This iconic trip for years has captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists, and writers. This is due to its status as the longest railway network in the world; it connects European Moscow to as far as Vladivostok or Beijing.
Based on firsthand experience, here are some tips on how to plan your Trans-Siberian Railway trip while studying abroad in Russia, which sights to see, and what you need to survive and thrive on the long rail adventure across the world’s largest landmass.
When To Go
The Trans-Siberian railway runs all year round, but the experience differs slightly depending on the time of year. May to September are the peak times to travel for foreign tourists and international students, as the days hold the longest hours of daylight and the weather is slightly milder. Going in the depth of winter is typically a slightly different experience, as Siberia will be covered in snow, daylight will be limited, and you'll be a little colder when you get out to stretch your legs at Russian railway stations. Nevertheless, it's always a remarkable experience.
Decide Your Route
There are three major routes on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Before you think about booking a ticket, you need to decide which journey you want to take:
Moscow to Vladivostok: The traditional Moscow-to-Vladivostok route takes seven days to make its 6,152-mile journey. This route crosses the vast depths of Siberia, passing the iconic Lake Baikal before rocking up to Vladivostok, Russia's easternmost city. While it is an interesting study abroad destination, there's not entirely that much to do for tourists in Vladivostok. Should you decide to take this route, it's best to upgrade your ticket to second or first class, as 3rd class is often inundated with Russian military personnel. The only advantage to traveling to Moscow is if you want to take an even more adventurous journey on the ferry from Vladivostok to Japan or South Korea, which leave every week. Trains from Moscow to Vladivostok are Russian operated.
Moscow to Beijing, direct: The Trans-Manchurian route will take you directly from Moscow to Beijing, but you'll miss out on viewing the Mongolian landscape. Trains on the Trans-Manchurian are generally Russian operated.
Moscow to Beijing, via Ulan Bator: By far the most interesting route to take is the Trans-Mongolian route, which not only crosses Siberia but provides a spectacular journey through Mongolia and northern China before resting in Beijing. The trains on this route are Chinese operated and are usually of slightly better quality than their Russian counterparts. The Chinese conductors on the Trans-Mongolian route also tend to be quite professional and good-natured. Another advantage of this route is that you can stop off in Mongolia for a few days (if you've got time).
Plan Your Trip
When you have a start and an end location settled, you can plan where you want to stop off during the trip. A seven-day rail journey could become tedious, especially for solo travelers, so it's best to stop off at least in one location. Generally speaking, stopping at Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal, and in Ulan Bator to experience Mongolia, tend to be two of the most popular choices.
Decide What Class
Second-class cabins typically sleep four people. The train operators tend to put travelers together, which creates quite a sociable experience for students traveling alone. A first-class ticket will usually knock on an extra $400 to the ticket price and will provide you with a 2-sleeper cabin and slightly better amenities, such as an armchair and access to a shower. Be warned, these sell out quickly. Traveling third class isn't really that recommended as cabins are typically open (no doors or walls), the atmosphere is slightly noisier, and you may find yourself becoming overly paranoid about your possessions. While safety aboard the Trans-Siberian is relatively good, it is best to take all the usual precautions that you would when traveling elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
Book Your Tickets
There are several ways to do this. If you have been studying the Russian language, you can buy your tickets at the station. However, this isn't the most practical way to secure your trip, as tickets do sell out. You can also plan your trip through a local Russian travel agency — this option tends to be cheaper and not too difficult. Or, book your tickets and visas well in advance online through an English-speaking travel company.
If booked through a Russian travel agency, second-class tickets from Moscow to Beijing via the Trans Mongolian cost around $750; via the Trans Manchurian, around $850; and Moscow to Vladivostok, around $650. Trips from Beijing to Moscow cost a bit more. You will save money if you buy tickets at the station, but because tickets do sell out in advance, this method could backfire. If you use a specialist travel service, expect to pay some commission on top of the price.
Secure Your Visas
All U.S. citizens require visas for traveling in Russia, Mongolia, and China. Visas can be acquired with relative ease at the appropriate embassy or consulate. If you don't stop in Mongolia, but still take the Mongolian route, you'll need a transit visa. This can also be purchased from most Mongolian embassies. Specialist travel agencies outside of Russia, who provide Trans-Siberian tickets, are available to sort out your visas. However, give yourself plenty of time, and be prepared to pay a little extra. In all scenarios, its best to allow a minimum of one month to acquire your visa before you leave.
Trail Mix and Wet Wipes: Surviving The Journey
In many cases the scenery you’ll pass is breathtaking, but being cooped on a train carriage has its drawbacks. Here are a few things to remember in order to make sure your trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is as comfortable as possible.
Stock Up On Supplies
All the trains have a dining car which provide a limited Russian- or Chinese-based menu. The food is reasonably priced, but limited, especially if you have dietary restrictions or are vegetarian. Cup-noodles tend to be a popular menu item (as unlimited boiled water is constantly available). Meals in the dining car cost around $20 for a two-course meal that typically includes meat, eggs, and soup. Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian currency is all accepted, as are Euros. It’s recommended that you bring some food with you. Pack items that won't easily perish (like granola bars, crackers, trail mix, peanut butter, dried meats, and fruits, etc.) Be careful with fresh fruit, as customs in Mongolia can get particular about people bringing fruit across the border. You can get off the train at a number of stops for periods of approximately 10 minutes. At some places you'll be able to replenish your supplies, but be aware you're not going to find a McDonald’s or a Subway at these stations. In most cases the food sold on the platform will accommodate a hearty Russian palate — so things such as heavily salted dried fish tend to be commonplace.
Washing And Toilets
Each train carriage has its own toilet and washroom. Generally speaking, these get maintained by the railway staff. Showers are incredibly limited to second- and third-class ticket holders, so if you’re not traveling in first class, it’s best to bring wet wipes to freshen up from time to time. Toilets and washrooms will be closed and locked when trains pull up to stations, so make sure to time your bathroom breaks around this. When you cross the Chinese border, the train car will be suspended and the bathrooms locked from 1-2 hours as cars are fitted to couplings suitable for Chinese tracks.
If you're thinking of making a few stops on the trip, locations such as Irkutsk (for going to Lake Baikal) and Ulan Bator are the most popular. Remember you need to have a reservation for every train on the Trans-Siberian — you cannot simply jump on and off. For this reason, if you are planning on sightseeing, make sure you have planned all the separate legs of your journey.
There is no mistaking that the Trans-Siberian railway is a long journey. Take a good supply of books, iPods, playing cards, etc. to maintain your sanity. Because train operators tend to group foreigners together, you may be surrounded by like-minded travelers or even other international students, so there are opportunities to meet people and socialize. Alcohol consumption aboard the train is permitted, but getting hammered on the Trans-Siberian Railway is really not advisable.
You are provided with a pillow and blankets with your sleeping bunks.
The Trans-Siberian railway is remarkably safe due to the close relationship that builds between passengers and the conductor in charge of their carriage. When getting on and off at stops, conductors will typically do head counts to make sure no one is left behind; with that said, it’s best to remain on the platform during these stops. Take the usual safety precautions you would for traveling anywhere else in the world. Don’t leave valuables unattended and lock your cabin door in the evenings.
No matter what route you take, traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway is one of those rare opportunities you'll never forget. It will be something you can cross off your lifetime “bucket list” when studying abroad in Russia or China!