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   Time Table

 

 

 

A visit to Russia today is an encounter with an undiscovered land.

 

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union visitors have a fresh opportunity to explore a vast array of exciting and ancient cultures, from the glittering imperial Russia of St. Petersburg to the timeless village life of Siberia and Irkutsk. One of the most notable features of present day Russia is a renewed celebration of the wealth of its past and its potential for the future. Throwing off the blanket of communist uniformity, Russia today is a nation of enormous diversity and tremendous vitality. It is as if the cultural traditions of a century ago have re-awakened with a newfound strength - ancient cathedrals are being rebuilt and restored, colorful markets hum with activity once again and literature and the arts are quickly regaining the creative renown they enjoyed decades ago. A new Russia is now in full bloom.

 

 For most westerners, Russia is associated with its European cities--Moscow, St. Petersburg and Murmansk. This is the heartland of Imperial Russia, and these great and ancient cities often become the focus for most tourists. However there is much more to Russia, a country that spans eleven time zones and two continents, ending less than 50 miles from North America. Within this vast expanse lie the largest freshwater lake in the world, rivers and forests teeming with fish and wildlife, awe inspiring volcanos, and towering mountains. Russia is the largest country on earth, with enormous tracts of land that have been opened to travellers only in the last few years.

Just as Russia's rich cultural heritage has once more come to life, its natural heritage too is a new country waiting to be discovered.

 

 

A Journey to Moscow

If St. Petersburg is Russia's imperial crown, Moscow is its familial heart. It is a city in which one comes face to face with all that is finest and all that is most frustrating in Russia. The gregarious geniality of its people is as evident as the extreme tensions of a city coming to terms with the confusions of rapid social change. More than anywhere else in the country, it is in Moscow where the Soviet past collides with the capitalist future. Lenin's Mausoleum remains intact, but today it faces the newly chic GUM (pronounced goom), which is becoming ever more akin to Macy's or Harrod's.

Yet, as the new Moscow emerges, it is becoming increasingly clear that any move into the future will be marked by a strong appreciation of the city's rich and varied heritage--a heritage that vastly predates the era of Soviet rule. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the city today is not Moscow's much-publicized embrace of Western culture but its self-assured revival of its own traditions. Ancient cathedrals are being restored and opened for religious services, innovative theaters are reclaiming leadership in the arts, and traditional markets are coming back to life. Moscow is once more assuming its position as the capital and mother city of the ancient state of Russia.

 

 

Exploring St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a city of haunting magnificence, an imperial capital that seems to have been built as a monument to its own passing. Less than three centuries have passed since Peter the Great began building his grand city on the Gulf of Finland, but it is difficult to visit its vast, crystalline squares and palaces without feeling the enormity of the gulf that separates that time from our own. All of which, of course, makes St. Petersburg more evocative of Russia's past than any place except perhaps the Moscow Kremlin. This impression is only deepened by a more familiar acquaintance. The enigmatic homeliness of Peter's cottage and the city's placid canals may contrast with the brooding grandeur of the Winter Palace, but they share with it a graceful stillness that is difficult to forget.

 

Cruising the Waterways of Russia

For most visitors to Russia, its rivers are noticed only while crossing a bridge or strolling along an embankment, as pleasant backdrops to sights that command more attention. To experience Russia only from the land, however, is to miss a central feature of its character, for river travel has stood at the heart of Russian life for millenia.

All of the greatest cities of European Russia have since their foundation been intimately associated with the rivers that they adjoin. Moscow, for example, sits at the confluence of the Moskva and the Neglina, and St. Petersburg and Novgorod lay on the Volhov. The greatest of Russia's rivers, however, is the Volga. At 2,300 miles (3,700 km), it is the longest river in Europe, navigable for virtually its entire length. It was along the Volga that the ancient trade routes of Russia were developed, giving rise to a whole string of trading posts, fortresses, and towns during medieval times. Yaroslavl, Uglich, Kostroma, and Nizhni Novgorod, four of Russia's most revered and beautiful cities, are all situated along its banks.

 

With the completion of the impressive Moscow-Volga Canal in 1937, the capital was finally linked to the great system of waterways that runs from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland all the way to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. As a result, it is easy today to experience the trip that Peter the Great first dreamt of--a leisurely sail from St. Petersburg to Moscow, passing by the finest medieval cities in the country. For the particularly ambitious traveller, it is entirely possible to follow the entire trade route along the Volga, from St. Petersburg all the way to Astrakhan, the ancient capital of the Tatars.

 

Baikal
The Pearl of Siberia

As the vast evergreen forests of Russia's Siberian taiga extend southward toward Mongolia, the ground rises and the terrain becomes more varied. The border between Siberian Russia and Mongolia is a natural divide here, with rugged hills and mountains forming series of wrinkles between the sprawling Russian forests to the north and rolling grasslands to the south. About midway along this border, in a gigantic stone bowl nearly four hundred miles (636 km) long and almost fifty miles (80 km) wide, lies almost one quarter of the all the fresh water on earth--Lake Baikal.

Baikal is easily the largest lake in Eurasia, and it is just as easily the deepest lake in the world (1,620 metres). On the merits of magnitude alone the lake is renowned as one of the earth's most impressive natural wonders, and rightfully so--Baikal is so large that all of the rivers on earth combined would take an entire year to fill it.

What fewer people realize, however, is that Baikal's majestic expanse is situated in a region of surpassing beauty, its forested shores surmounted by the jagged, snow-clad peaks of the Barguzin mountains. In the winter Baikal freezes over, with ice so thick that the Trans-Siberian Railway was briefly run over its surface. At this time of year the lake provides an unsurpassed venue for the pleasures of a tour by sleigh. In the summer, its crystalline blue waters are transparent to a depth of forty meters, and its shores are ringed with the brilliant colors of seasonal wildflowers. Boat tours offered during the warm months are one of the best ways to gain an introduction to the lake, as is hiking amongst the forests, streams, and waterfalls of Baikal's parks. The lake region is home to an enormous variety of plants and animals, most of which--like nerpas,the lake's freshwater seals, and its trademark delicacy, the omul salmon-- are found nowhere else in the world. Bears, elk, lynx, and sables abound in the surrounding forests.

 

Lake Baikal long ago became famous for the purity of its waters and surrounding shores, a pristine state that had been seriously threatened by planned industrial development in recent years. Luckily, Baikal was one of the first regions to benefit from the new Russian government's reversal of decades of anti-environmental industrial policies. Since 1992 Lake Baikal and the entire surrounding area have been designated as a national park, and Baikal is today a naturalist's paradise and an idyllic holiday destination. With fine beaches, excellent hiking, birdwatching, and pleasure boating, Baikal is well-positioned to become one of the most attractive vacation spots in Asia.

 

 

 

Russia's


Trans-Siberian Railway

For those who travel for the pleasure of the journey, those who believe that getting there is as much fun as being there, Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway has long been an almost mythic experience. It is the longest continuous rail line on earth, each run clattering along in an epic journey of almost six thousand miles (or about ten thousand kilometers) over one third of the globe. For most of its history, the Trans-Siberian journey has been an experience of almost continuous movement, seven days or more of unabated train travel through the vast expanse of Russia. A great part of the pleasure of such a trip is simply sitting back and watching the land go by. However, most travelers on the Trans-Siberian find that interaction with other passengers, both Russians and tourists, is what makes the trip an unforgettable experience. Today, with far fewer travel restrictions, it is possible to use the rail journey as the core of a more varied tour. Travelers can enjoy stopovers in many of theRussian cities and towns along the route, from the historic Volga port of Yaroslavl to Irkutsk and the scenic Lake Baikal region.

 

Routes and Western Extensions

Travel along the Trans-Siberian Railway is usually undertaken from west to east, though it is quite possible to go in the opposite direction. Moreover, a number of choices of route are available, as are extensions of the journey on either end.

The usual route taken by travellers is the Trans-Siberian line, which runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, passing through Yaroslavl on the Volga, Exaterinburg in the Urals, Irkutsk near Lake Baikal's southern extremity, and then Khabarovsk. From Vladivostok it is possible to continue by ferry to Niigata on the west coast of Japan.

A second primary route is the Trans-Manchurian line, which coincides with the Trans-Siberian as far as Tarskaya, a few hundred miles east of Baikal. From Tarskaya the Trans-Manchurian heads southeast into China and makes its way down to Beijing.

The third primary route is the Trans-Mongolian line, which coincides with the Trans-Siberian as far as the Buddhist enclave of Ulan Ude on Baikal's eastern shore. From Ulan-Ude the Trans- Mongolian heads south to Ulaan-Baatar before making its way southeast to Beijing.

In 1984, a fourth route running further to the north was finally completed, after more than five decades of sporadic work. Known as the Baikal Amur Mainline, this recent extension departs from the Trans-Siberian line several hundred miles west of Lake Baikal and passes the lake at its northernmost extremity. It reaches the Pacific to the northeast of Khabarovsk, at Imperatorskaya Gavan. While this route provides access to Baikal's stunning northern coast, it also passes through some pretty forbidding terrain.

To the west, connections are available through Moscow to Berlin (and from there to Paris), to Budapest, and to St. Petersburg (and from there to Helsinki).

 

 

History of the Railway

Russia's longstanding desire for a Pacific port was realized with the foundation of Vladivostok in 1860. By 1880, Vladivostok had grown into a major port city, and the lack of adequate transportation links between European Russia and its Far Eastern provinces soon became an obvious problem. In 1891, Czar Alexander III drew up plans for the Trans-Siberian Railway and initiated its construction. Upon his death three years later, the work was continued by his son Nicholas. Despite the enormity of the project, a continuous route was completed in 1905, having been rushed to completion by the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War the year before. The present route of the line, including both the difficult stretch around Baikal and a northerly replacement for the dangerously situated Manchurian line, was opened in 1916.

 

Cities and Towns Along the Way

The Trans-Siberian trains stop several times a day, for periods ranging from just a few moments to almost half an hour. Even the longest stops, however, allow for little more than a quick expedition from the station to make some necessary purchases. It is possible, however, to arrange a stopover in many of the major destinations along the route, and what follows is a brief listing of some of the most popular sites.

 

Yaroslavl
One of Russia's oldest cities, Yaroslavl was founded by Yaroslav the Wise of Kievan Rus' in 1010. Over the next several centuries the city prospered as a trading port on the Volga and a center of textile manufacture, becoming by the 17th century the second largest city in Russia behind Moscow. Its wealthy merchant community became notable patrons of the arts, building hundreds of churches. Fortunately, the great majority of these remain intact today, making the city one of the most beautiful destinations along the railway.

 

Ekaterinburg
The Trans-Siberian's first major stop in Asian Russia is the major industrial city and transport hub of Ekaterinburg. The town was founded in 1721 by Catherine the Great as a fort and metallurgical factory, its position having been chosen for its strategic proximity to the great mining operations of the Urals and Siberia. Although there are few tourist sites here other than the 18th-century cathedral, the city is nonetheless of great historical interest. It was here, in a house that once stood on Liebknecht ulitsa, that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on the morning of July 17, 1918. Although the house no longer exists, its site is marked by a plain wooden cross. The Imperial family, like most tourists, was brought to Ekaterinburg on the Trans- Siberian. Ekaterinburg is also notable for being the hometown of Boris Yeltsin.

 

Krasnoyarsk
One of the older towns in Siberia, Krasnoyarsk was founded in 1628 as a trading post along the Yenisei River. It grew rapidly when gold was discovered in the region, and eventually became a major river port and industrial center. Outside the ciy is the Stolby Reserve, an attractive preserve notable for the odd, columnar cliffs that rise from the river's edge inside its area. After one passes over the Yenesei, another of the Trans-Siberian's most significant border crossings takes place--one leaves the steppe and plunges into the taiga, the great forest that extends over most of Russia. The vast Siberian taiga is the largest remaining forest in the world.

 

Irkutsk
Irkutsk became a wealthy trading center soon after its founding in the 1660s, benefiting from its position along overland trade routes between China and Western Russia. Since then it has maintained its position as the regions most important city, though today its attraction for visitors is supplemented by its proximity to Lake Baikal. Trans Siberian Railway enthusiasts should try to make it for a visit in 1998, when the city has planned a celebration commemorating the inauguration of the rail line.

 

Ulan Ude
Like most Siberian cities, Ulan Ude was founded during the 17th century. However, as the center of the Buddhist Buryat culture, it is unlike any of the other stops along the Trans-Siberian railway. Although the city's Buddhist tradition, like all other religions, suffered a sharp decline under Stalin, there has been a noticeable revival in recent years. Visitors to Ulan Ude today should not miss the opportunity to visit nearby Ivolginsk Datsan, a restored Tibetan Buddhist monastery which now serves as the center of Buddhism in Russia.

 

Khabarovsk
Strategically located on the hills overlooking the Amur River, Khabarovsk was founded as a military outpost in 1651, during the first wave of Russian colonization. The town gained importance during the nineteenth century as a trading outpost, and today it is one of the most important and promising cities of the Russian Far East. Khabarovsk is a pleasant city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, a popular beach, and an interesting museum of ethnography and local history.

 

Vladivostok
Vladivostok was founded in 1860 as a military outpost, but its outstanding natural harbour soon brought it prosperity as a trading port. The city's nomination as the headquarters of the Russian Pacific fleet in the 1870s brought further growth, and by the twentieth century it had become a major center of international trade. During the Soviet era, Vladivostok's military role eclipsed its trading function, and the city was closed both to foreigners and to Soviet citizens lacking special entry permission. The city was opened once again to visitors in 1992. It is currently experiencing a rapid recovery of its historic role as a major Pacific commercial port and has also maintained its naval importance as the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Today Vladivostok is a a lively, attractive city, with a wealth of attractions and, as always, a strikingly impressive harbour.

 

The Great Russian Arctic

In an age when adventuresome travel is becoming more popular than ever before, Russia is very rapidly becoming a favored destination for those who want to explore the awe-inspiring landscapes of the far north. All across its length, Russia's territory reaches up toward the pole, giving it a broad belt of land laying within the arctic circle. In northeastern Siberia and Kamchatka in particular is found some of the richest and most beautiful terrain in the country--mountains, lakes, and rivers, all abundant in wildlife.

Visitors to these regions gain the opportunity to see a much different Russia, a country more evocative of Jack London than of Catherine the Great. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, travel to remote areas has become easier than ever before. In the last five years alone, the northeastern part of the country in particular has gained international renown for its excellent fishing, hunting, and expedition travel.

 

The means of travel themselves are a central part of the pleasure of any visit, starting with the Great Trans-Siberian Railway. Traditional horse-drawn sleighs remain a common mode of transport in many parts of Siberia and the Far East, and in northern towns dog sled races provide the backdrop for great festivities. There are plenty of choices for those who want to escape civilization altogether and focus on the beauty of the land itself. More vigorous travellers can go trekking through nature preserves ruled by bears and moose, or hike the slopes of active volcanoes. Those who prefer their adventure to be a bit more leisurely can enjoy cruising to the north pole on a mighty ice-breaker leaving from the port city of Murmansk. Whether you finally make that great journey to the pole or simply spend a relaxing week casting for salmon, a visit to the Great Russian North will be an unforgettable experience.