The Trans-Siberian Railway connects Moscow with the Sea of Japan, over a distance of 5,753 miles. Even today, it takes eight days to complete its entire journey over seven time zones and through 87 Russian cities.
The railway was built from 1891 to 1916 under Tsar Nicholas II, with many convicts exiled to Siberia being pressed into working on its construction. Originally, the line broke at the large Lake Baikal and ferryboats connected two sections of track across the water, but the final stage of construction included a circumnavigation of the lake. Today, branches of the line allow travellers to reach China and Mongolia as well as Japan, or to depart at stops along the route. A thriving trade in used Japanese cars sees many drivers making the journey in the cheapest available bunks - easing the boredom with vast quantities of vodka - and driving vehicles back across the wilderness for sale on the Russian market.
Other tourist trips run today on private trains such as The Golden Eagle, allowing them to travel in comfort over 15 days with stops and visits along the route.
This style of travel may be more in keeping with that of the first train to run along the route, which boasted marble floors and a grand piano in the first class carriages, with caviar and sturgeon on the dinner menu. Third class passengers, on the other hand, were described as “packed like sardines. Their cars hold nothing save wooden bunks, two tiers therof, and each has four and sometimes six. One’s health would certainly be jeopardised by a passage through them.” (Lonely Planet, Trans-Siberian Railway, p. 52). This mode of travel allowed costs to be kept low enough for ordinary Russians to afford the journey east. Still, it must have been as dull as Fevvers suggests - trains moved at little more than 25 km/h for fear of derailment, food often ran short east of Lake Baikal, and rails and bridges broke down due to the cold and the haste of their construction.
The creation of the Trans-Siberian Railway boosted Siberia’s economy through easier export of grain, oil and gas, and attracted several million Russians to the region to establish industrial towns where previously only semi-nomadic tribes had lived.
In the play and film Fiddler on the Roof (1964; 1971), Hodel travels to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway in search of her exiled fiance.
In 2010, Russian Railways and Google created an online experience of the entire Trans-Siberian journey. Viewers can skip to different parts of the route, and choose between wheel noise, Russian music or a reading of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) to accompany their virtual journey.
More information at www.transsiberianrailway.org