explore Russia

The Trans-Siberian train, Russia

Is the name given to the three rail routes that traverse Siberia from Moscow.

  • The Trans-Siberianproper goes from Moscow to the Pacific terminus of Vladivostok.
  • The Trans-Mongolian goes from Moscow to BeijingChina via UlaanbaatarMongolia.
  • The Trans-Manchuriantravels through Siberia and Manchuria to Beijing.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. It was built between 1891 and 1916 to connect Moscow with the Far-East city of Vladivostok. En route it passes through the cities of Perm, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Chita and Khabarovsk.

Packing the following items is recommended for any lengthy journey on the Trans-Siberian railway

  • Pocket knifeFor slicing up bread and vegetables you can buy from the sellers at major stops
  • CutleryInstant noodles, or its Russian version – instant potatoes, become essential snacks for most travelers, since each carriage is equipped with boiling water from the Samovar, unfortunately they often come without the usual plastic fork or spoon.
  • Perfumed wet tissues/baby wipes/wet wipes.These little things can do wonders for your personal hygiene.
  • Head lamp.On these long journeys (through 8 time zones), it often turns out that Einstein indeed was right – time does become relative. So bring a headlamp for reading when others want to slumber.
  • Flip-flopsor other slip on footwear, for your days on the train
  • Deck of cardsor other easily explained games are great for socializing with your fellow travelers, and making the long hours spent on the train immensely more enjoyable. Bring a deck of 5 Crowns for this is a favorite in Russia. If you are a chess player, by all means bring a little chess set – the game is really very popular in Russia.
  • Picturesof your home, country and family and a phrasebook with a conversation section (Lonely Planet’s phrasebook is a good one) can work surprisingly well, since you’ll have nothing but time to overcome the language gap. Many Russians tend to be curious about foreigners once the initial suspicion dies down, since they don’t normally meet many – even these days. Recommended: make a list of vocabulary and study it in the train!
  • ItineraryThere are many ways to “make Trans-Siberian”, think carefully which cities you want to make stops in depending on your passions and interests. Explore Russia gives support in planning a route, suggests places to visit and can help with booking tickets and accommodation.
  • Laptop PC, e-book reader, etc.Electronic gadgets are really an option for entertainment when there is nobody to make a good company with. Be sure to also take an extender with surge protection in order to charge your equipment conveniently and safely from the car wall outlets (they are ~220V 50Hz). Note that the sockets are originally designed for electric shavers, so the overall load should not exceed ~100W. If you find the outlets de-energized, it almost always means that the circuit is just switched off. Don’t be afraid of asking the conductor to turn it on, he should do it immediately and for free! In some cars the sockets are placed in the corridor and not in the cabin. (Locals bring extension cords and run the cable to their cabin.)

Coming from Beijing or Harbin, the last stop in China is Manzhouli. The food being sold there is quite expensive, but many Russians stock up on provisions (i.e. spirits and beer). Be aware that you can take a maximum of five beers (Harbin Beer, 0.3l) per person into Russia or you will have to pay a penalty to the customs. Get rid of all your Chinese Yuan here as they become virtually worthless once abroad, unless you want to take them as a souvenir. There are a couple of black market money changers in front of the station that change renminbi to rubles at ripoff rates. To get rubles, you have plenty of time on the Russian side of the border (Zhabaikalsk). Walk to the ATM located at the bank in town. Allow 30 minutes to go and come back. The train stops for several hours while the carriages are being changed, so you can do some shopping at the local food supermarkets (bread, cheese, etc.).

Coming from Beijing via Mongolia into Russia there are still the same rip-off exchange touts, but most if not all platform vendors in Mongolia and Russia take U.S. dollars or euros. However, they take only bills (or notes), so know the exchange rate and buy a lot if you are using a five euro note. Always ask the attendant how much time is available before you rush off into a station to find a Bankomat (ATM) because the train will not wait for you. If you are not spending time in Mongolia, avoid acquiring Mongolian tögrög. They are worthless virtually everywhere else, and the export of tögrög is technically forbidden. Therefore, spend dollars or euro, but get rubles immediately because Russian vendors are more likely to fabricate exchange rates than Mongolian or Chinese platform vendors.

On the MoscowVladivostok route) the train stops for 20–30 minutes every 3–4 hours. Everybody can get out of the train, and there are always people on the platform that offer a variety of fresh food (eggs, fish, cheese, bread, fruits, meat or cheese in a cake) and often some drinks for passengers. Prices are low; only Russian rubles are accepted. A highlight is the smoked fish (Omul) being sold on the shore of Lake Baikal (Station: Slyudyanka, a quick stop, so be fast). Some of the larger stations will have food marts with snacks but it is difficult to get alcohol within train stations or at the kiosks on the platform.

Many of the trains have dining cars (with extremely overpriced food and drinks), although if you do not speak any Russian, ordering the food will be an experience, to say the least. Food and drinks are also sold in kiosks at the platforms, but normally twice as expensive. To get a reasonable price, wait for a station with a 20–30 minutes stop, and just exit the train station, there is usually a plenty of kiosks or small shops just outside, offering a wider choice.

Since there is a samovar (hot water dispenser) in every carriage, your best bet is to have a stack of dried noodle soups and Nescafe ready. Just bring your own cup. The carriage attendants (Provodnitsa, Provodnik if male) will often have cold drinks, snacks, and even freeze-dried meals available for sale at slightly inflated prices.

Carriage attendants also sell tea and coffee, and it’s usually possible to buy soft drinks and beer in the restaurant carriage to bring back to your carriage.

It’s worth having a basic phrasebook as attendants are unlikely to speak English and the drinks provided won’t come with milk or sugar unless you specifically ask for them.

All tickets for long journey trains are for sleeping places. Trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg have seating places. Most trains in Russia have 3 classes of cabins to choose from;

  • First class (SV)is the most comfortable but is also the cost of the journey compared with a kupe. Each cabin consists of two sofas flanking each side of the compartment, which convert into beds for sleeping. On some trains such as the Trans-Mongolian, the first class compartments have private bathrooms. Service on the first class actually somewhat resembles the service you would expect in Europe and North America, which is worth considering since Russian railways are notoriously bureaucratic and not very service minded, to say the least.
  • Second class (Kupe)somewhat compares to the standard on Western European sleeper trains, although with the Russian sense of knickknack decoration. These carriages are compartmentalized, with each compartment holding 4 beds. The lower right bed is 5 cm smaller than the others. One thing of note when buying tickets for second class, is that you will have to share the two lower bunks during the day. There is one shared bathroom on each carriage that is locked during stops at stations. Kupe is a good compromise between relative comfort, and the ability to meet and mingle with the Russians, a situation where they are notably more open minded than what is usual in Russia.
  • Third class (Platzkart)bears some resemblance to the hard sleeper class on Chinese trains: many travelers find this class to be much better than its reputation. These carriages are in an open layout with two lower and two upper berths, and small, narrow corridor and another two berths that are located on the opposite side below and above the window. There is little in the way of privacy here, but women travelers might prefer this option, or they may get stuck with three men and a closed door. The provodnitizas, or carriage attendants, are notorious for running the place as a boot camp. On the other hand, it is a taste of real Russia, and the price is usually 40–50 percent lower than kupe.

Note that sometimes there is no shower in the train even in the first class on K19 (Trans-Manchurian). You can have an Asian-style hot shower, though, if you bring along 2 jars. Fill one up at the hot water dispenser, go to the washroom and mix the water you get there in the second one.

The journey on the Moscow-Vladivostok route seems to be very safe, especially if you travel in groups of four (or multiples); then you will get a separate four-bed cabin (Of course, this applies only to kupe seats). Every train car has one or two staff (provodniks/provodnitsas) that check tickets, do cleaning, take care of boiling water, etc.

Cabins can be locked from the inside with two locks. One can be opened from outside with a special key, the other cannot be opened from outside, and when locked allows the door to open a bit.