Why You Need To Drop What You’re Doing And Hop On The Trans-Siberian Railway

Published September 7, 2015
Updated November 6, 2019

In a world where just about everything can be ordered on demand, sometimes it's nice to lack control. A trip on the Trans-Siberian railway offers just that.

Trans-Siberian Railway

The classic Red Arrow line connects St. Petersburg and Moscow, and for many travelers, this is where the train journey on the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia begins. Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway remains one of the grand adventures of world travel. Most travelers, though not all, make stops along the 6,000 miles of track that cross seven time zones between Moscow and the Pacific Ocean.

Some passengers disembark to see old monasteries or exquisite churches, others to explore Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake. In the end, though, the charm of the journey is found aboard the train itself. The tracks crisscrossing Siberia seduce sojourners through five gentle – yet hard to find – pleasures.

Glimpses Of Rural Russian Life On The Trans-Siberian Railway

Trans-Siberian Railway Rural Russia

Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Russia is enormous, but the images of Russian life best known beyond its borders are either the metropolitan scenes of St. Petersburg and Moscow or the grainy, gray-scale snapshots of history. Train travel, however, with its steady warble only a couple of feet above the surface of the earth, allows passengers to see the vast Russian taiga and hundreds of small towns scattered throughout the world’s largest country. It offers, literally, a window into another way of life.

Trans-Siberian Railway Baikal House

A house near Lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia. Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

At the platform stops, which last anywhere between two and forty minutes, the traveler can step out and buy smoked fish and sausage, and rich rye bread sold by the people who call Siberia home. Many fellow passengers are not flash-packers from Western Europe, but locals traveling to visit family or to do business down the line. Even small interactions with these true Siberians can bring new dimensions to the words Russia and Russian, dimensions that both enrich the evening news and breathe new life into the novels of Tolstoy and Gogol.

Complete Digital Disconnection

Transsiberian Railway Rural Stop

Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

There’s just no wifi on the train, no wind to blow the chimes that signal the arrival of a new email. For a few days at least, the brain can rest from the endless news feeds, from texting and Twitter, and from the impulse to ceaselessly self-curate an online exhibition of the self. The habit of glancing down transforms into a comfort looking up and looking out.

International Friendships

In elevators strangers easily stay silent, but if you’re going to be in a second-class berth with three other people for 27 or 55 or 70 hours, it’s nice to introduce yourself. On the Trans-Siberian trains, nearly everyone is eager to talk, and friendships blossom between people whose lives otherwise may have never intersected and who may not even be able to communicate through spoken language.

The diversity of travelers ranges from the bright-eyed British backpacker to the French sisters who smoke in the space between cars, from the Russian soldier heading home on leave to the mother from the boondocks going to visit her son in Moscow. From Spanish honeymooners to Danish pensioners, from Russian traders to Dutch doctors, all are fellow travelers and most are easy friends.

A Strangely Safe Loss Of Control

Trans-Siberian Railway Night Departure

Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

For many young urbanites, life oscillates between micromanaging minutia and fretting over big career decisions, or where to live and who to love. But on a two- or three-day stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway, there’s almost nothing to decide beyond which of the two novels you brought to read first.

The Trans-Siberian passenger finds themselves somewhere in the middle of a massive country where they can barely read the signs outside the window. But everything works out. The train stops on schedule. The people are friendly. There’s always something to eat. In the end, the loss of control can seem like a relief.

Mental Revival

Unburdened from decision-making and disconnected from the thrum of electronic messages, the traveler’s mind has a chance to ruminate in a way it might have lost for many years. The ideas in books – and here it is effortless to read a 500-page novel in a couple days – have space to swirl and interact with old memories as well as with conversations among new friends found on the train. In the mornings, passengers often talk to one another about how they could not fall asleep, about how their minds were frenetic with ideas for books they might write or ornate tattoos they wanted or the next big trip they might take.

Trans-Siberian Railway Track

Source: John Schellhase (Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

A journey on the Trans-Siberian railway is not the kind of vacation that leaves you more frazzled than when you set out. Not at all. The steady, calming rhythm of the train, the images of the changing world outside the window, the quiet mental space of uninterrupted thought, and the conversations with strangers who become friends – these secret pleasures subtly revive the spirit.

These things are what continue to draw thousands of travelers to expanses of Siberia, whether they know it or not when booking their berth.

John has been writing for All That Is Interesting since 2014 and now lives in Madrid, Spain, where he writes and consults on international development projects in East Africa.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.