A Guide To The Trans-Siberian Railway

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A Guide To The Trans-Siberian Railway

Written by travel writer Fiona from Passport and Piano,

The Trans-Siberian railway is an epic adventure although not one that you should undertake lightly. For any train enthusiast or nomadic wanderer this journey is held in high regard, but why?

Probably because it’s the longest stretch of railway in the world, covering an epic 9,258km (6,152 miles) and taking seven days to complete. I love to travel beyond the ordinary; hence this journey appealed.

How To Plan Your Trans-Siberian Railway Journey And What You Need To Know

There are three main routes on the Trans Siberian railway:

  • Moscow to Vladivostok
  • Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia
  • Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria

The most common route for European travelers is the Trans Mongolian Railway. This is the route I took starting in Beijing and finishing in St Petersburg. The journey from Beijing takes you across the Gobi desert, Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow and then St Petersburg.

You can complete the route in 7 days, but it’s well worth making a few stops along the way.

We made the journey over three weeks which worked well.

Buying Your Trans-Siberian Railway Tickets

Although you can purchase tickets yourself, it’s not the easiest of routes to book. There are the necessary visas to obtain, stops to plan and time zones to consider. You also need to purchase all visa’s and tickets in advance, so the journey requires a considerable amount of planning.

The easiest way is to book through an agency or embark on a tour. It’s quite common to break the route into sections, but each part requires a separate ticket. Hence we opted for an organized trip which we booked through Sundowners.

Most tour operators use the regular service trains, but there are also luxury trains that travel across all routes at considerable expense.

You can book these through Golden Eagle Luxury Trains which is a company that has an excellent reputation.

Trans-Siberian Train Departures

The trains leave promptly, so it’s advisable to get to the stations at least 30 minutes beforehand if not more.

Many of the stations are poorly signposted, and people around the stations often don’t speak English. For these reasons, it’s essential to give yourself plenty of time to find the train.

Train Times In Russia

Regardless of what time zone you are in, all Russian trains depart at the time in Moscow. Catching a train at a different time to what’s on the clock is confusing. You need to be on top of the maths or put the settings in the world clock on your phone.

Choosing Which Class To Travel In

The Trans-Siberian Railway carriages are virtually identical. All compartments have plug sockets for charging your laptops, mobile phones, etc. Storage space is limited particularly in 2nd class as there will likely be 4 of you in the cabin.

Trans-Siberian Railway: First Class 

First class on most of the Trans-Siberian route merely implies a cabin to yourself.

They can still have two sets of bunk beds, but you’ll get the room to yourself. However, on the Irkutsk to Moscow train, there was a notable difference.

Trans-Siberian Railway: Second Class

Each compartment, known as a kupé, sleeps four with two sets of bunk beds. There’s a chamber under each of the lower bunks for storing suitcases and rucksacks, but fitting everything in it can be challenging.

Occasionally you’ll find additional storage above the bed. This is small, although it will accommodate a book or an iPad.

Locks On The Cabin Doors

Some trains operate a keycard system which is, of course, fantastic. However, others don’t have very secure locks so make sure you bring a travel lock for your bags with you.

Trans-Siberian Railway Bathroom Facilities

There is usually at least one small toilet at the end of each train compartment, but there are no showers. The sinks do not have plugs, so it’s wise to pack one along with some dry shampoo.

Restaurant Carriage

Every train has a restaurant carriage which also serves as a meeting point and day room.  The food, however, is terrible. The Trans-Siberian may be one of the worlds most famous routes, but the restaurant cab needs to learn a thing or two from other renowned train journeys. The choice is somewhat limited, so bring some provisions – especially if you have any specific kind of dietary requirements.

Food is often in short supply, and by the end of each leg, it is not uncommon for the restaurant to have little left. The options are dull at best with stew or borscht being the highlight. You can also get a salad, but when I ordered it, it came as just a plate of lettuce – undressed and with nothing added.

Trans-Siberian Railway Tip: if you want cucumber or tomato in your salad you have to order it separately.  Take care if you do eat the salad as its unlikely that the kitchen used bottled water to wash it.

Take Your Own Food

Russian-Food_Pirozhki_

I’d thankfully packed lots of dried soup and noodles in my rucksack. There’s a hot water urn at the end of each carriage, but don’t forget to pack a good travel mug to make it in.  Dried food, however, isn’t that appealing and although I substituted it with crackers, crisps and other snacks feeling hungry became a daily experience.

What you have to hope for is that they’ll be a delightful babushka at one of the small stations. These old ladies make a living from ensuring their hotPirozhki are devoured by passengers when the train makes a brief stop.

The potato and cabbage filling is delicious in these small savory pastries. They are a little greasy as I think they’re deep -fried but when you’re hungry trust me, you don’t mind.

Border Crossings

Thirty minutes before a train arrives at a border crossing the guards lock the toilet doors. They remain out of use until the train is moving again on the other side which can be several hours.

Trans-Siberian Railway Tip: Go to the toilet well in advance of the scheduled stops.

Trans-Siberian Railway: China Into Mongolia

The most exciting part of crossing from China into Mongolia is the changing of the wheel bogies. Once the passport officials leave the train the carriages are shunted (rather abruptly and without warning) into a shed. You have to stay on the train while this happens, but you can lean out of the window and watch.

The carriages have the Chinese wheels taken off, by hand which takes time. Then Hydraulic lifts raise the compartments about  4 inches into the air.

The boogies are pushed along the track by the new ones which are slightly smaller and then the carriage is lowered. Finally, you’re forced along to the Mongolian customs area which takes several hours. It was 3.30am before we were underway again!

Trans-Siberian Railway: Mongolia Into Russia

At the border, the train comes to a halt and its a waiting game for the Mongolian officials to arrive and check your passport. It takes several hours, but at least you’re free to get off and visit the bathroom and get some fresh air.

When the officials have finished checking all passports, the train is allowed to proceed to the Russian border slowly.

By this time the inside of our cabin was stiflingly hot. The temperature outside was about 30 degrees when we were there in August. With no air conditioning on board the train, the heat was almost unbearable. There are several forms to fill in before you can gain entry into Russia and everyone is given strict instructions not to leave your cabin.

September and October is a better time to travel as the daily temperature is slightly cooler.

Our tour guide Jessie had warned us that the authorities here could be quite intimidating. Her advice was to say nothing and do as they say. She was not wrong; it was quite a terrifying experience, to be honest.

What To Expect At The Russian Border

The guards, carry armed weapons and regularly point at you with the gun to move things for them. They take the mattresses off the bed and riffle through everyone’s rucksacks. Literally, they search the whole cabin and only when they are satisfied, do they take your passports and disappear. Several hours later you get your passport back, and the officials then allow you to get off the train. Below is what I wrote in my travel diary.

” Having used the rather disgusting toilets on the platform, we made our way over to the little market, which is commonplace at these stations. As usual, there was nothing but food stalls which were surrounded by flies due to the unrefrigerated meat.

The guards were still making their way down the carriage, and each cabin was taking at least 30 minutes. Even after grabbing a couple of hours sleep we were still stationary. In total it took around 11 hours to cross the Russian border, and that was with just two carriages on the train. It was not exactly a warm welcome into Russia.”

The Journey Through Russia

Church of the Saviour in Irkuts, Russia
Church of the Saviour in Irkutsk

From the border, the journey is long and tedious with frequent stops at small stations interrupting the momentum.  

However, as the sun starts to go down the scenery, at last, becomes more inviting. There are some beautiful lakes and rivers in-between the old villages and industrial plants filled with tree felling cranes. Finally, the train pulls into Irkutsk around 8 am, and there is a massive sigh of relief from everyone.

Irkutsk

This town is one of the most popular stops on the Trans-Siberian railway, and most people disembark the train here as did we. The center of Irkutsk is a UNESCO world heritage site and only 70 km away from Lake Baikal.

Hence the reason why most people chose to stopover. Wooden buildings are a feature of the town, and many of the buildings have colorful facades with intricately patterned designs.

It’s worth exploring the many churches, and you can easily walk around the city.  The eastern orthodox architecture is striking even if the religious icons are a little overwhelming.  You can also enjoy a leisurely boat ride down the Angara River which has some marvelous scenery to admire along the banks.

Lake Baikal

A visit to Lake Baikal is a must, and most tours include a stop at the wooden museum of architecture. The open-air museum is a collection of original wooden houses that represent the lifestyle of 16th to 19th century Russia. The stunning vistas of the surrounding hills and the bank of the Angara River provide a picturesque backdrop to the village. The guide gives an informative talk as you walk around the beautifully crafted log buildings.

Unfortunately, the weather was rather bleak as we headed to Lake Baikal, and the remoteness of this location felt increasingly isolated. Legend has it that if you take a swim in the lake, you will look 25 years younger, but I wimped out after taking a paddle. Freezing does not describe the temperature of the water here.

Before boarding the train, we also took a look round the Irkutsk regional museum. There’s not much worth seeing here, but World War II memorabilia is interesting. I was shocked to learn that Russian people had a coupon book for food rations until 1992.

Irkutsk to Moscow

Leaving Irkutsk, I was slightly apprehensive about the journey ahead; it would take three full days and nights traveling across several time zones to get to Moscow.

For the first time on this journey, however, there was a proper first-class carriage, and it was notably cleaner and brighter than all the previous carriages we’d traveled

on. Instead of dingy colored curtains, there were nice, bright ones made from red velvet. Our cabin also had wooden paneling on the walls, a silk table cloth, velvet seats, and an LCD television – Maybe the next three days aboard the train wouldn’t be so bad after all.

We settled in and were immediately offered a cup of coffee by the attendant who also insisted upon making up our beds for us. The bedding was much better too; it almost looked brand new. The blankets were lovely and soft as opposed to the old, itchy sort we’d had on the last leg.

Passing The Time On The Journey

There’s little to do on the train so bring a good book to occupy yourself.  Chatting to other passengers is, of course, an excellent way to relieve the boredom. Joining a card game was another fantastic way to break the monotony. I avoided the drinking sessions of vodka, but there’s plenty if you wish to participate!

Moscow

After three long days, onboard the train we arrived in Moscow. There had been some highlights, at times the scenery had been beautiful, and at others it was sparse. A little obelisk marks the entrance into Europe from Asia. It is a triumphant but swift milestone as the train doesn’t stop. However, you feel a remarkable sense of achievement having traveled so far across the land.

What’s The Capital Of Russia Like?

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

The architecture in this city is gobsmackingly grand, but as a tourist is not the most accessible city to navigate.  While you can get street maps in English, signposts are usually in Cyrillic, so it pays to know your Russian alphabet.

The easiest way to see the city is to take a tour, but be warned Russian guides are thorough.  They will show and tell you about everything. This may sound great, but I found it a little overwhelming to the point of tedious and if you interrupt them, they don’t like it.

That said there are some fantastic things to see in Moscow. The state university building is worth a visit, and the view from Sparrow Hill is charming. You should also check out the Seven Sisters, a building which reminded me of the Empire State Building and the WWII Memorial.

St Basil’s Cathedral

Red Square and Basil Cathedral

Of course, any trip to Moscow would not be complete without seeing St Basil’s Cathedral. Its’ brightly colored domes are so iconic that the cathedral is instantly recognizable. Inside there are lots of small chapels and corridors which are crammed almost floor to ceiling with religious icons.

The Underground

It’s also worth spending half a day exploring the underground. Most stations are magnificent and are often adorned with marble from floor to ceiling. Some even have grand chandeliers, beautiful statues, and mosaics.

Red Square

If you like people watching Red Square is the place to be. Red means beautiful in Russian, and the Square certainly is a thing of beauty. At one end is the noticeable red building of the State History Museum and at the other end sits St Basil’s Cathedral. The red wall of the Kremlin and Lenin’s red tomb dominate the square. You have to queue for several hours to go inside.

Sadly due to the black market people were forever buying their way to the front of the queue. Inside, your visit will be brief as the guards do not allow anyone to stop or point at the body. It’s quite a surreal experience that could only happen in Russia.

The Kremlin

The Kremlin, of course, is another place you should not miss. It’s like a small town of its own. On the main street, there is a massive canon, the biggest in the world apparently although thankfully it has never been used.

The worlds largest bell also resides here. However, it has never been used as unfortunately, it cracked before its completion. The chapels here are impressive too with more icons to admire, and of course, the tombs of many great Tsars reside inside. The Armoury is full of gold on an epic scale. There’s also a collection of Faberge eggs and exquisite fabrics embroidered with precious stones so make sure you don’t miss this section of the Kremlin.

We wrapped up our stay in Moscow with a trip to the ballet. The Bolshoi theatre is remarkable, and the performance of Sleeping Beauty was even more so.

Moscow to St Petersburg

The last leg of our epic journey was the overnight sleeper train to St Petersburg. This is a comfortable journey to make, and the carriages are much better in quality than the others along the route. The train leaves Moscow at midnight and arrives in St Petersburg at 8 am.

St Petersburg is full of grandeur. The wealth of palaces and mansions is incredible, and most have elaborate white pillars with grand staircases. Many have beautiful yellow facades, and it’s worth taking a tour to see some.

The City is truly beautiful, and the canals reminded me of Venice or Amsterdam. The buildings that line the embankments, however, are much grander.

Things to see in St Petersburg

The top two places to explore are the Hermitage Centre and Winter Palace. The palace is highly elaborate and decadent inside with its marque floors, crystal chandeliers, and decorative moldings. The pictures of the Tsars are magnificent. It’s hard to describe the profoundly beautiful and remarkable interior of this palace; you have to see it to believe it.

There’s more artwork to admire in the Hermitage center but when I visited it was heaving with tourists which slightly spoiled the atmosphere. Try and visit first thing or at a quiet time of year if you want to admire some of the great works on display here.

A trip around the canals is, of course, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and if you want to learn more about the Tsars a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress is worthwhile. The gold leaf that decorates the main cathedral is stunningly beautiful, and the tombs of the Tsars are easy to distinguish as they have a gold symbol engraved on the white marble. The gravestones of the Romanov’s are in a separate chapel.

Our last port of call before ending this fabulous trip across Asia and Russia was the Grand Palace at Peterhof. It takes about 30 minutes to get there on the hydrofoil.

While it’s an expensive day out the cascading fountains and gold statues are well worth seeing. As of course is the highly decorative Palace.

A trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, do you now feel prepared to take this epic journey?

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