Riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad

The Trans-Siberian railroad connects Moscow with Mongolia and China, stretching across European Russia into Asia. The route was completed in 1913 and spans nearly 6,000 miles (one-third of the way around the world) and eight time zones. Today the line carries goods across the continent and transports mostly Russian passengers, though many foreign tourists also come along for the journey – not only to visit towns along the way, but also to experience one of the world’s great rail journeys.

Getting Started

trans-siberian-piero-sierraTrains obviously run in both directions, journeying to or from Moscow with stops at several cities along the way. There are actually three routes to choose from – ending (or beginning) in Mongolia or Beijing. It’s possible to stay on the train the whole way through, or to schedule stops (of a single night or several days) along the way. If your itinerary is flexible, don’t book your tickets in advance all at once. This way, if you find yourself wanting to explore a particular city for a few extra days, you will have the freedom to do so. A non-stop journey takes less than a week, but with added days at each end of the trip and a few overnight stops, at least two weeks is recommended.

Buying Tickets

Russian websites can be difficult to navigate. The easiest option is to work with a package tour operator, though this will cost you considerably more. Several European railway companies like Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and Czech Railways, also sell tickets for the Trans-Siberian. Roundtrip tickets can cost around 350-500 Euros. Buying tickets piecemeal as you go will be slightly more expensive (around 400 Euros one way) but will allow you more flexibility. If you plan on going this route, be sure to bring along a Russian phrasebook as ticket agents often don’t speak English. A reservation supplement of 30-60 Euros is also included for 4-berth sleepers (the cheapest option).

Stops Along the Way

The most commonly used route stops in Moscow, several smaller cities in Russia, Mongolia and China and ends in Beijing. Along the way, many people will get off for a day or two at Irkutsk, Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk (for Soviet history) and spend several days experiencing the unique rural culture of Mongolia.

What to Bring

All trains have a constant supply of boiling water,  toilets, and a restaurant, but it’s still wise to bring some of your own snacks and bottled water (bought at each stop) to cut down on costs. Deluxe and First Class berths sleep two and some have showers or even TVs and DVD players. Berths are small, and if you plan on getting off at multiple stops you don’t want to be carrying around tons of luggage, so pack light using a single bag. A Russian phrasebook, guidebook on the region, and train timetables will also come in handy. Remember that you’ll be spending several days on a train and that, other than looking out the window and taking pictures or talking to fellow travelers, there won’t be much to do. Bring a few books or some travel games to help pass the time.

The Experience

Days on the train tend to go by in a blur. The landscape slowly changes and the names of the stops change from Russian to Chinese, but other than that each day is the same, especially if you stay on the train the whole time. You’ll wake for breakfast, spend some time looking at the day’s landscape, and then have a chance to get off the train for fresh air and a bit of stretching at one of the day’s stops. Most days, the train will stop by about 20 minutes, long enough for you to take a walk around the station, purchase a few supplies and snap a few pictures of the nearby town. Then it’s back on the train where you might head to the dining car for lunch or dinner, some Russian vodka, and the chance to make some new friends among the native Russians or other travelers along for the ride. As the sun sets over the passing landscape, you’ll lie in your birth, reading a book, reviewing the day’s photos, or simply relaxing before you fall asleep to the gentle rocking of the train.

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