5-hour bus ride from Irkutsk, then a 30-minute ferry
Flanked by rocky cliffs, Olkhon Island rises like a fortress from Lake Baikal, with unsurpassed views of the water and jagged peaks beyond. The island's pine forests are filled with colorful prayer flags-a glimpse of the locals' unique Shamanic traditions-along with hiking trails and the occasional wild horse. At Nikita's Homestead, you can get a cozy private cabin, Russian-style sauna, and three home-cooked meals a day. olkhon.info/en, doubles from $54.
3 days, 10 hours, and 22 minutes from Moscow
Set at the edge of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude is home to Russia's most important Buddhist monastery, Ivolginsky Datsan. A 30-minute bus ride from the city center takes you to the sprawling complex of yellow- and green-roofed pagodas. The datsan has a small hostel for pilgrims on-site; be prepared to be awoken at dawn by the chants of the Buddhists gathered in the various temples. datsan.buryatia.ru.
End of the Line
6 days, 2 hours, and 8 minutes from Moscow
With icebreakers crowding its harbor, and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traders hustling its docks, Vladivostok is the busiest port city in Russia. From here, you could simply turn around and ride back to Moscow. Or take a nine-hour flight. For the cheapest fare, book with one of the aviakassy (ticket offices) scattered across the city or directly at the airport desk of a national carrier like Aeroflot Russian Airlines. Expect to pay around $300 for a last-minute ticket. aeroflot.ru/cms/en.
The Five Don'ts
1. Don't forget a second watch. The Trans-Siberian spans eight time zones, but all schedules are set to Moscow time.
2. Don't smile all the time. Russians consider it insincere-or dim-witted.
3. Don't say "Cheers." It's "Nazdarovye" (naz-da-rov-ye)! Master that and you'll have friends aplenty.
4. Don't sweat it. The Russian version of warm is broiling; pack light layers and bring some dry shampoo to freshen up (compartments don't have showers).
5. Don't turn down vodka. Ever. It's just plain rude. A sip is sufficient. And remember: Nazdarovye!