Travelling in the Trans-Siberian: From St. Petersburg to Beijing

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Before beginning, I would like to state that this post is not a “step-by-step” kind of guide, but my personal experience —that, may, of course, be different from other people. I’ll also include some tips and advices. If you want something more detailed, this website is a very good starting point.

I’ve always thought that trains are the best means of transportation: you avoid the queues and the waiting time that you usually have at airports; trains also drop you off in central locations; they pollute much more less than a car; and you can look by the window at any given time, chill out and enjoy of a moving world.

Maybe it was because of this that I heard about the Trans-Siberian train a long time ago. I didn’t know how it worked or what exactly was it about, just that it was one of those amazing trips in train that make one of the longest journeys in the world, from one extreme of Russia to the other through its guts.

The few things I knew, it was because I’ve heard of it through friends, who usually told me that it was “expensive” or very difficult to do. I was never decided to do a bit of research on the matter, but when I found myself wanting to “escape” from Europe, looking for new landscapes and people, I knew it was the right time to get to Asia by land. And the train would take me there.

What is it. And What’s not.

When I told people what I was thinking about doing this trip, the same questions seemed to repeat. Perhaps the ones that I asked myself before, too, being unable to answer.

Sometimes the trains seemed endless, covering everything from one end of the platform to the other.

Sometimes the trains seemed endless, covering everything from one end of the platform to the other.

Now, after thousands of kilometres on rails, I feel a bit more capable to give an honest response to some of those doubts.

Is it expensive?

Honestly, this depends on how do you decide to travel. The price is determined by several factors: the type of train you take; the amount of stopovers that you make along the way; the class (first, second or third) and where you decide to buy your ticket (by yourself or trough an agency).

In my case, I made 4 stops (Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Bator) during my journey, starting in Moscow. I tried to always take the fastest trains, travelling in second class, in a compartment for 4 people in total. About getting the tickets, to avoid the fees of purchasing them through an agency, I decided to buy them by my own using the Russian Railways official website. I also bought a couple of them directly at the train stations when buying online wasn’t possible for some reason.

In total, I spent 560 EUR (some 620 USD) in tickets alone. But, like I mentioned before, this could be cheaper or more expensive depending on your choices.

Is it only one train, or can you make stops in your way?

One of the options was to buy just a single ticket, travelling always in the exact same train from start to end. The train then makes several stops at stations, stops that may be shorter or longer. Using this option, you have to go back to the same train to resume your journey.

What I did was to split the trip in several parts, buying tickets separately. This allowed me to take breaks along the way, and have a rest of 2 or 3 nights each time, before jumping into the train again. The longest time I spent on the train was about 32 hours straight.

How much time does it take?

If you buy just 1 ticket, then you’d need around 7 days to complete the trip. In my case, I made a few stops in between, using a couple of nights before continuing, so it took me around 3 weeks in total. I decided to make it like this because I wasn’t in a rush to finish, and the days between trains allowed me to get to know the places where I stoped better, and travel to nearby towns too.

Organising Your Trip

One of the first things I did was to decide the route that I wanted to take. The famous Trans-Siberian has that name because goes trough Siberia; but there’s also the possibility of taking the Trans-Mongolian (that one is the one I did) that goes from Russia to China through Mongolia; and the Trans-Marchurian that ends in China too, but skipping Mongolia.

My first sketches with places and dates, preparing a tentative itinerary.

My first sketches with places and dates, preparing a tentative itinerary.

Between Moscow and Beijing I wanted to stop to get to know a bit of Russia. So I bought a guide by Lonely Planet for the first time in life (that then lost at some point, who knows where) so I could have a general idea of what places to visit. Travelling in winter (second half of December) and at temperatures that reached -49º C / -56 F was a huge constrain to take into consideration before making a decision.

This is the trip that I finally made:

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Visas

While I was looking for information about the trip, I started researching what documents would I need to get my visas for Mongolia and China (I’m holding an Argentinean passport, that’s why, luckily, I don’t need a Russian visa). In both cases I could make the paperwork from Barcelona (where I’m living). The one for Mongolia was pretty fast, from one day to the next (maybe because of the low season), while the one for China took around a week to be ready for pick-up.

In both cases the requirements were more or less the same: having a general idea of your journey and place to visit, including some dates of enter and exit, and flights and accommodation booked.

In my case, I was’t completely sure of my itinerary yet, but I still needed to show proofs of reservations. So I made this using Booking.com, choosing places that I could later on cancel at no cost if I needed to.

The plane tickets, I got them trough Iberia. They allowed me to hold them for 72 hours without having to make a purchase. This seemed less risky than buying, cancelling and asking for a reimbursement —I just had to pay some 10 EUR when the booking expired.

Purchasing the Tickets

I still remember that the day I bought the tickets, I decided to seat in front of the computer putting all the attention and focus I could. I wanted to buy them by my own and not using an agency. This was in part to save some money (through an agency it would be up to 30% more expensive), but I also wanted to start digging into the trip and being more aware of the adventure that was about to begin.

Being low season, I didn’t have much trouble regarding availability. In almost every case I got the tickets on the website of Russian company managing the trains, with the exception of the tickets for the last part of the trip that weren’t available on internet, so I got those at the station.

In Russia, they use Moscow’s time for train schedules (the whole country has 11 different timezones), regardless of in which city they are departing. That’s why I had to be very careful to not arrive either too early, or too late to my destinations.

One of the most challenging things of buying tickets by my own was to understand what I was buying exactly, because the website is full of different kind of trains, each with some symbols that point different on-board services (such as meals, for example). That’s why I had to look at the options patiently before hitting the “Buy” button. Looking backwards, I don’t think I made any important mistake to highlight, so it’s not as hard as it may seem.

Pro-tip: Trains with lower numbers (e.g. 34) tend to be better and faster that the ones with higher numbers (e.g. 142).

Life Onboard

Once doors are closed and the train starts moving, I was part of a small community. During the trip there’s no much else to do than looking by the window and passing by people in the corridors, when I went to the toilet or to get more hot water.

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In my compartment I traveled more or less comfortable, depending on how close I was going.

In my compartment I traveled more or less comfortable, depending on how close I was going.

Inside the “compartment”, depending on how things were, I was either completely alone or accompanied by other fellow travellers, Russians in most of the cases. I have to mention that most of the people use these trains just to get from A to B for business purposes or to visit their families, so, at least in my case, I found almost no other tourist there. Some of the people there had already been several days when I got in, and had their rituals and customs, looking for the way to make time inside the most comfortable possible.

Pro-tip: There are toilets inside the wagons, but not showers (except, perhaps, in first class) so bear in mind this before departing.

The Food

It’s very normal in the train to carry your own bag with the supplies for the trip. Before departing the first time, I had no idea of what to buy. I went to the supermarket trying to guess what would I need and how much would I eat in the next hours. Of course I over-bought, but I learned to calculate a bit more accurately from that moment on.

Looks delicious? I don`t think so, but better get used to it. Noodles are the basic food of the train.

Looks delicious? I don`t think so, but better get used to it. Noodles are the basic food of the train.

Inside the wagons there’s a boiling water supply (or just hot or warm, if you are not that lucky); and that’s the reason why the most popular food onboard are supermarket noodles, or any other thing that you can prepare by just adding water. Some people who I travelled with had meals already cooked that they had prepared before taking the train… and some of them shared with me their chicken wrapped in aluminium paper.

Sometimes, depending on the kind of ticket that you got, there’s a small tray of food included. But don’t have your hopes too high as this is nothing fancy, just some meat and rice. No much better than that are the options available in the restaurant car, so it’s better to get your provisions before taking the train.

Pro-tip: If you don’t have time to drop by the supermarket before departing, there are some kind of stores selling food at almost every station. If you get off the train, take a look to the itinerary before (normally there’s one sheet of paper on the corridor or in the toilet) so you’ll know how much time do you have to come back. Also, don’t go too far or they’ll leave you!

Electricity and Internet Access

The train is a good opportunity to disconnect from everything, something that will inevitably happen when you are in the middle of nowhere. In my case, I bought a SIM card with internet data, which was very useful to communicate with hostels (see below), but in most parts of the journey it was without signal nevertheless.

In any case, there are no many plugs in the wagons. You can find some in the hallways —but they tend to be busy— or nearby the toilets. In just one occasion I found one in the same compartment I was. More experienced people set up some kind of electric installation with extenders, shared with the neighbours.

Pro-tip: If you set your mobile phone on “airplane mode” battery will last longer.

Clothing

During the journey onboard, you have to travel as comfortable as possible, just as if you were at home. That’s why I just wore regular clothes and sandals, like everyone else. I also needed a lot of winter clothing when I was outside, but once in the train I hanged those close to the door. Putting everything on —and in the right order— was some kind of ritual every time I was getting ready to leave the train.

What to Bring

Just like in every trip, it’s always better to carry with you as few things as possible. I’m a perpetual traveller, and like these weren’t vacations for me, I carried the same medium size backpack that I take everywhere. Sometimes it was a bid hard to move inside the compartment, and if you add that I was also carrying a smaller work backpack and a bag with food, things were even worst.

The good thing is that under the lower seats there’s place to leave your things, and also in some kind of space over the corridor, accesible from the upper beds.

Some of the items I think are important to take with you are:

  • Spoon, fork, and a bowl;
  • Thermo for the coffee or tea;
  • Toilet paper (is not strictly necessary, but is a good idea anyways);
  • Torch (specially useful when you have to board a train in the middle of the night);
  • Books and reading material.

Pro-tip: On your phone, you can also save playlists to listen offline on Spotify, or download tv shows on Netflix, so you can be entertained even without internet connection.

Accommodation Outside the Train

When I made stops in some of the cities, I stayed in hostels previously booked on Booking.com. It was low season, so in many occasions I was completely alone. It once happened that I was the only one in a room with 16 beds.

Something that bothered me a lot while in Russia, was that most of the hostels were very hard to find. Many times the address on internet didn’t match the real one, or a code to open the door was missing, or the hostel was actually accesible only from the backyard. And trying to find the entrance in winter is not fun.

In a couple of occasions I had to call the owner, who, to make things even worst, didn’t speak any English —so we had to exchange regular text messages after translating the text on Google. Like those, I found myself into many similar situations, that now may sound like a bit of adventure but were actually a pain in the ass at the moment.

Pro-tip: Check, and check again the hostel address before leaving. Contact the owner with some time in advance to ask for the relevant indications to find the place, even if those are obvious for him or her. Buying a SIM card is fundamental.

The Language

Russian is not the easiest language on earth to learn. And if you add that not many people speak English there, the result is that many times you end up using your hands to communicate, or drawing things on a notepad as if you were playing Pictionary. Luckily, during the trip I found many kind people willing to help me.

Once —and I think I’ll never forget this— a person invited me to go with him on the taxi he was waiting for, he then came with me to the hostel’s front desk carrying one of my backpacks, and just left when he was sure that everything was right, speaking in Russian to the manager himself. And, he didn’t take any of the money that I offered as compensation for the troubles and the taxi ride.

So, after some time travelling I found that there are some things that make communication easier:

  • A notepad, where to write names, addresses and draw;
  • The Google Translate app on your phone. I’ve had entire “conversations” just translating something, showing the outcome, and the other person doing the same with me;
  • Learn some basic phrases —not only the ones to say “good morning”, “thank you” and son on, but also some other more advanced to say “I’m lost”, “I need help” or “Where’s the exit?”.

The funny thing is that many people didn’t care that we couldn’t communicate with each other, they just wanted to chat with me, and they kept talking even when they knew that I wasn’t able to understand anything at all. I just nodded and smiled from time to time.

Travelling During Wintertime

Before starting my trip, I was mentally prepared —or I though so— to face low temperatures: I was going to start my trip from the second half of December. But my previsions were way too much optimistic, and I thought that in the worst of the situations I was going to find myself only at -30ºC / -22 F.

Hairy camels in Mongolia.

Hairy camels in Mongolia.

Although that was the most frequent temperature I found, it sometimes got to -49º C / -56,2 F. That was the worst day, and possibly one I will never forget. After that, my concept of cold changed completely. Checking the low temperatures of the next destination was a constant, and the ghost of having a bad time accompanied me all the way.

The truth is that I left a budget in winter clothes, following the concept of the “3 layers” that the specialists commented. But I forgot to prepare myself to warm my hands, feet and face properly —that are just as important as the rest of the body.

Anyways, Siberia has a special touch in winter. The completely white landscapes, the snow-capped cities, and the trees with their branches wrapped in snow like a fairy tale made everything, in some way or another, worth it.

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The truth is that I would do it again. I like snow and to kick it when it comes together in those piles of white powder. But next time, I’m going to buy some really decent boots.

So… Is it a Good Experience?

Although I have been traveling non-stop for 3 years now, and have seen lots of things, this trip was an adventure that I will not forget, and possibly, presume of for a while. I would definitely do it again, so if you have the opportunity, go for it! And who knows, maybe we’ll cross each other in one of the endless corridors of the train.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON FUTURE TRAVEL.

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JAVIER 'SIMÓN' CUELLO

Designer, writer, and traveler.