Trans-Siberian


Trans-Siberian Railroad Journey from miles grimshaw on Vimeo.


The following is organized as follows:
  • planning a Trans-Siberian trip
  • thoughts and details about Moscow, Irkutsk / Listvyanka, and Mongolia
  • thoughts and reflections and advice on the trip in general, including info about life-on-the-train
  • further resources to check out

So I am thinking of taking the Trans-Siberian railroad. 

Fantastic! You are in for a real treat.

I have a lot of money, so how should I go about planning?

There are lots of travel agents / tour operators that will organize the entire thing for you. They organize trains, hotels in cities, guides etc. They usually have pre-organized packages you can choose from, or you can tell them which cities you want to see etc and they can organize from there.

But, in my humble opinion, you are missing out on half the fun of taking the Trans-Siberian railroad. Planning the trip from start to finish actually makes taking it so much more rewarding.

OK. I want to plan it myself. So where does the Trans-Siberian railroad go to and from?

There are three main Trans-Siberian journeys
  1. Trans-Siberian: Moscow to Vladivostok. 
    • Train number 2 eastbound / number 1 westbound
  2. Trans-Manchurian: Moscow to Beijing
    • Train number 20 eastbound / number 19 westbound
  3. Trans-Mongolian: Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia
    • Train number 4 eastbound / number 3 westbound
You can also add more spark to the journey by starting in say London and travelling via train to Moscow. For a great map of route options check out the map on Seat61.com here.

Do I just buy a ticket for one of those Trains?

Yes, but only if you want to go straight from Moscow to the destination without ever getting off. Except for the brief 4-30+ minute stops it makes at some stations and the hour long stops at any borders.

But what if I want to get off enroute? 

This is what makes planning the journey a little hard, but ultimately more rewarding when you set off. 

The most important thing to understand right from the start is that there is no such thing as a "trans-siberian train." That is, there is not one train that runs from Moscow to China that you can hop on and off of as you like. The Trans-Siberian railway, as wikepedia points out, is a network of railways that connects Moscow with eastern Russia, Mongolia, and China. When planning the trip it is important to realize that the Trans-Siberian is just a set of incredibly long train tracks many trains use. 

You have scared me a little, but I still want to go! I want to stop of at city A and B before arriving in Beijing. How do I do this?

As I mentioned, there are many trains along the Trans-Siberian railroad, so you are going to have to look at train schedules and decide which ones you want to take between the cities. There are probably many different train options to connect the cities and you will have to pick the ones that work best dependent on your schedule. 

So how do I find the train timetables?

You can start googling, but the one I used and recommend is on Seat61.com. You can find it here. I often cross-referenced this timetable against ones on other websites such as Real Russia.

But that timetable only has about 10 trains. I though you said there were hundreds?

There are. But that timetable only lists the major ones that travel a large stretch of the route. There are also lots of internal Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese trains that you can use to get between different cities in the respective countries.

NOTE: I would recommend sticking to those main trains listed on the Seat61 timetable unless you speak really good Russian and / or have a really strong desire to see certain smaller cities enroute. Given that I struggled to get people to help me in Moscow with directions etc, I think it would be next to impossible to get strangers to direct you in the smaller Russian towns. I think you would need to speak really good Russian or have a lot of time on your hands to make taking the smaller trains worthwhile. 

Furthermore, I think part of "fun" of the Trans-Siberian railroad is staying on one train for a super-extended period of time. If you get off at lots of cities along the way, you might never spend more than a day and night on the train. In my opinion this spoils a lot of the beauty of taking the journey in the first place. 

OK. This is a little confusing. How EXACTLY do you advice going about planning this trip?
  1. Type Trans-Siberian into google and start reading lots of the material available so you can get a sense of the journey, the cities along the way, etc. 
  2. Decide which of the three major routes you want to take.
  3. Decide roughly how much time you have to travel.
  4. Given that time, decide which cities you want to visit along the way.
  5. Then you have to use the timetable to start figuring out which train you will take between those cities, how long you can spend in each city given the available train times and your time constraints, etc. You just have to play with all the possible combinations until you hit on the one that fits best.
When I was planning my trip, I first decided that I wanted to start in Moscow, stop in Irkustk, stop in Mongolia, and then reach Beijing. I also decided I wanted almost a week in Mongolia to go on a trip there. I had a specific date that I had to be in Beijing by and I knew roughly when I could start. With all of that in mind, I started to play around with the train timetable. I tested out lots of different combinations of the trains list on Seat61.com until I settled on the ones that suited me best. 

My final itinerary was the following:
  • Moscow to Irkutsk (aka Lake Baikal) on train number 2
  • 2 days, 1 night in Listvyanke. Got there by bus from Irkutsk. 
  • Irkustk to Ulan-Bator (capital of Mongolia) on train number 362
  • 6 days in Mongolia on a wilderness trip
  • Ulan-Bator to Beijing on train number 24. 
So where do I book these tickets?

I used Real Russia to purchase my train tickets. They have an online application that can help you create your itinerary as well as a wealth of information about taking a Trans-Siberian journey and where you might want to stop off along the way. Ultimately though I did not use their online tools to book the tickets, instead I wrote them an email telling them which trains I wanted tickets for on which dates. They were quick to respond, and had up to date information about the latest train times that they provided me with. They also offered the best prices of all the other travel companies I contacted. They always responded to any emails I sent them right up until I left, and were always very helpful. I would highly recommend using them.

What about the cost of taking the trip?

The trip is not exactly cheap, but it is not prohibitively expensive. If you average it out per/day it is also very reasonable for a vacation. The trip I self-planned from Moscow to Beijing, all included probably ended up being slightly less than $2,500 per person. That includes train tickets, visas, accommodation, food, a trip within Mongolia, etc; basically everything I spend on the way from Moscow to Beijing. When I spoke to travel companies and asked them to organize the exact same trip, the typical starting price was a minimum of $5,000 and that excluded Visas, food, etc. 

Ger to Ger (see later section) = $230
Train Tickets = $730
Visas = $600+
Moscow Hostel = $30ish / night
Listvyanka Hotel = $35ish / night
Mongolia = $9 / night

So tell me about Moscow?!

I did not like Moscow. Plain and simple. I found the people unfriendly and extremely unwilling to help you out. It was an incredibly expensive city and I don't want to think about how much I spent on food at even the cheapest, fast food Russian eateries. That being said, there is some fascinating architecture, and I am glad I visited since I now know that there are places in the world I don't actually like. 

I stayed at the Day 'n' Night Hostel which was very well located in the city, reasonably priced, quiet, clean, and had a very friendly and helpful staff. It is run by a family and they take pride in the reputation of their hostel. The hostel is a stones throw away from most of the central locations in town, which makes it very easy to walk out the front door and just go explore the city. We never had to tackle the subway system. 

For food we enjoyed a restaurant called Moo Moo, which you can find by looking for a cow facade. I guess it would classify as Moscow fast food but it is better than that would imply. It is great because it is not too expensive, and you can see all the food before you buy it. This is useful if you can't read any Russian like me because it means you don't have to tackle any menus. 

Overall, I would advise skipping Moscow entirely and starting the trip in St. Persburg, as I detail below in the section about changes I would make if given a do-over. 

So tell me about Lake Baikal / Listvyanka? 

The Trans-Siberian passes through the town or Irkutsk, about a 1.5hr car ride from the shoreline of lake Baikal at Listvyanka. Irkutsk is a non-descript town that does have a few cultural highlights and a bustling market area, but it is not worth sticking around in too much. 

Listvyanka is a beautiful little sea-front town. It extends along the shoreline and up into beautiful valleys facing the lake. When I went in mid-June it was not crowded, although I hear it does get busy in mid-season around July. There is a wonderful little market right at then end of the main drag on the sea-front where you can buy fresh smoked Omul fish to eat while enjoying the natural beauty. There are some fairly big buildings that have sprung up to cater to tourists, but it did not feel overly commercialized. 

It is worth highlighting that there is not much in the town. It is a great place to relax, and there are activities that you could keep yourself occupied with, but it is fundamentally just a very peaceful, and beautiful resting place. I stayed for 2 full days, at which point I was rested and excited about continuing on with the journey. 

I stayed at the Baikal Chalet which was very charming, and nestled perfectly up in the last valley from the main street. It was a great full wood-timber lodge with fantastic views down the valley over the lake. It is pleasantly rustic and charming and made for a perfecting resting place. 

Another great option for accommodation in Listvyanka is Olga's Baikal Guesthouse. Olga is a fantastic guy full of energy and life. He runs a fantastic international guesthouse that is full of interesting characters. It is more of a traditional house so doesn't have some of the same charm as the Baikal Chalet, but it is also tucked up away in one of the valleys. 

I would definitely advise going to Olga's guesthouse to enjoy his banya. A banya is a very traditional Russian experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Olga's. He was excited to show us the tradition and made sure we had a thoroughly good time. It was definitely very cleansing after having spent 4 days and nights on a train. 

This website, Baikaler, looked like a good one for trips around Lake Baikal if you are interested. Unfortunately I didn't have time to do any of these, but the lake would be a fantastic place to do some outdoor activities, camping, etc.

There is also an extensive hiking trail network being built around the lake. Google for it and you will find it. This would be a fantastic way to explore the area if you have more time. I did meet someone who said they tried to do a little bit of it, and quickly got lost though, so I would advise a GPS or some safety equipment.

TIP: before you arrive, make sure you have a map of Listvyanka, and some idea of where your hostel is. There is no map in the lonely plant guidebook, so you will have to dig around. I found one in a Lake Baikal specific guidebook at the bookstore and then just hand copied it so I knew where our hostel was. It proved really useful for orientating ourselves upon arrival. 

So tell me about Mongolia?

I don't know where to start. Lets try for some single word adjectives: amazing, beautiful, nomadic, simple, cheap, friendly, unique, un-commercialized, pure, fantastic .....

Ulaanbaatar is a great city. There are a ton of other outgoing international backpackers who have been to all corners of the earth and are eager to meet you, share stories, and plan trips together. There are also lots of great cafes and restaurants to hang out in, and food is really cheap. There are also a couple of great bars and places for evening festivities. 

I stayed at the Golden Gobi Hostel which I could not recommend enough. The place has great hostel rooms, a fantastic staff, and an unbelievable crowd of fellow backpackers. It is centrally located as well which makes exploring the city easy. They are also constantly planning and sending out trips into the countryside, so you can be sure to find one that suits you (read more below). The rooms are also dirt cheap with a dorm room bed at about $5/night. They also have a great communal hang out area that is always bustling with people and makes for the perfect place to make new friends to explore Mongolia with. 

I want to take a trip into the countryside while in Mongolia. Advice!

Of course, no trip to Mongolia would be complete if you didn't get out into the countryside. If you enjoy the outdoors, I don't think you could ever get bored of Mongolia. You can travel by whatever means you want: horse, bike, camel, foot, scooter, roller blades. OK, roller blades might be a bit tough. You can go wherever you want and camp wherever you want since all the land is public. You will also meet fantastic Mongolian people are extremely welcoming and amazing hosts. 

You can plan your own trips, although if you are on a tight schedule this might not be a viable option. If you have time though, you will not be disappointed by just showing up in Ulaanbaatar and planning from there. It fact, I can guarantee with almost absolute certainty, you will have a fantastic and unforgettable experience. 

Since I was on a fairly tight schedule, and didn't have extra days to figure out my plans in Ulaanbaatar  (6 days in Mongolia), I decided to sign up for Ger to Ger. Everything was according to the description, but it was not nearly as "genuine" an experience as I was hoping for. We stayed in the family's extra yurt, and interaction with them was limited unless you actively sought it. You also felt like the family was in many ways putting on a more nomadic show for you, since that is what you came to Mongolia for, when really they lives a lot more modern lives. Altogether, the program did not disappoint, but I would not say it was fantastic. It was definitely not worth the price tag, although then again you are paying for the convenience of having it arranged for you. You definitely felt that they were clambering for as much money as they could squeeze from you though. You could tell it was a business all about the money. The face of caring about providing a genuine experience was very transparent.

The Golden Gobi Hostel does organize trips itself and I heard great reviews from people who had been on them. There were constantly trips returning while we were there, and everyone come back with massive grins and was clambering to tell their stories. I think there trips were much more "nomadic" and "genuine" and at least you got the impression they were more focused on your enjoyment and you having a captivating experience in Mongolia, than purely trying to drain your wallet. The price-tag of their trips was also noticeably lower for comparable trips with Ger to Ger. If you were on a tight schedule you could email them before you came and I am sure they happily arrange the trips over email so you could be sure to get what you wanted. The staff are just fantastic. 

Is Mongolia As "Nomadic" As It Is Made Out To Be?

Ummm, not quite. A lot of the "nomadic" families we saw had solar panels for electricity, and some even had TVs. They also often had cell phones, a pickup truck, and maybe a motorbike. Also, they tend to wear typical western clothes beneath there farm / traditional clothes.

That being said, it is still in many ways what I imagine the "Western Frontier" as having been like. You can get on horseback, or bike, or camel, or .... and head out to wherever you want to explore. People are friendly, and there is little in terms of modernization outside of Ulaanbaatar. Even you enjoy the outdoors, it doesn't get too much better.

For more check out these two posts I wrote on Mongolia: post one, and post two.

It sounds like you had quite the adventure!

Why thanks. Im happy to be sharing it

But what changes would you make to your trip if you had the chance to do it again?
There is only one MAJOR change I could think of. I would not start in Moscow. As I have written above, I did not enjoy Moscow and was happy to get on the train and leave when the time came. Instead, if given the chance to do it all again, I would choose to start in St. Petersburg. I have heard wonderful things about St. Persburg both from Trans-Siberian travelers I met, and others who have visited. I would take train number 10, the Baikal, that goes directly from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk. 

OK. What about some practical information for taking the trip. What to bring, etc?

FOOD: all the trains will have a food car attached, although I found that often the food served in them wasn't fantastic, was over-priced, and at times the car was too full you couldn't order even if you wanted to. As such, all the food we ate was just stuff we picked up on the platforms etc. This mostly consisted of breads, baked goods, and lots of packaged foods you could expect to find in small corner stores anywhere in the world: biscuits, chips, candy, etc. Nothing very healthy and it quickly got very bland. I would definitely advise stocking up on some more exotic stuff before you get on the train in Moscow. Don't get crazy, but get things from a supermarket that you think will be hard to find along the way. I'm not talking noodles; those you can find anywhere. I am talking granola say, or good health bars.

Also, food is a great thing to share with fellow travelers so bring a little extra if you can, and you will be sure to have a more bountiful feast along the way.

There is very little in the way of Trans-Siberian specific things that I can suggest to bring that wouldn't be included in any normal train / backpacking list. I would make sure you have a couple things to occupy you on the train, although I wouldn't go mad. You will spend a lot of time just chatting, watching the scenery etc. Cards, and any small games to get you and your train-mates socializing are great though.
I would also suggest a small bag that you can put your essentials in and carry with you when you get off at platforms, or wonder the train etc. This way you don't have to worry about your stuff.

Tell me about the day in the life of taking the Trans-Siberian?

Well, the first thing to note is that as you go east the clocks start to move, but the train tends to stay on Moscow time. This means that if you continue to get up at the same time, say 9am, by the time you get to eastern Russia, 9am will be like 12pm. This just means when you get up it will be very light out.

But more importantly, I basically spend my days rotating through the following activities:
  1. reading
  2. watching the scenery go by
  3. talking with cabin mates
  4. sleeping
  5. reading the Lonely Planet Guidebook about what we were passing
  6. running around platforms finding food when the train stopped
  7. writing
  8. naping
  9. eating
  10. waiting desperately for the bathroom since it gets locked at some stations
  11. sitting and thinking of nothing
  12. sitting and thinking of something very bizarre
  13. contemplating how distorted my perception of time had become and how I can't actually recall how long I have been on the train, or what I did which day ..... 
Basically, there aint that much to do.

You can also check out this post I wrote about train life.

That sounds really boring. I am not sure I could stand that. Why would you do it?

If you stop and think about it though, having such a limited set of possibilities of what you can do is an extremely rare experience. The majority of us are constantly plugged into the "grid," and surrounded by far too much information that we know what to do with (sorry for contributing to it, but I hope it is helpful). To be able to unplug from everything and read a book, just watch the world pass by, and let your mind wonder is a fantastic experience. When I got off the train after 3 days / 4 nights from Moscow to Irkutsk, I couldn't really distinguish between the days, what I did, what time I did it, etc. My sense of time had become so distorted. The days became one big massive but awesome blur in which time and activity hadn't mattered. It is a rare experience to not really be able to say what you did when because normally are lives are so heavily scheduled. Taking the time to enjoy doing NOTHING was something I will never regret; it was a strange and fantastic experience.

Any further thoughts?

Before I left, a friend said to me: "You are really going to get a sense of just how big the world really is."

I think this is a fantastic comment and something about the experience that I really valued. To sit on a train and appreciate just how far away from home you were really going was mind-blowing. With aeroplans, technology, and globalization, no country really feels mystical, and far-away any more. But the reality of it is that we are still a long way away from one another, and these are still very different places, cultures, and people. To take the train was to appreciate not only their geographic separation, but also their cultural separation." China is a mystical and far-away place with a very different culture and people, but it is easy to underestimate if you just hope on a plane and arrive 12hrs later. The train allowed my anticipation of spending 6 months in China to build to the extent that I was super excited to finally arrive. I felt like I deserved to be there, not just decided one day and then got on a plane.

Any suggestions for where to look for further information?

Seat 61 is the best place to start thinking about your trip, and to continue to find useful information as you plan it, and even to imagine what it will be like before you travel.
Way To Russia is also another fantastic resource to explore to learn more about embarking on a Trans-Siberian journey, the places along the way, etc.
The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian book is also a great resource not only to help you plan before hand, but to have on hand during the trip as you hope to find cafes, learn about sights, etc along the way.

A Fantastic Trans-Siberian picture gallery, and more pictures can also be found here. For all my blog-posts on the Trans-Siberian prior to writing this click here