The Trans Siberian Railroad, the world’s longest railway (a 6 night journey non-stop), stretching from Moscow to either Vladivostok or Beijing, depending on which route you take. It evokes an era of time gone by, when the world moved more slowly. You can travel in the height or luxury dining on caviar, or in trains that are reminiscent of the Russia’s Stalinist era eating the ubiquitous instant noodles (we did the latter). Winter may be the best time to go to watch the Siberian winter wonderland go by, but summer (when we went) has it’s advantages too– mostly having to do with warmth and ease. This is by no means an exhaustive guide as there are several other stops you could choose to make (Yekaterinburg, Omsk, and Ulan-Ude are popular), but I’m excited to share with you about our own journey from Moscow (our Moscow Guide available here and Saint Petersburg guide available here) to Beijing via Mongolia: how we planned it, where we stopped and why, and what you should know before you go.
PLANNING YOUR JOURNEY
We went through Real Russia for both our tickets and our invitation letter for our visas. They were very easy to work with, and very helpful. However, you will have to go to their office in Moscow to pick up the tickets, which is not centrally located, and it’s a bit of an inconvenience. When we missed one of our trains (try not to forget the date change of a 2am train like we did!), we weren’t able to reach them on the phone, but wound up being able to buy new tickets online from Russian Rail very easily, and to print our tickets directly from email.
If we were planning the trip again we’d probably get our tickets directly online through Russian Rail. However, we do highly recommend going through Real Russia for your invitation letter for your visa as it’s completely automated online, you will have the letter within fifteen minutes of submitting the form, and costs only about $20.
For the whole journey, our 2nd class tickets (1st class wasn’t available on these trains) came to about $930/person.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Depending on which country you’re from, you’re probably going to have to get at least two, if not three visas. As a US citizen I had to get a visa for Russia and China, and Anthony from the UK had to get those two, plus one for Mongolia as well.
Be very careful in regards to your visa for Russia. It will start on a specific date and they will not let you board the plane if it’s before the validity of your visa. Likewise, it is impossible to extend your visa once you’re in the country, and you will run into a world of trouble if you accidentally overstay. Make sure to add at least a few days of padding like we did when applying for your visa in case of any unforeseeable delays or emergencies.
While in Russia, all trains run on Moscow time, which can make things very confusing as the time change increases by five hours by the time you get to Irkutsk. Make sure to verify the difference of time between Moscow time (what’s usually printed on your ticket), and the local time at either end of your journey.
None of the ladies on the Russian trains spoke English, so it was invaluable that we had downloaded the Russian dictionary on Google translate prior to leaving (what we did not do, but wish we had, was to also download the cyrillic keyboard so they could type back to us in Russian!). We could not do the same for Mongolia since that dictionary is not available to download for some reason, and did not get around to it for the China section, but as we were pretty self sufficient by that point, it was fine.
There is no wifi, but if you get a local SIM with a data plan, you will have some areas where you get signal. We chose not to do so as it was nice to have an enforced break from internet-ing.
One good thing to keep in mind is that toilets are locked during stops and at times for up to 30 minutes before the stop and 30 minutes after.
WHAT TO BRING
All the trains have dining cars, but they are overpriced for what they are. Most people will get by with instant noodles and whatever other snacks they think to bring. We brought fruit, nuts, bars, water, instant noodles, and instant coffee. Much of this will be available on the train or sold on platforms during longer stops, but it will be easier, more reliable, and cheaper to buy ahead.
Also be sure to bring your own toilet paper, as well as wet wipes since there are no showers. The instant noodles have their own plastic forks, but it still might be advisable to bring your own cutlery (we managed without). Power sources are available but often inconveniently placed outside the individual compartments and busy, so definitely think of bringing a rechargeable battery. I also enjoyed having the comfort of a silk sleep sheet. Music, books, cards, and alcohol are advisable as entertainment.
WHAT TO EXPECT
From Moscow to Vladimir/Suzdol, 2 hours. This train was a quick journey, and the interior felt more like a city bus than a train with colorfully upholstered but barely padded seats and no tray tables.
From Vladimir/Suzdol to Kazan, 1 night. We had a short two hour train journey (regular seats) from Vladimir to Nizhny Novgorod where we had a long enough of a layover to trek across the street to the shopping center for dinner at the food court on the top floor. This overnight train was the most comfortable and clean that we experienced within Russia, and the only overnight train the entire journey with air conditioning. A meal was offered as part of our ticket but since we boarded after 9pm and had already eaten, we declined and went to sleep. On all overnight trains we were in 2nd class in four bunk compartments (so shared with two other people) with locking doors. All compartments are equipped with small tables, individual lights (if they work), and there are storage compartments under the bottom bunks if you lift them up for more secure baggage storage.
From Kazan to Irkutsk, 3 nights. Facilities were basic. You get a bed roll, blanket, and pillow which are just a little dingy, but fresh white sheets and towel which come plastic wrapped. My favorite part was that you are given an old fashioned Russian mug– a clear glass held by a decorative metal holder with a handle that is yours to use for the whole journey for tea and coffee. There was a small snack station selling chips, chocolate, packets of instant coffee, tea, and instant noodles at one end where there was also a boiled water dispenser. A lady would come through periodically selling different breads stuffed with cabbage, meat, or egg. We were able to get even yummier fried versions sold on the platform at one of the stops. We were the only Western tourists in our car.
From Irkutsk to Ulan Bator, 2 nights. About the same basic amenities as the last train, but the fancy mugs were replaced by paper, and there wasn’t the same snack stand. On this train they put all the Western tourists together in one car since it seems like the only car that crosses the border into Mongolia (you will be detached from the main train and given an new engine). Expect a four hour stop on the Russian side, and another several hour stop on the Mongolian side to get through passport control and customs. Once they check your passport on the Russian side you will be able to debark and find food at the one cafe in the town about a 15 minute walk from the station. You will likely see a strong military presence.
Ulan Bator to Beijing, 1 night. Probably the most comfortable train (but also the hottest when we went in the summer), the mattresses were actually soft, and there were electricity ports in each cabin. No snack stand, but coffee, tea, and hot water were available. Expect about an hour or two on the Mongolian side, and another four hours on the China side for passport control and customs. When the train crosses the border into China they will have to change the wheels since the rails are a different gauge. Don’t get out of the train before it goes into the warehouse to change the wheels or you will be stranded outside for a few hours until they’re finished.
WHERE TO STOP
A small town just a few hours outside of Moscow in an area referred to as the Golden Ring, Suzdal has been around since the 11th century. An idyllic and relaxing place to stop after the hustle and bustle of Moscow– drink in the peaceful landscape, go for a refreshing dip at the local swimming hole on the river, try the local mead, and visit the countless churches and monasteries that define the area.
On one of our monastery visits we were had a lovely surprise when we treated to the most beautiful acapella performance of a traditional Russian hymn by four monks in one of the chapels. Their voices soared within the space and the sound was so rich you would have thought they were accompanied by a full orchestra.
We didn’t run into a whole lot of English speakers in the local restaurants, so expect to struggle communicating a bit. We highly recommend the guest house where we stayed, Like Home. Our host Denis was incredibly thoughtful, cooking us wonderful breakfasts, offering to take us on a tour on his motor bikes, and tracking down medicine for Anthony when he caught a cold.
When I was researching stops along the Trans Siberian railroad, over all the other cities you might traditionally stop at, Kazan captured my imagination the most with it’s intriguing mix of old world Russian and Central Asian influences and a large Sunni Muslim population. The capital of Tatarstan, Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka rivers. Going to Kazan requires a bit of a detour from the traditional Moscow-Beijing route, with a south bending arch before rejoining the main line.
Be sure to visit the local Kremlin, where the beautiful Qolsarif Mosque is located, and to climb to the top of the bell tower on Baumana, the main shopping thoroughfare, at sunset. Eat Tatar cuisine with the locals at Chai Yorty (also on Baumana), an old school self-serve lunch canteen. Make sure to try one of the delicious meat pies (I loved the chicken!), but be make sure you’re clear what meat you’re being served because unfortunately horse meat seems to be a staple in this region. Definitely try the famous local desert, chackchack, a bit like a rice crispy treat.
IRKUTSK / LAKE BAIKAL / OlKHON ISLAND
Lake Baikal was the most scenically beautiful stop on the Trans Siberian within Russia, and a definite must-do! The deepest lake in the world, it contains enough water to fill the five Great Lakes in the US combined! Irkutsk is the city where you debark the train in order to visit Lake Baikal. If you only have a night or two, people typically visit Lake Baikal at Listvyanka as a day trip from Irkutsk, but if you have the time (at least 3 nights), we highly recommend doing what we did and visit Olkhon Island about a 5-6 hour bus journey from Irkutsk.
Getting there is a bit of an adventure. You can either choose to take the city bus from the main bus station (the cheapest option at 500 rubles one way), or private tourist mini buses (about 300 rubles more each way), the nicest ones leaving from local hotels in Irkutsk. In either case, the earliest bus leaves at 8am. We took the city bus to Olkhon, and wound up regretting it since apparently they forgot to install any sort of suspension when putting it together and had the most unbearably bumpy drive– and that was before we got on the sandy unpaved roads on Olkhon Island!
We happily took a mini bus back to Irkutsk. The mini buses vary by quality and it’s a matter of luck what you get, but overall it was much more comfortable. In both cases there will be 20-30 minute stop about half way for food and a bathroom break. Taking a taxi is also an option, but that can be quite expensive, and the main advantage of the bus is that they don’t have to wait in line at the ferry crossing to the island (and we saw some long lines!).
Olkhon Island is rural (like I said, no paved roads!), with boat tours, horse back riding, ATV’s, and small van tours available. Most accommodation is available near or in Khuzhir, the largest town on the Island. On the day of our island tour the water was too windy for boats so we did the whole tour by van, going to the different view points around the island. The local population are Buryat, and primarily Buddhist (the largest Buddhist population in Russia is in this region!), so many of these beautiful lookout points on the island are considered sacred and you will find prayer flags and other offerings along the way.
ULAN BATOR / GOBI DESERT
Land of steppes, plains, desert, and nomads, Mongolia was easily our favorite stop along the Trans Siberian. Many people only end up stopping in Ulan Bator for a few days, but all regret not giving themselves more time to visit this beautiful country and have the opportunity to get further out of the city. In Mongolia, everything is far away from everything and requires hours of driving. We recommend giving yourself at least a week. We had a two week stopover in Ulan Bator, and used our time to take a tour of the Gobi Desert which I’m excited to share in detail next Thursday! (Now available, here.)
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.