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cristina cori
My Russia coast-to-coast: impressions and surprises of an Italianka on the Trans-Siberian
What, for the Russians, is nothing but a railway that links cities, for us, Western travelers, is perceived as an adventure. In our view, it is an epic challenge that evokes old-time conceptions, of a slow and exotic journey, which appears to be distant and somehow unperceivable in this era of speed and constant changes.

I was thus totally fascinated by the idea of travelling on board a train enjoying and savoring changing landscapes from a window; this unique exploration which has always had an ancient and deep taste that recoups spaces without compressing time.

Nevertheless, it was not an easy process: I had lingered for years, lost in this vague project unfolded in a labyrinth of perplexities and fears. In the end, however, I succeeded in convincing myself. I cut out my time, invented the courage of which I was lacking and eventually got started. Alone, without any defined itineraries whatsoever nor any notion of Russian language (all I had was a phrasebook that I used in order to pronounce words in an ignoble way!), armed with a spirit of adaptation and a pinch of concern. With this emotional baggage, I left Italy to throw myself headlong into a tough though enriching adventure that would have profoundly marked me.
Cristina
Trans-Siberian Railway. One word, so many expectations.

Facts you should know
9288,2 km
The actual lenght from Moscow to Vladivostok
19(31)may 1891
Official start of the construction
8 time-zones
The railway goes through
7 days
Trans-Siberian journey takes

The journey starts
My first ticket to Siberia was called platzkart,
wagon 3, seat number 11.
Russian people were the biggest surprise of my Trans-Siberian adventure.
I had purposely bought a third-class seat because the very word and concept of "third-class" sounded as anachronistic as exotic to me. I did not know what the journey would be like, but I was sure of one thing: when you’re travelling without "luxuries", you may happen to be a bit more uncomfortable, but you will undoubtedly never get bored.

No sooner had I stepped into the abode of my next four days than I clearly understood why all the Russians whom I had told I would have crossed the nation in a platzkart wagon did call me crazy: no showers, no compartments, but a single long corridor-dormitory, where we are all together, with beds (cots, actually) on the sides.

My Russian friend who had hosted me in Moscow, took me to the wagon and, in a mixture of concern and irony, did all she could to entrust me with one of the provodnitsa whispering in her ear: "She doesn’t speak Russian at all, please keep a special eye on her".

I was indeed the only foreigner in the wagon (and probably on the whole train), and, to the other passengers, I must have appeared as a weird kind of tourist. They may well have asked themselves: "What is this girl doing here, alone, in platzkart, without knowing a single word of Russian?" At the very beginning, they looked at me with ill-concealed curiosity, but they still refrained from talking to me.

As soon as the train left, I felt a thrill of joy: I was onboard of the ever so desired Trans-Siberian and I would have reached my destination 86 hours later, covering 5185 kilometers along southern Siberia. I felt a great emotion. The Russians around me, instead, were probably not very enthusiastic about the idea of spending three solid days in a wagon, and the first thing they thought of, no sooner had the train moved on, was to eat. As if they were not expecting anything else to happen, they pulled out their lunches, set the tables and, all at once, every single traveller was basically chewing swallowing and drinking.

Life in platzkart for us Europeans is a travelling experience in itself. On the first day, the passengers break the ice, they start talking, getting to know each other. On the second day, they get more confident and start socializing; they offer food to each other, they tell jokes and, photos of children and grandchildren enriched with stories and anecdotes spring out of their bags. On the third day the wagon becomes a large family. You will never find this atmosphere on a European train where everyone never leaves their seats and doesn’t show any interest in their travelling mates. Nobody would ever think of offering you food or telling you about their grandchildren. The best aspect of human warmth that you could expect is perhaps some short and basic pat phrases as well as unnatural or fake smiles.

Russian people were the biggest surprise of my Trans-Siberian adventure. What do we Italians know about Russia? Not much actually, apart from some outdated stereotypes on vodka, communism and peculiar fur hats. In Italy we have an austere image of the Russians. A distorted image I would say, probably filtered by the old Hollywood industry which, over the years, has kept bombing and stuffing us with movies in which the Russians were portrayed as negative and evil characters.

However, we must acknowledge and admit that even the Russians do contribute to it all. To begin with, they rarely smile. At first glance, they appear indecipherable, they are not very expansive and extrovert; rather, they look shy, almost angry, but if you have the courage to penetrate that curtain of apparent distrust, you will discover generous, curious and attractive people.

Russian people are great chatterboxes indeed. On the train, everyone wanted to know me, to tell me something, to show me pictures; furthermore, even when I told them in my poor and lopsided Russian that I did not speak their language, they did not worry at all; they smiled and kept raiding me with questions and never stopped telling me about their lives.

Those very few times in my two-month stay in Russia in which I had to travel in kupe (second class), I felt the lack of this warm and relaxed atmosphere in which distances tend to get shorter and shorter with those people who were perfect strangers the previous day, and who, after just a few hours, end up chatting as if they had known each other for a lifetime.
the arrival in vladivostok
After days of travelling and various stops along the way, I finally arrived at the end of the line.
I had the opportunity to make friends with a nice couple of Russians who invited me to try a banya and then encouraged me to jump into the freezing cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The first thing I did, as soon as I stepped on the platform, was looking for the plaque that marks the kilometers of the entire railway route from Moscow: 9288. Aware of the fact that I had arrived by train, from the other side of the world, all the way to where the Trans-Siberian tracks end, it was a great satisfaction that filled me with happiness and sadness at the same time. Every time a journey terminates, it gives way to conflicting emotions, fulfillment, but also the regret of knowing that another adventure is coming to an end.

Vladivostok greeted me with a heavy and solid blanket of fog, looming over the city hiding the bay, and some "bad news": for the next six days there was no place on any train to go back. This new situation, which, in another context would have been a great nuisance, was for me an opportunity to explore this outpost on the Pacific where only a few Europeans arrive.

During my long stay in Vladivostok, I had the opportunity to make friends with a nice couple of Russians who invited me to try a banya and then encouraged me to jump into the freezing cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. Both experiences turned out to be nothing but fun. I would have never thought of having my body sprayed with coffee grounds and then being "struck" with aromatic leaves in a Russian sauna, nor would have I thrown myself, diving into such a cold sea on a day that was anything but bright.

According to my friends in Moscow, however, these experiences were included in the package of all the things you should try at least once when you are on the Russian soil. In Russia, where people swim in the water as soon as they glimpse the sea, it does not matter whether it is the warm waters of the Mediterranean or of the stormy ocean that laps the shores of Vladivostok; if it is summer time, you just take a bath and go for a swim!
on returning home
Back in Italy, I was welcomed as an intrepid explorer. I had crossed Russia by train alone and this turned me into a heroine.
Irkutsk
To all the questions asked by my friends, many thoughts crowded in my mind and I found myself thinking nostalgically of that country where everything is so impressive that it actually seems immeasurable. I was thinking of Moscow, with its grandiose visual investment and that intriguing combination of Byzantine elegance and Soviet minimalism. Do not undervalue the romanticism of the profiles of the onion-shaped domes that stand out in the fiery sky of the sunset. I saw, in my mind, the sleepy rural villages of a distant Russia with wooden houses and their inlaid windows, the rivers that meandered through the immense Siberian steppe covered with pink flowers and the Bajkal which is as big as a sea. I pursued the memories of the squares in which the statues of Lenin stand out, indicating the "right path", the smell of glasses full of fresh kvass I bought in the streets and the laughter of complicity with Russian tourists who offered me vodka and omul.

Even today, two years after that long trip of mine, whenever I hear the sounds and voices announcing the departure of trains in Russian stations, I can’t but hold back a tear of nostalgia.
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