25 February 2013 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.
Our full train comprises of twelve fully en-suite Silver and Gold Class sleeping cars, which feature state of the art amenities. 77 sq ft (7 sq metres) 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 only local ingredients. Whether it be the world-renowned ‘Borscht' or Omul - a fish unique to Lake Baikal. We offer a culinary experience representing the very essence of Russia. Wines from around the world, as well as - naturally - vodka, complement our meals.
Yet 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. Unwind in comfortable surroundings and watch the world go by as you get to know your fellow passengers. Enjoy the sounds of the pianist playing in the evenings; and the bar stays open until the last person leaves.
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Detailed Journey Log:
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 is 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 store and designer boutiques. The hotel still offers smoking and non smoking rooms, smoking areas in the bar/lobby area as well as restaurants.
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. Then onto 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. It's a must 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 was very pleasant.
Day 3, Onboard
In the morning of Day 3, breakfast was at leisure, then we were transferred to Moscow's main train station and received in a VIP Lounge for a Champagne (Russian Sparkling) Reception before we were escorted to our carriages to settle in before departure on board the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. After settling into our modern, stylish cabins, we enjoy dinner in one of the beautifully designed restaurant cars as our rail journey to Almaty in Kazakhstan begins.
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 visit the poignantly sobering Mamayev Kurgan war memorial, followed by the informative diorama and absorbing museum visit. In the evening we enjoy a beautifully prepared dinner on board our private train.
Highlights of the day were the World War II Memorial and the changing of guards.
Day 5, Kara Kum
Today, we enjoyed a relaxing day onboard as we travel across the vast expanses of the Kara Kum desert. As well as experiencing the unique landscape, it was a relaxing day onboard, enjoying the passing sceneries, mainly dry flat desert like landscape.
Day 6, Khiva
Crossing into Uzbekistan, our train travels towards Urgench, where we transfer 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 discover its impressive mosques, bazaars and minarets within Khiva's ancient walls. Lunch and dinner are served onboard our train.
A highlight was seeing some most intricate hand painted artwork on ceilings and mosaic on the walls of buildings. Then a local family treated us to a local teahouse and an array of local morning delicacies of sweet items.
In dramatic contrast to Khiva, we arrive in Ashgabat, 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 appear strangely incongruous in this almost biblical setting. A very strange feeling on arrival to see the city is designed and built to specifications, gladded with white marble, not bling but glitz. Everything here is new and very clean.
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 unexpected sight of the Burning Gas Crater. It was back in 1971 when geologists were conducting gas drilling in Kara Kum desert that they accidentally discovered an underground chamber that resulted in the drilling rig collapsing, leaving a giant gas 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 1971 as it turns out the supply of natural gas is infinite. It's a simply beautiful sight and amazing especially when we watched the sunrise over the crater.
Early morning sees 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 is a visit to The Ark, a fortified residence of the Emirs of Bukhara - the despotic and ruthless leaders who ruled until Soviet times. Lunch is taken at a local restaurant before we travel 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. Some very good shopping for pashmina, carpets and very colourful local merchandise.
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 visit 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 visit the illuminated and awe-inspiring Registan Square before returning to our train for a late evening departure. One can simply spend a week in his city to enjoy some of the most beautiful mosques and its fine handy artwork on the buildings.
Really enjoyed the local food market specialising in dried fruit, fresh herbs and nuts of many different kinds. 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. The ladies on our tour had a ball buying up the outfits.
Today we arrive in the capital city of Uzbekistan and spend the morning touring this modern Soviet-style city, which was rebuilt following the devastating earthquake of 1966. We re-board the train for lunch as we head towards Kazakhstan and Almaty. This afternoon gives 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 before we enjoy our final evening on board the Golden Eagle.
We visited a train museum featuring some of the oldest steam train engines. I found the visit most interesting, however some guests were wondering why they were there.
Just before lunch we arrive in Almaty - the largest city in Kazakhstan. This beautifully verdant city derives its name from ‘Alma' meaning ‘apple'. Just a short distance from the city, apple orchards thrive in abundance. Tonight we transfer from the Golden Eagle to the 5-star Inter-Continental Hotel for a one-night stay.
Sadly the journey came to an end for a few of us and I have to say goodbye to some of the friends I have made on this journey. In the evening I transferred to the airport for my flight home.
Food and Beverages
Breakfast served on the train was very good, with a great selection of cold items including cheese, salmon, salads, pickles, yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice, and excellent omelette from the kitchen. Lunch normally comes with a choice of two starters (one with meat and one vegetarian). Main is a sandwich or a soup followed by dessert, tea and coffee. Dinner is three courses with choice of two on the starter and main. They tend to do local cuisine when possible. A fresh fruit bowl in each carriage is replenished daily.
There is a good selection of white and red wines, soft drinks, beers and bottle water complimentary with meals. If you're in a Gold Class then a standard list of alcoholic beverages are included as well.
Very friendly staff and professional, but speak very little English. Tea and coffee are always available in your cabin and there is 24-hour attendant in each carriage to look after the guests.
A laundry service is available at a charge, but can take up to thre full days to come back.
Very well executed and in small groups of 25 to 30 guests with an audio vox system. Each guest is given an earpiece for the trip. Local guides speak good English and transport is surprisingly modern and very comfortable.
Well designed to suit the purpose. They are small but comfortable and clean. Nightly turndown service and cabin service very quickly each morning. There are various little spaces and shelves for storing you 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.
A private journey of wonderful adventure and experience. The destinations covered are not easily accessible due to lack of infrastructure between places. This journey provides the comfort, convenience, adventure, experience and a sense of safety with the train. This is a rather a specific journey for clients who are looking for something unique and have interests in discovering the Silk Road's culture and history.