THE GRAND TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS is the premium version* of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway journey. The GTSE is an all-inclusive "cruise on rails" using a private charter train, with luxury accommodations and fine dining from start to finish onboard the train and at designated stops along the way. Our chosen route took us from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia**, over the course of 12 days, with guided day trips in between long hours in transit on the train.
I had the good fortune of joining this trip thanks to Aeroflot Russian Airlines. The GTSE also generously upgraded us to their premium, $12,000++ Deluxe Gold Cabins.
The video above is a 7-part anthology of short films that capture my experience onboard, a highlight reel of memorable experiences onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, taken during the summer of 2017.
This is the first in a six-part series of blog posts about my experience onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express. To read the other parts, click here:
PART 1: Moscow to Yekaterinburg
Day 1 has us landing in Moscow in mid-morning. We are picked up from the airport by Irina, our local guide, and check in to the lavish, old-world Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, a short walk from the station where we will embark on the Grand Trans-Siberian Railway. After enjoying a free afternoon around the city, we are picked up by Irina once again and are also joined by Larisa, our guide for the duration of our rail journey. We board our tour coach for a special Moscow By Night guided tour. It's a stunning city after the sun sets, particularly the Red Square at night, upending any preconceptions I had about Moscow. The unseasonal biting cold, however, kept us rushing back for the coach before long.
On Day 2 we have our guided tour of Moscow, where we see more of the city's distinctive architecture as well as enter the grounds of the Kremlin. We check out of our hotel, leaving our bags, and take our private coach once again around the city. Our group of five are the only passengers onboard apart from the guides, unlike all the other groups, which fill up full-size buses.
After lunch amidst turn-of-the-century extravagance in Cafe Pushkin, it is time to board the train and begin our journey.
It's only upon boarding that we find out that we've been upgraded from the Standard economy class cabins to the highest class Deluxe Gold Cabins, with ample room for two and a full ensuite shower and toilet. After taking a moment to delight in this unexpected news, we settle in and unpack. Our suitcases are already waiting for us, taken by porters straight from the lobby of the hotel to our cabins.
We, the Filipino group, are the lone English-speaking tour group on the train. With us are a large, gregarious group from Spain and several South American countries, a group of Germans, and a mixed Chinese and Singaporean contingent. This would turn out to be an advantage, as we would have smaller vehicles to ourselves throughout the duration of the trip, and thus, more time, space, and flexibility while doing tours. We are also the youngest group onboard by a margin of a few decades.
After spending a few hours watching the passing scenery and resting, it's time for the welcome dinner onboard the dining car. The tour director Artem gives a welcome toast and introduces us to all of the key staff on the train, while we enjoy a delicious Russian dinner.
We return from dinner to find our cabins converted to sleeper mode, and settle in for bed, awaiting our breakfast call the next morning.
Day 3 is spent entirely on the train. To fill up some of the time, Larisa gives us a lecture on the history and geography of Siberia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, followed later by a session in the lounge where we learn Russian songs. Larisa, a native of Irkutsk, is a proud Siberian, and eager for us to visit her hometown later in the journey.
That evening, we pull into our first stop: the station at Yekaterinburg, capital of the Ural Mountains. Leaving our luggage in the cabin and bringing only camera and overnight bags, we take another coach to the Hyatt Regency, where we enjoy a strikingly-designed bedroom for the night.
Day 4 begins with a trip to the geographical border between Asia and Europe, where you can literally stand astride the two continents.
We go next to Ganina Yama, an assemblage of small wooden chapels in the middle of Ural forests, which were erected in the 1990’s to honor the last Czar’s family. The Romanovs were buried here, in the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, after their brutal execution buy the Bolsheviks in 1918. It's considered a holy place by Russians, many of whom, we are told, no longer think favorably of their Soviet past.
We head back into the city center of Yekaterinburg to tour the city. We visit the Cathedral on the Blood, built on the site where once stood the house where the Romanovs were murdered. We are told by our guide that the house was demolished on the orders of Stalin to prevent it from becoming a heritage site.
In the late afternoon, we re-board the train and set course for Siberia. Tonight will be special: It is vodka-tasting night during dinner, and, as it happens, my birthday. I was having too much fun to take pictures, but you can see the festivities in the video above.
After vodka-tasting, we drift happily into slumber as the train enters Siberia.
END OF PART 1
Proceed to Part 2: Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk
Many thanks to Regina Laquindanum and Lizette Jocson of Aeroflot Russian Airlines for having me along for this trip. If you are from the Philippines and would like more information on booking this trip, you may contact Aeroflot Philippines at:
GSA: VITA Travel Services
Unit 809 8F Tower One, PSE Plaza Ayala Triangle, Ayala Ave. Makati City
T:+632 759 2191 / 759 2192 / 836 8975
*In contrast, the normal Trans-Siberian Express is an actual, everyday commuter train for people traveling across Russia and beyond, lasting one week if taken non-stop on a single ticket, and such a journey is a different sort of adventure altogether.
**We decided to skip the onward trip to Beijing due to the additional time and paperwork necessary.