The Trans-Siberian Railway: the journey of a lifetime

If you’re ready to set aside creature comforts like hot showers and home-cooked meals, extraordinary landscapes and unforgettable experiences await on The Trans-Siberian Railway

Category Beach & nature

Date 11th May 2017

The Trans-Siberian Railway is a 5,772-mile railway line connecting Russia’s capital city Moscow with the port city of Vladivostok in the far east of the country. Spanning eight time-zones, it takes a full seven days to complete the train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok without stops. It remains today, the longest railway line in the world.

Once hailed “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars”, people from all over the world have embarked on this famous train journey and continue to do so. Perhaps, it is a longing for times past, or perhaps it’s a curiosity towards a wonder of engineering, a staggering symbol of man’s triumph over nature. One thing remains certain – like no other, the Trans-Siberian merges a romantic notion of travel with extraordinary landscapes and experiences into the journey of a lifetime.

To give you the ins and outs of this alluring adventure, we’ve teamed up with Phebe Bay from The Travelling Squid, who shares learnings from her own trip aboard the Trans-Siberian along with plenty of essential tips for when it comes to planning. 

A symbol of hope and a common identity

Local couple in Inner Mongolia - the autonomous region in north of China where the train passes through
Local couple in Inner Mongolia – the autonomous region in north of China where the train passes through

While the Trans-Siberian was built for a practical reason – a means of transporting goods across Russia – it has become more than just a transport locomotive. Amidst the harsh winters, Siberia is often associated with incredible beauty. The Trans-Siberian offers those living in the small towns along the railway a connection to the rest of Russia, the largest country in the world. It is a symbol of hope, and, perhaps, a common identity.

There are two other lines which branch from the Trans-Siberian; the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Instead of passing through Russian territory for the entire journey, the Trans-Manchurian branches out to Chinese cities such as Harbin and Changchun, while the Trans-Mongolian passes through Mongolian border towns and Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

If you are into dramatic changes in scenery, from snow-covered hills to vast stretches of plains, take the Trans-Mongolian route, which starts from Moscow, passes through Ulaanbaatar, and then carries on to Beijing. The scenery from Russia to Mongolia and then on to China changes drastically, making the train ride very interesting.

When to go and how to plan an itinerary

Beautiful view of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal
Beautiful view of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal

Planning for a Trans-Siberian trip can be a mind-boggling exercise as there are many aspects to consider. One useful resource is website Seat 61, offering detailed information and advice with regards to purchasing tickets and itinerary planning.

Eastbound or westbound?

The suggested direction of the train would depend on whether you are planning to stay and visit Moscow or Beijing after the train ride. There is a sense of romanticism to traveling eastbound, as it is possible to get connecting trains from major European cities into Moscow. Being the more popular route, you might be able to meet like-minded travelers along the way.

Stops along the way

Statue of Vladimir Lenin's Head in Ulan Ude
Statue of Vladimir Lenin’s Head in Ulan Ude

A two-week trip is sufficient if you are looking to make just one stop midway through the journey, and spend some days in both Moscow and Beijing. A suggested stop midway would be the Russian city of Irkutsk. It is the nearest city to view Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. When you are there, be sure to try local fish (omul) on sale at the nearby market, freshly caught from the lake.

Travelers are also encouraged to stop by Ulaanbaatar, should they wish to experience nomadic life. From Ulaanbaatar, it is possible to get transportation to the suburbs, for overnight stays in a Mongolian ger (traditional portable home, which are round tents covered in animal skin or cloth for insulation). Bring lots of warm clothing as it can get very cold at night.

For another stop on the journey, Ulan-Ude is located 62 miles south-east of Lake Baikal and is the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, Russia. The most famous sight in the city is the bronze statue featuring the head of Vladimir Lenin. It is said to be the largest of its kind in the world. The architecture in Ulan-Ude is generally interesting due to both Russian and Mongolian influences.

The best time to visit

It depends on the type of landscape and scenery you are looking for – a popular time to go would be during the summer months between May and August. There will be a variety of landscapes to look out for, such as the rolling hills of Mongolia and the coniferous forests of Siberia. If you are into snow-covered winter landscapes, visit during the winter months between November and February.

Now, let’s get practical

Provodnitsas - train attendants in front of the Trans-Siberian train
Provodnitsas – train attendants in front of the Trans-Siberian train

Tickets

Booking tickets can be a bit tricky. There is not one specific Trans-Siberian Express but many domestic ones as well as a few international trains crossing the borders to Mongolia and China. If you are planning to make a lot of stopovers, it might be cheaper to book smaller but slower domestic trains on the route. If you, however, are planning to spend a few days on the train there is an option of taking the Rossiya from Moscow to Vladivostok – a more comfortable and quicker train that only stops at bigger stations.

Tickets are most affordable when purchased through the Russian Railways official site. It takes a fair bit of linguistic finesse, as most of the crucial information is in Russian, but, as always, Google is there to help you. From Moscow to Irkutsk, it will cost around $350 for a second-class berth – in a compartment of 4 sleeper berths. Third-class tickets cost about $160, which is very affordable given the three-day ride. Just note that the system only allows you to book seats 60 days in advance.

A caveat is that booking tickets via the Russian Railways site can be a tad frustrating and certain credit cards are not accepted. Should you face issues, you could consider booking the tickets through a travel agency. If you’re pressed for time or are planning to make multiple stops along the way, an online travel agency could also help make all the necessary bookings for you. Do note that there will be a markup of about 15% – 20% on the price, should you choose this option. Apart from Real Russia, Seat 61 recommends a number of Russian online travel agencies – do check them out.

Budget

If you are on a really tight budget, it is possible to spend less than $610 on the train ride, if you go for third-class tickets and avoid dining at the restaurant car on the train. Doing so means that you have to stock up your own food before the trip, or hop off the train at major stops to purchase food before the train leaves. Hot water is provided on the train.

If you prefer more privacy and comfort, be prepared to spend slightly more than $1000 on the train ride. Such a budget gives you the option of visiting the restaurant cart from time to time, where one meal can set you back $25 per person. There is a plus when you travel in second-class, or the ‘compartment class’. The ticket is slightly more expensive, but you get a compartment to yourself if you travel in groups of four – great for privacy and security.

Note that the Russian ruble is a restricted currency, and it is not possible to get rubles outside of Russia. But there are several exchange offices and ATMs at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. It will be useful to bring some USD or EUR with you, as they are readily accepted by major exchange offices. Small-denomination notes in these currencies will be useful as contingencies.

Seat selection

Local passengers playing cards on the train
Local passengers playing cards on the train

For seat selection, it is suggested that you get both a lower and upper berth seat if you are travelling in pairs. The lower berth seats are for resting during the day, and you get a good view of the scenery outside. Should you get upper berth seats only, you might have to ask for permission to sit on someone else’s lower berth seat during the day. Most importantly, avoid selecting seats too close to the toilet. You know why.

One of the main reasons to go on this journey is the people you meet on your way. If you’re up for a local experience, travel on third-class. That’s where you’ll find most Russians, and, if you’re lucky, their children, who can be a breath of fresh air on a journey this long. On the Mongolia to Beijing leg, you may meet Chinese businessmen heading back to China from Ulaanbaatar. The train company typically groups travellers together, increasing the chances of you meeting like-minded folks.

Visas

Traditional wooden house in Irkutsk
Traditional wooden house in Irkutsk

Getting a Russian Tourist visa is probably the most tricky of the three countries. Before applying for one, you will need a visa support (tourist confirmation) letter. This is a letter from a Russian travel agency or a hotel which has the license to invite foreign tourists to Russia. Do note that this document is essential in the visa application process. It is not the same as a hotel booking confirmation. Note that some hotels may not be licensed to issue such documents. You can still stay at these hotels, by getting a visa support (tourist confirmation) letter from an online travel agency like Real Russia.

Chinese visas are required for citizens of most nationalities including the UK. You can refer to the Chinese visa guide for more information. For Mongolian visas, a visa is required for UK citizens. Visit the Real Russia site to find out more on the requirements by selecting your nationality.

Safety

It is generally safe to travel on the Trans-Siberian. However, it’s advisable to travel in pairs and to purchase a second-class ticket, which gets you a berth in a compartment of four with doors that can be locked from the inside, for added safety. Drinking does occur among passengers, but should you ever feel uncomfortable, do not hesitate to inform the staff, who might be able to move you to another compartment based on availability. You’re a smart traveler, but just a reminder: always keep your valuable belongings right next to you when you sleep.

Essentials to bring on the train

Stock up on snacks on the platform on one of the stops
Stock up on snacks on the platform on one of the stops

The absolute essentials for you to bring on the train ride would be toilet paper and wet wipes. It is essential not just for hygiene purposes, but for wiping and keeping the area around you clean after meals. Earplugs and an eye mask are a must, should you happen to be sleeping near a crying baby (that happens), or just feel like taking a nap in the middle of the day (that also happens).

The toilets are basic and come with a sink. There is no soap available so you’ll have to bring your own. Note that there are no shower facilities for the second and third-class trains, in which case the wet wipes come in very handy. Also, bear in mind that the train’s toilets are best used after a stop at a major station, where they are cleaned. Remember, it’s all an adventure.

Second-class berths come with bedding but do bring a sleeping bag if you prefer. Should you plan to stock up on your own food on the train, remember to bring along a can opener and a pair of scissors for opening food packages. There’s nothing worse than being hungry and not able to open your food.

Of course, a good camera is always a good idea when traveling. Additionally, bring along a flashlight for the dark nights as well as an iPad and a good book for entertainment.

Food options

Experience Russian food in the second-class dining car
Experience Russian food in the second-class dining car

The restaurant car changes at various legs of the trip. For instance, the restaurant car at the Chinese leg serves simple Chinese food, such as steamed rice, cabbage, celery, and chicken. Some quality trains, such as the Rossiya, offer tickets with or without ‘services’. ‘With services’ just means that one or more cooked meals is included in the price, either served in your compartment or eaten in the restaurant car. Other meals you’ll need to pay for in the restaurant or bring your own supplies.

The Russian restaurant car serves a wider variety of food, such as fried potatoes, soup, and dumplings. You can get snacks such as chocolate, potato chips, and instant pasta, but that is sold at a premium. The bar sells beer and Russian vodka as well, but the prices are steep, hence it may be a good idea to stock up on some food of your own.

Some suggested food to bring on board include snacks, tea/coffee bags, instant noodles, a loaf of bread, and most importantly canned food. You may be surprised at how delicious canned food can taste on the train. It bears some resemblance to a proper meal and can be great spread on bread. Do remember to bring along disposable cutlery, and a mug for hot tea on a cold night.

The journey of a lifetime

Landscapes seen from the train between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude
Landscapes seen from the train between Irkutsk and Ulan Ude

From the rolling Mongolian plains to the icy snow-capped peaks of Siberia, the Trans-Siberian Railway offers a lot of promise. But the Trans-Siberian isn’t just about the scenery. A large part of the journey is about living on the train – sleeping, eating, reading, and, perhaps, dreaming of a hot shower and a home-cooked meal.

As the old saying goes, “Life is a journey, not a destination”. The Trans-Siberian is a way of slowing down, enjoying the moment, taking a chance on life and its unpredictability instead of rushing to the finish line. It is a good way of getting to know the world around you, and an even better way to learn about yourself. The Trans-Siberian is not for tourists or destination seekers. But if you have an urge to go on an adventure, coupled with a thirst for self-discovery, this is the trip for you.

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Originally published

11th May 2017