The Trans-Siberian Railroad stretches almost 6,000 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. It is an adventurous journey through Poland, Belarus, Russia, and Mongolia. Depending on the route you choose, you can visit cities like Minsk, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Bator, and Beijing. If you wish to take the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Europe, you must obtain visas for Mongolia, Russia and other countries en route. Plan ahead. The Mongolian Consulate in Beijing is only open a few hours per week.
The Four Trans-Siberian Railway Routes
The Trans-Siberian route begins in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok. This route passes through Yaroslavl on the Volga, Exaterinburg in the Urals, Irkutsk near Lake Baikal's southern extremity, and then Khabarovsk. From Vladivostok you can continue by ferry to Niigata on the west coast of Japan.
A second route is the Trans-Manchurian line. This route follows the Trans-Siberian line until Tarskaya. From Tarskaya the Trans-Manchurian heads southeast into China and makes its way down to Beijing.
Another route is the Trans-Mongolian line. This route follows the Trans-Siberian as far as Ulan Ude. From Ulan-Ude the Trans- Mongolian heads south to Ulaan-Baatar before making its way southeast to Beijing.
Finally, there is the Baikal Amur Mainline. This route 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.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia underwent a period of extensive rail development that culminated in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Akin to the great railways to the Pacific in both the United States and Canada, Russia's transcontinental line was intended to supply and populate Siberia as well as deliver raw materials to the burgeoning industries west of the Urals. Working against an ambitious timetable and under severe conditions of climate and terrain, the Russians effectively united the European and Asian parts of the empire by completing this herculean project.
Plans to build a railway across Siberia had circulated within the highest levels of the Russian bureaucracy for years before construction finally began in 1891. The project had strong backing from Emperor Aleksandr III and other notables. The heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas, served as chairman of the Siberian Railroad Committee and performed a variety of ceremonial duties connected with the project, including turning the first spadeful of earth near Vladivostok to start the construction. The real force behind the project, however, was Sergei Witte, the indomitable minister of finance to both Aleksandr and later Nicholas.
In order to begin rail operations on parts of the line as soon as possible, Witte set firm deadlines for the completion of various sections of the project. With the schedule under constant threat of slippage from the difficult working conditions and remoteness of Siberia, Witte insisted on adhering to his plans and cajoled subordinates to maintain the pace. This pressure contributed to accidents, as well as supply and equipment breakdowns. As disease and exposure took their toll on the labor force, the state turned to prisoners in great numbers to finish the job. The costs of construction eventually reached over $250 million, twice the original estimate. Witte remained resolute in his goal, however, recalling in his memoirs, "I devoted myself body and soul to the task."
Like other rail lines throughout the empire, the track used on the Trans-Siberian was wider than the standard European gauge— 5 feet 3.5 inches as opposed to 4 feet 8.5 inches. The engineering plans provided for the sequential construction of six basic segments. In order of completion, these branches were the West Siberian line from Cheliabinsk to Novonikolaevsk (the future city of Novosibirsk) on the Ob River; the Ussuri line from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok; the mid-Siberian line from Novonikolaevsk to Innokentievskaia near Irkutsk, with a spur line to Tomsk; the circum-Baikal line from Irkutsk to the eastern side of Lake Baikal; and the trans-Baikal line from Lake Baikal to Sretensk. A sixth section, the Amur line from Sretensk to Khabarovsk, was not completed until 1916. Before its completion, Russia was able to establish a link to the Pacific by negotiating an agreement with China to run track across Manchuria via the Chinese Eastern Railway.
Trans-Siberian Railroad Timeline
Volunteer Fleet Co. begins steamship service to the Russian Far East.
May 19, 1891
Tsarevich Nicholas lays first stone of railway in Vladivostok.
Ekaterinburg-Cheliabinsk branch and West Siberian line (Cheliabinsk to Ob River) open.
Ussuri line (Vladivostok to Khabarovsk) opens.
Special migrant fare established.
Mid-Siberian line (Ob River to Innokentievskaia, near Irkutsk) and branch line to Tomsk open.