Riding the exotic Trans-Siberian Express is one of those dreams that most of us have at some point, though few ever act upon it. But now, thanks to the convergence of Internet technologies and the seemingly boundless imagination of the folks at Google, time, distance, expense and logistical complications are no longer viable excuses for not trying it (see video below).
Seated at your own computer you can – figuratively – settle in to a first-class compartment, put your feet up, and watch as the vast land-ocean that is Russia slips by your window, along with its endlessly fascinating pageant of people and remote whistlestops.
Google-Russia's virtual, multi-platform Trans-Siberian experience covers the whole 150 hours, 5,753 miles and seven time zones, every inch of the journey rendered in glorious August daylight.
The entire route is geotagged, which means you can locate the train's exact spot at any moment on a Google map, or jump ahead to whatever point you desire. There's also an amazing photo gallery,
The magic moments are marked on the Website, like chapter headings. For many, these include crossing the Volga River at Nizhni Novgorod, coming into the Ural Mountains near Perm and, of course, the magnificent spectacle of Lake Baikal, the pristine lake at Asia's heart which contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water.
All the videos are archived on YouTube and accompanied by the obligatory soundtrack of rumbling train wheels. Alternatively, you can choose a live feed from Radio Rossiya, or listen to a Russian-language audiotape of Lev Tolstoy's 1,400-page tome War and Peace or Nikolai Gogol's almost equally weighty Dead Souls.
The whole idea started as a scheme to interest Russians in traveling within their own country and English-language subtitles and directions were only added as an afterthought, says Google-Russia's PR manager Alla Zabrovskaya.
"Russians love to travel, but mostly they want to go to foreign countries," she says. "We thought it would be good to show them the beauties of Russia, and what better way than to recreate the world's longest train ride, which covers two continents and an amazing variety of natural wonders."
The whole thing took two Google teams a month to film last summer and Ms. Zabrovskaya says that, since they put it up earlier this month, the response has been overwhelming.
"We've gotten a lot of comment from Russian users, but we were a bit amazed when the reactions started pouring in from all over," she says. "Basically, people think this is really cool."
The train passes through 87 substantial Russian cities, and 14 of them have accompanying video tours conducted by a perky, but surprisingly erudite, blonde Russian DJ named Yelena Abitayeva.
Not so long ago it was illegal to make films from Russian trains, especially of strategic "objects" like bridges and ports. But Russia's state-run railway company gave Google full assistance with this project, apparently in the hope that more Russians will decide to take the trip, which is one of the signature experiences of their own country. Currently, about three quarters of the people who board the Trans-Siberian Express in Moscow each week are foreigners.
"This is the most famous train in Russia, it's the one we name the Rossiya, and we really hope that this Internet experience will be useful and inspirational for more people," says Sergei Slutskov, press secretary for Russian Railways.
For those who are inspired, a one-way first-class (two people to a compartment) ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok aboard the Rossiya costs around $500. Luxury trains feature many more perks, including stop-overs in places of interest and onboard WiFi -- the better to trace every minute of your journey on Google.