Going from one side of Russia to China is one of the most amazing adventures that you can do on a train —specially during wintertime when it’s white all over.
This post is not a “step-by-step” kind of guide, but my personal experience, including a few tips and some advice. 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 you usually have at airports; trains also drop you off at central locations; they pollute much less than a car; and you can look out the window at any given time, chill out, and enjoy seeing a moving world.
I heard about the Trans-Siberian train a long time, that it was a train trip from one extreme of Russia to the other. Friends usually told me that it was “expensive” or very difficult to do. When I found myself wanting to “escape” from Europe, looking for new landscapes and people, I knew it was time to get to Asia by land. And the train would take me there.
What it is. And what it is not.
When I told people I was thinking about doing this trip, the same questions seemed to repeat. Now, after thousands of kilometers on rails, I can give an honest response to some of those doubts.
Sometimes the trains seemed endless, covering everything from one end of the platform to the other.
Is it expensive?
The price is determined by several factors: the type of train you take; number 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 through an agency).
In my case, I made 4 stops (Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Bator) during my trip, which had started in Moscow. I tried to always take the fastest trains, traveling in second class, in a compartment for 4 people. To avoid the fees of purchasing them through an agency, I decided to buy the tickets myself using the Russian Railways official website. I also bought a couple of them directly at the train stations when buying online wasn’t possible.
I spent €560 EUR (around $620) in tickets alone. But, this could be cheaper or more expensive depending on your choices.
Is it only one train, or can you make stops along the way?
One of the options was to buy just a single ticket, traveling always on the 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 into 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 onto 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’ll need around 7 days to complete the trip. In my case, I made a few stops in between, staying a couple nights before continuing, so it took me around 3 weeks. I wasn’t in a rush to finish, and the days between trains allowed me to get to know the places where I stopped, and also travel to nearby towns.
Organizing your trip
One of the first things I did was to decide the route I wanted to take. The famous Trans-Siberian has that name because it goes through Siberia, but there’s also the possibility of taking the Trans-Mongolian (that one is the one I took) that goes from Russia to China through Mongolia; and the Trans-Manchurian, ending in China too, but skipping Mongolia.
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 my life (that I then lost at some point, who knows where), so I could have a general idea of which places to visit. Traveling in winter (second half of December) and at temperatures that reached -49º C / -56 F was a huge constraint to take into consideration before making any decision.
This is the trip that I finally made:
While I was looking for information about the trip, I started researching what documents I would 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 do the paperwork from Barcelona (where I’m living). The one for Mongolia was processed from one day to the next, maybe because of the low travel season, while the one for China took around a week to be ready for pick-up.
The requirements were more or less the same: having a general idea of your journey and places you’ll visit, including some dates of entering and exit, and flights and accommodation booked.
In my case, I wasn’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 I could later on cancel at no cost.
The plane tickets I got through 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 when the booking expired.
Purchasing the tickets
I still remember the day I bought the tickets. I decided to sit in front of the computer putting all the attention and focus I could. I wanted to buy the tickets myself and not through 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 I 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 time zones), regardless of from 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 aspects of buying tickets by myself was to understand what I was buying exactly, because the website is full of different kinds of trains, each with symbols that signal 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 back, I don’t think I made any important mistake, 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 than the ones with higher numbers (e.g. 142).
Once the doors closed and the train started moving, I was part of a small community. During the trip, there was not much else to do other than looking out the window and passing by people in the corridors, when I went to the toilet or to get more hot water.
Inside the compartment, depending on how things were, I was either completely alone or accompanied by other fellow travelers, mostly Russians. 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.
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 I would need and how much I would 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? It’s not, but better get used to it. Noodles are the basic food aboard.
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 foods to bring onboard are supermarket noodles or any other thing that you can prepare just by adding water. Some people with whom I traveled had meals already cooked that they had prepared before taking the train… and some of them shared with me their chicken wrapped in aluminum foil.
Sometimes, depending on the kind of ticket that you have, 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. Not much better 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 stores selling food at almost every station. If you get off the train, take a look at the itinerary before (normally there’s one posted on the corridor or in the toilet) so you’ll know how much time 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, I was without signal.
In any case, there are not 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 neighbors.
Pro-tip: If you set your mobile phone on “airplane mode” battery will last longer.
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 hung 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
It’s always better to carry with you as few things as possible. I’m a perpetual traveler, and as these weren’t vacations for me, I carried the same medium-size backpack I take everywhere. Sometimes it was a bit hard to move inside the compartment, and I was also carrying a smaller work backpack and a bag with food, which made it worse.
The good thing is that under the lower seats there’s place to leave your things, and there’s also space over the corridor, accessible from the upper beds.
Some of the items I think are important to take with you are:
Spoon, fork, and a bowl;
Thermos for the coffee or tea;
Toilet paper (it’s not strictly necessary, but always good idea);
Torch (especially useful when you have to board a train in the middle of the night);
When I made stops in some of the cities, I stayed in hostels previously booked on Booking.com. It was low season, so on many occasions, I was completely alone. It once happened that I was the only one in a room with 16 beds.
It bothered me a lot while in Russia, that most of the hostels were very hard to find. Many times, the address on the internet didn’t match the real one, or a code to open the door was missing, or the hostel was actually accessible 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 in 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 some time in advance to ask for the directions to find the place, even if those are obvious for him or her. Buying a SIM card is fundamental.
Russian is not the easiest language 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 traveling 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 so 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.
Traveling during wintertime
Before starting my trip, I was mentally prepared —or so I thought— to face low temperatures: I was going to start my trip on the second half of December. But my predictions were way too optimistic, thinking in the worst of the situations I would find myself only at -30ºC / -22 F.
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. From then on, I constantly checked the low temperatures of the next destination, and the ghost of having bad weather accompanied me all the way.
The truth is that I brought ample winter clothes, following the concept of the “3 layers” the specialists recommended. 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.
Anyway, 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.
The truth is that I would do it again. I like snow. But next time I’ll 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 I will never forget. I would definitely do it again, so if you have the opportunity, go for it! And who knows, maybe we’ll see each other in one of the endless corridors of the train.
This article originally appeared on Future Travel and is republished here with permission.