Head Into Russia’s Wilderness on the Trans-Siberian Express
When you mention a trip to Russia, the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is Red Square and the bare chested Putin! Most tourists visiting Russia will explore Moscow’s busy wide avenues and the ornate canals of Peter the Great’s once visionary creation, Saint Petersburg. Saint Petersburg’s beautiful café roof terraces, parks and palaces make it a lovely summer visit but to feel and taste the soul of any country we must venture away from the tourist heavy trails and capital cities. To experience the real Russian people, whose often tragic stories have inspired so many world-class authors, travellers must travel east towards to the Ural Mountains and Siberia. One of the best ways of taking this journey is the on epic Trans-Siberian Express (far from an express journey!), meandering its way through Russia’s pine and birch forests.
Rolling along the train tracks and taking the opportunity to branch further off from Trans Siberian spine, we can retrace the footsteps of others before you. The Cossacks headed south and east from the Volga and Ural Rivers to conquer the Siberian plains in the 17th and 18th centuries. The term Cossack, most of whom were of Slavic origin and believers in Christ, is in fact derived from the Turkic term kazak that means ‘free man’ or ‘adventurer’. Even today, Cossacks are recognized by Russia as a distinct ethno-cultural entity. It was the Cossacks, in support of the royal Tsar, that established merchant settlements stretching across the Urals and Siberia to expand the fur and timber trade. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, many Cossacks fought against the communist Red Army. The Russian Orthodox Old Believers headed towards the isolated regions of Siberia to escape persecution by the Tsars in their campaign to ‘modernise’ Russia (forcibly chopping of their beards!) and later to flee the atheist Bolsheviks and Soviet communists.
Whilst Moscow and Saint Petersburg became world-renowned centres for porcelain, the Urals soon became the industrial heart of Russia. In the 18th century, the Ural provinces experienced a huge investment in agriculture, salt and gold mining, plus, iron and copper factories. The military supplies and people of the Urals later became fundamental in Russia’s arduous defeat of the Nazi invasion that reached a stones throw away from Moscow’s suburbs. As you head east towards the Urals, Russia’s stereotypically cold surface soon reveals its welcoming people. Staying in villages, you will share their hearty food (soup, salads, and dumplings a must!), traditional wooden architecture, conversation in a Banya sauna, and wild landscapes that offer superb opportunities for adventurers and nature enthusiasts. Many of Ural’s unique attributes arrived along the caravan trade routes of the Silk Road that passed through southern and central Russia towards the Caucasus and Europe. The Urals richness of fossils, precious stones and the mixture of cultures created their own unique beliefs and spirituality.
More typical stops of the Trans-Siberian Express is the major city of Yekaterinburg, the border of European and Asian Russia, where the Romanov Tsars fled to during the revolution and ultimately could not escape their doomed fate; the symbolic Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest fresh water lake; plus, the city of Perm, home of Pasternak’s classic novel and film Doctor Zhivago. However, most interestingly it becomes clearer with each train journey that Russia is in fact a canvas of Republics, a total of 22, each with their own identify, clothing, languages, and traditions including the Islamic province of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Buryatia to name just a few. Some of these distinctive cultures were semi-nomadic whilst others were excellent fishermen, huntsmen and skilled woodcraftsmen. The isolated yet self-sufficient, shamanist Udege communities of the Khabarovsk region have ancient practices and knowledge fundamental to the conservation of the virgin Taiga forest, the Bikin River ecosystem, and the endangered Amur Tiger (Siberian Tiger). Unfortunately, the community’s survival and ancestral home is threatened by non-inclusive land use rights and illegal habitat destruction. For many, Siberia is one of the few places on Earth that is considered a wild frontier. So wild is Siberia, that a family was discovered in 1978 completely unaware of World War II
Most travellers find that their most insightful and rewarding experience is their time spent living with Russia’s indigenous communities such as the Udege and Buryats, jumping off the train for several days taking the time to immerse themselves in the diversity of the journey. For an experience of the genuine Russia take the passenger train (there are several lines possible) rather than the luxury tourist train, sharing your train journey with locals and making friends over conversation in your train cabin. Russia’s cultural history makes the country’s expansive territory fascinating to explore by train and justifiably while the Trans-Siberian Express is a childhood dream for anyone with wanderlust running through their blood. Ignore the stereotypes and political headlines – discover the real people of Russia!
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