The Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the world’s epic train journeys. Stretching across two continents, the railway links the frigid north Pacific to the Baltic Sea. Between these points lie the world’s largest freshwater lake, the Forbidden City, the Kremlin, the Mongolian steppe, and untouched miles of taiga.
For travelers planning a Trans-Siberian journey, the initial steps can be the most confusing. This Europeupclose.com series will track the journey from beginning to end – from the first plans to the final station. Here are some decisions you’ll need to make before you depart.
Choose a Route
The classic Trans-Siberian route begins in Moscow and takes seven days nonstop. The train ends at Vladivostok, a scruffy port town at the edge of the Pacific. Until recent times closed to foreigners, Vladivostok now has a mix of Chinese and other Asian immigrants and a distinctly workaday feel. It lacks major tourist attractions, but the city is good for a few days of wandering. For travelers continuing east, Vladivostok offers onward ferries to Korea or Japan.
The Trans-Manchurian route travels almost the entire length of Russia before dipping into China at the end. After passing Lake Baikal and the city of Chita, the train turns southeast. This route might interest winter travelers, who can stop off in the northern Chinese city of Harbin for the spectacular annual ice festival. The final stop is Beijing, from which travelers can continue on or fly home from the international airport.
The Trans-Mongolian route traverses three countries, turning south into Mongolia before terminating in Beijing. This is the best route for travelers who want a varied experience. After several thousand miles of Russia, the train takes in the wild, rolling beauty of the Mongolian steppe. A stop in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, allows travelers to spend time in one of Asia’s least explored countries. Again, the terminus in Beijing provides onward travel options.
Both the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian routes add the obligation of obtaining a Chinese tourist visa. For those who have survived the Russian visa process (see article #1 – How To Apply for a Russian Visa), this may seem like onerous territory. We highly advise obtaining the Chinese visa in your home country before you leave.
Choose a Train
Unless on a strict budget, Trans-Siberian travelers should try to book trains with lower numbers, such as 2, 6, or 20. The low numbers are express trains, also called “firm trains” or “firmenny,” and are designed for long-distance travelers. High-number trains serve more local routes, stop more often, and have less comfortable amenities. Eastbound trains are even-numbered; westbound are odd-numbered.
The “Rossiya” (eastbound train #2) travels the 6,000 miles back and forth from Moscow to Vladivostok. The most classic of all the trains, the Rossiya tends to be a pure Russian experience. Businessmen traveling to and from the western metropolises or residents going long distances to visit family usually take this train. The cars have a subdued feeling – until you make friends with a few Russians, who may invite you to endless sessions of vodka drinking and snacking.
The “Baikal” (#10) runs from Moscow to Irkutsk. Visitors intending to disembark at Lake Baikal will find this a good option. Like the “Rossiya,” the “Baikal” is fast and relatively clean.
International trains ply the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian routes. Often the dining cars (and sometimes the staff) change with each country. These trains have a more international mix of passengers, including Chinese businessmen, Mongolian herders, leisure travelers, backpackers, and Russians heading to Asia for business. The #4 has developed a reputation as the most social train, with travelers often mixing to share stories and meals. Train #20 runs the Trans-Manchurian route from Moscow; #4 runs the Trans-Mongolian through Ulan Bator.
For travelers planning to stop off at various locations, taking local trains may prove a good budget option. While these trains might not be comfortable over long distances, they can serve perfectly well for shorter legs of the journey.
Choose a Class
There are three sleeper classes: platzcart, kupe, and sleeping wagon. The cheapest option, platzcart, has open sleeping compartments of eight beds each. Platzcart is social and not very private. The second-class option, kupe, has 4-bed compartments. Slightly cleaner and more private, the kupe cars also have locks for the doors. The top-class travel option is a private 2-bed car called sleeping class. Quite expensive, it provides the most luxurious experience, and is often used by business travelers and those for whom comfort is a priority.
All sleeper cars have access to a bathroom (varying in cleanliness by class and train), as well as the all-important samovar. The carriage attendant, or provinista, is in charge of keeping the car in order and the samovar constantly filled with hot water.
Decide When to Travel
Each season provides a distinctly varied travel experience. Travelers interested in a frosty Siberian landscape will need to bundle up in winter; January temperatures in Irkutsk can be around -15ºF. In summer, the big cities can become uncomfortably hot, but the weather in smaller Siberian towns is often mild and good for hiking. Late spring and early fall are pleasant and less touristy times to travel.
Decide Whether to Ride Through or Stop Off
Some die-hards advocate a full commitment to the Trans-Siberian. They claim that a true traveler rides from Moscow to Vladivostok without leaving the train, just watching the miles accumulate. Something of an aesetic experience, the ride-through is more about the journey itself than about enjoying one’s vacation (unless you are particularly fond of instant noodles).
But for many, such a trial of endurance does not sound particularly enticing. Most travelers prefer to get on and off the Trans-Siberian at various points, spending a few days here and there to break up the monotony. This method has the added bonus of giving the traveler access to some of Russia’s most spectacular sights. Popular stop-off points along the route include Novosibirsk, Ekaterinaberg, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, and Ulan-Ude, as well as Harbin (on the Trans-Manchurian) and Ulan Bator (on the Trans-Mongolian).
Where, how often, and for how long you stop is another important decision to be made prior to depature. Impulsively stopping in a picturesque town may seem exciting, but in fact, it may strand you. You will be unable to reboard any train on your old ticket, and will be forced to purchase a new ticket. No single, all-applicable “Trans-Siberian” fare exists; each train has its own tickets and prices. Travelers must purchase separate tickets for each leg of the journey.
However, don’t let this discourage you from disembarking in search of adventure. The entire length of Russia awaits discovery. Choosing to spend a few days in a Siberian village just might be the best choice you’ll make.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer for EuropeUpClose.com
This is the first of a series of articles offering advice and travel tips based on Caitlin Dwyer’s experience riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. Watch for her next post, ‘Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway: What to Bring.’ You may also be interested in her previous article: How to apply for a Russian Visa.