Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian train travel no longer possible for tourists


There’s no shame in being a train freak. Of course I would say that, because I’m a train nerd.

There’s no better way to see the world than from inside a train car. The landscape passes through the window, sometimes slowly, sometimes with lightning speed, and you sit there, ensconced in your car, this little microcosm of society, this moving diorama of commuters and tourists from all walks of life. imaginable.

Trains in India are among the greatest tourist experiences on Earth. Trains in Japan are attractions in themselves. Trains in Europe are fast and comfortable and are an ideal alternative to flying.

In this world where carbon emissions have such an obvious effect on overall well-being and where we have all become accustomed to trying to go too fast and do too much, the train is the antidote. Train travel is the best.

And so it saddens me because I’m sure it saddens so many fellow railroaders around the world that the world’s greatest train journeys are probably not available to us now, and will be for the foreseeable future.

The Trans-Siberian (Moscow to Vladivostok), Trans-Mongol (Moscow to Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar), and Trans-Manchurian (Moscow to Beijing, via Harbin) all offer incredible experiences for travelers, whether you travel via the six-berth berth cheaper cabins of regular commuter trains, or the fanciest first-class cabins of purpose-built tourist trains.

There is no experience in the world like making your way through Siberia, watching the Earth unfold before you, seeing in real time how things change, how houses change, how food changes, the way people change.

You can stop along the way and see the Gobi Desert, walk through the endless Mongolian steppe, visit Lake Baikal, pass through Novosibirsk on the edge of Siberia, see where Europe becomes Asia in Yekaterinburg. You can share vodka shots with Russian commuters, buy smoked fish from pier vendors, play cards with other travelers.

Or at least you could. Because right now, none of these train journeys are a viable option for travelers. China is closed to tourists due to the COVID-19 pandemic and seems on the road to zero COVID with no foreseeable end point. A reopening seems logistically impossible, and politically risky.

Russia, too, is effectively banned. The country is engaged in an increasingly gruesome invasion of Ukraine, and while tourist entry is technically possible at this time, it is not only impermissible, but also dangerous and logistically difficult.

Although the invasion seems to be going badly for Russia, it’s still a never-ending affair with no end in sight – and even when it ends, a visit to Russia, for fun in a country that has so recently been responsible for so much bloodshed and suffering, it seems undesirable to say the least.

Two of the world’s three largest countries by land area are currently closed to the rest of the world, and likely will be for years to come. A huge swathe of Earth – nearly 20% of the planet’s total landmass – is off-limits to travellers. Almost countless subcultures and language groups and semi-autonomous areas are unable to accommodate visitors.

In the case of Russia at least, the selfish desires of travelers are far behind the importance of supporting Ukraine. I am not here to suggest otherwise. In the case of China, there are more reasons than closing borders to delay or possibly cancel a visit to the country, including the ongoing state-sanctioned abuses against Xinjiang’s Uyghur community.

But it’s interesting to consider how the world has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, especially as it begins to recover.

A reader of this column asked me a few weeks ago how she could now travel by land from Australia to Europe, how to avoid the plane and really see the world properly while taking into account the closure of China and Russia.

I had to tell him that’s just not possible right now. The security situation in countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, coupled with those vast swaths of Asia off-limits to travellers, means you get on a plane no matter what.

Previously, travelers could travel from Singapore to London by train (with a few bus journeys to connect the dots), through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to China, along Trans-Mongolia and in the wider European rail network. . You didn’t have to be particularly fearless or intrepid to take on this great journey – it was a well-trodden path.

For now, however, it is a path that is closed. Train nerds like me will have to find their fix elsewhere. I would suggest India.

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​See also: The 10 countries that refuse to reopen to tourism

See also: “Grandfather of all”: on board the most epic train journey in the world


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