This trip is on my list of must-do's when Russia finally opens up! At last check, it was $1000 for a first class rail cabin, with unlimited hop on-hop off stops.
The Trans-Siberian Railway. The name alone has the power to evoke wondrous images of frozen villages, thick forests of pine and larch, mystical lakes, onion-domed churches and vast steppe.
And then there is the train itself — hot dumplings and tea served up in dining cars from a bygone era, the steaming samovar at the end of each carriage and the click-clacking of the rails lulling you to sleep in your bunk.
It’s a bucket-list rail journey, spanning 9,289 kilometers (5,772 miles) from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean, and for more than a hundred years has served as a conduit for settlers, traders, travelers, laborers, soldiers and adventurers looking to wander way off the beaten path.
The Trans-Siberian Railway was one of the great engineering feats of its era, rivaling the Panama Canal in both cost and danger to the men who constructed it. When completed early in the 20th century, the railway was regarded as an epic achievement of the Russian czars and was marketed to travelers as the fastest and most luxurious route to the Far East, taking just 10 days!
Trains in Russia not only transport visitors across time zones, but also back in time. Compared to Moscow, the other cities on the journey seem charmingly antiquated.
Sure, there are the grim industrial landscapes of belching smokestacks, steaming power plants and half-collapsed concrete factories where coal miners and iron workers labored under Stalin, but there are also charming villages of wooden homes and gardens set amid golden fields that appear to be right out of the pages of a Tolstoy novel. It’s Russia at the ground level and really the best way to get to know the country and the people.
Due to the vast distances of Russia, the country is ideal for train travel, and there are multiple ways to traverse it: using public train service or booking a high-end train service like the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, a private, five-star luxury train operating on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs between Moscow and Vladivostok.
On the public trains, you’ll find every type of professional on board, from students and young techies to factory workers and soldiers. Cozy quarters and communal spaces, along with the gentle ride and scenery, invite conversation.
Russian passengers change into tracksuits and slippers; nosh on salami, pickles and sardines (a cabinmate may pull out a bottle of Russian Standard Vodka or Baltika beer, although drinking on the train is generally frowned upon and in some carriages may be prohibited); and the dialogue starts to flow.
You’ll get a unique perspective on this giant nation, its politics, economy, culture and environment. Many Russians speak enough English for a conversation, but a phrasebook can go a long way in case of language barriers.
Moscow is the traditional starting point for the trip, and it’s here that visitors get accustomed to the grandeur of all things Russia: cavernous government buildings, heroic statues, iconic churches, grand museums and ornate train stations.
The most memorable part of the journey is yet to come.
At the top of any sightseeing list is the Moscow Kremlin complex, the seat of Russian political and religious power, where the czars and dictators, such as Ivan the Terrible, Lenin and Stalin, issued their earth-shaking decrees.
Visitors will also want to take a turn around Red Square, pay respects to the embalmed remains of V.I. Lenin and get a close look at the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
While Moscow has the power to keep you enthralled for days, the most memorable part of the journey is yet to come — life on the rails, some incredible stops and the oddities you’ll encounter when traveling overland across Asia.
In the heart of Russia, the train plies through big cities such as Yekaterinburg, a historic industrial city with a large student population, cafés, parks, museums and some of the tallest buildings in Russia, and Novosibirsk, an easygoing city known as a center for science and technology, with a waterpark, planetarium and a museum of railway technology.
You’ll also roll through sleepy villages, complete with summer gardens and friendly locals, and seemingly endless rolling countryside of taiga (coniferous forest). The more you start to see local merchants selling dried fish on the train platforms, the deeper you are traveling into Siberia and the closer you are getting to Lake Baikal.
You can take the journey in stages, buying a ticket from city to city, or go at a quicker pace and travel in one shot all the way to Beijing. Most travelers make stops at the very least in Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar, but with so many stations along the route, the possibilities are many.
Irkutsk is the perfect jumping-off point to visit Lake Baikal. Formed 25 million years ago from a fracture in the earth’s crust, Baikal is the world’s largest lake by volume, containing 22 percent of the planet’s fresh water. It’s also the oldest lake in the world and is considered holy by the people who live near it. Visitors can take a boat trip on its waters or hike along a track that once served as part of the Trans-Siberian rail line.
Enjoy the architecture in Irkutsk. (Photo: Getty Images)
Back in Irkutsk, pay a visit to one of the local markets to stock up on local nuts and fish and sample and purchase caviar. Omul, the fish you see in the train stations approaching Irkutsk, will also be in large supply. Omul is only found in Lake Baikal, has a slightly sweet flavor when smoked and can be eaten using your fingers or a fork.
Having absorbed the sights and smells of the market, spend some time wandering the rest of Irkutsk, a 350-year-old city jam-packed with ornate 19th- and early-20th-century palaces, timber buildings and colorful Russian Orthodox churches.
You can also take a short ride outside the city to visit idyllic Siberian villages, with beautiful gardens and dacha, quaint homes featuring intricate iron or wood-carved window frames, prided by the people of Siberia.
Continuing east from Irkutsk, the Trans-Siberian hugs the shore of Lake Baikal for several hours. Most travelers agree that this is the most interesting part of the train journey, with stunning lake and mountain views, plus train platforms brimming with smoked fish. In winter the lake is frozen over in a thick sheet of ice.
Ulan-Ude, some 5,640 kilometers (3,505 miles) from Moscow (that’s three days and 18 hours if you go direct), is another worthwhile stop. You’ll finally feel like you’ve reached Asia proper. The locals are mostly Buriat, a Mongolian ethnic subgroup; a Tibetan-style Buddhism is the main form of religion here, and there’s a healthy mix of shamanism, as well. The local claim to fame is the Lenin bust in the center of town — purportedly the largest of its kind in the world. Try some buuzy (steamed meat dumplings) at one of the cafes on Arbat Street.
The motion of the railway car lulls you into a meditative trance.
Close to Ulan-Ude, the Trans-Siberian splits south to Mongolia or continues east for 62 hours to Vladivostok. There’s a third option of splitting off, just past Chita, into northern China and the city of Harbin.
Most travelers opt for the Mongolia route, a visually stunning and culturally unique section of railway. The total jaunt from Moscow to Vladivostok crosses seven time zones and takes 144 train hours. If you make stops in Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude, plan on a journey of 10 to 11 days.
While the weather and the people will change up to this point, the click-clack of the wheels against the rails and the slight swaying of the cabins will stay with you throughout the duration of the trip. That motion of the railway car that lulls you into a meditative trance makes time seem to fly by.
But time usually grinds to a halt once you reach the Mongolian border, as customers officers board the train to collect passports for stamping. After the lengthy stop, your train will eventually cross into Mongolian territory.
Ulaanbaatar (Red Hero) is the capital of Mongolia and an unmissable stop on the journey. Plan on at least two days to explore it, or more if you want to experience Mongolia’s unique nomadic culture, which still flourishes on the steppes.
Ulaanbaatar has remade itself over the past decade and is now chock-full of high-rise apartments and glassy office buildings. There’s also a growing number of parks and fine dining options, plus the temples, monasteries and palaces that predate the Soviet era. At the center of it all is a vast plaza and a large statue of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century ruler who Mongolians consider their founding father.
Museums and art galleries feature Mongolia’s unique history and culture, while evening programs of throat singing and opera are stunning. Less than two hours from the capital is Terelj, a gorgeous national park of granite escarpments and grassy fields where visitors can ride horses and overnight in a ger (yurt).
Try to time your visit to see a Naadam festival, the biggest cultural celebration of the Mongolian calendar. The festivals feature horse riding, wrestling and archery, plus many concerts and other cultural events. The largest Naadam festival is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11 and 12 each year, but smaller Naadam festivals are held in towns and villages across the country during the summer months.
Apart from the occasional telephone wire, there are few signs of the modern world.
Back on the train and heading south, the climate and landscape shift as you head toward the Gobi Desert. This is where the famed American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews located a trove of dinosaur bones and eggs in the early 1920s. Mongolia soon became renowned for its dinosaur fossils, including the discovery of the Tarbosaurus, a relative of the T. rex.
Take some time to reflect on the journey to date, sit by the window and watch the vast expanse of the Mongolian plateau sweep past. Camels look up to watch you pass, while goats and sheep seem oblivious to your presence, happily munching away at the vegetation.
Horsemen appear out of nowhere, sometimes charging alongside the train, waving their derbies as they go. Apart from the occasional telephone wire, there are few signs of the modern world in any direction.
At the Mongolian–Chinese border, you may need to disembark while the bogies (the frames onto which the wheels are fixed) are changed. China uses the standard gauge, while Russia (and Mongolia) use a slightly wider gauge. The other change you may encounter is a different dining car, as a Chinese restaurant may replace the Mongolian one.
Admire Mongolia’s rugged scenery. (Photo: Getty Images)
The final stretch of the journey travels through the plains of Inner Mongolia and the mountainous hills outside Beijing, with the train passing through dozens of tunnels on the final day and spectacular views of rivers and steep-sided cliffs.
The capital of China — with its own giant square and government buildings, plus some stunning palaces and temples — bookends the journey. Start with a trip north by bus to visit a section of the Great Wall of China, impossibly steep in some sections and an awesome place for a hike.
After you’ve sampled Peking duck (try the famed Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant, which once hosted Michelle Obama), cycled through a hutong and soaked in the history of the Forbidden City, go visit Tiananmen Square. This immense plaza, with it steely-eyed soldiers and giant portrait of Mao at one end will have you reminiscing over your visit to Red Square, a week and several thousand kilometers ago. If you have a little Russian vodka left over, this is the place for a final show.
By Michael Khan
NEW YORK CITY'S BEST FOOD TOURS
In New York City, travelers can enjoy cuisines from nearly every country on the planet—so it's no wonder that many are opting for food tours to get some guidance. Frequently themed by neighborhood or type of food, some tours can teach more than most New Yorkers themselves know, in a short period of time. Plus, you can tap the knowledgeable guide for recommendations for the rest of your trip. Here are four of our favorite culinary adventures:
Harlem offers much more than soul food. There's an abundance of Caribbean, Mexican, and African cuisine in this neighborhood as well—and we love Taste Harlem’s four-hour walking tour for experiencing all of it. Yes, you'll have amazing fried chicken and waffles with grits at the 53-year-old Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant, but at another establishment you'll also have Dominican roast pork, plantains, beans, and rice. You'll even sip healing tea at a spice shop. Try the mac-and-cheese at Fresh Market, a three-level grocery store and café. It's satisfying comfort food, plain and simple. Due to COVID-19, walking tours are currently on hold but are expected to be back up and running soon (check the website for updates). In the meantime, private tours via Zoom are available. $75 per person; $65 per person for groups of 10 or more.
Lower East Side Food Tour All the way downtown, the Lower East Side has its own food history. The two-hour Sidewalk Food Tours adventure takes you beyond the neighborhood's hip boutiques and trendy bars for a taste of the area's immigrant working-class history. You’ll visit the oldest bialy bakery in the U.S. as well as the last pickle store on Essex Street—which was once referred to as "Pickle Alley." Sample foods from all corners of the globe (think: steaming hot dumplings, fresh homemade gazpacho, NYC pizza, and halvah candy), then come back to the 21st century with a cup of high-tech coffee. They are currently giving small group tours. $75 per person for public tours, $99 per person for private tours.
The 3-hour tour with Like A Local Tours features the Flatiron District, named after the 21-story Flatiron Building on 23rd Street. These days, the neighborhood is sizzling hot, thanks to Mario Batali’s artisanal Italian food emporium Eataly—where you'll begin. From there, you'll head to a little-known local burger joint, taste burrata pizza, watch cheese-making at a local cheese factory, and sample NYC’s best grilled cheese sandwich. Chocolate babka, an iconic Jewish pastry, will serve as dessert. Throughout the walk, you'll learn about the history of the neighborhood, from the Flatiron Building—once one of the city's tallest—to Union Square, which has always been a rallying place for political demonstrations. Tours are limited to 10 people max. $56 per person.
It's no surprise that the West Village, with its tree-lined streets and brownstone buildings, has served as the backdrop of many TV shows and movies, including "Sex and the City" and "Friends." A three-hour tour here with Foods of NY will take you through some of the hottest spots for noshing and celebrity-spotting. Check out the homes of former Vice President Aaron Burr and Pulitzer-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay on your way to a 75-year-old pizzeria and an Italian specialty shop that serves fantastic rice balls. You'll also taste olive oils and learn how to choose the best ones at your grocery store. Tours will resume part-time on July 2, 2021. $58 per person.
By Margie Goldsmith
LOCAL STORIESNOVEMBER 9, 2021 Rising Stars: Meet Valerie Brown
LOCAL STORIES SHARETWEETPIN Today we’d like to introduce you to Valerie Brown. Hi Valerie, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today? Initially, when I started this I was going to talk about my travels throughout the world and encourage others to travel. But then Covid hit and I couldn’t travel and I thought what can I talk about? So, I decided I was going to make this Val’s Journey and. just decided to see where this would take me. My goal was to be encouraging and positive to my viewers during the pandemic and also to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Now, I’ve reached over 13,000 followers. I love encouraging and inspiring others. And travel has started again! I love talking about my journeys around the world. We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road? It’s been a pretty smooth road for me. I’ve had a few bumps in the road finding new topics to talk about though. On those days, I fill in with bad jokes and rambling stories. Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on? I am an aging, senior flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. I have been in the Airline Industry for 36 years, first with Pan Am World Airway and then Southwest. I love my job, working with the public and providing excellent customer service. Do you have any memories from childhood that you can share with us? We have (still) a summer cottage in Bracebridge, Ontario. Every summer, I looked forward to swimming in the Muskoka River, hiking, horseback riding, and reuniting with summer cottage friends from all over Canada. Contact Info:
Facebook: Valerie Brown
Youtube: Valerie Brown
This was an article from Savannah Voyage Magazine November 9, 2021-listed as a rising star on Instagram
As I finish writing this, I am getting ready for my next travel adventure. A 4-day cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines from Los Angeles to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico.