It’s thanks to Joanna Lumley that I ticked off the very top item on my bucket list and took the ultimate long-distance train ride.
Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest line in the world, and the charming Ms Lumley had been dispatched by ITV to travel seven time zones and several landscapes, from east to west across Russia.
I was seduced by her joyous enthusiasm as she crossed some of the harshest, yet most beautiful terrain on Earth. By the middle of the series, I had booked myself a cabin on the exclusive Golden Eagle train. Ms Lumley may have done it the hard way, but I was going to cross Russia in style.
Ride of a lifetime: Sian Lloyd decided to go on a 21-day adventure from Moscow to Vladivostok on the exclusive Golden Eagle train (above, Sian pictured horse-riding in Mongolia)
So last summer I found myself at Moscow’s Kazansky station, sipping champagne in a beautiful waiting room with oak panelling and magnificent murals, and being introduced to the smartly dressed train staff and my fellow travellers.
A band played on the platform outside and attendants unfurled a red carpet for us to board the creme de la creme of trains. My adventure on wheels would be in the opposite direction to Ms Lumley’s trip – I was heading from Moscow to Vladivostok.
I liked the thought of going from the urban to the isolated, ending up almost 6,000 miles away on the Pacific Ocean, in that once off-limits naval city close to the borders with China and North Korea. Somehow it seemed to sum up the ‘otherness’ of Russia.
I was a little apprehensive about travelling on my own. I had done the Ghan and the Indian Pacific in Australia with my former husband Jonathan, and I enjoyed both train trips immensely.
Luxury edge: The dining room on the Golden Eagle train is completed with draped curtains and crystal glasswear
Sian said she often took lunch and supper in her compartment so she could watch the scenery fly by. There was also a DVD player in the snug cabin for evening entertainment
But since Jonathan had disappeared from my life faster than a bullet train, and just as silently, this time I found myself settling in to a snug cabin alone. If I’m honest, I was feeling a tad forlorn.
But I need not have worried. Within minutes, the energetic train manager Tatiana had popped by, and my fresh-faced cabin attendant Sergio had brought me green tea and some dainty biscuits.
I felt comfortable and well looked after, a blissful feeling that stayed with me throughout the next 12 days.
I’d packed several books, including Tolstoy’s War And Peace, thinking that I’d have a lot of time on my hands as we rolled gently through birch forests and Siberian steppes.
That was laughably wrong. I couldn’t take my eyes off the view from the window, from the moment I got up to the time it was so dark I could barely see outside. The landscape was totally absorbing and mesmerising.
Mesmerising: The train seen snaking its way around Lake Baikal
I often took lunch and supper in my compartment, so as not to miss out on another tiny rural hamlet, an isolated old factory, or perhaps a collection of bright blue beehives surrounded by drunken fences. I loved every single vignette that flew past. I imagined the stories behind the window as Russia rushed by.
I had the privilege of enjoying this engrossing montage in motion from the comfort of a Gold cabin. From the banquette, which folds out into a beautiful bed, to the wardrobe space and en suite shower room, it’s designed for optimum comfort.
There was even a DVD player, with a great library of documentaries and films available from Tatiana.
I watched Dr Zhivago and War And Peace under my goose-down duvet, content and cosy, reassuring myself that there was never going to be enough time to actually read both hefty books I brought with me.
On board there were Russian language classes, lectures, harp and piano recitals, film showings, vodka tastings
On board there were Russian language classes, lectures, harp and piano recitals, film showings, vodka tastings.
And as I chatted with new friends over blinis and caviar, and borscht in the sumptuous dining car, time melted away faster than the Siberian snow in spring.
Although I loved our days on board the train, the stops along the way were even better. Engrossing and enlightening, we got a fascinating insight into Russia and the Russian psyche.
From visiting the church on the poignant site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg, to lunching with the traditionally dressed orthodox Old Believers in their delightful time-warp village of Tarbagatay, we got a true sense of Russian history.
We saw a patchwork of modern Russia too, meeting wedding couples and elegant young women in leather and furs, as well as devout babushkas and genial dacha owners.
I’ve lost count of the number of churches and heroic sculptures we visited. But just like Mother Russia herself, each one was fascinating and entrancing.
Sian said memorable trips included being hauled around Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, where she and fellow passengers feasted on barbecued fish in the clear Siberian air
Flexible friend: Sian’s group was entertained by a contortionist in Mongolia
Memorable trips include being hauled around Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, where we feasted on barbecued fish in the clear Siberian air, and the intrepid among us took a dip in the icy waters; visiting Irkutsk, dubbed the Paris of Siberia, where we enjoyed a candlelit classical concert in a museum, once the house of a 19th Century exiled Decembrist aristocratic family; seeing the city of Kazan, with its stunning Kremlin, a World Heritage site; and Ulan-Ude, the site of the largest Lenin bust in Russia – 25ft tall and weighing 42 tons. Our guide compared it to the size of two polar bears.
This once-in-a-lifetime trip also took me to Mongolia – not just to its capital Ulan Bator, with its huge Genghis Khan monument and famous Gandan Buddhist monastery, but out to green pastures, dotted with yurts, grazing cattle and horses.
Here we sipped fermented mare’s milk with local nomads, and even tried a spot of horse-riding, while learning about their culture and customs. It was fun and fascinating.
Back in Ulan Bator that night, I was bowled over by performances of traditional Mongolian throat singing and incredible contortionists. Mongolia was mysterious and magnificent.
After finally reaching Vladivostok, I felt I’d covered a huge chunk of the world, and even though I’d done so in luxury, I still had a sense of achievement. This is a perfect trip for adventure junkies, cultural types and history buffs.
The unhurried pace of the train makes you relax during the on-board days – you lose the sense of time. But on tour days, you gain an incredible insight into a warm and funny people and their captivating history. If you do only one long-distance rail trip, let this be the one.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (goldeneagleluxurytrains.com) offers a 12-night Trans-Siberian Express route from Moscow to Vladivostok from £11,695pp, including all-inclusive accommodation, excursions, transfers, the services of a tour manager, tips, and two nights in a hotel. Flights are extra.