“It is time, high time!” These were the words with which Tsar Alexander III heralded the dawn of the Trans-Siberian railway in 1886.

While Siberia had been explored and settled for decades — mining, logging, fur trapping and a roaring trade in political exiles kept the economy ticking over — the harsh environment of Russia’s interior made getting around difficult. The new railway provided a lifeline to Russia’s far east, allowing fledgling settlements to flourish and opening up the continent.

Although work began almost immediately, inhospitable country, harsh winters and vast distances, combined with the political turmoil of turn-of-the-century Russia, kept the construction process slow. It wasn’t until the Circumbaikal Loop, running south of the huge lake, was completed in 1904 that the line became a viable service.

These days the term ‘Trans-Siberian’ is used loosely to describe the network of railways that operate in eastern Russia, Mongolia and northern China. Rather than one specific train, your Trans-Siberian journey will be pieced together from various scheduled services.

To the extent that there is a Trans-Siberian railway, it runs from Moscow across the wilds of Siberia to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. However, the most popular route for tourists is the Trans-Mongolian, which runs south from Lake Baikal to Ulaan Baatar, then through the dusty expanse of the Gobi desert into the mountains of northern China and on into Beijing.

There is also a service via Harbin in north-east China that bypasses Mongolia (the Trans-Manchurian), and another that branches off the main line towards the north-east Russian coast (the Baikal-Amur or BAM Railway).