How to Ride The Trans-Siberian Railway
Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway – Overview
Yaroslavsky Station is the starting point for all points east - next stop the rest of Russia and Asia.
We chose Tomsk as our first stop over on our trip across Russia.
The city of Irkutsk is about halfway. It is close to Lake Baikal, the deepest damn lake in the world. Must see.
Capital of Mongolia and a necessary stop over for the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip. Plus - you can't miss MOngolia - it is Mongoltastic!
Big Beijing - end of the line for Trans-Mongolian travellers.
The far eastern extremity of Russia – a long, long way on a train.
The Stuff of Dreams
It is one of the world’s great train journeys - the ‘trip of a lifetime’ in anyone’s language. My wife Sheila and I were fortunate enough to make this trip, something I’ve always of wanted to do; now having done it, I would gladly do it again, and again – it makes the long journey to Australia so much more interesting… but that’s another story.
This iconic journey by a classic mode of transport takes two main forms: The actual Trans-Siberian – Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast (a journey of over 9000 kilometres or 5000 miles). The alternative route, known as the Trans-Mongolian, takes you as far as Lake Baikal in central Siberia then heads south into Mongolia and on to China, terminating in Beijing – again, a distance of around 9000kms. This latter journey is the one Sheila and I made in August 2011. The information in this article applies to both journeys.
Ya gotta have a ticket man!
Spice up your passport
Planning the Journey
For details of how to plan a trip on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railway check out my previous Hub:
This was originally written before we embarked on our trip, giving it added poignancy, but at least our planning worked!
You gotta have a ticket with a compartment and berth number
If you want to travel on the Trans-Sib, you need to book in advance. For many reasons it is very difficult to just arrive in Moscow, especially for the first time, buy train tickets and get on a train. You must also book in advance if you want to disembark the train and explore a particular place en-route. After such a stopover, when you re-board the Trans-Siberian, You must to have a ticket with a compartment and berth number.
There are many cities and towns along the way that travellers choose to visit. These include Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude.
I would recommend the following resources as your first point of call when planning the journey:
- Lists -
Write everything down that you think you need to do, as you think of it. Cross things off as you do them; chuck the completed list and start a new one - or run several lists concurrently - it may be anal, but it works!
- Broadband internet connection
- Man in Seat 61 –
The train traveller’s bible, this website covers details of rail travel not only in Russia, but in Europe Asia and beyond. It should be your first port of call, I think.
- RealRussia.co.uk –
A travel agency based in London that is recommended by The Man in Seat 61
- Lonely Planet Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway – (see capsules below)
Don’t leave home without one
- A big map –
helps put your prospective trip into geographical perspective. Pin your map to the wall or do what we did - leave it out on the table, like a proudly completed jigsaw puzzle or a trendy, coffee stained tablecloth.
- Any other related websites that Google throws up –
the more research done in advance, the better.
- Accommodation booking –
...and any other internet hotel booking resource you can find.
- Allow several weeks to sort out the bookings. Real Russia is fantastic and they will source and supply your tickets and your visas, acting as your sponsors for the somewhat complex Russian entry requirements. This includes your visas for Mongolia and China which have to be acquired in advance too.
In Moscow, go to Yaroslavskiy Vokzal to get to Siberia
Waiting for a train...
Once Upon a Time in Moscow
Assuming you have made it to Moscow by air or like us, by rail from the UK, you will need to find your way to the railway terminal for all trains east.
The Trans Siberian/Mongolian trains mostly depart from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Voxal (Station), a big terminal in the eastern part of the city. Nearly all the eastbound long haul trains leave from here.
What you should know about Yaroslavsky Voxal
The nearest Metro stop heading out of the city centre is Komsomolskaya, about a 15 minute walk from Yaroslavsky. The subway takes some getting used to and can be extremely busy and difficult to figure out. Taxi from your hostel or hotel is the easiest way to get there on the day of departure, especially if you’re laden with backpacks or suitcases.
The platforms at Yaroslavsky are open to the elements so be prepared if it’s cold or raining – carrying an umbrella is a good idea. We hung around for three hours waiting for our 10.30pm departure and luckily it was a very hot summer’s evening, so cold and wet was not an issue.
It’s a busy place, full of humanity from the far corners of Russia, Europe and Asia. Be prepared to see Mongols, Uigers, Uzbeks, Kazaks, Siberians, soldiers, police, gypsies, tramps and thieves, among others.
Be extremely security conscious here. Never leave you bags unattended, in fact don’t turn your back on them for a moment. We saw so many dodgy characters lurking about, some eyeballing us with intent.
We found a space against a wall where we could stack our backpacks and sit on them - thus we only had to watch our fronts, not our backs as well.
Other Western travellers and tourists
We were surprised at how few other foreign travellers there were at Yaroslavsky. However, when a train to Mongolia was called for boarding at 9.30pm, several backpackers appeared in the queue. There were none on our train, which was taking us as far as our first pre-booked stop, the Siberian city of Tomsk.
Big shiny Trans-Siberian Train
There is no special train called the Trans-Siberian. Rather there are lots of trains all heading east, some going as far as Vladivostok, others branching south to Mongolia and Bejing, others going to places not on the main routes.
The trains come in three classes…
Third Class - Platzkart
Second Class - Kupe
First Class - SV (Only available on some trains)
…with a pricing schedule that reflects each class. As middle-aged backpackers looking for a modicum of comfort at a reasonable price, my wife and I made our journey in Second Class – it is more comfortable and secure than Third Class and a lot cheaper than first.
Our train was quite modern, clean and very long, well over 30 carriages.
Current prices are shown on The Man in Seat 61 website.
When the train leaves the station...
Second Class Carriage (Kupe)
Typical sleeper train layout –
a corridor down one side of the carriage with the compartments off it. Near either end of each carriage are a couple of toilets. At the end vestibule, where the exits and the door to the connecting carriages are, there is a smoking area complete with overflowing ashtrays.
There are power points in the corridors for recharging mobile phones and laptops.
Possibly the most important feature of each carriage (toilets aside) is the samovar. This is a large urn that provides constant piping hot water through a tap. More about this little beauty later.
HRH The Provodnitsa
If you are travelling as a couple this is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you -
When booking your train tickets make sure you book an upper and a lower berth (Not two lowers or two uppers.) This means that you and your companion can ‘colonise’ one half of the compartment. You can store stuff on the top bunk during the day and sit on the bottom bunk together without having to share it with the other people in the compartment. On a three or six day journey the last thing you want is to be confined to a top bunk all day because the rightful ticket holder on the bottom bunk wants to stretch out. We learnt this on a previous train journey in Vietnam so made sure that all our pre-booked Trans-Siberian tickets were upper and lower.
Home Sweet Home
...or Provodnik, the male version
This is the most important person on the train, at least in her eyes. There is one per carriage and his/her job is to keep it functioning – to clean it, provide bed linen for embarking passengers, keep the samovar going and to ensure that nobody misses the train when it makes the many short stops at small stations along the route. The Provodnista is queen, dictator, judge, jury and quite possibly executioner - woe-betide any passenger who challenges her rule.
This is your home on the rails. The place where you’ll spend many hours while outside, the vast Russian landscape unfurls through your window like a wide screen, real-life scene out of Doctor Zhivago.
Second class cabins consist of two sets of double bunks; each comes with sheets, pillow and blanket. The upper bunks have ladders or footholds for access and there are dim reading lights above the head of each bed.
Under the bottom bunks there is space to stow suitcases, packs and footwear. There is also a large storage space up at the foot of the top bunks.
There is a small table in front of the window and a rubbish bin beneath.
The door to the compartment can be locked from the inside but can be opened by the Provodnitsa with a key.
Pectopah spells restaurant in Russian
This applies to anyone in any class – Always keep your most important stuff on your person - Passport, credit and debit cards, cash and tickets - everything else is ultimately replaceable. I wore a soft travel pouch around my neck, hidden under my shirt. I even wore it while I slept. You never know.
Things like cameras, kindles, mobile phones etc: When not within view, I suggest keeping these items buried or hidden deep within your heaviest bag and stowed in the top luggage space. Most thieves are opportunistic and will steal a small bag rather than a big heavy one. A combination lock on your pack is also recommended.
Make-up of the Train
The rest of the train
I took several walks along the length of our train during our 50 hour journey from Moscow to Tomsk. This is what I found:
Dining Car -
PECTOPAH – Cyrillic word that actually spells Restoran
There should be one of these on every train, but we found the food to be not that good, or that cheap. It can be very difficult ordering as English is not widely spoken and the menus are only written in Russian Cyrillic, (which you will have to learn to decipher as there are virtually no signs in English anywhere in Russia).
Third Class Carriages (Platzkart)
These are what I call “cattle-class”, open plan carriages with a cage like structure for each berth and not much space for storage. Ideal for the single budget traveller, but you have to be exceptionally security conscious here as there is little if any privacy.
First Class (SV)
I think I walked through one of these, it had wood panelling and a shower cubicle so I assume it was First Class.
Cup of soup,
Sugar and Milk (sticks, little pots, powdered)
Anything else you can carry and subsequently snack on
Bowl and Plate
Cutlery (we took a ‘Spork,' each; a plastic tool that is a spoon, fork and knife all in one)
A pocket knife for slicing cheese, salami etc
Unlimited Hot Water
Food and Drink
As mentioned earlier, don’t rely on the dining car for your meals.
Ever few hours the train will stop at a major station for up to about 30 minutes (Check how long the stop is with your Provodnitsa before stepping down onto the platform). At these stops you can usually buy food. There will be kiosks or stalls on the platform selling bread rolls, pasties and other snacks. As well there may also be ladies (Babushkas) selling tasty things like roast chickens, boiled potatoes, and gerkins. You can also buy drinks including beer and vodka.
It's a good idea, no, imperative, to bring plenty of supplies with you (see adjacent info box).
Use the hot water in the samovar for your noodles, soup, tea and coffee. You will find samovars are ubiquitous on trains throughout Russia, Mongolia and China. There are hundreds of different pot noodle varieties sold throughout Asia – they are the travellers’ staple amongst locals and foreigners alike.
Be prepared to share your food and drink with your fellow passengers in your compartment – they will share with you too. It’s a great way to break the ice and breach the language gap.
Even if you are a non-smoker, carrying a pack of ciggies and offering them around is
a good way to bond with strangers. Again this applies throughout Asia.
Sporks - they're light weight, multi-usage and saves you eating with your fingers
Sexy Wear and Sporty
Important Travel Tip
Bring packs of Wet Wipes. These are the traveller’s friend. They will help keep you clean and fragrant on a 50 hour non-stop journey from Moscow to Tomsk or beyond, My wife will tell you that you can never have enough Wet Wipes and I tend to agree.
A roll or two of toilet paper and packs of tissues are also handy.
Satorial Elegance Whilst Travelling
What to wear
If you are riding a train for several days you will want to be comfortable. Track pants and sportswear are popular outfits amongst Russian travellers, though you will also see loads of sexy young women wearing tight jeans and stiletto heels.
Wear a pair of flip flops or comfy shoes rather than your walking boots. Going barefoot to the lavatory is probably not a good idea as liquids can slosh around in there, if you know what I mean. (see below).
Toilets and washing
The toilets on board are western style rather than Asian (or ‘squatters’ as we call them). They are usually kept quite clean, but you know what happens on a rocking, juddering train – people can miss.
Forget it unless you’re travelling first class.
You won’t want to be doing to much hand washing of clothes etc either, so wear you train clothes on the train and change either just before you reach your final stop or when you get to your hotel. No one will care if you are badly dressed.
Get reading on a Kindle...
It can get dark on the train at night...
The first leg of our journey from Moscow to Tomsk took three nights and two and a half days. That’s a long time to be sitting on a train, but unlike air or coach travel, you can get up and walk around. You can make yourself food and drinks, you can stretch out and sleep, you can even venture onto the platform at designated stops (but don’t, whatever you do, miss the call to re-board – you will be in huge trouble if you do).
My wife brought along an electronic reader – a Kindle. She had stocked it up with downloaded books before we left home, but was pleasantly surprised to find that she could also download using the Kindle’s 3G network while we were on the train in what appeared to be very remote locations. Our Kindle also allowed us to get online and check emails and even Facebook, though that early model of Kindle was a primitive device compared to the latest versions. A laptop, smart phone, iPad or iPod are also essential modern day traveller essentials, unless you want to slip totally out of the loop.
I found that looking out the window at the ever-changing panorama of Russia was enough to transfix me for long periods of the day but I also had a couple of paperbacks which I dipped in and out of when my attention span allowed..
I spent some time in the smelly smoking compartment where I managed to engage in limited-language conversation and cigarette sharing with a variety of Russian travellers.
Keeping a travel journal also kept me occupied as did taking photos out the window. You do whatever it takes to keep yourself amused, though for me, just being there was enough.
Important tip if you don't want to find yourself sleeping on a park bench
Book your accommodation in advance
Tomsk is well off the main tourist route and there aren’t many places in this picturesque city that will take non-Russian guests. We found a cheap hotel on-line but surprisingly there weren’t many other options. (More about Tomsk in a future Hub).
Russia currently has something like 9 time zones and this can be quite confusing, especially when you have to catch an onward train from a place like Tomsk. What adds to the confusion is that the train timetables all work in Moscow time, no matter where you are in the country – this can be really confusing.
The government is considering reducing the number of zones, although my limited research can't confirm what the exact number is at the time of writing this. Perhaps someone else can enlighten me?
Planning the Stopovers
Some people choose to ride the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian all the way to the other end without making overnight stops on the way. This means a journey of over six days with just the occasional 30 minute station stops to get off and stretch your land legs. This has its own charm – you get to relax without interrupting the journey. You also have longer to forge relationships, especially with those who are also travelling right through non-stop. But, if like us, your journey is about seeing a bit more of Russia, then getting off and spending a day or two in a town along the way is a must do.
The thing to remember is you must book these stops in advance. You can’t just decide to hop off the train and hop on again later, it doesn’t work like that. We chose to make our first stop over in the city of Tomsk. This university city is located about 80kms north of the main Trans-Russia rail line, on a spur that trundles through picturesque hilly countryside. Choosing Tomsk meant that our train from Moscow that was not even Trans-Siberian as it terminated in Tomsk!
We booked a two night stop-over in Tomsk which equated to almost four days as we arrived in the morning and didn’t reboard a train to our next destination (Irkutsk) until the evening of the fourth day.
In a nutshell, the best way to get started in planning this journey is to visit Mark Smith’s website The Man in Seat 61 – he provides all the info and links you will need to start the process.
You will also need to plan what you are going to do at the other end, be it Vladivostok or Beijng, but this article is not about that – a big trip requires high levels of planning and research, but it is relatively easy for experienced travellers, and even novice backpackers, to do it safely. For the older traveller (like us) it is slightly more challenging – you have to want to do it and you have to be capable of adapting to situations. The only other way is to pay a king’s ransom and do it on a package tour on one the expensive deluxe trains that we never actually saw, but that’s not what we want to do is it?