Epic journey from Moscow to Beijing
Skirting the crystal-clear waters of of Lake Baikal / Picture: Peter Lynch

The Trans-Siberian railway linking Europe with China promises to be a trip of a lifetime. I weighed up the nonstop option but decided on a private train called the Tsar's Gold for a leisurely 19-day all-in trip from Moscow to Beijing. Private cabins are standard, some with spacious ensuite facilities and others with shared bathrooms. All stop-off tours and start and finish accommodation are included, along with three-course menus and free-flowing vodka in the dining car.

The great advantage of a private train is that it's home for the full trip, so there's no packing up baggage and carting it around at every stop-off.

Beyond Moscow's suburbs endless birch and fir trees stretch to the horizon - trackless forests you could never find your way through. Momentry glimpses of wooden houses in forest clearings flash past, then the impenetrable forest swallows them up again.

Kazan, 800km from Moscow, is a thousand-year-old Tatar city founded by soldiers riding with Genghis Khan. It's an eclectic mix of architectural styles - steel- and-glass towers, French Renaissance chateaux, English Georgian and classical Palladian.

The Ural Mountains are where Europe meets Asia and Siberia begins. Yekaterinburg was Peter the Great's eastern edge of the Russian Empire, now it's a boom town for copper, gold, platinum, emeralds and rubies.

The Urals were closed to foreigners until 1991 because military and nuclear facilities were there; presumably what Gary Powers was filming when his American U2 spy plane was shot down over the city in 1960.

Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in 1924, after Lenin's party official who hatched the plot to murder the last of the Romanovs. Lenin had wanted to hang the royal family in Red Square, but some feared a public backlash against the fledgling communist state. Eventually Sverdlovsk's suggestion to "make them disappear" was adopted and, in July 1918, Lenin ordered their deaths.

But the Romanovs are remembered with affection and flowers constantly appeared at the murder site - so in 1979 local Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin ordered the house torn down to stop it becoming a shrine. However as times changed, the Church on the Blood, which now draws more crowds than ever, was built in 1990 to commemorate the Romanov sainthood and in 1991, the city's name reverted back to Yekaterinburg.

Siberia is a byword for banishment and punishment but Irkutsk is a great surprise - a big, elegant and sophisticated city which is beautifully warm in September.

The Tsars routinely exiled people to Siberian salt mines. In 1825 a group of aristocrats called "the Decemberists" unsuccessfully tried to limit the Tsar's absolute power so were exiled but are now remembered for bringing culture and education to the Siberian wilderness. The houses of Prince Trubetskoy and Count Volkonsky have become prized museums full of touching family memorabilia.

Lake Baikal is a staggering natural phenomenon, wider than the English Channel and holding 20 per cent of the planet's fresh water. We crossed it by boat. Its crystal-clear waters freeze in winter to such an extent that cars and trucks can drive from one side to the other.

Our train skirts the southern tip of the lake, squeezing through cliffs of metamorphic limestone that were blasted apart and burrowed through so the railway could reach eastern Siberia.

Turning south towards Mongolia the temperature drops to a chilly 5C. Ulan Ude is an archetypal Soviet city highlighting all that is utilitarian except for a weird sculpture of Lenin's head dominating the main square.

Crossing into Mongolia the change of scenery is startlingly abrupt. The seemingly endless forest is replaced by undulating grassland, occasional tree-capped hills and cloud-capped mountains following the line of the track.

The landscape is pure steppe. It's grazing country and herders on small ponies are driving cattle to fresh pastures. Traditional Gers dot the landscape and in small villages children with knapsacks and bags are walking to school.

Ulaan Baatar, the capital of what the Chinese still call Outer Mongolia (ie the back of beyond), is surprisingly tourist friendly and English is widespread with schools teaching it as the country's second language.

Mongolians smile more than Russians. Admittedly they stare at foreigners but it's from curiosity; children often say "hello" and then snigger, probably seeing Europeans as amusing, big-nosed pale people.

High on a plateau Ulaan Baatar is surrounded by mountains and the temperature plummets at night. It's easygoing and hotels don't bother with the big brother passport checking and recording beloved by Russia and China. If you've no local currency, US dollars or Euros are accepted - but definitely not Russian roubles.

The chaotic roads were explained as: "People drive here like they ride horses - they go where they want when they want."

Althoug, geographically, Mongolia is six times the size of the UK, it's population is smaller than Melbourne's. Most live in Ulaan Baatar but keep their nomadic roots by visiting country- based relatives in Ger camps at weekends and holidays.

Journeying north-east to Terelj National Park the terrain becomes surprisingly alpine - mountains, valleys, rivers, tiny villages and isolated Gers with camels, cashmere goats, yaks and hunting eagles.

The Mongolian national games (the Naadam) finished in July but some locals put on a mini-Naadam for us. The contestants were genuine combatants and the wrestlers gave no quarter as they fought to win, archers concentrated their aim and pride drove the horsemen to the finishing line. The final champion wrestler distributed little cakes, biscuits and airag - fermented mares' milk like a thin tangy yoghurt but with a mild kick.

The train stopped at Tsagan Hat on the edge of the Gobi Desert. It's not on the map but within minutes nomads arrived with camels and horses in the hope of persuading passengers to take rides. It's bitter cold at 6am, the wind chill freezes my ears and then surprisingly it begins to spit with rain, but not for long.

The landscape is flat except for occasional small sandy hills and low-growing, saltbush-like plants are the only signs of life.

At the Chinese border, we change trains, unlike standard trains that have to wait several hours while their wheels are changed to match the Chinese track gauge. There was no border hassle but it swarmed with guards and officials who monitored everything and stood to attention and saluted our departure.

The Chinese train was smart enough though spartan with no shower facilities or high-end cabins.

At dinner I asked for coffee and was told "No coffee". Someone else asked for a Coke - "No Coke". We settled for an order of three beers and the waiter brought three sherry-sized glasses, filled them and then took the half full bottle away - welcome to China!

FACT FILE

Railbookers offers an escorted journey from Moscow to Beijing by private Trans-Siberian train including hotels, excursions and meals. Prices start from $6979 per person for a 16-day package based on six nights in hotels and nine nights in a four-berth train cabin. Upgrade to a classic two-berth cabin from $9689 per person. A 15-day journey is also available in reverse from $6795 per person in a four-berth cabin.

For further information, phone 1300 938 534 or railbookers.com.au.

The West Australian

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