No other train holds the same allure as the Trans-Siberian. Bryn Thomas prepares you for the ride of your life
Ripping off my socks, I plunged my feet into Lake Baikal, yanked them out again, and raced the 500m back to the train, just as it began to slide out of the station.
According to Siberian superstition, this hasty ritual would increase my life expectancy by five years; all I got from Tatyana, the stern attendant, was a look icier than the lake’s vast waters. “That’s a very stupid game!” she scolded as I leapt onto the moving carriage. I later discovered that one foreign traveller had actually missed the train while greedily trying to lengthen his life by 25 years – something that requires total immersion and is difficult to achieve during the very short stop at Slyudyanka.
Being left in Slyudyanka would be inconvenient, to say the least – it’s four days from Moscow and three from Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The distances spanned by this famous line are immense: almost 10,000km (a seven-day journey) between Moscow and Vladivostok, and just under 8,000km (five to six days) between Moscow and Beijing.
Ever since a rail service linking Europe with the Far East was established at the turn of the century, foreign travellers have been drawn to this great journey. Most of these early explorers crossed Siberia in the comfort of the Belgian Wagon-Lits, whose luxurious coaches housed pianos in the dining cars and marble tubs in the bathrooms.
Things changed somewhat after 1917 and the Russian Revolution, when it became increasingly difficult for foreigners to obtain permits for Siberia. It was not until the 1960s that the situation improved and Westerners began to use the railway again. Since the early 1980s, when restrictions on foreigners visiting China were eased, many people have found the Trans-Siberian a cheap and interesting way to access the East.
Travelling by rail allows passengers to absorb something of the ethos of the country they’re passing through, and nowhere is this more true than on the Trans-Siberian. You are guaranteed to meet local people – it’s no ‘tourist special’ but a working service. You might drain a bottle of vodka with a local soldier, discuss politics with a Chinese academic or drink Russian champagne with a Mongolian trader.
As Annette Meakin remarked when travelling the route in 1900: ‘The Siberian express is a kind of “Liberty Hall”, where you can shut your door and sleep all day if you prefer it, or eat and drink, smoke and play cards if you like that better... Time passes very pleasantly on such a train.’
Travellers crossing Siberia have a choice of three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian.
The Trans-Siberian is the most expensive as it crosses the entire expanse of Siberia to the Pacific terminus at Vladivostok.
The Trans-Manchurian travels through most of Siberia before turning south and ending in Beijing.
The Trans-Mongolian also terminates in Beijing but travels via Mongolia, giving you the chance to stop off in Ulaan Baatar.
If you want to travel on to Japan you have several options: ferries (mid-June to December) and flights leave from Vladivostok, or there are cheaper ferry services from various Chinese ports including Shanghai, Tianjin and Qingdao, all of which are within easy reach of Beijing.
Most Trans-Siberian train carriages intended for foreigners are either kupé (‘second’, ‘hard’ or ‘tourist’ class), with four-berth closed compartments; or SV (‘first’ or ‘soft’ class), with comfortable two-berth compartments, sometimes with washbasins.
How much you pay for your trip depends on the level of comfort you demand, the number of stops you wish to make and the amount of time you have.
Independent travel – The most interesting way to travel is to organise all your tickets yourself. Note that you cannot buy a ‘hop on, hop off’ ticket – you either buy one ticket and stay on the train for the duration or pay for each segment as you do it.
The trains that run across Siberia still form the backbone of communications in this part of the world – they’re used by local people and they’re very popular. That said, buying tickets as you go along shouldn’t be too difficult as Russians buy theirs at the last minute. If you book a couple of days before you travel on the smaller sections, you’ll probably get the ticket you want; for a longer section, or the whole route, you’ll need to plan further in advance.
Package tours - Package deals offered by many travel agents can be better value than they first appear - and certainly reduce the hassle.
Getting a tourist visa for Russia is no longer difficult. Send your visa application to the Russian Embassy. You will also need to send confirmation of your hotel bookings (at least for your first night), supported by a Russian tourist organisation ‘invitation’. Various hotels and agencies can do this for you.
UK nationals will also need visas for China and Mongolia if planning to pass through or stop in these countries. Contact the Chinese Embassy and the Mongolian Embassy.
With the exception of a few military centres, all cities on the Trans-Siberian can be visited.
If you’re booking through an agency, plan carefully: once you have started your trip, it’s too late to change your itinerary.
If you travel independently you can buy tickets as you go along, and stop off whenever and wherever you like. The most popular stopovers are Irkutsk, only 64km from beautiful Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake; and Ulaan Baatar, the Mongolian capital.
For most people Siberia evokes Dr Zhivago-style snowy scenes and, if they are not to be disappointed, winter is the best time to go. It is, after all, the most Russian of seasons; a time of fur coats, sleigh rides and chilled vodka. In sub-zero temperatures, with bare birch and fir trees encased in ice, Siberia looks as one imagines it ought – a barren, desolate wasteland.
The train, however, is well heated. Russian cities, too, look best and feel most ‘Russian’ under a layer of snow. St Petersburg, for example, is far more attractive in the winter months when the weather is crisp and skies clear. But if you want to spend time in any Siberian city you’ll find it more enjoyable to go in late spring, summer or autumn, when there is more to do.
In Siberia the heaviest snowfalls and coldest temperatures – as low as -40°C – occur in December and January. From late January to early April the weather is generally cold and clear. Spring comes late. In July and August it is warm enough for an invigorating dip in Lake Baikal. The birch and aspen provide a beautiful autumnal display in September and October.
The tourist season runs from May to September. In the low season, between October and April, some companies offer discounts on tours; you’ll also find it much easier to get a booking for the train at short notice at this time. During the summer it can be difficult to get a place on the popular Moscow–Beijing route without planning several weeks in advance.
The range of food and drink available on the train is improving and you can now buy delicacies such as beer, chocolate and biscuits from the dining car. Hawkers on station platforms also sell food, including bread, tomatoes, boiled eggs and boiled potatoes. Vodka is not sold on station platforms, but Russians always know where to find it!
Some travellers bring rucksacks filled with food; it’s more realistic to bring just fruit, cheese, biscuits and tea bags or coffee (with whitener and sugar if required) – hot water is always available from the samovar (hot-water urn) in each carriage. Other popular items include hot chocolate, dried soup, fruit-juice powder, peanut butter, Marmite, crackers and instant noodles.
Washing may present a problem. There are two ways to wash in the bathrooms: either fill the basin and use a mug to scoop out water and pour it over yourself; or bring a flexible shower hose to fit over the tap nozzle. Only the deluxe first-class compartments on the Trans-Mongolian 3/4 have showers.
Trans-Siberian Handbook (Trailblazer) by Bryn Thomas, the author of this article.
Trans-Siberian Railway (Lonely Planet)
In Siberia (Penguin) by Colin Thubron is the definitive travelogue.