It's not the longest train ride in the world but arguably the most famous. For generations, the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan has evoked feelings of adventure, setting out to discover the biggest country in the world across its seven time zones.
For just as long, various factors have prevented the explorers among them from undertaking the 5,753-mile, week-long trek across Russia.
In collaboration with the Russian Railway, Google has launched a new Web site that allows visitors to simulate every inch of the historical journey. With 150 hours of high-definition video, anyone with an Internet connection can pretend they're gazing out at the Volga River, Barabinskaya steppe and Barguzin mountains.
"We wanted to do something about promoting travel within Russia," Google Russia's head of marketing, Konstantin Kuzmin, said. "There are so many places that are very, very beautiful in Russia but the fact is that not many people know about them."
Indeed, the Hingansky Nature Reserve and the Zeisko-Bureinskaya Plain are hardly household names for U.S. travelers. Even the world's biggest reserve of fresh water, Siberia's Lake Baikal, may be unfamiliar to many people but the site does a good job of selling its vast beauty as the train hugs the shoreline on a blue summer day.
To keep users engaged, the creators added various audio options besides the rumble of the train's wheels: classics such as Tolstoy's "War and Peace" in the original Russian, a stream of "Russkoye Radio" or a number of songs played on the balalaika, a Russian wooden string instrument.
Google also hired a spunky, blond radio announcer named Yelena Abitayeva to give guided tours of 14 cities along the route. In Ulan-Ude, Russia's Buddhism capital, she ponders how much a bronze version of Lenin's trademark cap would weigh for the statue of the Bolshevik's 24-foot high, 46-ton head. Later in the three-minute video, she takes viewers on a tour of the town's temples and interviews a monk.
No Substitute for Real Thing
Users can hop on and hop off anywhere they choose, tracking their progress on a map below the video thanks to the GPS installed on the trains during production. In addition to the red TV icons indicating a DJ Yelena tour, purple book icons pop up along the route for more information about the train's location and blue camera icons for professional pictures of the area.
The video was shot in August, filmed by two crews in a production Kuzmin called "effortless." The crew onboard the train only shot during the day, stopping over in towns for the night and getting on another train the next day.
Kuzmin is quick to point out that this is no substitute for the real thing.
"You should really go out and do the real thing," he said. "We wanted people to take this journey and see how beautiful Russia is but then the next logical step would be for them to go buy a train ticket and go on that journey."
On a recent, chilly Moscow night, Viktor Merkulov was about to board the Express, which was painted with the Russian flag's red, white and blue stripes.
"You have to see our distance and space, to see our nature," he said on the platform. "In pictures, you can see everything but you have to feel it."
Inside the train, Sergei Romanov settled into his cozy cabin. The 26-year-old was traveling to Russia's Far East on business. It was his second time on the Trans-Siberian, which he hoped would be as memorable as the first.
"It's an adventure," he said. "I'm young and it's an experience. It'll give me the chance to see Russia and its nature in the winter."
Romanov's cabin had four bunks and as he hung up his coat, a cabin mate walked in, only on the train for one night.
"I'd rather be flying," he said dryly.
On this night, the passengers were exclusively Russian, although the train is full of tourists during the summer. The most basic seat for the six and a half day trip costs around $200, a bed in a four-person room around $500.
Google initially created the site for Russians but then decided to put out an English version of the site for international travelers. Google's Kuzmin called the response since the site launched in mid-February "fantastic" but not terribly surprising.
Stay Tuned for Other Russian Attractions
"It's something that a lot of foreigners know about, it's maybe one of those few things about Russia that they've heard," he said. "We knew that a lot of them wanted to experience that."
There were no immediate plans for filming other trips in Russia, "But seeing how warm the reception has been," he said, "we might consider it."