Many people think there's a train called the Trans-Siberian Express running along a lengthy railroad between Russia's eastern port of Vladivostok and Moscow.
The reality is that the Trans-Siberian rail trip involves a network of domestic and international trains crisscrossing countries and borders. Yes, a Trans-Siberian journey can start in Vladivostok. But it can also start in Beijing, or Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
These itineraries, sometimes dubbed Trans-Mongolian routes, follow Trans-Siberian tracks once they cross the Russian border.
Each of these trips can be completed by traveling on a series of local trains. However, that journey would not be easy for those who don't read the Cyrillic alphabet nor for those accustomed to creature comforts. For those who require a bit more in the way of amenities, a private train is the way to go.
That said, the two main private train options do not come cheap.
U.K.-based Golden Eagle Luxury Trains operates on the classic 5,772-mile route between Vladivostok and Moscow. It is the pricier of the options, in part because all compartments have bathroom facilities en suite and most tips are included.
For the independent traveler in 2014, tour operator MIR Corp. offers seats on the Golden Eagle 15-day trek across Siberia starting at $15,495 per person, double occupancy, in the Silver Class category and rising to $29,995 for top-of-the-line Imperial Suites, which come with king-size beds.
The 15-day Tsar's Gold, running between Beijing and Moscow, offers less expensive options among its accommodations categories. The 2014 prices, from Germany-based tour operator Lernidee Adventure Trips, start at $9,200 per person, double, for a Classic compartment, which shares toilet and shower facilities.
For a taste of Soviet style, another option is Nostalgic Comfort. Although these compartments don't have their own bathrooms (two compartments share a shower, and there are two bathrooms per car), the plushly designed cabins are outfitted along the lines of 1950s sleeping cars reserved for high-ranking Soviet officials. Nostalgic Comfort starts at $12,300 for a shared compartment.
For a compartment with private bath, prices start at $15,820, double, in Bolshoi and go up to $19,520 in Bolshoi Platinum.
This past spring, I traveled in a Bolshoi compartment on the Tsar's Gold, which Lernidee manages. After spending the first two days of the group trip sightseeing in Beijing, we boarded a chartered Chinese overnight train to Ulaanbaatar. We spent two jam-packed days in Mongolia before boarding the Tsar's Gold, our home for the next eight days.
Once we crossed the Russian border, we traveled through changing landscape, going from steppe to taiga to farmland to industrial wasteland to city.
We stopped in places like Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Yekaterinburg (where Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II, and his family were executed in 1918).
English speakers staying in Bolshoi and Nostalgic Comfort cabins were merged into a group of 20 for sightseeing and for onboard meals. Our group was afforded its own tour bus and its own onboard tour leader.
Other groups were broken up according to class of travel and language (most of the tours were in German). Groups staying in less-expensive cars often shared a bus.
Although our group had stellar and knowledgeable guides in Beijing and on the train, other groups were not so lucky: Those sharing a bus with German-speaking groups did not get as much commentary, as the English-speaking guide had to share the motorcoach's microphone.
For those who want a guaranteed educational experience, it may be better to spend more and book a scheduled group departure through an operator like Smithsonian Journeys. Smithsonian brings along an area expert on its Tsar's Gold departures, plus a dedicated tour manager, who will proactively troubleshoot on the behalf of clients. Additionally, some extras, like tipping, are included in Smithsonian's package price.
MIR also packages group departures for both trains, including Golden Eagle trips for National Geographic Expeditions.
Once the Tsar's Gold train leaves Ulaanbaatar, only one night is spent off the train; on my trip, it was at the new Courtyard by Marriott in Irkutsk.
Most meals are served onboard, although daytime stops usually include lunch and/or an early dinner at a destination.
The train food was serviceable but not memorable. A variety of hot and cold offerings were available at breakfast. Given the limitations of the preparation areas, there were only two choices for each lunch and dinner.
However, the kitchen staff did a good job in accommodating the gluten-free diets of two group members.
All cars are air-conditioned, although the cooling system does not operate when the train is stopped. As the train can experience lengthy delays, this may be a problem during the height of summer for those with heat sensitivities.
A trip on the Tsar's Gold is one high-priced adventure, but clients should be advised they are paying for an experience, not necessarily a high standard of service or luxury accommodations.
After all, this is a train. The beds aren't big, the train goes bump in the night and it can be loud, all of which may add up to discomfort for large people or light sleepers.
The onboard staff was local and thus trained in a Russian style of service. At train stations, porters were scarce. There was little to no Internet access on the train. Another caveat: Many extras, like bottled water and tips, which can add up to more than $300 per person, are not included in the price. Neither are airfare or visas. China and Russia require visas for Americans, but Mongolia does not.
Trains operate between May and early October.
Lernidee's Tsar's Gold trips, which are commissionable, can be booked at www.transsiberian-travel.com.
Smithsonian Journeys, MIR and National Geographic Expeditions pay commissions on their Trans-Siberian rail offerings.