The Trans Siberian Railway is one of the world’s most epic train journeys.
Inspired by Joanna Lumley’s documentary series, my mum and I did the Trans Siberian Railway (or more accurately, Trans Mongolian Railway) between Beijing and Moscow in April – May 2016. We started in Beijing, and stopped off in Ulaanbaatar, Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg, Perm and Moscow. Despite not technically being part of the route, we also made our way to St Petersburg by train.
We enjoyed planning this trip almost as much as the trip itself. We read every blog we could find, got in touch with different travel agents, plotted out several different routes and debated how long we could survive on the train without showers.
Booking Your Tickets
Despite what people say, it is possible to book your tickets yourself on the Russian railways site. This is the cheapest option. Booking your tickets between Beijing – Ulaanbaatar – Russia is a little bit harder, but CITS is a good place to start for tickets out of Beijing. However after exploring every single option, we ended up booking our train tickets through Real Russia. It was a more expensive choice, but they sent us huge amounts of information and made the process really easy. We booked all our accommodation and tours ourselves.
As an Australian, you will need visas for China, Mongolia and Russia. These are easier to organise than you would expect. The process for each visa is outlined on their embassy websites. You will need letters of invitation – Real Russia provided this for Russia, while our hotel in Ulaanbaatar provided this for Mongolia. You’ll also need detailed itineraries. For the Mongolian and Russian visas we filled in forms and mailed off our passports. For the Chinese visa we went to the visa centre in Melbourne where the fact that I work for a media outlet created a moment of tension. They asked a lot of questions about my job! I promised I wouldn’t do any work in China, which was pretty easy since we were only there for two days. After a couple of worrying days my visa was approved.
Although most blogs will urge you to book into a 4-bed 2nd class compartment or the open 3rd class sleeper, we like our private space. For this reason we travelled in 1st class 2-bed compartments the whole way. This is the most expensive option – but we only plan to do this journey once in our lives! The seats converted into beds, and the linen provided was always clean. We found the beds reasonably comfortable to sleep on, although you can always feel the movement of the train!
Our compartments – Train #23 Beijing – Ulaanbaatar, Train #5 Ulaanbaatar – Irkutsk
When we first started planning the trip, we thought we’d go straight through from Beijing to Moscow in one go. Then we started adding more and more stops to our itinerary. We ended up with four stops between Beijing and Moscow. Our longest stint on the train was two nights between Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Our shortest was five hours between Yekaterinburg and Perm. We stayed for two nights in most places, although ended up with four in Irkutsk.
There’s not much to do on the train other than look out the window and read a book. Luckily this was exactly what we wanted to do. The staff on the trains generally didn’t speak any English, but we always managed to find a way to communicate with them. The toilets were always kept really clean and well stocked with toilet paper, hand soap and even air freshener! It’s worth getting off at the train stations along the railway for a walk and some fresh air, as well as an ice cream or other snacks. There is a list of stops posted within the train cabin so you can work out how long you’ll be at each station.
Take plenty of food with you. There is boiling water available, so instant noodles and instant potato (available everywhere in Russia) will be your best friends. We also took bread and cheese for sandwiches, cakes, yoghurts and other snacks that we picked up in each town.
The food we bought before our two night Irkutsk – Yekaterinburg leg… We ate almost all of it.
On the Russian trains our tickets generally included one meal, which seemed to always arrive two hours after we had boarded the train – no matter how long our journey was going to be. Roast beef at 10am is not always what you want! Especially if you are vegetarian. You’ll also get a pack of snacks and utensils delivered to your compartment. Yes you can buy food in the dining carts, but we didn’t really do this apart from an awkward cup of tea on the Chinese train and a Pepsi on our journey between Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. You can also buy food at some of the stations along the way. But come well stocked, supermarket food is very cheap and you won’t regret it.
The potatoes in this chicken dish were pretty good.
The only train leg where we had access to a shower was Beijing – Ulaanbaatar, where we had our own ensuite bathroom (not shared, despite what we’d read online). There was a shower in this very basic bathroom, but I wouldn’t say the water pressure was great. Otherwise we used wet wipes and deodorant to stay clean, and brushed our teeth in the bathrooms with bottled water.
Things You Should Take
- Wet Wipes
- Plastic plates and utensils – we used these
- Insulated mug for making coffee or tea – we used these
- Shoes you can slip on and off for going to the bathroom/lazing around in your compartment
- Tissues in case there’s no toilet paper
- Lots of food
- iPad or other tablet for entertainment (there were power points on most trains)
On with the journey…
This post may be updated from time to time as I remember other essential Trans Siberian tips!