How to Travel the Trans-Siberian Railway

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 19th, 2011

katie aune on the trans-siberian railwayThis is a guest post by Katie Aune.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the most famous train journeys in the world. For me, it was the highlight of the three months I spent in Russia. I traveled in reverse, going from Vladivostok to Moscow (most people start in Moscow) and went slowly, taking nearly a month to complete the journey and stopping in five cities along the way.

Planning Your Route
The traditional Trans-Siberian route stretches 9288 kilometers between Moscow and Vladivostok. Two variations are also popular – the Trans-Mongolian (between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia) and the Trans-Manchurian (between Moscow and Beijing, bypassing Mongolia).  All three routes take 6-7 days if going non-stop.

Most travelers start their journeys in Moscow and go east.  If you are anxious to interact with locals or improve your Russian skills, consider starting in Vladivostok or Beijing and heading west. You will likely encounter fewer tourists and more locals who are simply taking the train as a means of transportation, not as an adventure.

Beijing is probably a more attractive bookend to the journey than Vladivostok and likely provides easier onward connections – the best options from Vladivostok are to either fly back to Moscow (about $250) or take a ferry to Japan or South Korea ($400 and up).

Chances are you will need a visa to travel to one or more of Russia, Mongolia and China, so that may factor into which route makes the most sense for you. Rules vary by nationality, so I encourage you to visit the relative consulate website for your home country several months in advance to learn what is required.  For more on my experience obtaining a Russian visa, check out How to Get a Russian Visa.

Where to stop along the way?

Unless you love the idea of spending a week straight on a train, I recommend making a couple of stops along the way. One of the best things about the Trans-Siberian is the opportunity it affords you to see more of Russia than just Moscow and/or St. Petersburg. The most interesting people I met and the best experiences I had along the way came not on the train, but during my stops, which included:

Kazan
kazan russia on the trans-siberian railway
Technically a detour from the Trans-Siberian route, every Russian I met ooh-ed and aah-ed when I told them I was stopping in this 1000-year-old city, exclaiming how beautiful it is. Ignoring the foot of snow I trudged through while I was in town and the cloudy skies that loomed over me, I have to agree.

Kazan’s Kremlin is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in my opinion has much more character than the Kremlin in Moscow.  A large mosque dominates the scene, the main drag is lined with pine trees, and vendors gather along the Kremlin walls, selling mostly Islamic and Tatar-themed souvenirs.  I spent several hours there, including a visit to the Museum of Islam, the Russian Orthodox church, and the natural history museum.

Yekaterinburg
Yekaterinburg on the trans-siberian railway
Yekaterinburg is best known as the place where the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in 1918. My fascination with imperial Russian history made it a must-see – particularly Ganina Yama, the site where their bodies were discarded. Now considered holy ground, seven chapels have been constructed on the site, one for each member of the royal family.  I was most touched by a photo display showing the family in their daily lives – it really personalized the tragedy of their deaths.

Krasnoyarsk
stobly nature reserve in russia
The city itself is fairly bland, but my reason for stopping was to visit the Stolby Nature Reserve – a collection of fascinating volcanic rock pillars scattered throughout the wooded hills outside of the city. Visiting in late November, I was surprisingly not alone in braving subzero temperatures and sometimes knee-deep snow to hike around to all of the rock formations.  My guide, Vitaly, provided sometimes inappropriate stories about the rocks, a much-needed hand as we climbed a few for incredible views – and some cognac for warmth before we started!

Irkutsk
amazing lake baikal outside of irkutsk, russia
Irkutsk provides a jumping-off point to see Lake Baikal – the deepest lake in the world. If you are short on time, plan on a day trip to Listvyanka, a small town on the shores of Lake Baikal and about 90 minutes from Irkutsk.

If you have at least 3 days, Olkhon Island, the largest island in the lake, is a must-see.  Its main town, Khuzhir, takes you back decades with sandy dirt roads and cows roaming the streets. The ride there is half the fun – I shared the 6-hour marshrutka (mini-van) trip to the island with a cute Belgian couple, a couple of babushkas, and a large Russian man chugging vodka out of a bottle stashed in his jacket pocket.

Once in Khuzhir, the couple and I split the cost of hiring a van and driver to take us around the island for an afternoon. Dipping my hand in the near-frozen lake, sliding on the ice that formed on its shores and playing in the fresh snow on the north end of the island provided some of my best memories from my entire time in Russia.

Ulan Ude
ulane ude
Just an eight hour train ride from Irkutsk and not far from the Mongolia border, Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia, home to Russia’s largest indigenous people, the Buryats.  While I only had a day and a half there, I made the most of it, visiting the open-air museum just outside of town, stopping at a small museum on the history of Buryatia (some explanations in English) and enjoying the sunset from one of the highest points in Ulan Ude.

Ulan Ude is also a center of Buddhism in Russia.  I hired a guide (about $12/hour for 4 hours) to accompany me to the Buddhist monastery in Ivolga, about 40 minutes outside of the city. She taught me the basics of Buddhism and, as a Buryat, she gave me insight into their culture.

Booking Your Tickets

sunset on the trans-siberian railway
If you are on a tight schedule, it makes sense to book your tickets ahead of time.  Tickets can be issued up to 45 days in advance and many travel agencies can do this for you. I used Real Russia and highly recommend them – they can also help with obtaining a letter of invitation for visa purposes. It is also possible to book online yourself at www.rzd.ru or www.poezda.net if you can read a little Russian.

For the more flexible travelers, you can purchase your tickets at the stations as you go along. However, be prepared for the possibility that the train you want may already be sold out and don’t be surprised if none of the cashiers speak any English. And, schedules posted at the stations will be on Moscow, not local time.

Most trains offer three classes of sleeper service – spalny vagon (1st class), kupe (2nd class) and platskartny (3rd class). Spalny vagon compartments have just two berths, with both beds at the lower level. Kupe are 4-berth compartments consisting of two upper and two lower bunks. Finally, platskartny are open 6-berth compartments with both upper and lower bunks. Both spalny vagon and kupe have doors that lock, while platskartny compartments are open – this makes third class a little more social, but a little less secure.

How Much Should You Budget?
beds on the train along the trans-siberian railway
How much you spend on your train journey will depend on all of the factors mentioned above, but I would say around $1,000 for tickets, accommodations and food is a good starting point.

For example, booking through Real Russia, a kupe ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok might run about $900, while platskartny would be less than half, at just $360. On the other hand, splurging on first class would cost you nearly $1800. Prices for the nonstop trip to Beijing are similar.  You can save up to 33% by taking one of the lower quality passenger trains instead of the cosmetically nicer “firmenny” trains.

Note that breaking up the journey into separate legs may add some additional cost to your trip. For example, making stops in both Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk en route to Vladivostok would increase the total to $1130 for kupe.

Price can also by day and time of departure, so if you are on a tight budget, be sure to play around with the schedules and note that not all types of trains are available on all routes or run on all days. Russian Railways offered a sale this fall that offered up to 50% off fares booked at least 30 days in advance, but also imposed a 5% penalty on tickets purchased less than 10 days before departure.  Keep an eye out for similar deals in the future.

What to Expect on the Train

train on trans-siberian railway
When I boarded my first train, I felt a bit lost. Everyone around me seemed to have their routines down, from the clothes they changed into and the food they neatly set out on the small table, to the way they effortlessly made up their bed. I just tried to watch and follow their lead and by the time I departed on my second leg, I felt like an old pro.

Toilets: Each carriage has a toilet on each end and they will be locked shortly before, during and shortly after most station stops (and border crossings if you’re heading into China or Mongolia).  The toilet doors usually have a schedule showing these closures. Despite my fears, they were kept quite clean and well stocked with toilet paper.

Food and Water: You will find a samovar with boiling water on one end of the car, usually opposite the attendant’s compartment.  If you bring your own water bottle, you can also refill it with drinkable water from the attendant. While food is available for purchase in the dining car and from vendors roaming the halls, it can be overpriced and the selection may be limited. You may be better off bringing your own provisions, especially for a multi-day journey.

Electronics: Outlets for charging cell phones and the like are available in the hallways. Most carriages have fold-down seats so you can sit with your device as it charges, although it was not uncommon for people to leave theirs hanging unattended.

During my time on the train, I shared my kupe compartment with Russians ranging from businessmen and babushkas to members of a girls’ volleyball team.  Some of my “roommates” boarded and went straight to sleep; others were traveling with people in other compartments and spent most of their time elsewhere. One guy stood in the hallway staring out at the passing landscape for hours at a time. Just a few really wanted to talk..

A babushka flashed her gold teeth as she rambled nonstop to anyone who would listen. An orphanage teacher was wonderfully patient as I practiced my Russian with her over our 2 days together, while an engineer was anxious to try out his English, paging through my dictionary and asking me carefully formulated questions. None were looking to party – the drink of choice for most was tea, not vodka, which is contrary to many of the stories you hear about the Trans-Siberian.

By the end of my journey, I was exhausted, relieved, satisfied and immensely grateful. My fears prior to the trip were unfounded, the people I met were some of the friendliest in my three months in Russia and the experiences were unforgettable.  And back in Moscow, sharing my stories with friends there, I began to really appreciate the fact that I had just seen more of Russia in one month than most Russians will ever see in a lifetime.

Katie Aune is a Minnesota native and former attorney who recently quit her job in nonprofit fundraising to spend a year volunteering and traveling through the 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. You can follow her adventures on Katie Aune or on Twitter @katieaune.

comments 49 Comments

I love reading this. I also travelled by Transsib and it was an amazing experience. Thanks for this beautiful article!

Just read your other artcile about the trans siberian! Great tips! I really want to go from Vladivostok to Moscow but I think it will not be possible for me to get a visa since I will be travelling previously and not domiciled anywhere for three months :(

Thanks Jade! I know you’ve been following along and I appreciate it! Yeah, the visa stuff can be tricky. I’ve heard rumors of things getting easier leading up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014 but who knows? If you can get back to your home country for at least a month ahead of time you should have time to get the visa although you may need to pay to expedite things. :(

Great info! I’m definitely interested in travelling the trans-mongolian one day. Looks like a great experience.

I’ve always wanted to take the Trans-Siberian railway. Thanks for a very informative description of it.

The rocks in Stolby Nature Reserve look marvelous! Would be my reason to visit over there, for sure! It’s the first time I hear about this place.

Yeah, I definitely had never heard of Stolby until I started researching for my trip. It was certainly worth freezing my butt off a little to discover!

Ali

Great tips Katie! I’m sure I’ll end up doing this trip someday!

What a fantastic, detailed guide. I have heard that foreigners always get put in cabins together so it sounds like travelling the other way helps avoid that (if you want a more local experience).

Thanks Erin! Hadn’t heard that about foreigners being grouped together – not sure how they would do that since you get your cabin & bed assignment as soon as you book, but I suppose maybe there’s something in the system…regardless, I think both the direction I went and the time of year I went kind of ensured I’d be just about the only non-Russian on the train. :)

My dream is to take the Transiberian….one day I will!

Thank you for sharing with us more of Russia. I always see Moscow but nothing so detailed and involved. Makes my wanting to see Russia even higher on the scales now.

Thanks for reading Rhona! I hope you’ll check out my site as I have over a dozen posts from the three months I spent in Russia – almost none about Moscow since that was one of my least favorite cities.

This is – together with Moscow – a big wish! Thank you for sharing, love to see this.. For now, I am dreaming along..

Don’t buy the tickets through an agent, it is way cheaper to book the train tickets directly from rzd.ru – and no, you don’t need to be able to read Russian. Chrome do a decent translation (only a few buttons are not translated) and this website (http://guyssquared.com/2011/how-to-buy-tickets-using-rzd-ru/) tells step by step how to do it. Easy and you save a lot of money.

Globespots.com also has inspiration for places along the Trans-Siberian route.

Good tips. I personally just found it much easier to go through an agent, especially with as many stops as I was making and the limited time I had, they were able to easily suggest an itinerary and I just went with it. Even if you book through rzd.ru I’d use Real Russia’s site to search timetables since they list in local time and then find the corresponding train on rzd.ru since they just use Moscow time.

Wow this is something I have been dreaming about for years. So those are the only stops you recommend? I saw that there are many stops, should I stop in other places for a night or two?

I wish I had time to stop more! Other places that I have heard make good stops are Nizhny Novgorod (which would likely be a first stop coming from Moscow – you’d probably do either that or Kazan), Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk, Chita and Khabarovsk.

Very interesting trip, me too willing to go on trans-siberian trip.

How do you propose to deal with the language issues? Most Russians (especially in the smaller towns) don’t speak English. I would think that at least some basic language skills are necessary (for things like getting food and asking for directions).

I do speak some Russian – studied it in college and took a language course in St Petersburg when I first go to Russia – so that made it easier. I would recommend at least getting a good handle on understanding the Cyrillic alphabet. Once you can read Cyrillic, you can sound out a lot of the signs and the words will actually be familiar.

Getting food isn’t too much of an issue if you shop in local markets or kiosks – just point to what you want and they can figure it out. In smaller shops, they’re probably ringing you up on a calculator anyway so they’ll just show you the total on the calculator. For restaurants, it would definitely help to have a phrase book as you likely won’t find any menus in English.

I met 2 guys in Ulan Ude who were doing the Trans-Mongolian who didn’t speak a word of Russian and they were getting a long just fine. It just takes some patience.

I grew up in Russia (fluent in language), and the task still seems daunting :)
But you are right – all it takes is patience and dedication.

Wow very informative article. I took an overnight train in Italy and it turned out we were in the wrong car. We booked a room with beds but accidentally got on the regular and much cheaper car. With language barriers it was a little bit difficult to get to the right location but it was we worth seeking it out in the end. Great article and tips.

Thanks! They were pretty good about checking your ticket when you boarded and making sure you were in the right place. It seemed like they would only let you on at your assigned car and then the attendant came around again to check tickets once everyone was on board.

The picture shown is a standard passenger train. If you want something a bit nicer, look for the “firmenny” trains. The cabins are brighter, the toilets slightly nicer and the beds are upholstered in fabric rather than leather, with beds that fold down rather than roll out mattresses. Although I personally found the mattresses on the passenger trains more comfy. :)

I am stoked you published this. I have this on my to do list. I met an Italian girl who took the 3rd class car and said it was def. the best option as it is the most social and fun. She had an American guy who took the first class but always came back to socialize. So I think this is less safe, but worth it for the fun and social factor. People will share vodka and try to speak with you and even yell at you sometimes, but I think this is what it is all about.

Although I would recommend trying to get a top bunk as people will sit and socialize on the bottom ones, so if you want to sleep, you are screwed.

Turner

Thanks Turner! Yeah, I did 2nd class all the way and while I met quite a few people it didn’t have a super social vibe. I really can’t imagine doing 1st class unless you’re traveling as a couple and don’t want to socialize at all.

I struggled over upper vs lower bunk. Watching people struggled to climb up into the upper ones made me glad I had a lower (one larger older woman looked like she was going to fall off the bunk numerous times as she tried to make it up the very tiny ladder!). And I was glad not to have to pull my big backpack up there to store. But it did get old sometimes if I wanted to lay down or stretch out and I had people sitting on my bunk.

Hi, i enjoy reading this post. Moscow is one of the city that I want to visit and Russia must be very interesting to see :-)thanks for sharing

Splendid piece… a tremendous amount of important information. But winter? You are brave.

Wow, this sounds like the trip of a lifetime. I’ve always wanted to do it. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for sharing, my friends did this for their honeymoon they said it could be a bit hard going but still one of the most amazing experiences of their lives.

Wow, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a honeymoon trip (not exactly super-romantic!) but good for them!

Hi Katie,

Truly excellent.

Thank you for posting such an in-depth post on something I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do. And it seems totally worth it – financially and otherwise – to take the extra stops.

Well done.

You’re welcome Adam! Glad you found it useful. And yes, I highly recommend making at least a couple stops – it breaks up the long train rides and you get such a different view of Russia than what you might see in St Petersburg or Moscow. And people were soooo friendly.

when i was school…it was in my geography book and since then i was fascinated about a journey on this railway track….Thanks for posting this article, it would be great help if i happen to make it some day….

Great post!
Kazan’s Kremlin looks amazing!
I did the traditional route, starting in St Petes, in 2010 – one of the best things I have ever done!

Really enjoyed the read. Not to happy about the lack of vodka drinking on the way but i am sure i can live with that!

Great post, well put together and very informative. I agree with your comment on fellow passengers. I did my trip in winter and tea was the drink of choice with the locals!

Lucas

Very nice article. I enjoyed reading it and it was informative. One question for you Katie. If I were to purchase a ticket from say Moscow to Beijing, what sort of options are there for getting on and off the train? Could I get off at as many stops as I want? Is there some sort of time limit from beginning to end for riding the train? I just want to do the trip and be able to get off at certain places and take a few days to explore. The spots you noted looked great! I would also like to get off at random different areas and have the possibility of staying off the train for a couple of days. Thanks again for all of the info and the great article!

rob

Do you have some experience with agencies like railbookers, greatrail or transsiberian-travel.com? What do you think about “luxury trains”?

How cool! A friend of mine just left for the Transiberian Trail! Happy and jealous at the same time!
Anyway, I’m all for hot countries, LOL!

The TransSib has been on my list for ages, thank you so much for all the tips! (Especially the Russian names for the different things, this is going to be very useful when I finally DO get to go)

Great post. Thanks for all the info, I will definitely use it. Sounds like you had brilliant time. I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad that everybody on the train wasnt drinking vodka and partying!

Max

I had a crazy idea of going from London to Beijing entirely by train. Eurostar to Paris, Paris to Berlin, Berlin to Moscow, Moscow to Beijing etc.

Has anybody got any experience with this?

NomadicMatt

You can easily do it! Plenty of trains to choose from. Check out the site seat61.com

Marian

First of all, great article, it helped a lot.
I’ve just booked my tickets to trans sib railway via realrussia.co.uk
I tried to do that via rzd.ru, but my card wasn’t accepted. Just FYI, the final price from Vladivostok to St.Petersburg (4stops enroute) was 390 Euro. If you know your itinerary earlier, you can buy your ticket much cheaper. But I think only second class, 45-31 days before departure and only domestic routes. It is cheaper than 3rd class.

We went from St. Petersburg to Hong-Kong by train. We decided take different stops along the way. Check out our blog, too. We took plenty of pictures and wrote a diary: http://www.westbrise.com

Haha, yes, very possibly related. Are you going in kupe or platskartny? You may encounter more vodka, or at least more socializing, in platskartny.

Oh – and even though you’re going in February, beware they keep the train temps at around 24 or 25 Celsius (high 70s Fahrenheit) – I was sweltering at times – especially during the day when the sun was shining on my side of the train!

Have fun!

Leave a comment