In July of 2007, my wife and I traveled for close to a month on a “Trans Siberian Railway” themed trip. It is a popular tourist route with some interesting sites along the way. It is also a quick way to get from Europe to the Far East.
I am only going to talk about how I did this trip. There are a lot of options along the way including the final destination/starting point if you are starting in the east.
What Is The Trans Siberian Railway?
The Trans Siberian is a railway that was built from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east. It takes around 6 days of straight train riding (which you can do if you want to). It is a great way to get across Russia and see a lot of stuff along the way.
There are two options however. At the Russian city of Ulan Ude you can take the Trans Mongolian Railway which goes through Mongolia and on to Beijing, China. The second is to break off at Tarskaya, Russia and take the Trans Manchurian to go straight into China. You can stop at Harbin and some other Chinese cities before arriving in Beijing.
Definitely the most popular of all 3 is to the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian combination. Gets you into the two biggest cities along the lines and see 3 different countries and very different terrain. This is what we did as well.
Trans Siberian Railway
Depends on what direction you are traveling. Your starting points will be Moscow, Beijing, or Vladivostok. You can start at other points along the way, but these are large centers. You will either fly in or arrive via some other means.
We met people who were transitioning from their Asian trip and heading on to Europe or vice versa.
The train stations in both cities are located fairly easily. Beijing Train Station is walking distance from Tiananmen Square and tourist territory and Moscow’s train station is along the metro line only about 15 minutes from the Kremlin.
This really varies. It depends on a few different things:
- The Class Of Cabin
This is 1st or 2nd class. 1st class is a two person cabin and 2nd class is a 4 person cabin with 2 bunk beds. I did see other cabins with a chair and a bunk bed which I am assuming is first class as well. Pictured at right is a 2nd class cabin.
- The Season Of Travel
Just like any tourist place, busy season is more expensive. If you travel in July/August, expect to pay a bit more.
- The Number Of Stops
This is one of the biggest factors in my opinion. They don’t like having to try and sell your ticket so there is added cost depending on how many times you stop. They seemed to do a good job of keeping the train full, but we did have a few places where we had the cabins to ourselves for a stretch.
I would say that a July ticket without any stops in 1st class will be around US$600. 2nd was of course cheaper, but the cost did go up as we added a number of stops.
How Do I Book It?
Pick up the Trans Siberian Railway Lonely Planet guide. This book is excellent and has a huge wealth of information.
There is a large number of online agencies that offer Trans Siberian bookings. Some even give you a lot of flexibility and options to pick from. The biggest thing I found is that you need to be aware of the time. How much time you will need at each stop and what the time is locally. The trains run on Moscow time to be consistent between time zones. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT TIME THEY ARE STATING ON THE WEBSITE.
I ended up booking through a travel agency. They were very helpful in arranging it (they are getting a cut) and I would recommend it to most people. They understand the ins and outs and what is possible or not.
The company I used I am also going to recommend as they were a big part of making our trip a success, plus it eased a lot of my unease before I went. They had the option of paying by bank transfer, credit card, and even PayPal. I’m sure a lot of them are like this too. Anyhow, here is their contact info.
Travel To Russia
Toll Free: 1-877-RUSSIA-9
They have a neat page where you can create your own tour using the web interface.
Also, in case you have not been reading this blog for long, I originally booked this trip with Intrepid Travel, but they did not get the minimum amount of people to sign up and canceled the tour on us. It turned out for the better as we were able to custom organize our trip (because we were forced to) and see some other stuff anyways. We did run into another Intrepid group on our train that had been on a different tour (longer one) and they said there trip was really enjoyable.
Get Your Paperwork In Order
This trip depends on a few things. We are Canadian, so this might not apply to you, but here we go nonetheless. These governments can be sticky so make sure everything is okay.
Bottom line is to go the country’s embassy site for your country. They will have instructions on what you need to do.
- A valid passport with 6 months left before it expires.
- Chinese visa ($50)
- Mongolia visa ($80)
- Russian visa ($75). This required a letter of invitation from our tour agency in Russia that provided details of our trip. Basically, you need to book something before you can even “try” for your visa.
- Keep copies of your tickets and such. In Russia, you need to register if you are staying in a city for more than a few days. If a police officer stops you, you might need to show your train ticket stubs as proof of your arrival and departure days.
What Stops Are Interesting?
We say Moscow and Beijing because this is the start and end point. They are both very interesting and give yourself at least 2 days for each. You can easily do more if you want as well (especially Beijing if you want to do some shopping). Besides that, there are a number of stops along the railway. Every few hours you will stop in a small town or city. Some have interesting things to see. I will list our stops
We also seen this listed as Ekaterinburg, so I don’t know what the deal is. This is the 3rd largest city in Moscow at over a million people. The train station is relatively close to the main downtown street where there are a number of hotels and apartments.
Most notable in this city is the cathedral and cross marking the spot where the Romanov family, the last czar of Russia, were murdered by the Soviets in the early 1900’s. There is also a dammed lake in the city, an Afghanistan war memorial, museums, symphony, and pedestrian street with lots of shopping and restaurants.
Close by is the Europe/Asia border marking. Around a $30 taxi ride if you want to do it on your own. It is kind of neat if you want to say you were there. They are building a more convenient one closer to town if you want to check it out in the future.
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
This is the point you get off the train if you are going to see Lake Baikal. Irkutsk itself doesn’t have much to see other than more churches and the river.
Lake Baikal is very interesting place to see. Absolutely beautiful with its low mountains and the huge lake. Apparently the largest lake by volume in the world, it even contains fresh water seals (which we didn’t see unfortunately).
The main village on the lake is called Listvyanka. There are a number of hotels and “homestays” you can arrange through tour companies or on your own. You can reach it by water taxi, bus, taxi, or other arrangements from Irkutsk.
Cheryl and I went up to Bolshi Koti. It is a very small village about 20 minutes on the hovercraft from Listvyanka. Not even a 4 wheeled vehicle could be seen there. Very remote, but very relaxing. The boat ride was only around 5 bucks each way.
There are lots of other spots on the lake and things you can do. It is more of a tourist spot for Russians as well. You will definitely feel outnumbered as a foreigner. Olkhon Island was a popular destination for the backpacking crowd, but we never made it up there.
This is a must see, no question about it. The landscape is entirely different and the culture is also a shock. Dry, desert-like mountains are encompassing the city. Half the people seem to live in the “ger” tents around the city.
Just outside of town is the Terelj National Park. Mountains, camels, horse back riding, and staying in a ger are all to be seen and done. We did a 2 day trip out here. You can also plan longer excursions out to the Gobi Desert if you want or go to the Khustai National Park instead of Terelj.
There are a lot of other stops, but these are the only ones I know about.