10 July 2018 by Tim Tan
The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express is private train that brings unprecedented luxury to the world's greatest railway journey. Here Tim Tan recounts a recent journey along the Silk Road.
Day 1: Moscow
On arrival at Moscow airport, we were met and transferred to the luxurious five-star Marriott Royal Aurora hotel, located in the heart of this vibrant city for a two-night stay. The transfer took about 1.45hrs due to heavy traffic in Moscow, but it was a nice way to enjoy the outskirts and sights of Moscow en route.
After we checked in, we had some free time to explore the hotel and nearby area within walking distance. We attended a cocktail party followed by a welcome dinner at our hotel. This is a chance to meet your fellow travellers and, together, look forward to the 13-day voyage that lies ahead (please note there is a main group of travellers on the tour that will travel from Moscow to Beijing as a 21-day journey).
The hotel is extremely well located in the heart of everything – The Bolshoi Theatre and Drama Theatre are both within walking distance, and the Old KGB Building is about 10 minutes away. The area surrounding the hotel is a combination of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street with several very smart department stores and designer boutiques.
Day 2: Moscow
Our city tour of Moscow principally takes us to the Kremlin with a private visit before it opens to the public, which is a big plus so we can see things closely without the crowd. We then went on to visit the surrounding gardens and Red Square, an iconic symbol of Russia's former military and political might. Here we see an eclectic mix of fascinating architecture, such as the ornate St Basil's Cathedral with its magnificent onion-domed spires, the grandeur of The Kremlin and the sombre and evocative site of Lenin's tomb.
Located along the Red Square and Lenin mausoleum, GYMS is a most beautiful building and renowned shopping centre, which looks five times the size of Harrods. Thankfully she has been restored to her glory days and it's a must visit, if only to inspect the architecture, again filled with all the designer boutiques you can think of. This was followed by lunch in a local restaurant and a visit to some of the most beautiful underground stations, all in pristine condition and extremely clean. Some of the stations are part of a collection and treated as public museum with fascinating murals and mosaic artworks. We went on to visit a convent and drive around the sights. Dinner was at the Poet's Club, an old noble family's home and now a club, which made for a very fun night!
Day 3: On board
On the morning of day three, breakfast was at leisure before we were transferred to Moscow's main train station and received in a VIP Lounge for a Russian sparkling champagne reception before we were escorted to our carriages to settle in before departure on board the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. The full train comprises twelve fully en-suite Silver and Gold Class sleeping cars, which feature state of the art amenities. Gold Class cabins are well proportioned and have everything from power showers and underfloor heating to a DVD/CD player, LCD screen and individual air-conditioning. Silver Class cabins are more compact at 60 sq ft (5.5 sq metres) but have similar facilities.
A particular delight of the Golden Eagle is one of our beautifully appointed restaurant cars, the venue for our chefs to serve carefully-prepared meals using, wherever possible, local ingredients, whether that's the world-renowned ‘Borscht' or Omul – a fish unique to Lake Baikal. It really was a culinary experience representing the very essence of Russia, with wines from around the world, as well as – naturally – vodka, to complement our meals.
The social heart of our train is the bar car, a great place to relax and settle into the unhurried pace of life on board. It was great to unwind in comfortable surroundings and watch the world go by as we got to know our fellow passengers, enjoying the sounds of the pianist playing in the evenings – and, the bar stays open until the last person leaves! After settling into our modern, stylish cabins, we enjoyed dinner in one of the beautifully designed restaurant cars as our rail journey to Almaty in Kazakhstan began.
Day 4: Volgograd
Standing on the banks of the Volga, Stalingrad, as the city was known in Soviet times, was the dramatic scene of some the most important Second World War battles. The Russians heroically turned back the Nazi advance here to alter the course of the war. We visited the poignant and sobering Mamayev Kurgan war memorial, followed by the informative diorama and absorbing museum visit. In the evening we enjoyed a beautifully prepared dinner on board our private train, but the highlight of the day was definitely the World War II Memorial and the changing of guards.
Day 5: Kara Kum
Today, we enjoyed a relaxing day onboard as we travelled across the vast expanses of the Kara Kum desert. As well as experiencing the unique landscape, it was nice to relax, enjoying the passing scenes that consisted mainly of dry, flat, desert-like landscapes.
Day 6: Khiva
Crossing into Uzbekistan, our train travelled towards Urgench, where we transferred to the ancient city of Khiva, founded 2,500 years ago. As one of the Silk Road's most important trading posts and now a World Heritage Site, it lies at the crossroads of the routes between Mongolia, Russia, China and Persia. A truly magnificent sight to behold, it rises out of the desert to reveal a wealth of impressive architecture. Stepping back in time, we discovered its impressive mosques, bazaars and minarets within Khiva's ancient walls before a delicious lunch and dinner was served onboard our train. A highlight was seeing some very intricate hand-painted artwork and mosaics on the ceilings and walls of buildings, as well as a local family treating us to a local teahouse and an array of local sweet delicacies.
Day 7: Ashgabat
We had a very early wake-up call this morning and disembarked at 5:30am before sunrise. We were transferred in old Russian trucks and vans to visit ‘The Door to Hell', the Burning Gas Crater. It was back in 1971 when geologists were conducting gas drilling in the Kara Kum desert that they accidentally discovered an underground chamber that resulted in the drilling rig collapsing, leaving a giant crater filled with poisonous gas exposed to the outside world. The concentration of gas was so high that nobody dared to go down until someone suggested they light the gas to burn off the poisonous vapour. The crater has been on fire since 197, as it turns out the supply of natural gas is infinite. It was simply a beautiful sight and especially amazing when we watched the sunrise over the crater.
In dramatic contrast to Khiva, we arrived in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan – the ‘Las Vegas of the Kara Kum'. Situated between the Kara Kum Desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range, its golden domes and towering modern buildings appeared strangely incongruous in this almost biblical setting. It was a little strange on arrival to see the city designed and built to such specifications, all new, clean and white marble.
Day 8: Merv
Early morning saw us arrive in Mary, where we transfer to the ancient and mainly unrestored city of Merv. Once an important stopping point on the Silk Road, it claims to have briefly been the largest city in the world during the 12th century. It was 1794 that saw the demise of Merv, after the Emir of Bukhara destroyed the dam, which the population depended on for its water. After our fascinating exploration we return to our train for dinner.
Day 9: Bukhara
Bukhara is quite simply outstanding. Like Khiva, UNESCO helped fund the renovation of much of the city for its 2,500th anniversary in 1999. The highlight of this wonderful tour was a visit to The Ark, a fortified residence of the Emirs of Bukhara – the despotic and ruthless leaders who ruled until Soviet times. Lunch was taken at a local restaurant before we travelled out of the city to experience the Emir's enchantingly-named Palace of the Moon and Stars. It's such a beautiful place to visit and has lots of lovely architecture to admire, along with some very good shopping for pashminas, carpets and very colourful local merchandise.
Day 10: Samarkand
Founded in the 6th century BC, Samarkland's stunning architecture hints at its former status as one of the most important cities in Asia. Today we visited some of its most significant sites including the refined elegance of the beautifully proportioned Bibi Khanum Mosque and the Ulag Beg observatory, one of the earliest Islamic astronomical observatories built in 1428. Before dinner in a local restaurant we visited the illuminated and awe-inspiring Registan Square before returning to our train for a late evening departure. One could easily spend a week in this city to enjoy its beautiful mosques and fine artwork on the buildings. I really enjoyed the local food market which specialised in dried fruit, fresh herbs and many different kinds of nuts. We were taken back to the train for a short rest before we went out again for a light and sound show at the Registan Square, followed by a dinner in a local restaurant. A fashion show featuring their local colours and design was specially held for the guests and the ladies on our tour had a ball buying some of the outfits!
Day 11: Tashkent
Today we arrived in the capital city of Uzbekistan and spent the morning touring this modern Soviet-style city, which was rebuilt following the devastating earthquake of 1966. We re-boarded the train for lunch as we headed towards Kazakhstan and Almaty, then this afternoon gave us the opportunity to relax with friends or listen to one of the informative lectures, designed to give us a greater insight into this fascinating region. Then, we visited a train museum featuring some very old steam train engines, before enjoying our final evening on board the Golden Eagle.
Day 12: Almaty
Just before lunch we arrived in Almaty – the largest city in Kazakhstan. This beautifully verdant city's name derives from ‘Alma', meaning 'apple', and, sure enough, just a short distance from the city, apple orchards thrive in abundance. Tonight we transferred from the Golden Eagle to the lovely five-star InterContinental Hotel for a one-night stay before transferring to the airport for my flight home.
This was truly a private journey full of wonderful adventure and experiences. The destinations covered are not easily accessible due to lack of infrastructure between places and so this journey provides the comfort, convenience, adventure, experience and a sense of safety. This is definitely one for those who are looking for something unique and have interests in discovering the Silk Road's culture and history.
Food and drink
Breakfast served on the train was very good, with a great selection of cold items including cheese, salmon, salads, yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and excellent omelettes from the kitchen. Lunch normally came with a choice of two starters (one with meat and one vegetarian), with a sandwich or a soup for main followed by dessert, tea and coffee. Dinner was three courses with choice of two on the starter and main and they tended to do local cuisine when possible. A fresh fruit bowl in each carriage is replenished daily and there is a good selection of white and red wines, soft drinks, beers and bottled water which is complimentary with meals. If you're in a Gold Class cabin, then a standard list of alcoholic beverages are included as well.
The staff were very friendly and professional, but spoke very little English. Tea and coffee was always available in my cabin and there was a 24-hour attendant in each carriage to look after the guests. A laundry service is available at a charge, but can take up to three full days to come back.
They were very well executed and in small groups of 25 to 30 guests with an audio vox system. Each guest was given an earpiece for the trip, local guides speak good English and transport is surprisingly modern and very comfortable.
They were well designed to suit the purpose; small but comfortable and clean. There was a nightly turndown service and cabin service each morning and there are little spaces and shelves for storing clothing, with a small hanging wardrobe and in-cabin safe. Your luggage is stored at the end of each carriage and you can unpack only what you need – the rest is stored in your luggage and is easily accessible.