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The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology

The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology


Contents | Introduction | Foreword | Extract: Preparations for the journey | Extract: Clothing


Some few years after we had travelled from Liverpool Street to Hong Kong, when what was in effect a second revolution began to change the Soviet Union back into a Russia surrounded by neighbouring states, and to change Russia from a communist to a quasi-capitalist country, I travelled often along the line of the Trans-Siberian – or at least, the first 24 hours of it on my way to and from the great city of Perm on the Khama river. My home city of Oxford had formed a partnership between universities and with the budding voluntary sector of the Perm Region and at least once a year I used to travel thither to plan the next link in a long chain of work together. I always went by train – usually from Moscow, once from St Petersburg, and often I travelled in winter – unlike most of the travellers in this book.

One February it was so chillingly cold in Moscow that we wept with pain when we had to remove our gloves in order to show the provodnik our train tickets and passports before we could climb up into the warmth. But once aboard the great Russian train it was always the same thrill to face the long journey ahead – to Perm a mere 24 hours, not the long stretch of days of the trans-Siberian journey.

In winter there was a wonderful pleasure in looking out in the morning’s first light to see the tracks of the animals which had crossed the snow on the railway overnight. My last journey was slightly longer – from St Petersburg to Perm – and it was in the summer with all the beauty which the warmth brings to the countryside. The train stopped very occasionally for about twenty minutes at large stations and everyone clambered down to stretch their legs, breathe the fresh air and look for anything of interest. There was little, except for the occasional extremely well-bred dogs being exercised along the platform. But quite soon capitalism took hold and local women would meet the train to make a ‘market’ of the occasion, selling ice cream in summer and small cakes and biscuits and handiwork in winter.

And soon when the train crossed the Khama river and slowed into Perm and the end of the journey we felt as if we were coming home to friends rather than stepping down from the train to strangers. Often we would be accompanied back to Moscow by a companion whose mother would have loaded him or her with enough food for the whole journey lest the dining car did not feed us.

Over several years we saw Russians climb out of the terrible hardships of the changes their government required of them and gradually they regained some of the security of their past. But through that decade of train hardship, the train journey always held the magic it had held for me on the first journey across Russia and Siberia.

Deborah Manley
Oxford, 2008


Introduction to 1988 edition

Perhaps no other journey on earth has captured people’s imagination as powerfully as the crossing of Russia by the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is a dream that knows no frontiers. My friends longed to go with me. When I returned, people sought me out to hear about the journey and to see my photographs. A well-travelled Tongan woman told me it was the one journey she still wanted to make. For a Turkish interpreter it was, next to walking the Tigris and Euphrates, his most cherished dream. My travelling companion was an American friend; in our party were two Danes, a Belgian, three other Americans (two of them over seventy), an Australian goldminer and an assortment of Scots and English. We were typical of the groups who make the journey today.

The 5,900 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway took nearly a quarter of a century to build, but much of it was finished in half that time. The go-ahead for the great enterprise was given in 1891, and construction was inaugurated by the Tsarevitch Nicholas at Vladivostok on 31 May 1891. Work began at both ends and, within twelve years, the line was in place except for two sections: the crossing of the great freshwater Lake Baikal and the 800 mile stretch through Manchuria (the Chinese Eastern Railway) which was in foreign territory. Some people believed that Manchuria would, as a direct result, be absorbed into Russia, but it was not to be. In 1895, about 66,000 men (and their accompanying womenfolk and children) were engaged in construction work. There were 36,629 navvies, 13,080 carters, 5,851 surfacemen, 4,310 carpenters, 4,096 stone-masons and 2,091 riveters.

The first train from Moscow arrived in triumph at Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, on 16 August 1898. The land to the south of Lake Baikal is mountainous, but before completion of the Circumbaikal loop it was possible to negotiate the lake during the winter by laying rails across the ice, with some consequent tragedies. After 1900 the lake was crossed by an ice-breaking train ferry, the Baikal, which had been prefabricated in Britain and reassembled on the lake shore by British technicians. The Japanese threat leading up to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and the prospect of having to move troops and supplies to the east, encouraged the hasty completion of the Circumbaikal loop with, at kilometre 5,204, the first tunnel on the route from Moscow. The train is at this point about half way between Vladivostok and Moscow.

By 1900 it was possible, by using railway and steamer, to travel right across the continent. In 1916 the line north of the Chinese border along the Amur River was opened. The whole line was now within Russian territory and it was no longer necessary for Cossack guards to ride shotgun to protect the train against Manchurian bandits. Now there was an uninterrupted rail link on Russian soil from Moscow to the Pacific, in effect from any city on the European mainland to Vladivostok.

After the 1917 Revolution the Compagnie de Wagon-Lits abandoned their Russian service but, unable to use elsewhere the carriages built for the wider gauge of the Russian railways, sold them to the Soviet railway administration. Work on the railway continued and by 1939 the Trans-Siberian Railway was double track from end to end and in some sections triple track. More recently much of the line has been duplicated along a new course to the north.

The Trans-Siberian line today starts at the extraordinary Yaroslavl Station in Moscow, (strangely reminiscent in style of the post houses along the old road to Siberia), winds across the plains of eastern Russia, crossing the Volga (the longest river in Europe), and passes through the Urals. Shortly before Sverdlovsk, at the 1,777 kilometre post from Moscow, the train passes a simple white obelisk. On one side is carved in Cyrillic letters ‘Europe’ and on the other ‘Asia’; it is less dramatic but as memorable as crossing the Dardanelles from Europe into Asia. From the obelisk the line soon reaches Sverdlovsk (once again Ekaterinburg). The earlier line, and many of the travellers in this book, went south via Ufa and Chelyabinsk. The line continues to Omsk on the Irtysh river, Novosibirsk (where the bridge was completed over the River Ob in 1897), Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and on to Irkutsk on the Angara river, not far from where it flows into Lake Baikal.

The line creeps round the southern shore of the lake, with the drama of that first tunnel, and continues to Ulan-Ude. Near here a line turns south to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator and onward across the Gobi Desert to the Chinese border and beyond. The main Trans-Siberian line continues through Chita, along the valley of the Amur River and the Chinese border to Khabarovsk, and from there turns south to the fortress town of Vladivostok. But, for a foreigner, in Soviet days, the journey ended at Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan, 9,428 kilometres from Moscow. Now one travels through to the great port of Vladivostock.

The extent of the journey and the area covered was well described by George Kennan in 1891 (in Siberia and the Exile System):

If it were possible to move entire countries from one part of the world to another, you could take the whole United States of America from Maine to California and from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico, and set it down in the middle of Siberia, without touching anywhere the boundaries of the latter territory. You could then take Alaska and all the States of Europe, with the single exception of Russia, and fit them into the remaining margin like the pieces of a dissected map; and after thus having accommodated all of the United States, including Alaska, and all of Europe, except Russia, you would still have more than 300,000 square miles of Siberian territory to spare.

Once the railway had been built across this great territory, people came from all over the world to travel along it. The Trans-Siberian travellers always had stories to tell, and many of them have written them, from Annette Meakin, who in 1900 with her mother accomplished her ambition to be the first Englishwoman to cover the entire route, to Bob Geldof and, of course, Eric Newby. Early books about the railway sold like hot-cakes and fuelled the dream.

The Trans-Siberian journey has fascinated people for many reasons, of which the foremost is probably the terrain. Yet, even today, little is known of it beyond the ‘ribbon of iron’. Equally the 6,000 miles of railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is a human achievement that vies with the construction of the Great Wall of China, which many of the railway’s travellers will pass through on their journey. It is twice the distance of the railway line between New York and San Francisco.

Thirdly, there is the magic of distance, time and place. Liverpool Street Station in London to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan takes more than six days, instead of the dozen or so hours required by air. Even now, as tourists fill the carriages, there is a sense of mystery – of places once long shut off from foreigners, of a history surrounded in secrecy, of names like Omsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Bator.

But most of all the fascination is with the people who have gone before, went even before the railway was there, and the people who went never to return: the convicts and exiles, and Tsar Nicholas and his family who were taken off the train at Ekaterinburg to die in a small room.

For me the journey is unforgettable. It led me to read anything I could find about it, taking me into second-hand bookshops in market towns, to the British Library and the Bodleian, to the Russian Studies Department of Leeds University, to stalls in the Portobello Road, to the Intourist office, to seek others’ accounts. This book is the result of that search.

Within the book the date given with the title of each piece is the date of the journey, not the date of subsequent publication. The title of the book is given with the excerpt only when the author wrote more than one book from which I chose excerpts. Otherwise the titles of the books will be found in the author’s biographical details or in the bibliography. Sadly I was unable to track down details about all the writers whose experiences appear in this book. Their original spelling has been preserved.

 Lastly I would like to thank Barbara Shear who came with me and enjoyed almost every moment from beginning to end and my husband who has listened endlessly to the tales of both the journey and the making of this book.

Deborah Manley
London, 1988


The Trans-Siberian Railway: a traveller's anthology


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