Why You Should Travel Independently on the Trans Siberian Railway

China Russia Travel
by Carlo Alcos Dec 26, 2008

All photos by author

Anyone can join a tour or pre-book a route with an agent, but it takes real commitment and savvy to go it on your own. Here are three big reasons to “Just Say No” to agents when planning a Trans-Siberian rail journey.

Although it was built more than a millennium after his time, Lao-Tzu may as well have been referring to the Trans-Siberian rail when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

That’s the perfect attitude to keep in mind as you board the Rossiya to begin your journey.

Reason #1: You’ll experience a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t listen to them. I’m talking about the Internet forum posters and naysayers on the road, the ones who tell you how hard it is to buy train tickets if you don’t speak Russian.

Admittedly, it is a bit daunting when you’re face to face with a large, surly babushka, but here’s a secret to break the ice: pass her a hand-written note in your best Cyrillic and chances are she will crack a smile. It will look like children’s writing to her. It works every time.

Once you get that out of the way, your confidence will soar. Then, you’ll wonder what the big fuss was all about.

Tip: Make sure you go armed with a few choices in case your preferred train is sold out. Use the CIS Railway Timetable for a reliable schedule of trains. Note that all train schedules are based on Moscow time, something to keep in mind as you traverse up to eight time zones.

Reason #2: You’ll cut your costs.

Buying tickets at the window will save you a stack of rubles. Savings are amplified if you get adventurous and choose platzkartny, the open carriage in which most locals travel and your best bet for cultural submersion. These tickets can be 25% of the cost of a kupe fare.

Sure, the open carriage also offers 0% of the privacy of a closed berth, but how else are you going to observe the local behaviors and customs? A British couple we met along the way shared a cart with a group of soldiers. By the time they said dasvidanya to the young men, they were plus one set of dog tags, an army ration pack, and a drawing.

Tip: To save even more cash, consider contacting hosts through websites like Hospitality Club and Couch Surfing, especially in Moscow where you can blow a big portion of your budget on accommodation.

Reason #3: You can roam if you want to.

Imagine meeting up with other travelers who are in the midst of organizing an amazing week-long off-road adventure. You’re welcome to join them, they tell you. Problem is, your train tickets have a departure date for tomorrow.

This does happen. In Ulan Bator, a six-day excursion to White Lake was planned with some Aussies we met on the road. While my wife and I leisurely explored the city, our new friends spent most of the day re-booking their onward tickets, and of course coughed up a few thousand togrog for the privilege.

Avoid this by not having a rigid plan. Opportunities will always arise and you won’t know all the options until you arrive at your destination. Once you figure out what you want to do, go ahead and purchase your onward fares.

Visas: A minor detail

Train tickets are one issue, visas another.

Assuming Moscow as the start, depending what your final destination is – Vladivostok or Beijing – and what route you decide on – Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian – you will need a visa for Russia, Mongolia or China, or all three.

While it is possible to acquire the necessary papers on your own, the Russian visa is not straightforward.

Russia also requires that you register your visa within three business days upon arrival. The hotel or hostel should do this on your behalf or, if you’re staying with friends, they can register you at a post office.

If you have the time and patience, there’s no reason you can’t obtain the visas on your own. But there isn’t much to be gained other than saving a few bucks.

It might be worthwhile having an agent do this for you, freeing you up to practice your spaseebas and pazhalstas and memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet.

Other helpful resources

Two of the more popular Trans-Siberian websites are Way to Russia and The Man in Seat 61.

Both have a plethora of priceless information that explores the minutiae of this exciting trip. Don’t overlook Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree for up-to-the-minute information from travelers.

The most useful guidebook ever is the Trailblazer Trans-Siberian Handbookby Bryn Thomas. This invaluable tool not only discusses history and places of interest, but also includes timetables and critical information for preparing your trip. There are even templates you can use, with Russian translations, to help you buy your train fares.

Remember, flexibility is your friend.

Timing is everything. If you’re traveling in the May to September peak season you need to be very flexible as you probably won’t get the tickets you want. In fact, on some of the more popular trains you might be forced to use an agent as they pre-buy seats in bulk, leaving crumbs for the scavengers.

At other times, you’ll have the pick of the crop. We traveled in October with no problems catching our desired trains.

Don’t rush the trip. Remember, travel isn’t about the destination but the experience of getting there.

Community Connection

Love riding the rails? Check out our list of 10 Spectacular Train Rides or take a look at Matador member anne137’s blog and video from her ride on the Trans-Siberian.

If you’re unsure where to stop along the journey, check out Carlo’s companion piece, Trans Siberian Sidetrips: How To Break Your Train Ride.

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