The Russian Far East: Best Place in the World

DSCN6725Only a handful of travelers ever take the Trans-Siberian Railway, and only a trickle of those complete it. Instead, most go from Moscow to Yekaterinburg (26 hours east) to see where the “Last Czar” died, then to Irkutsk (another 55 hours’ ride) for a look at Lake Baikal, then cut south into Mongolia and China. An epic trip.

But what remains unseen of Russia is ultimately why the railway was built: to reach (and develop) the Siberia of Siberia, the Russian Far East (Dalnii Vostok). It’s an area the size of the Lower 48, filled with mountains, forest, marsh, permafrost, north-flowing rivers, and scattered time-warp cities with European architecture and Lenin statues.  Traditional rewards can be elusive. There are not many real “must-sees” and it’s never easy traveling. But it’s easily a contender for the Best Place in the World.



Because you really really believe the best part of travel — the dot to the exclamation point — is about getting there. Even when there’s no definite “there” there.


On the Russian Far East’s appeal:

  1. Biggest highlight? Kamchatka’s volcanoes.
  2. Huh, come again? Birobidzhan is still the center of the active “Jewish Autonomous Zone,” and also Yul Brynner was born in Vladivostok (his house is still there).
  3. The next Prague/Brooklyn? No. But if you’re an inventive squinter, Vladivostok can look like San Francisco at places.
  4. Next big foodie destination? Never, Russian soups are underrated though.
  5. Natural beauty? Yes, but can be hard/expensive to access.
  6. Local life? Yes, particularly on trains.
  7. Bizarro joy? Yes, in the wild, decaying, time-warp towns where Brezhnev-era lives.
  8. Value? Russia’s expensive, but you can save by quick one-night stops at train stations’ dom otdikha (rest houses), which are safe, clean dorm-like guesthouses in most train stations which cost the fraction of a hotel.
  9. Bragging points? 10/10. Taking the Trans-Siberian to Beijing gets you 8, taking it to Vladivostok – or going farther “in” – gets you the full 10 of 10.
  10. Must pack? Some reading options, and knowledge of Cyrillic. It takes a day to learn, seriously, and all will be easier if you know it.



1. Climb Kamchatka volcanoes with a moustached volcanologist. There’s a bus from Petropavlovsk to Esso, but otherwise you have to arrange nearly any activity — including a helicopter to see reindeer-herding nomads or the Valley of Geysers, or 6WD military vehicles to cross hardened lava “roads.” Lost Word Tours is a reliable local agency.

2. Riding Vladivostok’s funicular for views of the Golden Horn Bay. Closer to the water are many old Czar-era buildings and town beaches, plus a cheap ferry to moutainous Russki Island. (For more on the city named “to rule the east,” see my piece on Vladivostok for the New York Times or my list of 22 reasons to hug Vladivostok.)

3. Yakutsk’s unreal Ysyakh festival. The world’s coldest city is sunny all day at the summer solstice (June 21), when Sakha locals celebrate by sharing horse meat, throat-singing, dancing until well after the midnight sun. The catch is the flight. A one-way fare from Khabarovsk to Yakutsk can run US$800. If you go, try adding on a two-night cruise to Lenskie Stolbi, or Lenin Pillars (see photo at end of this post). Yakuta Travel can help arrange it.

DSCN66374. Seeing Komsomolsk-na-Amure’s old Soviet factories and mosaics via the BAM railway. The town’s surprisingly nice, and Nata Tours (a rare well-run, informative travel agent out there) arrange homestays and even old gulag sites.


5. Meeting Russians on the train — it’s the easiest way to. Go with open-bunk platskartni class, or four-berth kupe (above) and see who ends up traveling with you. Sometimes they’re in muscle shirts.


Here’s what I’d tell my friends who were planning a two-week trip to all of Russia, or just the Russian Far East. Distances are vast: it’s a seven-day ride from Moscow to Vladivostok!


Two weeks in Russia
Go one way from Moscow to Vladivostok, with a few stops.

  • DAY 1-2: Moscow
  • DAY 3: train to Yekaterinburg (or Tomsk instead)
  • DAY 4: Yekaterinburg to see Last Czar sites
  • DAY 5-6: train to Irkutsk
  • DAY 7-9: Lake Baikal
  • DAY 10-11: train to Birobidzhan, short stop off to see sites at Jewish Autonomous Zone
  • DAY 12: train to Vladivostok
  • DAY 13-14: Vladivostok

Two weeks in the Russian Far East
Fly into Vladivostok, and out of Petropavlovsk, making a mix of outdoor adventure, and some Siberian trains.

  • DAY 1-2: Vladivostok (perhaps train for day to nearby Nakhodka)
  • DAY 3: train to Birobidzhan
  • DAY 4: see Birobidzhan, train to Khabarovsk
  • DAY 5: Khabarovsk
  • DAY 6: fly to Petropavlovsk
  • DAY 7:-13: seven-day organized trip of Kamchatka
  • DAY 14: return to Vladivostok



The best time to go is summer
No it isn’t. Yes, Siberia and the Far East are ridiculously cold in winter. (And unlike Canada, Russia actually gets colder not only the farther north you go, but the farther east too.) But summer is quite hot. Visiting Yakutsk in summer (the world’s coldest city), I was bedridden for three days after heat exhaustion and exposure from being outdoors in 90-degree sun. From mid June to mid August, you’ll be happy trains have AC, and equally unhappy when it (regularly) clicks off during stops, scheduled or not. June and September are generally better, less busy times for the trains (though not Kamchatka).

DSCF0687Russians are meanies
There is a big difference between Russians in the public or private sector. In public, they can be indifferent – to you, to each other. At any office or store, ask a question, and you’ll get an “oh no! this is not possible…” before you reach the question mark.

Russians at home are a different story. (And this includes sharing a cabin with Russian strangers on trains.) You will often be received like a long-lost cousin, which can mean finishing vodka bottles or eating their tomatoes whole, like apples. Get ready.

You must pre-book tickets
Unlike Soviet times, you can plan as you go. It’s just that it’s hard. Train tickets, in particular, take time and patience dealing with lines and multiple, unsigned windows at train stations. English is rarely spoken. Sure there’s guided tours, or you can pre-book point-to-point train tickets (even though it’s often a bit more expensive and you’ll be more or less locked into your dates). The Russian railway site is hard to use, so try agencies like Express to Russia or the old state-run Intourist.



It’s really not for everyone. It is hard traveling, with no immediate Tuscan villa-type rewards looming over the horizon. There will be moments that spring from the bleak, decaying Soviet landscape where you’ll ask yourself, “why again am I here?” It’s expensive, it’s huge, it’s lonely.

Sakhalin Island It booms with oil business. Which is great if you’re in oil business (or on the Chekhov trail, as I was). Otherwise it’s not really worth the effort to reach it.

DSCN6800Waiting. You will wait and wait a lot in Russia. If there’s a line of three people, I learned to skip it and come back later (the real Russia roulette). The front of the line is akin to an experimental workshop — where the front person looks this way, and that, labors over options, asks question after question.


DSCN6575The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) is a scrappy, 4200-kilometer country-cousin railway to the Trans-Siberian. It was built over half a century, amidst a Soviet fever, through dozens of mountains, over permafrost and it eventually leads nowhere. Gorbachev would ultimately blame its costs for tanking the national economy. So, no, there was no victory parade on its completion in the ’80s, but the “Red Elvis” Dean Reed did make a song for it.

The BAM begins west of Lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia, and runs north of the Trans-Siberian, stopping at the lake at Severobaikalsk, then into the Far East, going through dead-end towns like Novy Urgal. There are a few interesting stops like Tynda (above) and Komsomolsk-na-Amure, before it ends at Sovetskaya Gavan on the Tatar Strait. There’s nothing quite like it.

Another amazing thing is Magadan, a far-off town built by gulag prisoners (its Mask of Sorrow is shown below). But that’s another story.


Do pack some books, including a Russian phrasebook. You will win hearts (and free tutor time) on the train if you try to learn some Russian in between stops.

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier
The definitive book on Siberia and the Russian Far East. Unlike most visitors, Frazier never takes the train. On repeated trips over the decades, he finds Russia is at once “both great and horrible,” but ultimately gives up trying to reconcile any contradictions, and submitting fully to something he calls “Russia-love,” an “independent force out there in the ether of ideas.” I know it well. A couple other travelogues include Colin Thubron’s In Siberia or Devla Murphy’s accident-prone Through Siberia by Accident.

DSCN6777Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum
This Pulitzer Prize winner is more manageable, up-to-date than Alexander Solzhentisyn’s famous Gulag Archipelago. It finishes with Russia’s reluctance to remember this side of its history. One local asks her, “Why do you foreigners only care about the ugly things in our country?” Another predicts that more Gulag memorials will be built, but only “when we, the older generation, are dead.” You might want to hide the cover on the train.

The Siberian Curse, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy
This damning book from 2003 shows “temperature per capita” and how over-eager Soviet planners boosted populations in crippling climates by 1000% — well beyond their sustainability. Now that USSR’s subsidies have dried up, the region is left with over-populated areas with wrecked economies. Gives some context, in particular to the ugliest places passing out of the train window.

You’ll want one. Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Railway (which I worked on twice) dates from 2012, Bryn Thomas’ epic Trans-Siberian Handbook from 2011. If you’re getting serious on the BAM, Thomas’ 2002 Siberian BAM Guide is an all-timer, with steady attention given to some of more surprising, if occasionally frightful, backwater destinations you’ll ever see.

Ziggy Stardust takes the Trans-Siberian!
One of the most bizarre pairings is David Bowie in 1973 – with a head of bright red hair and, at times, a kimono on – crossing the USSR by train. He said he’d “never been so damned scared in all his life.” Here are links to several articles about the trip.

I’ve written a handful of things on the region too:

  • Following Chekhov to “Hell” (World Hum) I followed Anton Chekhov’s overland trip to the country’s first penal colonies on Sakhalin Island.
  • Searching the BAM for the Great Russian Moustache (Perceptive Travel) I counted moustaches when crossing Russia the first time. And I found one Peter the Great would have been proud of.
  • Extravagance at Russia’s Edge (New York Times) Changes in Vladivostok.

If you go, you actually go, please let me know. I’ll do all I can to help plan your trip, and would love to hear about it. Here’s more on what makes up THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD.


About Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a travel writer (Lonely Planet, New York Times, ESPN), travel expert (Today Show, CNN's Headline News), travel videographer (76-Second Travel Show) and travel artist (don't ask).
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24 Responses to The Russian Far East: Best Place in the World

  1. candy189 says:

    There is one Catholic church in Magadan that ministers to the survivors of the death camps.

  2. Robert Reid says:

    Interesting. Thanks for that. Magadan was considered a death sentence for many. It’s surprisingly nice, with pastel-colored building not unlike Petersburg’s finer streets, backed by mountains on a rocky bay of the Sea of Okhotsk. I had a superb time there. But had the Mask of Sorrow to myself.

  3. wf says:

    Thanks, this is great! Hoping to do it next year and this comes in really handy for the research and planning.

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  7. Bob says:

    Hello everyone, I am sorry if this comment somehow disturbs you, but I would like to introduce you to my travel blog which contains original articles about various places and countries around the world, and some accommodation recommendations in these places. Please visit and follow if you like it. Thank you.

  8. candy189 says:

    I want to point out the immense amount of work and research that goes in to an article like this. It may take only a few minutes to read, but no doubt hours to make it readable and informative the way this one is.

    Congratulations again to Robert Reid.

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  10. Jeff | Planet Bell says:

    Dang it! Now you have me intrigued. This is another place I have to go to now.

  11. Robert Reid says:

    Thanks Jeff. Hope you can make it there some day.

  12. markdanny says:

    The russian far east is such an interesting place. Natural beauty, food and local life are the major things that attracts visitors to visit this place. Thanks for this interesting post.

  13. jane canapini says:

    How did I just discover you now? Oh well, better late than when you are dead.

  14. Soviet union says:

    Really great presentation!

  15. Donatello says:

    Nice and accurate article, Russians are so modest! My sister went there for a two months holiday trough TravelAllRussia. She said that eventhough we have a bit more advanced society, but we need to learn from Russians kindness.

  16. Sarah says:

    Robert Reid can you just coordinate/take another trip with me please! Lol. I feel like this must of taken you ages to figure out. Russia has been intriguing to me for a long time. I don’t think i could do this trip on my own.

    I want to see the non touristy places mostly and go as far east as possible. I still need to save up a bit more money to be able to do this trip as well i think.

    • Robert Reid says:

      Yes, that’d be fun! I’d love to get back there before long. I miss the birch trees that span seven time zones and the scent of dill in the air.

      • Barbara Moody says:

        When my Aeroflot plane landed back in ’88, there were birch trees at the side of the runway. You sound like a true Russophile. Dill is among the first thing Russians plant.

  17. Danielle says:

    Hi Robert,

    Could you tell me what organized trip you went on? I am looking for options that aren’t insanely expensive and am struggling.

    To make it more difficult, I am looking to go over Russia’s January holidays.

  18. Derek Norberg says:

    Russian Far East is also a lot closer to us in USA than you may imagine. runs a seasonal summer direct flight from Anchorage to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy that is all of 4-hrs transit flight time. Also the Russian American Pacific Partnership (RAPP) holds annual meetings between Russian Far East and Western US with businesses, regional and federal governments and citizens all seeking to grow cooperation and ties. Check it out at and consider participating! Next meeting is end of July 2016 in San Francisco.

  19. Gloria Barr says:

    Speaking of being close to the U.S. here is a church in Russia that ministers to the survivors of the infamous labor camps, and is actually in the Diocese of Anchorage, Alaska

  20. ynysprydain says:

    Thanks for this! We’re in Yakutsk now, doing some teaching at the university. Some great restaurants, and the climate at the moment (late May) is like the UK. Rainy, mainly dry and sunny and a bit chilly but well above freezing. I’ve lived in the FSU before but we’re really enjoying it.

  21. shipu kazi says:

    dear reid, thanks for your nice writing. wish for you from my country bangadesh. would you please inform me, that president putin gave some planning that from any country citizen can enter east side of russia n they can get citizenship and 2.5 acre land from russia govt. if i interested to get this opportunity which steps need for me? please help me by potential information, if you dont mind.

  22. ric gazarian says:

    Great recap … long on my bucket list. Have been to Russia several times, but never to the east.

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