The Trans Siberian is a series of railroads connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg with the Sea of Japan, via the wild eastern edges of Russia, Siberia. Mongolia and China. The first section of line, between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, was built between 1891 and 1961 running 9,288kms; there are additional sections that run in conjunction with it: a branch though China, called the Chinese Eastern Railway, one to Pyongyang in North Korea, one to Kiev, and the Trans Manchurian which goes via Harbin to Ussuriysk, and Trans Mongolian to Beijing via Ulan Bator.
There multiple different Tran Siberian route options, but there are three main ones covering the main part of the journey:
Moscow to Vladivostok: The No.001 train runs west and the No.002 eastwards, each taking around a week to cover 9,258kms. One way fares on the 'Rossiya', meaning Russia, start at around 13,000 rubles for a four berth, 2nd class sleeper called a kupé, and around 25,000 rubles for a two berth, 1st class 'spalny wagon' ticket. These trains set off from either end every second day.
Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia: This route is more popular with travellers because it cuts across spectacular Siberia then the vast Gobi Desert. The routes, numbers 003 and 004, involve changing mid way onto the Trans Mongolian line, and take about six days, leaving Moscow every Tuesday night. 2nd class, four berth compartments start at about £410 one way, and 1st class two berth, shared shower sleeper tickets start at around £570. Most people taking this trip investigate the stopping off options, with breaks at Ulan Bator, and Irkutsk or Ekaterinburg for Lake Baikal proving the most popular, and most travellers find they can then pick up one of the more regular trains travelling on from Ulan Bator to Beijing without needing to wait for the next No.004.
Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria: This train is called the 'Vostock' and is numbered 019 east and 020 west, leaving Moscow every Friday night and taking just over six days to travel the 8,986kms to Beijing. The travelling options are again the spalny wagon or kupé ticket, with prices comparable to the via Mongolia option.
The Trans Siberian isn't the height of modernity, but it's possibly more modern than you're expecting it to be – though all western travellers should be made aware that there aren't usually any showers. In the popular summer months there's a party atmosphere on board and there are more westerners, but it still runs in the winter and this is when the views of Siberia are the most stunning. For the first three days the train rushes across Siberia, on day four it reaches Lake Baikal, the world's deepest fresh water lake. Very early on day five you go though Mongolian customs then wake up again on the steppe, heading towards Ulan Bator and the Gobi Desert. The train hits the Chinese border at about midnight – they play triumphant music to make sure you notice, and the train is raised to change the wheels so that it can run on the Chinese section of line – then you continue on passed the Great Wall at Quiglongqiao and arrive in Beijing in the afternoon of the sixth day. You eat Russian food in the Russian restaurant car for the first four days, Mongolian from the Mongolian restaurant car on the fifth and Chinese on the last day.
”But what are you supposed to do on the train for a week?” Relax, read, watch the world go by, take photos, play chess or cards, get to know your fellow passengers, drink coffee, drink vodka – and keep one eye on the 'Trans Siberian Handbook' which has a kilometre by kilometre account of what to look out for as you're travelling.
The easiest way to choose your route is to decide where you want to end up. Vladivostok is the traditional finish line, but there's not a lot there worth travelling seven days on a train for, unless you're going to go on to Japan via ferry...
The Trans Siberian CAN be booked independently, and is often less expensive done that way – this is a real, working railway used by regular local folks too, not just a historic experience. Most western travellers go 2nd class in a four berth kupé, which is pretty reasonable when you consider you're getting your accommodation for almost a week into the bargain. There is a 3rd class option, platskartny: travelling on open plan bunks, but it's a lot more basic. It's cheapest to buy your tickets yourself at the station, but the next cheapest option is to buy your tickets though a local travel agent. If you buy a ticket 'with services' it usually means a breakfast and dinner in the restaurant car is included in the price.
You need to arrange your visas about three months in advance – most people opt for a tourist visa, which allows you to spend time in Moscow. In order to issue you with a visa you need to have 'supporting documentation' – this is different from the normal visa application process and involves producing proof of where you're going to stay, but this can be solved with a little help from a local operator, try Real Russia.
It can be easier to buy your long distance train tickets in Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic, their systems are connected and the language barrier is less of a problem for many travellers. Expect to pay an additional reservation supplement to book your berth even after you've paid for your ticket. And you get what you pay for, it's cheaper to take longer – AND THERE'S NO SUCH TRAIN AS THE TRAN SIBERIAN EXPRESS. Generally speaking the lower the number on the route ie. No.002, the less stops the train will make.
You don't need to fly to Moscow to begin your overland journey, there are train options starting from London's St Pancras...
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