The Trans-Siberian Railway
Stretching just shy of ten thousand kilometres across the vast expanse of Russia from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian Railway is so much more than just a mode of transport.
Once you have braved the snaking ticket queues (and met the sharp end of Russian customer service), on the Trans-Siberian you'll soon get to experience the real Russia that all the Cold War Propaganda you've been fed never prepared you for: multitudes of steely but twinkly-eyed and curious fellow Russian passengers all dressed in tracksuits and keen to get to know the foreigner who is passionate - or insane - enough to tackle their beloved Mother Russia from side-to-side by train.
You'll be regaled in broken English with tales of far-off sweethearts, and be offered all manner of Russian food and drink by some of the most truly generous people on Earth. Your liver may not thank you for the vodka, but the damage will be short-lived, unlike your memories of this fascinating journey - which will stay with you for a lifetime.
The Trans-Siberian line originates - as most things in Russia do - at Moscow, centre of the known Russian Universe, and heads east through the 'Golden Ring' town of Vladimir. It passes through the birthplace of writer Maxim Gorky, now renamed Nizhny Novgorod, at which point the line branches, going via either the manufacturing hub of Perm or the more colourful capital of the Tatar Republic, Kazan.
The branches meet again at the vibrant and progressive Ural city of Yekaterinburg, and the route passes within a couple of hundred miles of Kazakhstan before officially crossing into Siberia and stopping at the administrative giants of Omsk, Novosibirsk andKrasnoyarsk.
At approximately halfway, the mainline reaches Irkutsk and meets the stunning Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, curving around its beautiful southern shore and peeling away into the Buryat region to its capital Ulan Ude.
Hugging the Chinese border, the final section of line passes through the sparse and mountainous region of Eastern Siberia before rejoining civilisation again at Kharbarovsk and turning south on the home stretch to arrive at Vladivostok, a buzzing port town overlooking the immense Pacific... nearly ten thousand kilometres from Moscow, or eight days of non-stop train travel!
The Trans-Siberian is just one of a number of lines that run through the huge landmass of Eurasia. Another major line is the Trans-Mongolian, which follows the route described above up until Ulan Ude, at which point it breaks southward into Mongolia, passing through the Mongolian capital of Ulanbaatar before heading into China, ending up at the Chinese centre of the Universe, Beijing. A third (and less well-known) line, called the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), breaks from the Trans-Siberian route a few hundred miles East of Krasnoyarsk, brushing the northern tip of Lake Baikal before plunging into the Wild Wild East of Siberia, ending up at remote Sakhalin Island, just North of Hokkaido, Japan. Note that at present this website only covers the mainline Trans-Siberian Railway, but the other routes are mentioned here for completeness.
So... eight days of train travel! Travellers can tackle the Trans-Siberian Railway in a number of different ways. Three of these are detailed below.
The Full Monty
Also known as: eight days on a train from Moscow to Vladivostok - non-stop! It sounds insane, but a number of travellers tackle the Trans-Siberian in this manner. Armed with a healthy stash of supplies and a stack of books, 'Full Monty' travellers argue a non-stop journey is an excellent way to strike up lasting friendships with fellow Russian passengers who may also be spending several days on the train. It's an easy, hassle-free way to approach Russia, and it also gets you across the country in the minimum possible amount of time by train, if time is tight - but allows you to relax completely along the way as you watch the trees go by at forty miles an hour. The downside? You don't get to see any of the fascinating country sandwiched between Moscow and Vladivostok, apart from a few brief stops at station platforms. And eight days in bed sounds quite nice on paper, but don't attempt this if you think it might drive you crazy. And anyone who has ever been to a music festival will know that four or five days is long enough without a shower, but eight..?
The Half Nelson
Half Nelson travellers sensibly split a journey of eight days into two four-day stints, most breaking their journey at the drop-dead gorgeous Lake Baikal for some wood-hutted relaxation beside the lake. This makes the trip far more manageable, and you actually get to see a bit of the country you're passing through as well. The Half Nelson is probably the most popular itinerary option for Trans-Siberian travellers, and for good reason. However, you're still bypassing a number of fascinating destinations by settling for this itinerary.
Ho-Ho: Hop-On, Hop-Off
Ho-Ho travellers - of which I was one - try their best to fit in as many Russian locations as possible into their 30 days of Russian visa time. The Ho-Ho itinerary offers the best chance to see plenty of Russia. The idea is to use individual overnight trains to hop between destinations, allowing you to explore a city by day and then travel to your next destination by night. This allows you to use the shower facilities at stations, and gives you the option to take a break from the train and stay at a local hotel if you want to spend longer in a place or just fancy a bed that doesn't violently lurch to a stop in the middle of the night. Ho-Ho travel, however, does take some forethought and planning. Tickets need to be bought individually for each leg and come at a premium; hopping on and off between Moscow and Vladivostok may cost you as much as 50% more than just riding a single train all the way.
Choosing your Itinerary
There's no right or wrong way to travel the Trans-Siberian; it's purely down to personal preference. But before you start the visa application process it's important to have a rough idea of an itinerary, as you need to state it when applying. The first decision you'll need to make is: which direction to travel in? The above itineraries assume you will be travelling from West to East. This makes sense if you are starting out from Europe and using the Trans-Siberian as a means to getting to Asia and beyond. But if your circumstances allow, how about taking the journey in reverse? You'll meet far fewer travellers on westbound trains.
Once you've decided on the direction, you need to identify which cities on your route you intend to stay more than three days in. These are likely to be St. Petersburg, Moscow, possibly Irkutsk, and Vladivostok, but may vary. It's advisable to put down these long-stay cities as the itinerary for your visa application form. Why the "more than three days" limit? Well, the current Russian visa regulations state that any tourist staying longer than three days in a place in Russia must get their visa registered with the local immigration office. Failure to do so can lead to you being fined (and Russian police are all too eager to stop you and check your papers for any discrepancies and collect their fine). So whilst the itinerary on your application form doesn't strictly have to match the itinerary you actually take when you arrive, the more they resemble each other, the better.
Once you've got to that stage, you're ready to enter the wonderful world of Russian bureaucracy and start the Russian visa application process.
Applying for a Russian Visa
Whether it's a surviving relic of Soviet Russia or the deliberate actions of a Government that doesn't really want too many tourists roaming its lands, one thing is clear: getting a Russian visa requires you to jump through quite a few hoops. Luckily, some enterprising Russian companies have sprung up to make the process a little easier.
You need to have a rough idea of your itinerary before you start the visa application process, the reason being that you have to state it during application.
Each of the three hoops to jump through is outlined in detail below.
Step 1: Invitation
Before you even think about heading down to your nearest Russian Embassy, you need to apply for an Invitation to visit Russia. This is also sometimes referred to as Visa Support.
There are various ways of obtaining this document. If you have a friend or contact resident in Russia, they should be able to obtain an invitation for you, but be warned that you are letting them in for some potentially nightmarish Russian bureaucracy.
An easier option is to obtain your invitation from your first place of stay. Some hostels in St. Petersburg and Moscow will offer Invitations for free (or a small fee) if you book your first night(s) accommodation with them.
But by far and away the most hassle-free way to jump through this first hoop is to apply online at one of the companies that have surfaced to deal with this headache in return for some cold, hard currency. One such company which I suggest you give a whirl is Real Russia.
Trans Siberian Tickets
There are three main ways to buy tickets for the Trans Siberian:
Use a Western Travel Agency
The most convenient way of buying tickets for the Trans Siberian is to deal with an established High Street travel agency such as STA Travel or Trailfinders. The (usually) knowledgeable staff will be able to advise you on your choices in a comfortable environment. Be aware, though, that you are essentially dealing with a middle-middle-man - all they'll do is contact their middle-man, their affiliated agency in Russia who'll book it for you - and so you'll be paying a premium for the convenience. If you like the ease of this route, go for it - the cheaper alternative is to deal with an established, trusted Russian travel agency yourself over the net.
Use a Russian Travel Agency
To cut down on the price, getting an established Russian travel agency to book your tickets for you can be a good way forward. This is especially suitable if you're a Full Monty or Half Nelson traveller (see itineraries), meaning you're only booking one or two tickets. If you're a Hop-on, Hop-off kind of traveller, though, it might be a complex and limiting experience as you try to convey to them your involved itinerary. I can't give personal recommendations for trustworthy Russian travel agencies, as I didn't use this method to book my tickets, but a search on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum should point you in the right direction.
Book your tickets as you go in Russia
Not for the faint of heart! - but recommended for those who want ultimate freedom for their time in Russia. Hop-on, hop-off travellers will want to buy their tickets as they go along to fit with their involved and flexible itineraries.
There are various ways to do this once in Russia. Staff at your guesthouse may offer to help by accompanying you and/or purchasing tickets on your behalf (commonly for a fee). I was lucky enough to meet an Irish girl studying Russian who kindly helped me get my first batch of tickets. After that I acquired another batch in Moscow at an English-speaking travel agency (Infinity Travel, Komsomolsky Prospekt 13 Moscow). I also braved the snaking ticket queues and ordered a ticket from the stony-faced, hassled ticket window ladies by using a combination of Pigeon Russian and a piece of paper with all the relevant details written down in Cyrillic - a hair raising experience, but all part of the fun, I reckon! I bought my final ticket from the much calmer Reservations Office that you will find in most of the major stations. You pay a commission to use the Office, but it's a much, much less stressful experience - no queues, less harried staff and a comfortable, warm, even classy room to park yourself in to gather yourself before your train.
The Trans-Siberian trains are going to be your home for at least seven full days of your time in Russia, so it's a good job that they are, on the whole, comfortable things in which to travel. There are a number of different classes of train travel in Russia, bur in reality you'll be travelling by either one of two - and I recommend you try them both out, as they each have their own benefits.
Kupeny - aka kupe
Kupe is compartment class, and I strongly recommend you consider it for the majority of your journey throughout Russia, particularly any journey longer than an overnight 12-14 hour stint. A second class kupecompartment consists of four bunks - two lower, two upper - inside an enclosed cabin, with a small table between them just below the window. The lower bunks fold up to reveal an enclosed hollow space to place your luggage, and for this reason I recommend booking lower bunks where possible (they cost slightly more, but it's a negligible amount compared with the total cost of a ticket). If you get an upper bunk, there is luggage space for you above the door which extends out over the corridor of the carriage. Note that when Russians travel, they do it with gusto - lots of luggage in stripey bags, or crates/sacks of stuff! So claim your space as soon as you can and pack as lightly as possible. I found taking a 40-50 litre pack was the way to go, and I used it as a pillow when I could only get a top bunk, keeping all my valuables inside. Pick up a cloth bag locally (or a sturdy Russian supermarket bag) for your food and drink.
The kupe beds are pretty comfy, and included in your ticket should generally (but not always) be provision for some bedding, handed out to you by the provodsnitsa (carriage attendant) shortly after you board the train. The carriages are usually comfortably warm, even in winter, being heated centrally by the train'ssamovar (hot water heater) which in turn is fuelled by coal shovelled by the provodsnitsa, but beware that rare extremes of temperature might occur, so be prepared. A friend of mine taking a train up to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle in Winter reported how his carriage's samovar broke down and they went without heating - leaving inch-thick ice to form on the window inside the compartment! Even the Russians were cold, apparently, and when that happens, you know you're in trouble! Conversely, I was once on a carriage in Siberia whose ambient temperature was running at over thirty degrees Centigrade die to an overstoked fire in the carriage. It was sweltering, and the windows were locked shut (as they commonly are), so the only way of temperature regulation was stripping down to almost nothing and kicking off the bedding!
Some people like the comfort and privacy of kupe, and I'm among them. Solo women travellers, however, may prefer the more open (and cheaper) third class of platskart rather than being couped up with three (possible male - the compartments are mixed) Russian strangers.
Platskartny - aka platskart
Platskart has no compartments, instead being one long open carriage of beds. The same space that occupies four people in kupe class contains six people, with two beds "on the end" where the corridor would be inkupe. This makes things more cramped, particularly as platskart passengers seem to travel with just as much luggage as those in kupe, but it also makes it more sociable. You'll meet far more "ordinary" Russians in platskart, willing to share their pigeon English, food and drink (and you should reciprocate as much as possible to be polite). Platskart will do your head in eventually, though, so I'd recommend only using it for overnight hops or early morning to evening journeys, as everyone is on top of each other - crying babies and all!
Spalny Vagon - aka SV
Those with the readies may consider the occasional first class trip. SV compartments are like kupe, but just house two people (without the upper bunks) for roughly twice the price. You'll obviously meet fewer Russians travelling in SV, but they can be good when you crave a bit more privacy on your trip. If you're a couple or pair travelling together, you might consider getting an SV compartment for the both of you. In SV you'll benefit from cleaner toilets (well, usually) and occasionally some luxuries like a power socket in your compartment (plug sockets in kupe are few and far between, and are normally in the corridor).
If you're travelling end-to-end on a Full-Monty 7 day trip all the way through, or taking a Half Nelson and breaking your trip at Irkutsk, I'd recommend kupe as the best choice for comfort and getting a "genuine" experience of meeting Russians. For those who can afford it, and would prefer more privacy at the cost of meeting Russians on the train, you may want to consider SV. If you're stopping off more frequently in a Hop-On, Hop-Off style, consider a mix of kupe and platskart.
Eating and Drinking on a Trans Siberian Train
Most long-distance trains in Russia should have a dining car somewhere roughly in the middle of the train, often dividing the kupe/platskart classes. Depending how long the train has been travelling, though, they may have run out of most of the menu options! The standard of food is not great - it is train food, after all - and is expensive for what it is, but the dining car can be a good break from your carriage and is often the only way to meet the other foreign travellers on your train.
Your food and drink lifeline on the Trans Siberian is your carriage's samovar, which provides supplies everyone with a constant supply of piping-hot water. As a result, your self-catering options for hot food are largely limited to "stuff you can add hot water to" - namely instant noodles, and lots of them! You'll be sick of noodles by the time you've finished your trip. Stock up on trays of DOWNPAK (doshirak) noodles or a similar brand at train stations before departure, or better still from local supermarkets where you'll find a better selection and cheaper, too. Also, buy up plenty of fresh fruit, biscuits, bread and other items of food that don't require refrigeration. At station stops there will also be lots of sellers plugging their wares, often local specialities such as smoked fish and the like. Know your Russian! "How much" ("skol-ko"), plus your Russian numbers too so you don't get overcharged.
Trans Siberian Toilets
There's no avoiding it - sooner or later you're going to have to use the toilets on the Trans-Siberian. The cleanliness of the toilets depends on the industriousness of your compartment's provodsnitsa, but in my experience based on taking ten different trains throughout Russia on my trip, I can honestly say I didn't see an unpleasant or dirty toilet once. The bathrooms themselves are very basic, being very metallic - metal floors, metal toilet pans, metal sinks, metal everywhere! - and they have their own unique smell, not unpleasant but not particularly pleasant either, probably due to the type of bleach used rather than anything
In my opinion, there's no dodging it - you have to learn to read Cyrillic if you plan to spend any amount of time in Russia. The Russian alphabet is much less daunting than it looks, consisting as it does of only 40 characters, many the same as the Roman alphabet. The difficulty comes not from the strange characters like the 'backwards R' (Я), easily learned as pronounced 'ya', but rather from the familiar Roman characters that are pronounced differently than we are used to - for instance, Р is an 'R' sound and С is an 'S' sound (as in РОССЯ - Rossiya - or as we spell it, Russia).
Once you've got your head around those, it's plain sailiing, and it opens up a whole new world to you. Suddenly, previously incomprehensible words such as РЕСТОРАН are identifiable not as American film directors, but rather as places to get some grub (РЕСТОРАН = RESTAURANT).
A few days of learning the characters beforehand will mean you hit the ground running. When you arrive in Russia, spend some time reading every sign you can and seek out the anglicised words you can identify in Cyrillic. Your comprehension will soon grow to a point where you can stop mouthing the words out loud. This Russian alphabet guide is as good as any to set you in the right direction.
A fairly comprehensive Russian phrasebook is essential, too; this Lonely Planet Russian Language Guide is a worthwhile purchase. If you ever have difficulties with pronunciation or being understood, you can simply hand over the book and point to the correct phrase. Whether you'll understand the answer, though, is another question - which is what makes travel in Russia so exhilarating and frustrating in equal portions!
Safety is a relative term, not only between different countries of the world, but also between people. Clued-up travellers who use their common sense are likely to enjoy trouble-free trips to Russia. Bear in mind the following nuggets of advice.
- Be aware of your surroundings and acquire as much local knowledge as you can before (and during) your stay. Try not to go wandering around at night, especially if you look like a tourist (huge backpack = giveaway) and especially if you are a non-white. Regrettably, senseless racist attacks do occur in Russia. Read up on a destination before you arrive, and ask staff at your guesthouse or hotel (if they speak English) about unsafe areas. The more you know, the safer you will be.
- Keep an eye on your stuff and don't flash it about. Think before cracking out your laptop, iPhone and fancy SLR in a train carriage, especially in Platskart. The majority of Russians are good people, but don't tempt the dishonest or desperate. Stick to books unless you are happy with the company you are in, and keep your valuables with you at all times. In platskart consider sleep using your bag as a pillow (if it's small enough to do so) and try to book a lower bunk in kupe if you can, as below your bed there is an enclosed compartment to stash your stuff securely.
- Be friendly but cautious in who you speak to and who you trust. The majority of Russians are curious and friendly people, if a hard nut to crack at first, and you will enjoy engaging with them. However, keep your wits about you as there are a small minority who will look to take advantage. Don't get blind drunk on vodka and lose your sensibilities. Take drinks from a common bottle if others are drinking from it, but take note of what you you drink and where it comes from.
- Watch what you say! Don't be critical of Russia. Apart from being thoroughly impolite, it may aggravate people. Flatter the Russians you speak to with praise about their beautiful country and you will be welcomed into their hearts. If you can win over your fellow passengers there will be there for you if you ever need their help; Russians are loyal to kindred spirits.
- Learn some Russian. Polite phrases, niceities and other train-specific phrases and words are essential. A phrasebook (see Russian language) for a recommendation) is a great idea and will aid communication and help break the ice. More than likely, your fellow passengers will take it off you and be in fits of laughter reading the Russian and English phrases!
- Be careful what you take pictures of. Russians can be suspicious of Westerners with cameras - a paranoid hangover from the Cold War, perhaps - and people have been arrested for taking pictures of structures as innocent as train stations. Avoid taking pictures of police, military and any corresponding buildings, however beautiful they may look.
- Keep your train tickets in order, as well as photocopies of all your documents ready for presentation to the authorities if needed, keep your registration current and don't overstay your visa. Police shakedowns of tourists do occur in popular tourist areas, and sometimes they can confiscate your passport for a fine (read: bribe). If you are approached by anyone in uniform (whether geniune or impersonation - it happens, albeit rarely), show only photocopies. If you are suspicious about the identity of someone waving a badge or wearing a uniform, suggest you go to your embassy or the nearest police station.
- I don't mean to put the fear of God up you by this kind of advice. You're unlikely to run into any trouble at all during your time in Russia, but if you do, the above are practical, common sense steps based on my personal experience in the Motherland. For further excellent and up-to-date advice, check out thewww.link.com Know Before You Go page to read about the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Travel Advice campaign
Hopefully this site has been a good primer for your forthcoming adventure on the Trans Siberian. If you have found it a useful resource, I'd really appreciate a link back from any travel blogs or other sites you may have. In addition to this website, here are some other paper resources you might wish to stash in your backpack for your trip: