All aboard! (Takwing Kwong)

Trans-Siberian: a guide to the ultimate train journey

Welcome to the ultimate rail journey - a 10,000km journey from Moscow to Vladivostok

Bryn Thomas | Issue 93 | February 2008

‘The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride. All the rest are peanuts’, wrote Eric Newby in The Big Red Train Ride. The distances spanned are immense: almost 10,000km and a seven-and-a-half-day journey between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok (for boats to Japan and Korea); and about 8,000km and six days between Moscow and Beijing via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

Crossing a continent at an average speed of 72km/h ensures zero jet-lag and is a far more ‘natural’ way to travel. Your destination and points along the way can be seen in geographical context. You’re also guaranteed to meet local people, for this is no ‘tourist special’ but a working service; you may find yourself sharing vodka with a Russian soldier, talking politics with a Chinese academic or drinking champanskaya (‘champagne’) with Mongolian traders.

Built across some of the most challenging territory in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway was one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. Tsar Alexander III gave the project his official sanction in 1886 with the words: “It is time, high time!” On 31 May 1891, his son the Tsarevich Nicholas laid the foundation stone in Vladivostok. Within just ten years all but the Lake Baikal section had been completed.

Most of the early European travellers crossed Siberia in the comfort of the carriages of the Belgian Wagon Lits company – as luxurious as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express today. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 it became increasingly difficult for foreigners to obtain permits for Siberia. Not until the 1960s did Westerners begin to use the railway again. In the early 1980s, restrictions for travel in China were eased and the railway provided interesting routes to China and Mongolia. Finally, the demise of communist Russia in the 1990s opened up the whole of Siberia to foreign travellers. No longer obliged to stay in state-run, overpriced hotels, visiting the country is now more affordable than ever before.

The classic Trans-Siberian Railway route crosses the entire length of Siberia from St Petersburg to the Pacific terminus at Vladivostok, a seven-and-a-half-day journey of 9,289km.

The first day is through European Russia and the gentle slopes of the Ural Mountains to Yekaterinburg, the first city in Asian Russia. Continuing onto the Siberian plain there are wide vistas of birch forests, and on the third day you’ll reach Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. Two more days bring you to Irkutsk, gateway to beautiful Lake Baikal, which the train skirts a few hours later. The countryside becomes hillier and wilder over the next three days and the line runs along the Amur River and the border with China to Khabarovsk before heading due south to Vladivostok.

There are many trains on this line but the famous 1/2 Rossiya is the top choice for service. Other very good trains that cover shorter segments include the 9/10 Baikal between Moscow and Irkutsk.

The China course

Moscow – Beijing

You have two route choices between Moscow and Beijing: the Trans-Mongolian route via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, and the Trans-Manchurian route via Harbin in China.

The Trans-Manchurian train is the 19/20. It follows the same route as the classic Trans-Siberian as far as Chita, almost a day west of Irkutsk, before crossing the border into China to Harbin to turn south-west for Beijing. It’s less popular than the Trans-Mongolian as it’s 12 hours longer, a little more expensive and misses out Mongolia.

The Trans-Mongolian Moscow–Beijing service is the 3/4, although there are additional, shorter-distance options including the 23/24 (Beijing to Ulaanbaatar) and the 361/363 and 362/364 (Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar). The route is the same as the classic route above as far as Ulan-Ude, where the branch line heads south through Mongolia and China.

There are numerous possibilities for interesting excursions by rail off the main track, including on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) from Tayshet, and the Turksib Railway from Novosibirsk, with links to the Kazakhstan–China Railway.

From Blagoveshchensk, on a spur off the chief Moscow–Vladivostok line at Belogorsk, you can cross the Amur River by boat to Heihe in China. With onward connections via Harbin, this little-known alternative to the Trans-Manchurian is the cheapest land route from Moscow to Beijing.

A branch line runs from Sibirtsevo, near Vladivostok, via Ussuriysk to Pyongyang in North Korea, although at the moment such a journey is hard to organise. Russia is keen to foster the extension of this line into South Korea and its deep-water port at Busan, tying the Trans-Siberian into a potentially very profitable Asia–Europe network.

From Beijing it’s easy to continue by rail into Vietnam, a three-night journey.

The world’s longest train journey?

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest single-service railway. But if it’s a long-distance rail-travel record you’re after, begin your journey in southern Portugal from Vila Real de Santo António, cross Europe to Moscow, take the Trans-Mongolian route from there to Beijing and continue to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam – a journey of 17,852km.

Platform food

You certainly won’t go hungry on this trip but the food in the restaurant cars is generally not worth writing home about. The tedium of cabbage soup, meatballs and brown bread is made more bearable, however, when interspersed with the many treats you can buy on the platforms. When the train makes its ten-minute-or-so stop at a major station, jump off for a foraging session.

In summer, you’ll find rows of smiling babushkas selling anything from freshly picked raspberries to home-smoked fish. Bread and boiled eggs are almost always available but I’ve feasted on delicious boiled potatoes flavoured with dill, wonderful pancakes filled with goat’s cheese and even strawberries and (sour) cream. It’s important to buy things when you see them because you never know what will be available at the next station. It’s all part of the enjoyment.

Sleeping (almost) in style

Most Trans-Siberian train carriages are either kupé (coupe, second- or tourist-class), with four-berth closed compartments – the favoured option as they’re reasonably comfortable and cheap; or SV (spalny vagon or sleeping car, first-class), with comfortable two-berth compartments, sometimes with washbasins and a TV/video monitor.

Trans-Mongolian trains also have an additional deluxe first-class. These two-berth, carpeted, wood-panelled compartments have wider bunks, armchair, wind-down window and attached bathroom with rudimentary hand-held shower. This is the closest you’ll get to luxury on a scheduled train service across Siberia. However, some of these old carriages are now being withdrawn from service.

Platskartny is third-class: open-plan bunks, cheap but rough and adequate for a day or two. Each carriage is staffed by an attendant (provodnitsa [female] provodnik [male] in Russian; fuwuyuen in Chinese); his or her ‘den’ is a compartment at the end of the carriage. Their duties include collecting your tickets, letting down the steps at stations, coming round with the vacuum, and selling you tea (good but without milk) or coffee.

The lack of proper bathing facilities is usually the biggest grumble from people who have done the trip, although the situation is improving. On all Russian firmenny trains (trains with comfier carriages) there is now supposed to be an extra carriage attached beside the restaurant car, which not only includes accommodation for the restaurant staff (so they no longer have to sleep in the dining car) but also includes one compartment with a shower cabinet in it – charges vary from train to train but are around US$3 (£1.50).

The Chinese-run Trans-Mongolian (train 3/4) doesn’t currently include a shower cabinet although their older-style deluxe first-class compartments have hand-held showers. Most passengers tend to make do with a wash in one of the ‘bathrooms’ at each end of every carriage. This is a small cubicle with a stainless steel basin and lavatory, with or without a seat.

Watch the world go by

‘Time passes very pleasantly on such a train’, Annette Meakin (the first Englishwoman to travel the entire length of the route) wrote in 1900. It is surprising how the time drifts by and even though you may do very little, you won’t be bored.

Unlike the Orient Express, most trains that cross Siberia are working trains, not tourist specials. Russian passengers are extremely friendly and genuinely interested in foreign travellers. You can have monosyllabic conversations with inquisitive locals who will insist you share their food and drink, meet other Westerners, play cards or chess, visit the restaurant car or hop off at the stations for a little exercise.

Visas

Russia

A 30-day single-entry visa costs from £45; apply in person or by post to the Russian Embassy (5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS; 0906 550 8960, www.rusemb.org.uk).

You’ll need a letter of invitation from a travel company or hotel in Russia to support your application. Most travel companies will issue an invitation/confirmation only for the days for which you have paid to stay with them. Some will confirm accommodation for the duration of your visa in exchange for booking just your first night’s stay with them, leaving you free to go where you like after that.

China

A three-month single-entry visa costs £30 from the Chinese Embassy (49-51 Portland Place, London W1B 1JL; 020 7631 1430, www.chinese-embassy.org.uk).

Mongolia

If you’re planning to pass through, or stop off, in Mongolia you’ll need a visa; a single-entry visa costs £35 from the Mongolian Embassy (7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL; 020 7937 0150, www.embassyofmongolia.co.uk).

When to go

Ideally, take the train in winter. This is the most ‘Russian’ of seasons; a time of fur coats, sleigh-rides and chilled vodka. In sub-zero temperatures, with the bare birch and fir trees encased in ice, Siberia looks as you imagine it ought to – a barren, desolate wasteland (the train, however, is well heated). Russian cities, too, look best and feel most ‘Russian’ under a layer of snow.

Nowadays, with visitors free to go almost anywhere they want in Russia, there’s much more to do in summer and autumn too. The Baikal region of Siberia is emerging as a summer outdoor destination and there’s superb hiking in this undeveloped, largely unpolluted area.

The tourist season runs from May through September, peaking from mid-July to early September. During the summer it can be difficult to get a place on the popular Moscow–Beijing route without planning several weeks ahead.

Getting there

If you want to do this trip properly, don’t cheat: take the train the whole way! A one-way ticket from London to Moscow costs from £171.80 if you book through Deutsche Bahn Travelservice (0871 880 8066, www.bahn.co.uk). The journey takes around 44 hours and leaves from St Pancras on the evening Eurostar to Brussels to connect with an overnight train to Berlin. Then it’s another overnight train across Poland and Belarus to reach Moscow.

If you must fly, flights from London Heathrow to Moscow cost from £165 return (a return ticket can be cheaper than a one-way, just throw the return part away); try Russian budget carrier Aeroflot (020 7355 2233, www.aeroflot.co.uk). Flight time is four hours.

Flights from London to Beijing cost from £370 (one way); try Air China (00 800 8610 0999, www.air-china.co.uk). Flight time is ten hours.

Getting around

Rail passes are not available. If you’re not pressed for time and travelling only small sections of the line at a time, you can buy tickets at the station. If you book a couple of days before you travel on the smaller sections, you should get the ticket you want. For a longer section, or the whole route, you’ll need to plan more in advance.

For ease and security use a UK, Russian or Chinese tour company that will put together
a package including a night’s accommodation in Moscow and your train tickets with the stops and carriage you choose.

Cost of travel

How much you pay depends on the level of comfort you demand, the number of stops you make and the amount of time you’re prepared to devote to getting hold of a budget ticket.

Tickets range from £160 for a no-frills, over-the-counter, one-way kupé-class ticket between Moscow and Beijing, to £1,000 for a one-way spalny vagon-class ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok offered by some Western travel agents.

Allow about £8-10 a day for meals and snacks; main dishes in the restaurant car are around £2. For any stops you make budget around £20 a day for bed and food, more if you want to enjoy the Russian champanskaya and piva (beer).

Accommodation in Moscow is expensive: a dorm bed in a backpacker hostel costs £10-15. A mid-range hotel costs about £65 for a single and £80 for a double. Hotel rooms in Ulaanbataar and Beijing are much more reasonable – under £5 for a dorm bed and £20/35 for singles /doubles in a mid-range hotel. 

Packages on the Trans-Siberian between Moscow and Beijing, including transfers and one night’s accommodation in Moscow, start at about £360 and can be arranged through one of the Chinese, Russian or British budget operators. Although it’s obviously cheaper to buy tickets independently, in the summer you could have a long wait for a ticket – Moscow’s an expensive city to hang around in. In other seasons, however, you may be able to get a ticket yourself quite quickly.

What to pack

Travel as light as possible. There’s a reasonable range of food and drink (including vodka and Russian ‘champagne’) available on the train and hawkers on the station platforms along the way sell all manner of food in season. With a constant supply of boiling water available from the samovar (tea urn) in each carriage, bring a mug and, for a filling breakfast, a supply of porridge oats. Instant soups and pot noodles are also useful.

Health & safety

No vaccinations are listed as official requirements for Western tourists visiting Russia, China and Mongolia and the route does not go through a malarial zone. If going on a long trek in Siberia, however, consider a vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis.

It’s not a problem finding water that’s safe to drink on the train as boiling water is provided by the samovar in each carriage.

Take sensible precautions on the train: lock your compartment door and keep your money on you at all times. To prevent the door catch being opened from the outside with a knife, take a cork to wedge it in place. It’s also worth noting that the triangular key used to lock a compartment from the outside is identical to a British Gas key, so if you have one take it along.

Further reading

Trans-Siberian Handbook (Trailblazer, 2007) by Bryn Thomas, the author of this article

Trans-Siberian Railway (Lonely Planet, 2006)

Journey Into the Mind’s Eye (Eland, 2005) by Lesley Blanch, a witty, semi-autobiographical story of the author’s romantic obsession with Russia and the Trans-Siberian Railway

Through Siberia by Accident (John Murray, 2005) by Dervla Murphy, is a warm and witty account her travels in Siberia.

Further information

www.seat61.com The Man in Seat Sixty-One website includes a comprehensive section on the Trans-Siberian with lots of links

www.poezda.net The best site for timetables throughout Russia.

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