Tips and advice for Trans-Siberian train travel

If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Mongolian journey the first thing I’d recommend is to read The Man in Seat 61’s excellent article on the topic. His website is a must for any rail, bus or ferry travel research but this particularly in-depth piece will help you decide which route to take and how to go about doing it; from organising it all yourself to finding an agent to arrange it for you, and anywhere in between.

The following advice and general info is based on our experience and covers things you might want to know before getting on that first train. (Unless you want it all to be a complete surprise, which is okay too – stop reading now if that’s the case! :)

The trains

Personally I think second class (four bed compartment) is the best way to go. First class (two beds) is significantly more expensive and you’ll miss out on much of the social interaction which is half the point of taking this journey in the first place.

Third class (an open carriage with numerous bunks) is available on some trains, but while it’s cheap and sometimes recommended for single female travellers (safety in numbers) the complete lack of privacy is a bit much for me.

Speaking of safety, we found the whole experience to be very safe. Indeed I’ve read that the Trans-Siberian is sometimes considered safer than any Russian city. If you do have any problems report them immediately to the conductors on your carriage. There’s a decent chance of stolen items being recovered as the thief can’t escape the train while it’s moving, and if need be the conductors will involve the police at the next station.

Beds are allocated in advance and your place number is printed on your ticket. You can find your allocated bed by referring to the number either on the door of your compartment or on the wall near the window.

If you get a choice when booking your tickets I’d recommend a lower bed for solo travellers, or for couples/pairs to take one upper and one lower bed. The lower beds have the best storage (see below) but they’re also seats for all four compartment members during the day: if you take both of the lower beds you could be kicked out of bed if those on the top wake up early and want to sit down. (It’s unlikely because they’d probably be too polite to do that, but I wouldn’t want to feel like I was keeping them trapped up there if I wanted to sleep in.) If you share the cabin down the middle by taking one upper and one lower bed the storage space is evenly distributed and it’s easier to run on your own schedule.

As far as storage goes, most of the space in the compartment is underneath the two lower beds. Sometimes this area is even enclosed in a metal box that can’t be accessed unless the bed is lifted up. The only other storage space is above the compartment door but sometimes it’s only enough for one large travel backpack or a couple of small backpacks.

As a result of this, backpacks or small (carry on size) suitcases are the easiest to deal with. There isn’t any room in the four bed compartments for large suitcases (I’m not sure about first class) but it may be possible to store one in the conductor’s cabin (possibly for a fee).

You need to show your train ticket (and sometimes passport) before you board the train, then your ticket again shortly after the train departs. Sometimes the conductors will keep your ticket during the journey but they’ll give it back just before you disembark.

There are Russian, Mongolian and Chinese trains. The staff are from the same country as the train they work on.

The trains generally have a similar layout but there are slight differences. For example, the Rossiya (Moscow-Vladivostock) is newer and features a powerpoint in each compartment. Other trains may only have a couple of powerpoints in the corridor, if at all.

You could be mixed in with the locals or separated from them in a kind of “tourist only” carriage. We took four sleeper trains on our Trans-Mongolian route: two of them were mixed and two were segregated. You never know what you’ll get but both are great experiences in different ways!

Eastbound Trans-Mongolian trains run on Moscow time until they switch to Ulaanbaatar time in Mongolia, even though they pass through four other timezone changes before then.

The restaurant car is changed in each country to match, ie it will be a Russian restaurant car in Russia, Mongolian in Mongolia and Chinese in China.

Then there are some legs where there’s no restaurant car at all. For example, between leaving the Russian one behind and collecting the Mongolian one after crossing the border.

The restaurant car food is okay but there are cheaper ways to feed yourself (see below). Also, the restaurant does sometimes run out of food (or particular dishes, at least).

A samovar (boiling water dispenser) is available at the end of each carriage and it’s free to use. (I did see a price list which included plain boiling water on a Mongolian train but no one ever had to pay – we think maybe that was the fee if you asked the attendant to bring it to you.) It’s best to bring your own tea/coffee making supplies but if you don’t you can buy teabags from the conductors and they can also provide a glass.

There should be a timetable posted on the wall of each carriage that lists all the stops the train will make and how long they’ll last. (Note however that it might only be available in cyrillic.) Some stops are only a couple of minutes but others can be up to half an hour, enough time to hop off and stretch your legs on the platform.

There are opportunities to buy food at these extended stops: either from convenience booths on the platform or from women who sell homemade snacks such as cooked or dried fish, piroshki and dumplings for around 50-100 руб each.

Some conductors will herd you back onto the train before it moves on but others won’t so you’d better keep an eye on the time or you may find yourself watching your train (with all your luggage) chugging off into the distance without you!

There are two western style toilets in each carriage and they are cleaned during the journey, but they can get a little smelly as toilet paper can’t be disposed of in the toilet bowl, it has to go in the bin – with everyone else’s used toilet paper. (But you’ll probably be used to this if you’ve spent any time in Russia, Mongolia or China.)

There are no showers in second class carriages, only the washbasins with the toilets. If you aren’t breaking up your journey with any overnight stays in towns along the way and are desperate for a shower there’s a lengthy (3 hour) stop at Наушки (Naushki, the last Russian stop before the Mongolian border where the first round of passport checks are done). Public showers are available on the platform for 90-100 руб per person.

People may come down the corridor offering goods for sale such as knitted shawls, fur hats or gold necklaces but you don’t have to buy anything. Near the borders you’ll also get people offering money exchange but the rate is very poor. (Either way, use up or get rid of your tugriks before you leave Mongolia as no one will touch them outside the country.)

I can’t speak for the Trans-Manchurian or the straight Trans-Siberian routes but as far as the Trans-Mongolian goes, the best views are between Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The view on the longest leg (Moscow-Irkutsk) is unfortunately flat and repetitive.

If you’re alighting from the train early in the morning it would be wise to set an alarm, but the conductors will most likely to wake you one hour before your stop (whether you think you need a whole hour or not).

What to bring:

  • Enough cash for the journey, ideally any rubles and yuan in small denominations (it doesn’t matter so much for tugriks). You won’t encounter any ATMs at the short stops along the way.
  • Some food. As mentioned above there are opportunities to buy food along the way but you should bring breakfast supplies and it’s worth having a back up stash of things such as cup noodles, easy open tinned tuna, crispbread, spreads that don’t require refrigeration, nuts, fruit.
  • Camping utensils or a good spork.
  • Light and sturdy cups and tea/coffee supplies.
  • Bottled water, although you can buy more at the longer stops.
  • Toilet paper. Sometimes it’s provided, sometimes it’s not – better to be safe than sorry!
  • Cleaning wipes.
  • Earplugs.
  • Eye mask.
  • Russian phrase book. You might not need it but we only had the bare essentials in a combined Eastern Europe phrase book and we wish we’d had something more detailed for the 80 hours we spent sharing a compartment with a chatty Russian babushka.
  • Lockable luggage cable to secure bags to handles and fixtures so no one will be able to walk off with them. (We did this and it actually felt a bit unnecessary, but again, better safe than sorry.)
  • A book to read – but don’t expect the journey to be extremely productive. Even though you’ll be spending days on a train after a while you do enter a kind of twilight zone where all you may be doing is chatting, eating and napping, but it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.

Regarding foodstuffs: you don’t have to bring these with you from your home country – if anything it’s more fun to stock up at a Russian supermarket!

Regarding alcohol: apparently you’re not supposed to take any (I’ve heard you can even get thrown off the train if you’re caught) but we were advised (by a Russian) to take one litre of vodka with us, “just in case”! In the end we took half a litre, but none of the Russians we met were interested in sharing it with us. (Plenty of travellers were though!) Note that the Russian way to drink vodka is to eat a bite of pickled gherkin after each sip, so if you do decided to take some vodka bring pickles too (or olives) for authenticity.

Packing tips:

  • Pack essentials into a smaller, easier to access bag – it can be quite difficult/annoying to get into your main pack once it’s stowed away.
  • Keep your food supplies together in one bag so it’s easy to access.
  • Have flipflops or slippers handy for walking around the train and on the platforms.
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Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 2: the train & Siberia

On the evening of our last day in Moscow (29 Sep) our guide Alexey accompanied us to Yaroslavsky Station (Яросла́вский вокза́л) where we stocked up on supplies to last us for our imminent 80 hour train ride. We were the first to arrive in our couchette but by the time we’d packed our bags away and gotten settled our room-mate for the next three and a bit days had also arrived.

Her name was Svetlana. She didn’t speak a word of English but it’s amazing how much you can communicate without a common language. It certainly increased our very limited Russian vocabulary! She described herself as a babushka and later revealed she was 71 years old, although we insisted she was surely twenty years younger. She told us about her three children and seven grandchildren and insisted we have five children of our own. She became increasingly more motherly as the days wore on, insisting we wear warmer clothing and feeding us food from her supplies, including homemade cheese. We never quite worked out exactly where she was going – not quite as far as Vladivostok but further than us (Irkutsk). I wish I could watch a replay of the night we first met with English subtitles: I’m pretty sure what she said when she established we didn’t speak Russian was something along the lines of, “Just what am I going to do stuck on a train for days on end with you two who don’t speak a word of Russian!”

на здоровье (cheers)!

We visited the restaurant car on our first night. There weren’t many people there and when the staff saw us they almost seemed amused to have new customers. The food was alright (I had a hearty stew covered in melted cheese, Alex had borscht) but we got more into the Trans-Siberian spirit of things for the following two nights. The train makes a number of often quite lengthy (up to half an hour) stops along the way, where you can hop off and either buy cup noodles, snacks and drinks from little booths on the platform, or fish, piroshki and dumplings from local women offering them. They’re not pushy, the food is cheap, and they’re honest about giving you the right change (when you get confused and can’t comprehend how cheap it really is).

Pitstop at Omsk

One morning an elderly but spritely man poked his head into our compartment and said something in Russian. I gave my standard apologetic smile and when he realised I spoke English his face lit up and he said, “Ah!” He paused to corral the words he wanted to use next then proudly declared, “We will have a good English lesson today, yes!” When we laughed and smiled he repeated it again before disappearing down the corridor. A couple of hours later he came back for his English lesson, which was really just a request for coaching on the pronunciation of “pen” versus “pan”. He said the “pa” in pan is difficult because there’s no equivalent sound in Russian.

Finally we arrived at Irkutsk, deep in the heart of Siberia. It was early in the morning and we hugged Svetlana before saying “до свидания!” (goodbye). One of our guides for the area, Katya, collected us from the station and drove us to our accommodation where we gratefully showered for the first time in 4 days before being served a welcome hot breakfast.

Lake Baikal

During our stay in and around Irkutsk (3-5 Oct) we visited Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake in the world – roughly the size of Belgium), an open air museum of wooden architecture (buildings salvaged from the building of a Soviet dam), a баня (Russian sauna), a Buryat (native Siberian) settlement where we met a local shaman, as well as sights around Irkutsk itself (churches, statues and monuments). The itinerary was organised by Real Russia as part of their Classic Trans-Mongolian tour and I think it helped us to get a lot more out of the area than we probably would have done if we’d been doing things by ourselves. Both our guides, Katya and Ivan, were young, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.

Siberia wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Irkutsk is quite large and has a youthful vibe thanks to being a university town. Lake Baikal is beautiful with crystal clear water and clean fresh air. It wasn’t barren, desolate or freezing – in fact it was actually quite sunny and warm while we were there. Of course, everything we saw was within an hour’s drive of a main train station: given how large Siberia is I’m sure there are many stretches of land that fit the image I had in my head, but there probably isn’t much point in visiting them for that exact reason.

Buryat shaman

Up next: the third and final instalment (of the Trans-Mongolian portion of our 5 month journey at least): Mongolia.

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Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 1: St Petersburg & Moscow

We arrived in St Petersburg by overnight ferry from Helsinki. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about arriving in Russia. We’d travelled through enough ex-USSR countries to have built up a not particularly flattering picture of its 20th century history, and more than one person had warned us to be very mindful of our personal safety. Even the guy at the money exchange office in Helsinki recommended carrying enough money for one or two bribes on us at all times. But in the end: it was fine! Maybe we were lucky, or maybe it’s just because we were careful, but nothing was stolen from us and we never had to bribe anyone. It was particularly fascinating to learn about Russia’s recent history from the other side of the fence – especially since we found that what we learned differed depending on who and where we asked.

Street signs

St Petersburg (24-26 September)

We did a lot of walking on our first day in St Petersburg. Up Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, through Alexander Garden, up and down the Neva River and over bridges to Peter and Paul Fortress, up to the St Petersburg Mosque and back down to the Cruiser Aurora. We were particularly struck by the grandeur of the city: so many palaces or palace-like buildings, particularly along the Neva. Some St Petersburg recommendations:

  • The Hermitage/Winter Palace. The big one. And yes, it is huge. Like the Louvre, you’d have to dedicate half a lifetime to seeing and appreciating all its works so you’re better off picking a couple of areas that interest you and spending your time in those rooms. You don’t need to book entry tickets in advance (and doing so actually costs more) but if you don’t it’s worth getting there when it opens so you don’t have to queue for very long.

The Hermitage

  • Kunstkamera. The oldest museum in Russia is (in)famous for one particular room filled with an extensive collection of deformed human and animal foetuses: not for the faint hearted! But it’s not all about the freakshow: the rest of the museum contains excellent ethnographic exhibits, most of which include English descriptions (although they can be curiously… un-PC at times, particularly the ones in the African section).
  • Museum of the Political History of Russia. Covers many periods of Russian political history, including before and after the Soviet era, but I found the Soviet sections to be the most interesting. It fills two mansions, one of them featuring Lenin’s study and a balcony he delivered later speeches from.
  • Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. For your brightly-coloured onion dome fix.
  • Eat at a stolovaya (столовая). (There are several on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.) These canteen-like cafes are a great way to sample a variety of different Russian foods. Grab a tray and load it up with the dishes you want to buy then pay at the end of the queue. It’s also very cheap – this meal cost us about £5 in total.
  • Clean Plates Society. A cheap but quality restaurant serving modern Russian food. The blue cheese burger is divine but you can also get a good beef stroganoff fix here.
  • Cafe Iberia (кафе иверия). If you get tired of Russian cuisine try this Georgian restaurant on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa.

Rooftops of St Petersburg

Also: Sptn!k tours could be worth checking out. Unfortunately we didn’t find out about Sptn!k until we’d left St Petersburg but their guided tours sound quite unique.

Moscow (27-29 September)

We got our first dose of Russian trains travelling overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow. This was the fanciest (and most expensive) train we took in Russia. Everything was new, there was a powerpoint for every bed, and we were given complimentary slippers, toothbrush, toothpaste, water, apples and tea. We shared our four bed couchette with two Russian business men who mainly kept to themselves.

Arrival in Moscow

Arriving in Moscow was the official beginning of the Trans-Mongolian tour we booked through Real Russia. We don’t normally book tours, but we felt that this time it would be worth the extra money to get the most out of this particular experience. We also paid for Real Russia to arrange our Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas and they were incredibly helpful with my endless questions about every minor detail. The tour arrangements meant that from Moscow until our arrival in Beijing we had a private guide and/or driver in each city we visited (as well as free time to spend as we liked) and transfers to and from every train station. All trains, accommodation and entry fees were included, and even some meals. We had three days in Moscow, one of which was a full day private tour. Cool stuff to see:

  • The Metro. Probably the most impressive metro stations we’ve ever seen: it’s no wonder they’re referred to as “palaces for the people”. The decoration is still heavily Soviet, which was fascinating for us given that all the ex-USSR countries we’ve been to generally removed every trace of the Soviet era (or confined them to museums). Learning some cyrillic will definitely help make sense of the map but the trick with getting around is you can’t easily see the station names (even in cyrillic) from the trains themselves, so you may need to count stops.
  • St Basil’s Cathedral. Spectacular from the outside, it’s also worth paying to go inside as the interior is quite unusual for a cathedral. Instead of a grand sweeping hall it’s made up of a series of small niches and rooms which are quite labyrinthine.

Domes of St. Basil's Cathedral

  • The Kremlin. Be prepared: the Kremlin ticketing system is confusing. You can’t buy a ticket “to see the Kremlin”. You buy a ticket to see something that happens to be located within the Kremlin walls. There are a variety of different things to see and you have to buy a separate ticket for each one. We paid to go inside the four cathedrals, but you can also visit the Armoury, climb a bell tower, or visit the Diamond Foundry. Even more confusingly, things like the Armoury operate on a timed ticket (you have you visit at a specific time). Most of the tickets can be bought from the booths outside (located in Alexander Garden when we were there), except for the Diamond Fund, for which tickets are purchased inside. There are also two different entrances. (The Diamond Fund ticket booth is inside the entrance for the Armoury.)
  • Monument to the Conquerors of Space and Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Two spectacular monuments near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station. The first honours Russian cosmonauts and the second was built for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris – the same fair the Eiffel Tower was constructed for.

Monument to the Conquerors of Space Worker and Kolkhoz Woman

  • The All-Russia Exhibition Centre. Also near VDNKH (ВДНХ) metro station, this sprawling expo complex contains large pavilions dedicated to each of the countries of the former USSR. It’s still open today and the pavilions have either been converted into shops or stand abandoned. It’s free to enter and wander around.
  • Izmailovo Kremlin. A complex of brightly coloured buildings, primarily used for weddings but worth visiting just to marvel at. While you’re there you can also visit the Vodka Museum and nearby market which is full of stands selling matryoshka dolls, fur hats, snacks and Soviet memorabilia.
  • Apple Technology Museum. It’s a bit out of the way but if you consider yourself a serious Apple fan you shouldn’t miss this incredible collection of Apple and Macintosh computers, hardware accessories, software and memorabilia – the most impressive we’ve ever seen.

Up next: the longest train journey we’ve ever taken and stopping off in Siberia!

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Goodbye London, hello open road

Alex and I have just under a month left in the UK before my Youth Mobility visa expires and we have to leave the country. This isn’t such a bad thing: in fact it’s an excellent thing. It’s only been 1.5 years but I’m quite tired of living in a city the size of London: the pedestrian and public transport congestion and the passive aggressiveness that comes with it is enough to make me long for the comparative simplicity of life in Melbourne. (I dread to think what it will be like when the Olympics are in full swing.) It’s been a fantastic experience living here and it’s provided us with many wonderful opportunities but I just don’t think I’m cut out to live long-term in such a big city.

But the best part will be the bit that comes between leaving London and returning to Melbourne: being back on the road again for 5 months of vagabonding across the globe. This is how our itinerary is shaping up:

FROM 24 JULY

Croatia: Split and Zadar

AUGUST

Slovenia: Ljubljana and Piran
Italy: Trieste
Slovenia: Bled
Austria: Salzburg and Halstatt
Germany: Munich, Mainz and Bremen
Denmark: Copenhagen and one other place (any recommendations?)
Norway: Oslo and wherever else our friends Mae and Tulpesh take us!

SEPTEMBER

Sweden: Stockholm and one other place (any recommendations?)
Latvia: Riga
Estonia: Talinn
Finland: Helsinki and one other place (any recommendations?)
Russia: St Petersburg and Moscow

OCTOBER

Trans-Mongolian rail trip across Siberia and Mongolia, stopping off along the way
China: Beijing
South Korea: Seoul and one or two other places (any recommendations?)

NOVEMBER

Japan: Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Penang
Sri Lanka: Wherever Alex’s cousin Matthew takes us!

DECEMBER

Singapore
Australia: Brisbane and a roadtrip down the east coast until shortly before Christmas

The plan is to travel from Croatia to Japan by land using trains, buses and ferries. Do let us know if you have any recommendations of things to and see in any of these places!