Richard Powell takes the trip of a lifetime aboard a private train for a 10,000 mile trans-Siberian adventure from Moscow to Beijing in style...
The epic journey starts in Moscow's Red Square
Siberia, the vast region with the once terror-inducing name, was singularly failing to live up to its fearsome reputation this warm autumn afternoon on the banks of the Angara River.
Close to these resplendent surroundings, the Soviets once built gulags without fences because prisoners knew that to escape meant certain death... If the winter temperatures of a hundred degrees below didn't cut them down, the marauding wolves and bears would.
But that cruel chapter in Russia's history seemed an era away as we clinked glasses around a grand piano, while a tenor filled the former home of exiled Decembrist Prince Volkonsky with the boastful aria of Rossini's comic hero, Figaro.
A week after setting off, we had reached the halfway point of our grand journey to Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railway, a route that had taken 18th Century settlers two years by foot from Moscow.
And, here, as at every other stop on our adventure, the experience came with its own unique musical accompaniment; starting with a brass band in the Russian capital, and continuing at every stop thereafter, into China. But, first we had to get there...
Off the Rails
Before boarding our five-star hotel on rails for the granddaddy of great railway journeys, our guide Olga met us at the Intercontinental for a 'Moscow by night' tour.
Chaperoning us around the architecture and artwork adorning the busiest subterranean transport hubs of the Moscow metropolis, she explained how the stations doubled as artistic testaments to the trials and tribulations of life in the once all-powerful Soviet state.
Platforms and lobbies brimmed with myriads of colorful mosaics, polished brass statues and historical paintings lit by grand chandeliers hanging from neck-cranking, vaulted ceilings.
Above ground, through Revolution Square - with its imposing Art Nouveau Hotel Metropol and Lenin Museum - past Kazan Cathedral and into Red Square, we arrived at its iconic, onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral and the former royal citadel of the Kremlin.
Our tour continued the following day inside the sprawling historical complex itself... Its towering fortress walls encircling the palaces of power within yielded to our guest passes where they had, for centuries, kept all but the most privileged and powerful out.
Before long, we were beating a path through an army of afternoon commuters at Yaroslavsky station, met by a brass band on the platform to play us off with Russian circus music.
The train's opulent interiors are a nod to luxuries enjoyed by the tsars
As soon as the train arrived, the porters showed us to our cabins, and I cautiously opened a door with my name on it knowing it would be home for a fortnight.
But my smart little 'Bolshoi' compartment was delightful: decorated with theatrical scarlet curtains, brass fittings, a velvet sofa and a mahogany desk... I felt the tsars themselves couldn't have traveled much better.
The train itself was like a horizontal tower of Babel, with seating at its five restaurants pre-allocated by language to take the guesswork out of dining.
Having found the English speakers' restaurant, I sat down with a South African lady, a Polish man and his daughter, who'd fulfilled her father's life ambition by buying him this golden ticket.
Translating for him, she explained, "He thinks it would have been easier for him to go to the moon a few years ago, than do this".
After the plates were cleared away, the restaurants doubled as bars, offering entertainment for guests who preferred to drink and chat than retire to their rooms.
When I eventually returned to mine on the first night, I found my sofa had become a double bed and sat on it, watching vast forests of silver birch glow in the moonlight as we sped along.
I remembered the Polish man's pipe-dream and how it seemed his daughter had succeeded in bringing the moon to him.
Stop-offs and city tours took us through some of Russia's major municipalities, showcasing their highlights while neatly breaking up the transit.
From visiting the newly-built Qolsärif Mosque in Kazan, listening to musical performances by child prodigies, posing for pictures at Yekaterinburg's Asia/Europe landmark or paying respects at the resting place of its last ruling tsars, we enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of the world's largest country.
Everywhere there was music and dancing; most memorably in Novosibirsk. Here, we were greeted on the platform by a troupe of girls performing a folk dance while beckoning us to join them as they handed us bread and salt.
There was music at every stop on our trans-Siberian adventure
While food on the train would run the gamut of Russian cuisine, from Kaska (Russian porridge) and cold cuts with bread and cheese for breakfast, we would experience many other local specialties on the ground.
A restaurant in Kazan treated us to rice cakes, cheese and figs: a staple of Tatarstan. On the train, there was a caviar and vodka-tasting, and a cultural nod to the Sverdlovsk Oblast region's specialty of sponge cakes and black tea.
Over the Yenisei River, toward the vast steppes of the Western Siberian Plain, it felt as if the seasons were speeding up as we crossed a new time zone every couple of days.
One evening, a violinist played to us as we dined and after the last of the stragglers had retired, I wandered the train's corridors as the guests slept.
It felt like being on a ghost train as we hurtled along Siberia's iron road, through abandoned stations stacked with industrial equipment from a bygone era.
I felt like I might glimpse a ghostly chain-gang trudging along the sidings as they did when this extraordinary railway was built, against the odds.
Far from Siberia's historical image, some cities have a futuristic look
At Krasnoyarsk - City of a Thousand Fountains - we took a bus to the top of its looming hill for a spectacular panoramic of the city below, as horses roamed in the meadows behind us in the scorching midday sun.
From there, hillier terrain slowed the train from its mad pace through the flat Western plains as we navigated the meandering route to Irkutsk, capital of Eastern Siberia.
Here, the modern and historical were equally mixed, with traditional wooden cottages dotted about the centre along with a new statue of Alexander III: founder of the trans-Siberian railway. After lunch at a countryside dacha, we visited an open-air museum akin to an 1800s American frontier town to gain an insight into the lives of Siberia's earliest settlers.
We left the train that night to stay at a Marriot, whose full-sized bathroom felt like a real treat after the close confines of my carriage's standing-room-only shower.
But the feeling of space was completely unbounded the next day as we took a boat across Lake Baikal and some of the world's deepest waters, to a port where our train was waiting once more.
Chugging along the shoreline of what could be the world's oldest lake came to a halt and a message over the intercom instructed us to disembark. When the train drew to a halt, we walked alongside the tracks to the front where we were helped up onto the engine by the conductor for an unforgettable al-fresco 'ride-along'.
Guests are invited for a ride-along as the train skirts Lake Baikal
With the wind in our hair, the train snaked gracefully along behind us for a mile or so before we stopped again for the bravest among us to take a dip in the biggest mass of fresh water on the planet.
The temperature had dropped and it had started raining so I opted for a supervisory role and helped to pass out shots of vodka to the shuddering half-naked souls as they came back ashore.
Ulan Ude marked the final Russian city we would stop at, having arrived via Selenga's awe-inspiring valleys of mountains, steppes and rivers.
Here, a gargantuan bust of Lenin's head inexplicably sat centerpiece in the city square. Behind it, we were ushered into a mural-covered, Stalinist-era theater and another musical extravaganza, this time featuring some spectacular throat singing. It was a sign we were at the end of one country and the beginning of another...
That night we crossed into Mongolia, and arrived into its fast-paced, futuristic-looking capital by morning, where we toured the ancient Buddhist Gandan Monastery and Lama Museum.
The stark juxtaposition of Ulan Bator's Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries and towering golden deities, set against its new found booming economy, shopping centers full of style-conscious kids and gleaming skyscrapers was arresting.
Mongolia's many temples are a throwback to a simpler time
The five temples at Choijin Lama were the highlight for me, with their garishly-painted statues of gods and demons doing what they do best: warring, making love, crushing their enemies underfoot and elevating worshipers to spiritual enlightenment.
Our tour organizers offered us the opportunity to live like a local and stay in a yurt - or Mongolian tepee - but I chanced my arm by asking them for an additional experience.
For as long as I could remember, I'd wanted to gallop across the steppes on horseback. And to my disbelief, they made it happen... with a herdsman who spoke no English.
Despite this, when he nodded at me after our first eventful sprint over a marshy plain, I cherished it as an affirmation that I could hold my own alongside the descendants of Genghis Khan's cavalry.
We raced each other back to the campsite, where our hosts treated us to a veritable showcase of Mongolian archery, wrestling... and a display of real horsemanship that put my misperceived abilities into check.
Traditional music in the green 'Switzerland' of Mongolia
An overnight passage through the Gobi Desert stopped early the next morning so we could disembark and walk among the dunes the dinosaurs once roamed on. It was a real privilege to feel the primeval sand between my toes in one of the most remote places on Earth.
Soon enough, we arrived at the Chinese border where the Stone Age-feel of Mongolia's dust-bowl rural settlements gave way to an urban jungle of smart city blocks, manicured lawns and wide highways filled with gleaming cars.
It marked the end of the line too for our beloved luxury train due to the change in railway gauge, and we switched to a state carriage for the final 16-hour hop to Beijing.
Through my sleeping compartment window, I gawped at the power stations and factories belching out thick yellow smoke alongside half-built empty cities, interspersed with imposing mountain passes and villagers working in rice paddies as they had done since the dawn of humanity.
Far East Farewell
Rolling into the overwhelming sprawl of Beijing - with its 20 million inhabitants - put everywhere else we'd visited on our trip into perspective, dwarfing even the Russian capital.
After checking into our hotel, we visited China's largest ancient sacrificial building: the Temple of Heaven, and took a stroll through the intimidating Tienanmen Square, before traversing the Great Wall.
This enduring Wonder of the Medieval World offers a real workout if you're up for climbing the thousands of steps to reach the summit of one of its painstakingly renovated sections.
Beijing wows and wows again with its scale and history. But the Forbidden City - encompassing the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty - with its 180 acres of cobbled streets and ancient courtyards was, to me, its most wondrous attraction. Historical sights in and around Beijing span millennia
Nightlife in the Chinese capital was a blast. A firm favorite was the Donghuamen Night Market, providing an eye-popping array of creepy crawlies to dine on, if the endless stalls of shiny fried beetles, hairy spiders, coiled snakes and scorpions on skewers don't send you running.
A more traditional dinner for all 200 guests was laid on as a final farewell from our organizers and guides in Beijing's flashy Financial District on the penultimate night.
We had crossed six time zones on a railway whose painstaking construction can never be quantified, visiting every major city along the way... and I had not only survived Siberia, but fallen in love with it.
Anyone lucky enough to take this trip of a lifetime may never be able to succinctly sum up their experience of it in a sentence, but I've learned to say simply that with the Trans-Siberian, the journey is the destination.
-- Lernidee Trains and Cruises offer a 16-day Moscow to Beijing experience (and vice-versa) aboard the private Tsar's Gold train including travel, food and hotels from USD$6,000 to USD$20,000 pp.