Trans-Siberian railway: Alternative routes and other secrets

Story highlights

Trans-Siberian railway spans eight time zones, covers more than 5,000 miles

Lesser-known detours include Trans-Manchurian route through China's Rust Belt region

CNN  — 

A century ago, a turbulent Russia was only months away from the simmering discontent among the impoverished peasant population that erupted into the Bolshevik Revolution.

The doomed final Tsar, Nicholas II, soon to be executed along with his entire family, had just completed perhaps his grandest legacy: a continuous railway line connecting Moscow to Vladivostok on the far eastern coast of Siberia.

One hundred years on, the railway line, spanning eight time zones and covering more than 5,000 miles of track, continues to beguile as a vital artery linking together the largest nation on earth.

But beyond the classic sites of Lake Baikal, the Kremlin and Vladivostok, there’s a wealth of lesser-known corners and detours on this epic journey.

The other Trans-Siberian 1: Trans-Manchurian line

Across Russia by rail: There are alternatives to the classic Moscow-Vladivostok route.

The Trans-Siberian is actually just an umbrella term for a variety of routes that commence in Moscow.

As well as the “classic” Moscow to Vladivostok route there’s also the Trans-Mongolian line, which dips south after Lake Baikal, crossing through Mongolia into the Gobi Desert and through the Chinese border, eventually stopping in Beijing.

Infinitely more obscure however are two branch lines that, although easy to book tickets for, are seldom used by non-Russians.

The Trans-Manchurian route goes through the Chinese Rust Belt region from the Russian border at Manzhouli to Beijing, passing through Harbin, a fascinating city where, incredibly for auto-obsessed China, the main drag is pedestrianized.

The wealth of 19th century churches and synagogues is a melange of Chinese and Russian influences bedded together in relative harmony.

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The other Trans-Siberian 2: The BAM Line

This is the ultimate combination of obscurity and pointlessness in train form. Only completed in the early 1990s, the Baikal-Amur Line took three attempts and half a century to complete.

Only a handful of trains now make a tortoise-paced journey on what was intended to be an alternative route from Lake Baikal to the Pacific coast.

Running for 2,300 miles the journey heads through pristine taiga forest, marshes and almost-deserted villages consisting of little more than a dozen or so clapboard houses.

Conventional sights are virtually nil for visitors but that’s not really the point.

This is a chance to see genuinely unknown Siberia where, alighting in the BAM administration capital Tynda or the wide Soviet boulevards of Komsomolsk-na-Amure, “tourism” is still a relatively unknown concept.

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Closed to outsiders until nearly a decade after the fall of the USSR due to its nuclear reactors, Krasnoyarsk is missed by many Trans-Sib travelers who stay on the train until Lake Baikal.

The center, however, is a beguiling combination of Soviet tidiness and Tsarist era timber wooden mansions all set amid a backdrop of jagged low hills.

The gargantuan hulk of the SV Nikolai is docked in the naval waters of the Yenisei River on which a young Lenin traveled on when forced into Siberian exile by the Tsar.

Tour guide Nadya Arlashina is just one local who thinks the city deserves a higher profile.

“So few people know about the strange volcanic rock formations that we call ‘stolby,’” she remarks.

“They look like giant fingers and are all over a huge park outside the city. The best way to see them is to go by a ski-lift, which runs all year round in the park.”

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