditions and the beauty of Russian soul could be seen and felt when you find yourself in these conditions, in that mono-colored white world full of crystal snow glittering with sun when your eyelashes rimmed with ice, your cheeks feel brutal arctic wind, you come into a warm place and feel alive, feel how your fingers start moving and you are hungry, you pour hot tea, make one sip and this heavenly hot water fill your body with pleasure.
You may say this is all poetry and romance and you may even not believe us that we Russian people spend much time outdoors, but in fact even in the coldest months city life goes on, people enjoy outdoor activities and winter sports.
Why take the Trans-Siberian winter train and make such a long train trip across Russia?
The answer is clear. If you want to feel the diversity, to feel how big Russia is and to feel soulful winter, to know where Siberia is and what Russian people do not get frozen then plan your Trans-Siberian Railway Tour in December-March. The diversity refers not only to cultural differences of the Russian Regions, but it is also about climate. The climate in Russia varies from west to east. Yes, winter is everywhere along the Trans-Siberian, but in Moscow, it is milder than those of Siberia. In Moscow it is wet and windy, no sun, snow lies on the ground in January on average, with a slight difference of temperatures during the day and at night. While in Siberia winters are sunny, dry, snowy, low temperatures may be up to 40 C below zero especially at nights. So, it is much easier to handle the cold when you live in Siberia as the climate is dry. Anyway, we like the proverb: There is no bad weather, there are bad clothes. When it is -30 C you are ready to wear the warmest clothes on earth to feel comfortable.
How long does the Trans-Siberian winter trip take?
Usually, the tour lasts 21 days and it allows you to visit all the must-see places and nature miracles on your way. Please read our articles 5 absolute must-stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway and 5 wonders of nature along the Trans-Siberian Railway for inspiration.
Apart from these places that could be visited in any time of the year, there is a list of activities that can be experienced only during winter Trans-Siberian Railway tour. It is like a bonus for the traditional Trans-Siberian Railway tour.
1. Skating in Moscow
All Trans-Siberian Railway trips start from the capital of Russia – Moscow. Moscow in winter is gorgeous. Beautiful parks, squares, and churches covered in sugar powder snow, lights shimmering in the streets. Muscovites are used to the cold and know how to take the full advantage of it. There is a number of Moscow ice skating rinks where people can show off their skating skills. In fact, there are 30 Moscow recreation areas where Muscovites and the guests can enjoy skating with changing rooms and hot tea. Among the most impressive are the Red-Square skating rink and ice rink in the Gorky Park.
The one on the Red Square – historic heart of the Russian capital affords you a magnificent view of St.Basil’s, the Kremlin and the GUM. The rink is surrounded with a Christmas market where you can buy souvenirs and enjoy traditional Russian food and hot drinks.
While the Red Square ice rink is a typical circular ice rink for 450 people, in the Gorky Park 17,000 square meters of the park’s pathways are covered with ice and 4000 people can skate there. More than 30,000 LED lights are installed under the ice so the rink creates a light show in the dark, in Moscow, it is getting dark app at 5 pm in the winter time. The whole atmosphere of Christmas romance is provided by the voice of Frank Sinatra or Wham that could be heard all over the park from speakers. The park also offers classes for kids and adults with different skills from amateurs to professionals on separate parts of a rink.
2. Visiting Russian Banya
Russian Banya is a Russian national phenomenon. It is a building for performing hygienic procedures, a historical tradition and even a remedy for most diseases. Moreover, banya used to play a social role in Russia’s way of life. Banya is a kind of ritual where you not only wash your body but also purify your soul.
The Trans-Siberian Railway trip is about local real people and their lifestyle. So one of the gems of the tour we offer is the visit of the Russian village Maly Turysh where you understand what is sustainable tourism in action. Shortly, a young entrepreneur decided to rescue her small Ural village and developed the family’s apiary into a business.
So during the visit, you will eat that honey, you will stay in the village for a night and of course, you will be invited to experience Banya.
It is a small wooden house with a dressing room or waiting room to relax and have a cup of tea and a steam room with benches where you can sit or lie and warm up. A large amount of hot steam is created out of the water and hot air. The temperature is about 90-100 Celsius. Such banyas in villages are heated with firewood. For a complete banya experience, we encourage you to use the broom or venik while taking a steam-bath. Venik is bundles of leafy birch or oak trees. Usually, people slap each other and this is a very good massage that removes dry skin and increases blood circulation. Once you are warmed up well enough you leave a steam room and go under a cold shower or we recommend you to jump into the snow. After that, it is so nice to have a cup of tea with local herbs.
3. Winter ice hole swimming
So during the visit, you will eat that honey, you will stay in the village for a night and of course, you will be invited to experience Ban Some people build their banyas near rivers, lakes or ponds where they made an ice hole to jump after taking banya. Some Russians even practice winter swimming when the water is from 0 to 4 degrees Celsius.
Why do people do that? It is a cold training or developing resistance to cold to be healthy and never fall ill. It is called in Russia “morzhevaniye”. Morzh means walrus. Like walrus swimming.
If you plan your Trans-Siberian trip during January you will be able to see the mass ice hole swimming because this is traditionally a part of Epiphany celebration. It is believed that the water becomes holy on January 19 and thus dipping in an ice hole helps to cleanse the body and the spirit and relieves of sins. So on the night of January 19, some Russian people go bathing in an ice hole. The day before, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Epiphany Eve. Bathe or not every person decides itself according to his or her health but if you follow safety rules it can be beneficial to your health. To learn more about Epiphany please read Winter Russian traditions: jump into the ice hole on Epiphany day.
4. Walking on turquoise Baikal ice
Trans-Siberian Railway train in winter is a train to the winter wonderland. This can extremely felt when you have a stop in one of the most famous Siberian cities – Irkutsk.
Irkutsk used to be a place for Russia’s exiles for the Soviet forced labor camps of the Gulag and Decembrists, who rebelled against the czar at the beginning of the 19th century. When their sentence came to an end many of them didn’t go back home to Moscow, and here you understand why. Siberia in winter is especially wonderful, the snowflakes the size of leaves, the snow banks are like soft glittering hills and of course Baikal lake.
A few hours from Irkutsk and you see the magnificent Perl of Siberia – Baikal Lake. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the deepest lake in the world, the most ancient lake in the world it contains around 20% of the world’s fresh water. This information is impressive, but the most impressive is the view, the beauty of it in winter. The lake completely freezes up starting from late January and there is a chance to drive across the lake in a 4WD. It is even possible to cycle and skate across the lake. This is the largest and the most awesome ice-skating rink in the world. 150 centimeters of turquoise, solid, crystal clear ice is pure beauty. Winter is a special time for Baikal and it will stay in your heart forever!
To learn more about Baikal and ecological situation have an insight into What problems does Lake Baikal face?
5. Winter ice hole fishing
Once you visited Irkutsk, Olkhon Island and admired the view of Baikal, your Trans-Siberian train delivers you in the capital of the Buryat Republic Ulan Ude, the heart of Buddhism in Russia. Ulan Ude is located 100 kilometers southeast of Lake Baikal. Our local guide Tumun is ready to show you the city, its historical part, invite you on the traditional Buryat dinner with his family and he is the one who can show you what the real winter hole fishing is.
You take a snowmobile, find a place and start drilling a hole in the ice. Super thin rods, 2 hours of fishing and you know what you will have for dinner. A soup which is called Ukha. It is very easy to make. Ukha is usually cooked with onion, potatoes, parsley. It may seem nothing special, but the secret ingredient is a freshwater newly caught fish. The flavor is unbelievable, especially after spending 3 hours outdoors in frosty weather.
This is what we call luxury travelling, the freedom of movement, local people, local food, the feeling of otherness and the unique atmosphere of unity with nature. If you are already inspired to feel what Russian winter is welcome to the legendary Winter Trans-Siberian Railway tour, take a train across Russia and we will do our best to make your tour beyond all expectations!
Watch the video on our youtube channel All the truth about winter in Russia to be inspired more.
Planning your trip for the New Year holidays? Read about winter holidays in Russia.
Read Essential guide for Trans-Siberian Railway tour with info on Russian trains; must-stops from Moscow to Vladivostok; all you need to know about the Trans-Siberian route.