- May 28, 2013
- 64 comments
- Posted by EdGraham
- Adventures, Asia Travel, China, Destinations, Europe Travel, Mongolia, Russia, Russia, Trans Siberian Railroad
How to Travel on The Trans Siberian Railway
Eight Days on a Train?!
I had nothing but questions before I set off for my first trip on the Trans Siberian Railway: How do you spend 8 days on a train? Is it dangerous? What condition is the train in? Who are the other riders and what’s it like to share a train car with them? What are Siberian cities like? And on and on…
Now, several months after completing my second trip on the Trans Siberian Railway and after a combined 2 months of traveling through Russia, China, and Mongolia, many of those questions have been answered. Yet the Railway remains as intriguing a journey as ever for me because each trip is unique, from the people you’ll meet on the train cars, to the cities in which you choose to stop, to the way you handle the inevitable challenges as you make your way across Europe and Asia.
One of the greatest challenges of the Trans Siberian Railway is planning the trip. Preparation is difficult because a trip of this scope requires planning through all of Russia and maybe China and Mongolia as well (depending on your route). There’s no single source of information covering everything you need to know. Planning ahead is key because once there you’ll find bureaucracy, language barriers, and harsh weather combine to work against the unprepared traveler.
Without doing a detailed breakdown, I spent about $3000 USD each of my trips on the Trans Siberian Railway. This included everything except airfare. You can spend a bit less than that if you stick to eating in.
Choose your route
The Trans Siberian Railway is the generic name given to the train tracks passing through Siberia. Riding on any part of these tracks even for a short distance constitutes a trip on the Trans Siberian. Travelers usually complete the entire journey in the classic sense, going from one end to the other along one of three major routes: the Trans Mongolian between Moscow and Beijing by way of Mongolia, the Trans Manchurian between Moscow and Harbin, China, or the Trans Siberian route between Moscow and Vladivostok.
I’ve done both the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian routes, and I recommend the Trans Mongolian for first timers because you’ll travel through three countries and get to experience the culture of each. The classic Trans Siberian route is worthwhile if you want to spend all your time in Russia and don’t want to miss out on the far eastern cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok., while the big draw to the Trans Manchurian is the city of Harbin, China, where a beautiful ice festival takes place every winter.
It doesn’t matter if you go east or west, but most travelers tend to start in Moscow and travel east. I’ve done both directions and I preferred westbound because the time changes were easier to handle. The minimum travel time is 8 days on the train, but plan on at least a month if you want to stop off along the way. This works fairly well as Russian tourist visas are limited to 30 days (28 if your intended stay includes any part of February – Russian bureaucracy at it’s finest). A month sounds like a long time, but it’s really not. As you begin researching your stops and coordinating your train schedules, you’ll quickly find that any Trans Siberian trip is an exercise in compromise if you’re to stay within Russia’s 30 day tourist limit.
Lonely Planet’s Trans Siberian Railway is useful as is the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. I planned and traveled with both, but if I had to choose just one it’d be the Trans Siberian Handbook – no question about it (even though I love me some Lonely Planet). Thomas’ expertly written, well traveled advice goes deeper than the typical where to stay and what to eat of Lonely Planet’s guidebook. More than that, he provides an extremely well researched background and history of the railway in addition to kilometer markers so you can track your progress along the way. Also handy are Lonely Planet’s destination specific books including Beijing, Mongolia, and Russia.
You hardly need to become fluent in Russian, but it’s important that you learn Cyrillic, their written alphabet. It’s a bit odd learning how to pronounce words when you don’t understand their meaning, but believe me that it’s absolutely necessary for any Trans Siberian traveler. Russian maps and street signs are all written in Cyrillic while English language guidebooks typically use our A-Z alphabet to label the same things. It’s vital to be able to translate the two. You can learn Cyrillic for free online or buy an English-Russian translation book.
As with any country, learning basic greetings and pleasantries goes a long way too.
Get your visas
I’m American so just I needed a Russian and Chinese Visa. Most other nationalities also need a Mongolian Visa, so once again, plan well in advance. More information on visas can be found here: Visas
Buy your train tickets
I used Real Russia for both of my Trans Siberian trips, and I found the website and service to be top notch. The ability to research individual legs and see how much the tickets cost in advance was particularly handy. Plan on between $1200-$1500 for second class train tickets along the entire route depending on how many times you want to stop. Don’t bother purchasing meals in advance; each train has a restaurant car attached, or you can bring your own food and save money.
Pack for going outside
What you bring is entirely dependent on the season in which you’ll be traveling. Siberian summers are reliably warm but mosquito filled. Early fall is cool but pleasant, with temperatures plummeting rapidly as late fall is approached. By the end of October you’ll begin to experience temperatures colder than what most cities call winter, and from November through late March you can expect to travel through the coldest weather of your life. Even Canadians and Scandinavian readers who might otherwise thumb their red, frostbitten noses at such a statement should be warned that Siberia is quite literally the coldest place on our planet outside of Antarctica.
Pack for the train
Siberian weather fluctuates wildly depending on season, but temperatures on the train are another story. The trains are always kept well heated (sometimes overly so) even in cold weather. It’s a performance art on par with the Bolshoi Ballet to be able to board a crowded train compartment and change into comfortable attire when coming in from a frozen Siberian landscape outside. While I’ve never been able to make it look good, I have learned to at least be efficient about it. My best advice is keep your sandals and other necessities near the top of your luggage, and dress in layers so you can more easily change into something more comfortable.
Plan your photography
I photographed everything I saw in China, Russia, and Mongolia, and I never had a single issue or question raised, nor did I ever feel even remotely threatened. The worst that happened is I attracted a bit more attention as I walked through the train car with my big DSLR, and I caught a few eyes as I took pictures on the streets of some Siberian cities. This is no different from any other city in which I’ve taken pictures. In fact, I had more questions from the customs people on my connection in Amsterdam than I did on the journey itself.
Still, basic common sense applies: no military installations, no uniformed police, and use discretion when photographing things make the places look particularly bad like trash and graffiti. Perhaps these awarenesses aren’t ingrained in many western photographers’ minds, but they’re important to remember when traveling to many non western countries.
So, what to bring? To be very general, China, Russia, and Mongolia have no special photographic needs beyond what you’d normally bring on any other trip. The vast majority of my travel pictures were shot at wide to medium focal lengths of less than 105mm on my full frame camera, and less than 50mm on my 1.6x crop camera. Bringing a long, heavy zoom like the 70-200mm isn’t necessary unless you plan on spending a lot of time in the countryside (Mongolia in particular is home to beautiful landscapes and wildlife.) Don’t leave without a tripod and remote shutter release cable, extra batteries, plenty of memory cards, and a neutral density filter. One of the best things about the Trans Siberian Railway is there’s no real limit to what you can bring on the train so long as you don’t mind lugging your gear around.
Traveling the Trans Siberian Railway
One of the biggest draws to the Trans Siberian is the unknown. You can plan every detail from hotels to itineraries but the experiences you’ll have are sure to be all your own. Here are some of the things I found to be true throughout each of my trips.
Trains are in great condition, and they’re continually kept clean by the provodnitsas or train car attendants. Each car has two bathrooms (one at each end), one samovar for hot potable water, and most cars have schedules printed in Cyrillic and in Moscow time. Sleeping berths in second class have four beds and barely enough space for one person to maneuver in the center area at a time.
Because riding any train along any portion of any of the three routes constitutes a trip on the Trans Siberian Railway, there is no actual “Trans Siberian” train. The closest you’ll find is the #1 and #2 “россия” / “Rossiya” trains which travel between Moscow and Vladivostok, and can be ridden straight through.
A good rule of thumb for booking your trains is that the lower train numbers provide better, faster service, while higher train numbers are slower and older (especially those with triple digits). Named passenger trains like Rossiya and Baikal are good options when available.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you Russians aren’t friendly. Big city Muscovites can be a bit rude, sure, but on the whole Russia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met. The key is breaking through their seemingly tough, weathered exteriors and getting to know them as individual people. This is easy to do on the train as you’ll be sharing the car with locals. Bring food and drinks for them (although they likely won’t accept), accept what is offered to you, and make whatever conversation you can. It’s likely you’ll make fast friends, and you’ll have a far more entertaining journey than if you just keep to yourself.
Eating and drinking
Chinese food is arguably the best and most varied of the three countries, but Mongolian food is quite good as well. Try the Mongolian Бууз (buuz) for a delicious meat filled dumpling treat. Russian food tends to be on the bland side with Borscht and Pelmeni (dumplings) as notable exceptions. Russian food is warm and hearty, and it provides at least a temporary reprieve from their long, harsh winters.
Beer in China isn’t particularly noteworthy, with Tsing Tao being their most popular. Worth trying is Baijiu, their version of Vodka. It’s only worth trying, however. The stuff tastes terrible. Mongolia beer is quite good. My favorite was жалам хар, pronounced as “Zhalam Har“. The best vodka I’ve ever had was in Mongolia. Chinggis Khan vodka is just incredible stuff, and oddly enough their regular, inexpensive variety tastes light years better than the “premium” version. Russians love vodka and they’ll drink you under the table, but I still haven’t found a Russian vodka I like. Baltika beer is quite good, best enjoyed with Omul fish on the shores of Lake Baikal. Don’t bother with Baikal vodka though; “rumor” has it the hangover is horrendous.
What you see depends entirely on which of the three Trans Siberian routes you take and where you choose to stop. The most popular stops include the Great Wall of China, Terelj National Park in Mongolia, Lake Baikal in Russia, and Red Square in Moscow. For more on the many cities along the Trans Siberian, check out these other posts.
The Trans Siberian Railway had been my dream trip for years and my expectations were through the roof. It didn’t disappoint – it was absolutely the trip of a lifetime. Even now that I’ve done it twice, it remains an experience I look forward to doing yet again… someday.