How to Travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

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The Trans-Siberian Railroad connects Europe to Asia through the length of Russia. Crossing 15 times zones, it is the third-longest continuous train service in the world. Planning for travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway can be confusing and frustrating, but it will be the journey of a lifetime. The world will be your playground as the Trans-Siberian opens numerous travel opportunities. For example, utilising the Trans-Siberian means you can travel from London to Japan without planes. It means you can travel from Spain to Thailand. You can see the Ural Mountains, the Gobi desert, Siberia, the Northern Lights, the Great Wall of China, and the world.

Skill level:
Moderate

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Things you need

  • Passport
  • Russian Visa
  • Tickets
  • Belarus Visa (to/from London)
  • China Visa (if going to China)
  • Drinking cup
  • Towel and soap
  • Clothes for seasonal weather

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Decide where you will start and end your journey. Heading eastbound, consider Vladivostok, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Saigon, Shanghai, Bangkok, Hanoi or Singapore. You can start at either end of the railway and be connected by ship, train, or bus to numerous exciting locations in Asia and Europe. Some sample routes and final destinations: Moscow to Vladivostok leaves every second day-train No. 2 eastbound and train No. 1 westbound. From Vladivostok there is a weekly ship to Fushiki, Japan (36 hours, two nights). Fares on the "FESCO" from Vladivostok to Fushiki start at £260 and include meals.
    Moscow to Beijing trains leave twice a week. One of these trains takes you through Mongolia (Trans-Mongolian line) and the other goes through Manchuria (Trans-Manchurian line). Train 4 eastbound (train 3 westbound) leaves Moscow for Beijing every Tuesday night and arrives six days later. It takes you across the Siberian and the Gobi dessert. Train 20 eastbound (train 19 westbound) leaves Moscow on Friday night heading for Beijing via Manchuria.
    At either end, trains are easily taken to numerous destinations. For example, trains to London St. Pancras Station can be taken from Moscow. Trains to southeast Asia can be taken from Beijing.
    Hanoi can be reached by trains leaving Beijing twice a week. From Hanoi, it is easy to travel to Bangkok, Saigon and Singapore by bus or train.

  2. 2

    Will you want to make stops? It is possible to travel the full length of Moscow to Vladivostok in seven days, but you will not have experienced any stops or felt Siberia. The most common stops are Irkutsk in Siberia and Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Ulan Ude and Ekaterinberg are worth mentioning, as well. Planning stops is possibly the most difficult part of preparing for a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
    Stops are possible and suggested, but must be decided before buying tickets. Without buying separate tickets, you cannot simply get on and off at different cities you pass. For example, if you are travelling from Moscow to Beijing and want to stop in Ulan Bator, you must buy tickets from Moscow to Ulan Bator (train 6 eastbound, train 5 westbound) and then tickets from Ulan Bator to Beijing (runs two-three times a week). Additionally, if you are taking this route and would like to explore Irkutsk, there are daily trains from Moscow to Irkutsk and daily trains from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator (train numbers 263 and 264). For possible stops and routes, refer to the Trans-Siberian timetable.

  3. 3

    Prepare your passport several months in advance. You will not only need a valid passport for the journey, but you will need to acquire any necessary passports.
    You will need a visa for Russia. A Russian tourist visa allows entry for 30 days. A business visa allows for more time, but is quite expensive. A transit visa allows for 10 days, but does not allow you to spend time in Moscow. Russian visas can be acquired up to three months before entry and should generally be allowed one month for processing. There are agencies that offer "express" services. Russian visa applications require "letters of invitation" or "visa support." This is an invitation from a travel agency or proof of bookings for every night you intend to spend in Russia. This, however, can be purchased (cheaply) from Russian travel agencies. They sell you the necessary visa support without any real bookings.
    If travelling from London to Moscow, you will need a Belarus transit visa. You will need to have a Russian visa to apply for a Belarus transit visa or you can apply for both at once using a travel agency. This visa is about £65 (for U.S. citizens) one-way and takes six business days.
    U.S. citizens do not need a visa for travelling in Mongolia fewer than 90 days. You will need a China visa if planning to enter China. To apply for this, you need a confirmed ticket to and from China, as well as hotel bookings. It generally must be applied for in your country of residence and is quite expensive.

  4. 4

    Decide when you want to travel. The trains run year-round, however, May to September has the warmest weather and longest hours of daylight. Alternatively, Siberia in the winter is absolutely beautiful and the trains are nicely heated.

  5. 5

    There are many options for purchasing tickets. You will have the option of 1st class two-berth tickets, 2nd class four-berth tickets (called spalny wagon or SV), or 3rd class open-plan dormitory cars. The cost of one-way tickets will vary from £149 to £487, based on destination and class. There are also options of slower and lower quality trains, which will be cheaper. Fortunately, the Trans-Siberian Railway is not only for tourists and has reasonable fares.
    You can travel independently or book an all-inclusive tour (more expensive). Additionally, it is cheaper to book your tickets through a Russian travel agency than a western travel agency, but booking them yourself is always going to be the cheapest.

  6. 6

    Packing should be relatively easy.
    You do not need to pack food unless there are items you specifically desire. There are restaurants cars on the trains with local cuisine. Here you can purchase a two-course meal and a beer for about £3. You should, however, bring a cup or mug for drinking water. Additionally, you can purchase snacks and other food when the train makes stops. There will be food carts on the platforms. If you are bringing items that will need to be electrically recharged, such as cameras and iPods, this can be done in the bathrooms and corridors. You most likely will not have a power outlet in your compartment, but the carriage attendant will. They will often charge items for you for a small tip.
    Not all trains have showers. All trains do have bathrooms that are for the most part clean and up to western standards. If you are not comfortable going a week without a shower, bring wet wipes or a towel and soap and utilise the bathroom sink.
    You should pack the same items you would for any other trip the duration you are planning on taking. Check the weather for the time of year you are planning on taking your trip. Take into consideration the different climates you will be travelling though, but be careful not to pack too much. Carrying around extra luggage can add undue stress. A few travelling items that often come in handy are shower sandals, zip-lock bags, band-aids, vitamins, toilet paper, and a translation book.

Tips and warnings

  • Trans-Manchurian lines follow the same route from Moscow to Vita, but then continue into China. The express time from Moscow to Beijing is six days.
  • Trans-Mongolian lines follow the same route from Moscow to Ulan Ude, but then continue to Mongolia and China.
  • The lower the train number the fewer stops it makes and the faster your trip will be. The two-digit train number are not only faster, but they are of a higher quality than the three-digit train numbers.
  • "Trans-Siberian Handbook" by Bryn Thomas gives a mile-by-mile guide of what you are seeing from the train.
  • In Russia, children under 5 travel free and children between the ages of 5 and 10 travel at half fare.
  • Not knowing Russian will not be a problem, but it would give you an advantage to learn to read Cyrillic.
  • Without an agency, Russian train tickets can only be purchased in the Russian Federation or in Finland.
  • Train tickets can only be purchased within 45 days of travel.
  • A confirmed exit ticket is needed to apply for a visa to China, so it isn't practical to plan to buy your train tickets at the station in Beijing.
  • Visa requirements change often, so it is important to check with the U.S. State Department website when planning a trip.
  • Traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad is safe, even for lone women. However, use the same precautions you would use when travelling anywhere. You can request a compartment change if you are not comfortable with a fellow traveller.
  • Attempting to travel around Belarus to avoid visa fees usually costs more than the visa does.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Moscow will only issue Chinese visas to Russian citizens and residents.
  • You cannot smoke in cars, but you can smoke in vestibules between cars.

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