This is it folks- I’ve come to the end of the first leg of my trip, being the Trans Siberian railway from Moscow, through Russia and Siberia, then hopping on the Trans Mongolian railway through Mongolia and terminating in Beijing. It’s been an unreal experience and I hope this post comes in handy to anyone planning such a trip.
For me, what makes the Trans Siberian so interesting is that you’re traversing through a slice of the whole of Russia. And it’s a massive country! The train journey alone from Moscow to my last stop before entering Mongolia was 5642 km! The scenery, cities, towns and villages you pass through are extremely diverse too and the closer one gets to Mongolia and China, the more you will notice a change in culture. It’s got to be seen to be believed! I almost feel that the country gets poorer and more varied the further you get from Moscow- a Russian lady I met on the train agreed. She believes Moscow sucks the life and money (in the form of natural resources) from all the villages in Russia.
I chose to adopt a hop on- hop off approach to the train journey in order to fully experience the Russian and Mongolian way of life. I’ve written about these stops in my previous posts and I really recommend that you adopt a similar plan too. Watching the passing Siberian landscape through a train window is nothing short of poetic but getting out there and waking the streets of the cities is a must.
How to plan your journey:
There is a multitude of different cities you can chose to stop in on your way through Russia. Some are certainly more interesting that others. In fact, some you really don’t want to stop in at all as you might just die of boredom. I had one of these stops and it’s not fun. You want to research your stops in Russia properly before you go ahead buying tickets. I used a combination of the Trans Siberian Lonely Planet and WikiTravel (which I’m increasingly using as my go to reference guide).
From Moscow, I chose to stop in Vladimir (2 nights), Yekaterinburg (4 nights), Krasnoyarsk (1 night), Irkutsk (3 nights but did a trek out to Lake Baikal- maybe an hour out of town), and Ulan-Ude (2 nights) before entering Mongolia.
How would I have done this differently? First off, I’d cut my stay in Yekaterinburg down to a day. There’s nothing happening there but it’s handy as a shower stop. The train trips are very long, some going up to longer than a day at a time depending on your chosen destination. Having a stop for a night to shower and eat a proper meal is a great idea. I also would have cut Ulan Ude down to just one day.
Secondly, I’d have added a city called Novosibirsk into my plan- every traveler I’ve met that has been there speaks highly of it.
Not to miss:
You can’t miss Irkutsk for the primary reason that is the main access point for lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world. You can read more about it here. This was certainly one highlight of my trip.
Many people overlook Vladimir as it’s still so close to Moscow but I really enjoyed my time here- it’s quaint, has excellent places to eat and drink, and the whole vibe is laid back and chilled. After Moscow, a bit of a rest is required!
How to buy tickets?
You don’t get a hop on-hop off ticket to the Trans Siberian. You need to plan a route in advance and buy individual train tickets for each leg. I didn’t want to take the chance and risk navigating the language barrier and buying my train tickets myself, so I enlisted a company called Real Russia which I thoroughly recommend. They provide an excellent service for a really reasonable service fee. I am really chuffed with this decision- my experience with the Russian language to date has been nothing short of dismal.
A quirk you need to be aware of when navigating the Russian railways is the time zones. Russia crosses multiple time zones as you head further east. Instead of the different train stations displaying arrival and departure information in the local time (i.e. how airports do so), all times are displayed in Moscow time which can get a little confusing if you aren’t expecting it!
Try and get to the station about an hour before departure. The trains generally arrive 20 minutes before their scheduled departure time and they are extremely punctual- they literally leave on the scheduled minute. Navigating the various platforms is easy enough. I only had an issue in Ulan Ude where there isn’t an electronic departure board so you rely on information from locals, which isn’t entirely accurate (I actually nearly missed my train there).
Life on the train:
You have 3 types of tickets, namely first, second and third class.
First class- 2 passengers per room, shared toilet between 2 rooms.
Second class- 4 passengers per room, shared bathroom per carriage.
Third class- more dormitory style accommodation with a shared bathroom per carriage. I’ve heard it isn’t really bad at all, just the expected lack of privacy and deteriorating cleanliness of the facilities.
I opted for second class tickets which were super. Clean bedding is provided so need to worry about bringing a sleeping bag. In winter, the train is heated as well.
Your diet will mostly consist of noodles you will buy before you depart and copious amounts of tea and biscuits. I’d recommend you buy all your supplies before getting to the station as although there are little shops on the platform at most stops, variety is limited and a premium is charged. Ask the provinista (carriage matron) for a bowel, cup, fork, etc. No need to bring your own.
You can also buy the odd food item from the dining carriage on the train. I primarily utilized the dining carriage as a source of cold beer – 200 rubles for a big beer- sign me up. Multiple times please.
The people you’ll meet:
From what I experienced, Russians view the train in much the same way that I view a domestic flight- it’s a means from getting from A to B. Tourists, however see it totally differently- it’s an expedition through raw, rural Russia and Siberia where the scenery will never bore you.
I met Russian families in my carriage, complete with young kids, business people and travelers from around the world. English isn’t widely spoken so there will be instances where a Russian passenger boards the train at one of the numerous stops and apart from greeting one another, you won’t speak another word to them for the next 12 hours. You will also meet local travelers who are fascinated to hear about your country, your travels and what you think of Russia. Invariably, this will happen over food and vodka. It’s quite special to be traversing through the wild landscape of Siberia in the middle of the night, drinking vodka with a stranger and conversing in some form of broken Russian/English. I guess that’s what traveling is all about in the end.
The Russian/Mongolian border crossing:
Much like any other overland border crossing- it takes a long time! It took us about 6 hours in total, of which most of that time was waiting. The actual formalities couldn’t have taken longer than 30 minutes. Make sure you have enough water and food. Sun screen is really needed here- chance are you’ll leave the train and wait on the platform where there isn’t shade for 100kms!
Your biggest expenses will be the train tickets. Mine cost me around the GBP500 mark which I think is a sweet deal considering the distance you’re covering.
Accommodation: I never spent more than $7 a night.
Everything else: Honestly, apart from the train tickets, you can get through Russia and Mongolia for $30 – $40 a day. I didn’t find it nearly as expensive as I anticipated.
That’s all for now folks – I’ll get in touch again in China.