THE TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY
In my novel, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling, Lily is an actress working in London at the end of the 19th century, who travels to St. Petersburg, Russia, and then through Siberia to Vladivostok, on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
No railway has captured the imagination like the Trans-Siberian. Running almost 6000 miles long through some of the most inhospitable yet gripping landscapes on earth, it has seduced travelers and dreamers alike since its inception. Traveling across eight time zones – a third of the planet – from great cities to rural fairytale villages, across the pristine wilderness of the Ural Mountains, through the immense Russian Steppe and the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal, the Trans-Siberian is the longest passenger rail trip in the world – and one of the greatest possible travel experiences.
But how did this extraordinary railway come into being?
In the 1880s, the Tsar Alexander III decided to build a railway connecting Moscow with the Far East. After deciding to reject international partnerships, the Tsar made the railroad an exclusive Russian project with no international partnerships. Construction commenced at both ends of the trail. In 1891, his son, the soon-to-be-Tsar Nicholas II, laid the cornerstone of the railway station in Vladivostok on the far east coast of the country.
The project’s financial and technical challenges were immense, and construction proved to be a nightmare. The harsh Siberian climate hampered progress all along. Large rivers had to be bridged, and large extensions of land were either waterlogged or unyielding permafrost. The lack of labor in remote places meant that soldiers, conscripts and gulag prisoners had to be brought in. Up to 90,000 men were employed in the construction.
The Trans-Siberian Railway was not finished until 1916. But even before the railway was completed, it attracted travelers, who wrote of their adventures. One of them was Annette Meakin, a British writer, who traveled on the train with her mother, and wrote about her journey in her memoir, A Ribbon of Iron.
At the 1900 Paris world's fair, Russia and the Wagons-Lits sleeping car company presented the Trans-Siberian Express at the Russian pavilion. Visitors could experience the luxury on board in real railway carriages.
The train had exquisite sleeping compartments, a dashing dining car, and a library with oak paneling, Moroccan leather chairs, and a book case with over a hundred books in four languages. There were even more luxurious cars, like carriage number 725, which was decorated in the style of Louis XVI and only rented to private parties.
One of the remarkable elements the Trans-Siberian train was the wagon-chapelle, a traveling Russian Orthodox church. Staffed by Russian Orthodox priests, the train travelled from station to station, making up for the shortage of local churches in Siberia. It was equipped with ringing bells at the end of the skylight to summon the faithful when approaching stations.