What is the Trans-Siberian Railway?
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a part of the massive Russian railway network. It connects the European rail network at one end with either Vladivostok or the Chinese rail network at the other. The Trans-Siberian railway is the longest railway in the world. It covers over 9000 km. The journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway is nearly everybody's dream as it’s not only the longest journey you can make on one train, but also it's a huge possibility to get into the depths of Russia and even reach China.
The longest of the three trans-Siberian routes is between Moscow and Vladivostok. It covers 9,258km (6,152 miles) and takes seven nights.
Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria covers 8,986km (5,623 miles) and takes six nights.
Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia route is arguably the most interesting Trans-Siberian route to take. The 7,621 km (4,735 miles) journey takes six nights.
Planning the route & final destination
You can plan your journey for any time of year as the Trans-Siberian Railway operates all year round. It is natural that summer months from May to September are the most popular as the weather is comfortable and the daylight hours are long . On the other hand, winter has its advantages as well: it's easier to get tickets, the Siberian winter landscape is stunning, and the trains are warmly heated.
As you cannot buy an open ticket and hop on and off, you have to decide on the destination and stopovers. The tickets are all-reserved long-distance, and everyone gets a sleeping-berth and a ticket with a date, train number, car and berth number. In spite of that, you can easily plan stopovers along the way buying separate tickets for each train.
The varied scenery and interesting fellow travelers make non-stop travel an enjoyable option and maximize your time at a destination. However, traveling to Vladivostok non-stop seven days can be tedious, and it's better to break up the journey and see more of Siberia.
This long journey can be broken into sections with stopovers in bigger cities: Irkutsk for Lake Baikal, Kazan, and Yekaterinburg to visit museums, see churches and streets of log cabins, Ulan Bator in Mongolia, for a trip into the Gobi desert.
Most travelers pre-book all their tickets, but if time is not a problem and you want to stay flexible, you can buy tickets at stations as you go.
What tickets to buy
Kupé 4-berth sleepers (2nd class) is the usual choice for most westerners. 2-berth sleepers (1st class) is double the price.
The upmarket option is to go for the ultimate comfort and book a tour in the hotel style luxury train Golden Eagle, which operates a variety of itineraries each year and offers not only comfortable traveling but also full sightseeing program en route.
Public trains supply bedding in first- and second-class coaches. The berths can be folded into seats in the morning. Each sleeping-car has at least a few western-style toilets and a washroom with a sink. Trans-Mongolian Moscow–Beijing train is the only public train with showers.
Food quality is generally of a good standard, usually ham and fried eggs for breakfast, meat and potatoes for lunch or dinner, soups and salads. At the bar, beer, Russian champagne, vodka, chocolate, and snacks are sold. The Mongolian Railways restaurant car normally serves rice and mutton, while the Chinese dining car offers a variety of Chinese dishes. Food can also be bought at the stops at stations from local vendors.
The experience on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian train is very different. Cabins are equipped with double beds and wardrobes, en-suite shower room with underfloor heating, TV and DVD, extra storage space. In the dining- and lounge-cars you are entertained by a harpist or a pianist. Food and wine are of a very high standard and are included in the price. You are offered off-train excursions at cities and places of interest along the way. At Lake Baikal, you can sample a barbeque of freshly caught fish, visit a museum of wooden buildings or join a cookery class.
All three routes run between Moscow and Ulan Ude. The most favored places in this section of the journey are Kazan with the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia, so-called Kremlin, Yekaterinburg, and Irkutsk, with many neo-classical wooden buildings, decorated with fantastically ornate fretwork.
Traversing the modestly high Ural Mountains, the train passes a white obelisk marking the boundary between Europe and Asia, which is at kilometer post-1777 (from Moscow). The most scenic landscape of the whole journey is about 200km section beside Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal, 640km-long is thought to be the oldest on Earth and one of the largest. The water of the lake is extremely clear, and it is populated by hundreds of unique species found only here. The railway winds along its shore to the delight of the travelers.
The Mongolian route's main attraction is the undulating grassy steppes of the Gobi desert, enlivened by herds of camels or Mongolian horses and yurts.
The Trans-Manchurian route runs through the rolling steppes, but the highlight of this route is passing through the Great Wall of China close to Shanhaiguan.
What to pack
Less and thinner clothes in summer and more layers and warmer in winter. In winter temperatures can fall as low as -40°C and you will need warm scarves, gloves, hat and thermal underwear if you are planning to spend more time outside. On the other hand, the trains are warm all year round, so you’ll want lighter clothing inside the train even in winter. If traveling by public train, you will need a mug and a spoon to get boiling water from the samovar found at the end of each coach, chocolate, coffee, tea or packet soups. Don't forget spare camera batteries/recharger. They are vital in winter as cold weather quickly depletes the charge.
Whatever the local time, it is important to remember that trains run to Moscow time while in Russia.
For a one-way journey from Moscow to Vladivostok or Beijing, allow at least $500 in second class and $1000 for first class. Tickets are sold with or without meals. Golden Eagle packages range from $16000 to $40000.
If you go for a direct train from Moscow to Beijing with no stopovers, there are two trains weekly: the Trans Mongolian railway train and the Trans Manchurian train. A bed in the 2nd class compartment will cost about $530-$590. Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok will cost about $400, 2nd class.
Traveling with stopovers, you could take a train from Moscow to Novosibirsk, which will take about two days and cost $180 in the 2nd class and then to Irkutsk or Ulan Ude (2 more days and $110), further to Beijing ( 3 days and $470). The 1st class bed would cost double.
Buying Trans- Siberian Tickets
There are several ways of purchasing the tickets. The most reliable way is to book a journey or buy tickets beforehand through a travel agency. You cannot book a train ticket in Russia; you have to purchase it directly not earlier than 45 days before the departure. Thus, if you intend to travel on direct trains from Moscow to Vladivostok or from Moscow to Beijing, we strongly recommend you to purchase your tickets beforehand. Otherwise, the tickets you want might not be available.
If you are traveling with stopovers, you will find tickets between the cities directly in the train stations. However, you have to be prepared to be very flexible with your schedule as it could be that you won't always find the trains on the day you want. Besides, do not forget that train times, ruble exchange rates, and prices in Russia always change.
Whatever route you decide to go, directly to your destination or with stopovers, independently on a public train or the luxurious Golden Eagle train, in summer or during cold Siberian winter the Trans-Siberian journey will be your lifetime experience.