If you’re ready to leave the comfort of hot showers and warm food behind for a few days, travel the Trans-Siberian Railway for a lifetime experience.
Trans-Siberian Railway is 9289 km long and connects Moscow to Vladivostok. It crosses eight time zones, so the entire journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes a full seven days, stops excluded. It’s still the world’s longest railway.
When constructed, the Transsib was proclaimed “the most beautiful diamond on the Russian Empire’s crown”; the route became world-famous then, and people still want to experience it. Why is that? Perhaps just some kind of nostalgia, longing for the glorious past; or maybe it’s about the desire to eye-witness the miracle of engineering, the stunning symbol of man’s victory over nature.
What is definitely clear is the fact that the Trans-Siberian Railway somehow merges together all the romantic notions and concepts of travel, with its unique experiences and one-of-a-kind landscapes en route; all of this makes this trip a great lifetime adventure.
To help you learn everything about the subtleties of such an adventure you can’t just reject, we cooperated with Phebe Buffay, the blogger behind The Travelling Squid. She kindly shared with us her personal experience of traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway and gave us a lot of useful advice regarding trip planning.
Symbol of Hope and Collective Identity
Actually, the Transsib was built with a practical mindset to move goods across Russia; however, it has become something much greater than just a railway and an engine. Siberia, the realm of harsh winters, is often associated with incredible beauty.
The Trans-Siberian Railway connects small-town dwellers to the rest of Russia. This is a symbol of hope and collective identity.
There are two more lines branching from the Transsib: the Trans-Manchurian Railway (Chinese Eastern Railway) and the Trans-Mongolian Railway. While the Transsib never actually leaves Russia, the Trans-Manchurian line goes to the Chinese cities such as Harbin and Changchun, whereas the Trans-Mongolian line winds through borderline Mongolian towns before getting you to the country’s capital, Ulan-Bator.
If you prefer the radically changing views from the window, jumping from snow-covered hills to endless plains, take the Trans-Mongolian route that starts in Moscow, goes via Ulan-Bator and then gets you to Beijing. When traveling from Russia to Mongolia to China, landscapes are changing like theater stage sets, so your travel will be like watching a real breathtaking play.
When to go and how to plan your itinerary
Planning your Trans-Siberian journey is an adventure in its own right, for you have considered a lot of different things. Seat 61 is a useful resource that provides detailed information and tips on ticket booking and itinerary planning.
Eastwards or westwards?
The choice of direction depends on whether you want to stay somewhere and visit Moscow or Beijing at the end of your journey.
Traveling eastwards is somewhat romantic; if you go to Moscow from Europe, you can start your railway journey of the century by taking a train in a European city to transfer to a Trans-Siberian train in Moscow. En route you’ll most likely get to know other travelers whose conclusions are the same as yours regarding this dilemma.
Stops en route
If you want to make a single stop on the way and spend some time in both Moscow and Beijing, a fortnight should be enough. We recommend making a stay in the middle of the way, the city of Irkutsk.
From there you can conveniently go to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater reservoir. If you go there, be sure to try the local fish (the omul), freshly caught and sold in the local markets.
No traveler ever regrets staying in Ulan-Bator to try the taste of nomadic life. From the Mongolian capital, you can travel to the suburbs to spend a night in a Mongolian ger, a traditional portable yurt that looks like a round tent covered with skins or clothes for insulation. Taking warm clothing with you is highly recommendable as the local nights are rather cold.
One more interesting place to go en route is Ulan-Ude, the capital of the autonomous Republic of Buryatia located 100 km south-east of Lake Baikal. Its most famous landmark is the bronze head of Vladimir Lenin. It is believed to be the world’s largest monument of its kind.
Ulan-Ude’s architecture is generally very interesting for it contains traces of both Russian and Mongolian culture.
When to go
It depends on what kinds of scenery and landscapes you’d like to see, but the most popular season is between May and August. The sloped hills of Mongolia and the Siberian taiga—in summer you’ll enjoy all of these views from the train window. If you prefer snowy winter scenery, travel sometime between November and February.
Ok, now let’s consider more practical stuff.
Booking tickets are not as simple as it might seem. There’s now Trans-Siberian Express as such; instead, there’re lots of domestic and international trains, with the latter crossing the Mongolian and Chinese borders.
If you are going to make multiple stops, slower domestic Russian trains will likely be cheaper. If you just want to travel by train for a few days, take the Russia (Rossiya) train that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok; that is a convenient and fast route with stops only in major cities.
Tickets are cheaper at the official website of the Russian Railways. Tickets for corridor cars of the Russia train start at 17 394 rubles per bed for the Moscow to Irkutsk line; a couchette car ticket starts at 11 680 rubles per passenger, which is acceptable for a three-day journey. Keep in mind that booking in advance becomes available 60 days before the travel.
The Russian Railway website offers a somewhat clumsy booking system and does not accept some types of credit cards. If you are facing problems you cannot solve, consult an agency.
If you’re out of time or are going to make multiple stops en route, some online travel agency will help you buy the tickets you need. However, keep in mind you’ll have to pay them 15% to 20% extra.
Seat 61 recommends Real Russia and a few other Russian agencies selling tickets online.
If you are tight on your budget, you can cut the costs to about 30 thousand rubles, forcing you to travel by couchette cars and depriving you of dining car meals. This option implies that you’ll take enough food with you or will leave the train at major stations to buy some food before the train departs. Don’t worry about hot water, it’s always available in-car.
If you want comfort and some kind of privacy, be ready to pay twice as much. In this case, you’ll be able to dine in the dining car, which costs about 1.5 thousand rubles per meal. Corridor-car travels are expensive, but they are also more comfortable and safe for four-person groups.
If you’re traveling à deux, buy the lower and the upper bunk in the same row. The lower bunk is for seating in the daytime and it gives you a nice view from the window. If you buy upper bunks only, you’ll have to ask for someone’s permission to seat on their lower bunk during the daytime. Here’s another important thing: stay away from end compartments that are close to toilets. You know why.
One of the main reasons to ever take such a trip is the people you encounter on the way. If you want to understand the Russian lifestyle as it really is, couchette cars are for you.
If you’re lucky, there’ll be some children in the car, who are as important in such long journeys as a breath of fresh air. When going from Mongolia to Beijing, you’ll likely see some Chinese traders going from Ulan-Bator back to China. Agencies usually try to accommodate foreign tourists in adjacent compartments to increase your chances of meeting someone like you.
Most of the world’s population, Russians included, need a visa to travel to China; a visa can be obtained directly from the Chinese embassy in Moscow or via specialized agencies. However, Russians do not need a visa to Mongolia if their stay there is 30 days or less. Go to MyvisatoRussia.com to find out more about the country-specific requirements.
If you’re thinking about visiting Moscow, you should also find out The 10 Reasons Why You Should Go to Moscow This Winter.
Safety and security
The Trans-Siberian Railway is generally safe. However, we advise to travel with someone rather than alone and to book corridor cars with lockable compartments, just in case. Passengers often get wasted en route; should you feel uncomfortable about it, do not hesitate to consult the conductor who might move you to another compartment if available.
If your pockets are full of smart stuff, just keep all those valuables closer to your body, especially when going to bed.
What to bring with you
The main thing to bring with you is toilet paper and wet wipes. It’s not just about hygiene—sometimes you just have to wipe the dust or clean the table after your meal. Bring headphones and a sleep mask, for you might end up in the same compartment with a noisy infant, or have a sudden urge to take a nap in daytime (well, whatever).
Toilets are rather primitive but are equipped with sinks. You’ll most likely find no soap there, so bring your own. Keep in mind that corridor and couchette cars do not feature showers, which is another reason to bring wet wipes. Another thing to bear in mind: use the toilets after your train departs a major station, as such stations usually provide toilet cleaning service. The main point is that all of that is an adventure and should be perceived as such.
Corridor-car passengers are provided with free bed linen, but you can bring a sleeping bag just in case. If you’re going to eat your own food, don’t forget a can opener and some scissors to open packages. Tasting a little honey is the worst thing ever: here’s your food, but you can’t open it.
Apparently, bringing a camera isn’t a bad idea at all. We’d also recommend taking a flashlight (might come in handy), a tablet PC, and one or two good books to keep yourself entertained.
Speaking of food
The dining car will be changing as you progress through Russia and abroad. For instance, when in China the dining car serves simplistic Chinese foods like boiled rice, cabbage, celery, and chicken. Some “branded” trains like Russia offer “service” or “no-service” tickets. “Service” tickets come with a few meals that will be served to your compartment or can be eaten in the dining car. For all other meals, you’ll have to pay extra; or just bring your own food.
The Russian dining cars serve a lot of various foods like fried potatoes, soups, and dumplings (pelmeni). There may be snacks like chocolate bars, potato chips, or instant noodles, but that will be much more expensive than at a regular store. The bar serves beers and Russian vodka, but the prices are quite steep there, so making a food reserve before departure is actually a good idea.
What people mostly bring with them is various snacks, instant coffee, bagged tea, instant noodles, buns, and, of course, canned food. You can’t imagine how delicious canned food is when eaten while traveling by train. It only remotely resembles real food, but it still does, and it makes a good spread. Don’t forget disposable cutlery and a cup for hot tea at cold nights.
Journey of the Lifetime
From Mongolian slopes to snow-covered Siberian peaks, the Trans-Siberian railway promises a lot of amazing things. But the Transsib is not just about scenic views. An important part of this journey is how you spend time en route: how you sleep, what you eat, what you read, and how you dream of finally enjoying hot showers and proper food again.
The Transsib is essentially a smooth slow-motion effect for your life; stop where you are, trust your luck, and it will bring you somewhere; more haste, less speed. This is a good way to observe and reflect—upon the outside world and upon yourself. The Transsib is not for your typical tourists, not for the one who knows for sure where to go. But if you want an adventure mixed with self-reflections, a Trans-Siberian journey is what you need.
If you are looking for another interesting places to visit in Russia, I’ve written an article about the amazing city of Kazan and places to see there.