All aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway

Travel all 5,753 miles from Moscow across Siberia on the largest railroad in the world.

THE VLADIVOSTOK train station (photo credit: Ben G. Frank )
THE VLADIVOSTOK train station
(photo credit: Ben G. Frank )
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – In May, 1891, the Grand Duke Nicholas II, (the last Czar) picked up a ceremonial shovel; filled a wheelbarrow with soil and emptied it on an embankment in the port of Vladivostok. That was the beginning of a great railway line: The Trans-Siberian Railway.
Even if you are not a railway buff and don’t have “rambling fever,” you still might want to explore the vast expanse of Russia where you’ll meet citizens from throughout the world.
A highly recommended way to do this is to board the largest railroad in the world: “The Trans-Sib,” as it’s affectionately called. Indeed, by riding the Trans-Siberian, you’ll be nearer to the heart of the Russia of Anna Karenina or Dr. Zhivago than anywhere else.
This is the “the big train ride,” all 5,753 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. All the other train rides in the world “are peanuts” in comparison, remarked noted travel writer Eric Newby. Your journey will take you through European Russia; across the Ural Mountains (which separate Europe and Asia); into Siberia’s taiga and steppes, and onto Vladivostok.
Then, you’re bound to realize that Siberia makes up three-quarters of Russia.
Needless to say, you don’t have to spend six or seven days on the whole journey. You can fly to the major cities of Siberia, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk. You can travel the route in sections and you can get off along the way as your trip will cover nearly 100 degrees of longitude in Europe and Asia and eight time zones.
All along the route, Jewish communities are alive and well. Figures are hard to come by, but about 30,000 Jews reside in Siberia, which has a population of approximately 40 million.
Conventional wisdom has it that if you can afford only one stop on the Trans-Siberian, make it Irkutsk, which stands on the banks of the Angora River. A charming, relaxed city filled with art museums, restaurants and cafes, Irkutsk lies only 47 miles from the icy blue waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake.
A day trip to Lake Baikal is highly recommended. We enjoyed a beautiful omul fish, plucked out of Lake Baikal, placed in a smoker and handed over to us as “smoked fish.” This is a meal to be savored, along with bread, caviar and country-fresh cucumbers and tomatoes.
Then take a motor boat ride on the lake: It’s smooth and calm in summer.
About 3,000 Jews live in Irkutsk, known as “the Paris of Siberia,” down from previous years due to the large migration of Jews to Israel in the 1990s.
To meet the Jewish community, I hastened to one of the oldest houses of worship in Siberia – a three-story concrete building at 23 Karl Liebknecht Street. I leaned that street names mirror history – in this case, Stalinist history. Karl Liebknecht was the Jewish founder of the radical left-wing Spartacus Union in Germany. He and his Jewish comrade, Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered by the German Army in 1918.
Jewish life in Irkutsk coalesces around the synagogue which contains a Jewish Community Center, a prayer hall, a meat kitchen, a mikveh, meeting rooms for the community, including one for the chess club, a very popular pastime in Russia, as well as rooms for groups and organizations, such as a sewing club, computer rooms, a preschool and a library.
The Joint Distribution Committee’s “Hesed” welfare network, which opened in 1990, is housed in a separate building at 5 Army Street. That organization provides food packages, medicine, meals on-wheels, a soup kitchen, medical equipment and home care.
Last year, Irkutsk celebrated its 350th anniversary. But it has remained “a young” city, at least in demographics.
The average age is only 31.6 years and young adults and university students fill the cafes and restaurants.
Getting back to the Trans-Siberian, we learned that the railroad was built for military, economic and political reasons. Before the rail line, people traveled on an old, historic road, known as the trakt. The railway, it was hoped, would build up Russia’s defenses on the Pacific and bind Siberia forever to the motherland.
Traveling through Siberia on the rails, one has plenty of time to read. I learned that Jews were exiled to Siberia from Lithuanian towns captured by the Russians in the Russo-Polish War of 1632-34. By the 19th century, Jews were among the convicts and political prisoners sent to Siberia for settlement or hard labor.
They helped found the first Jewish communities of Omsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk and Kuibyshev. But by the end of that century they were banned from settling in Siberia.
Still, Jews played a prominent role in the culture and economic development of the area, especially in the fur trade. The arrival of Soviet rule in Siberia, in 1922, marked the beginning of the end for Jewish communal institutions. In the early days of World War II, large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland, Russia and Ukraine escaped to Siberia and remained there after the war.
One of the destinations of those refugees was Khabarovsk, which is near Birobidzhan, “the Soviet Zion,” as The Jerusalem Post once called it. Situated on the Amur River, Khabarovsk, founded in 1858, and known as the “Paris on the Amur,” offers travelers pleasant river cruises.
Tourists shop in fine stores on wide avenues. Stop off at the Regional History Museum, walk around the huge city square with the statue of Lenin still standing or stroll on Muraviev-Amursky Street – named after Count Nikolai Muraviev-Amursky, who, energetic and ambitious, promoted Russia’s advance in the Amur River area. The street itself features old world architecture, though the mall is not as chic as the one in Moscow near Red Square. The view of the Amur from Komsomolskaya Square, now called Cathedral Square, is magnificent.
Don’t forget to stop at the huge Soviet Memorial to the “Dead Heroes of the Red Army” in World War II.
While some guide books call the monument “bombastic,” one must never forget that about 30 million Russians died in the “Great Patriotic War,” including about 1.5 million Jews and several hundred thousand Russian Jewish soldiers. Today, veterans proudly display their battle ribbons on jackets and blouses.
A major stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Khabarovsk is home to about 12,000 Jews living among 700,000 residents, though the metro area contains about 1.3 million. The city’s synagogue and JCC are at 76-2 Frunze Street.
From Khabarovsk, the Trans-Siberian runs south following the Ussuri River and the border with China and onto Vladivostok. The train takes us over hills and down into flat valleys similar to those in Montana in the US or rural France. From the stark Siberian tundra, green scene after green scene along with fertile fields, pleased our eyes.
In summer, it gets dark late at night and that’s when one cries out: “Let the parties begin.” Our fellow rail passengers were a gregarious lot, with hearty appetites.
Russian train tradition demands passengers share vittles with their cabin-mates. Having devoured our box lunches, we handed out chewy fruit-and-nut bars which we brought from America.
An American professor and his cabin-mate, a sternlooking Russian army officer, came into our compartment.
We called the military man “the General.” He offered up some vodka, made toasts; and after a few hearty nazdarovyas, he, too, began to smile. The two brought black bread, caviar and halvah. It was past midnight when we turned in.
As the train pulled into Vladivostok next morning, I recalled Osip Mandelstam, the Russian Jewish poet who was arrested for a poetic attack on Stalin. Mandelstam was sent to Vtoraya Rechka, a transit camp in suburban Vladivostok where thousands waited for ships to take them to the gulag. He was “arguably the most brilliant poet Russia produced in the 20th century,” and was among the noted Jewish victims of Stalin to be doomed in this frozen wasteland. He died in Vtoraya Rechka in December 1938.
Some clues about traveling on the Trans-Sib. It is highly recommended to speak to a specialty travel agent to help you plan your trip. Group travel (or several couples) is best. Some travelers take a security guard with them.
Several institutions exist on the train.
One is the “provadnitza,” the conductor-provider.
Don’t get on is his/her wrong side. They control your tea, meals, snacks, dining-room seat and entrance to the single bathroom in the carriage.
Some tips: Don’t leave valuables in your compartment, bring books, games. It’s like taking a long cruise.
Guide books correctly suggest that you bring toilet paper, a plug for the bathroom sink, insect-repellent , a bottle-opener, corkscrew and a travel alarm clock plus necessary medications.
So, as Czar Alexander III said when asked for his approval of the road, “It is time, high time.”
“All aboard!”
Ben G. Frank, journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published, The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, as well as A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.