Dawn was breaking on this clear summer morning when I photographed the most famous picture that Jewish visitors always took on the 6,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway – at least in Soviet times. I snapped a shot of the railroad station stop sign, written in Yiddish letters, "Birobidzhan."
"Birobidzhan," known as the Jewish Autonomous Region and located in the Russian Far East, was the republic established in 1934 when Stalin had the "bright idea" of moving Jews to this bleak, lonely, swampy 13,895-square mile area near the border of China. Supposedly, it was the Communist answer to Zionism since Jewish farmers would till the soil.
The venture bombed, of course. Stalin's purges, the failure of the government to support it and harsh living doomed it. Today, several thousand Jews still live there, with two synagogues and a Jewish Community Center.
Traverse Several Time Zones
If you want to observe the vast expanse of Russia – meet not only peoples from the many former Soviet Republics in Europe and Asia, but citizens from throughout the world – then traveling on the longest railroad in the world is the way to go.
If you want to be nearer to the heart of the Russia of Anna Karenina or Dr. Zhivago than anywhere else, ride this – "the big train ride" – all 5,810 miles, from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. All the other train rides in the world "are peanuts," remarked noted travel writer Eric Newby.
The most famous Trans-Siberia train is the Rossiya, which runs from the Yaroslavl station in Moscow to the Vladivostok station. Remember: You can get off all along the way, as your trip will take you across nearly 100 degrees of longitude in Europe and Asia and traverses seven time zones.
Dedicated on May 31, 1891, by Nicholas II, the last czar, construction began in Vladivostok. The railroad was built for military, economic and political reasons. The Trans-Siberian, it was hoped, would build up Russia's defenses on the Pacific and bind Siberia forever to the Motherland.
The Russians temporarily abandoned their commitment to an all-Russian route and built the Chinese Eastern Railroad, affording a shorter more direct line between Vladivostok and Lake Baikal through Manchuria. After their defeat by Japan in 1904, however, the czarist government built an all-Russian route, completed in 1917. Since the 1920s, the Trans-Siberian has been joined by other railroads. During World War I and World War II, these rails transported troops and supplies across Russia's vastness. The entire line was electrified in 2002.
Traveling through Siberia, you can recall that Jews were exiled to Siberia from Lithuanian towns captured by the Russians in the Russo-Polish War of 1632-34. By the 19th century, Jews were still among the convicts and political prisoners sent to Siberia for settlement or hard labor. They helped found the first Jewish communities of Omsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk and Kuibyshev. But by the end of that century, they were banned from settling there.
Jews played a prominent role in the cultural and economic development of the area, especially in the fur trade. But with Soviet rule in Siberia, Jewish communal institutions were destroyed. During World War II, large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied areas escaped to Siberia and remained there after the war.
Today, the railroad gives the tourist the opportunity to see fascinating places in Russia. When I stopped in Irkutsk, I took a side trip to Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, 400 miles in length, and 18 miles to 50 miles wide. After admiring this large water mass – as well as the fir, pine and Siberian cedars that surround it – try a delicious smoked fish drawn from the clear waters and grilled before your eyes.
Russian railways are known for their garrulous passengers. They literally take over the train. Mingle with the Russians, who go by the rule that one must share food and drink with fellow passengers. Generals, professors, business persons and workers are all part of the train's congregation.
There are large Jewish communities in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk. You do not have to travel the entire length of the railroad, which can take about seven days. I spent some time in Khabarovsk, which is 5,331 miles from Moscow on the Amur River. The line running from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok was completed in 1897.
Settled in 1858, this city of 600,000 has a new Jewish house of worship. From there, you can travel on the last 478-mile stretch of the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok.
Since a popular destination today for tourists is Beijing, you can take the Trans-Mongolian from the Chinese capital and stop at Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital, or take the Trans-Manchurian routes, and head west, getting off in Harbin, once home to 30,000 Jews who lived there from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Today, it seems more popular to go in the direction of Beijing to Moscow.
Highly recommended is a specialty travel agent to plan your trip; group travel (or several couples) is best. Some travelers even take a security guard with them.
Several "institutions" exist on the rails. One of them is the "Provadnitza," the conductor. Don't get on his or her wrong side. He controls your tea, meals, snacks, dining-room seat and entrance to the single bathroom in the carriage.
Some tips: Don't leave valuables in your compartment and bring books, games and other diversions for the journey; it's a long one. Guide books suggest – and they are correct – that you bring toilet paper, a plug for the toilet sink, insect repellent, a bottle opener, a corkscrew and a travel alarm clock, plus necessary medications. Some say they encounter "proper showers" on the train. We did not.
Still, as Czar Alexander III said when asked for his approval of the road: "It is time, high time."
So, if you are planning a trip to what is a wonder of the world, you, too, can follow in the tracks of early adventurers. After all, it's about time.
Ben G. Frank is author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, and the recently published A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.