If you love train travel, you have to add a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway to your bucket list. Even if you’ve never experienced the glory of traveling by train, a trip across the magnificent scenery of Siberia is the journey of a lifetime.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is actually three rail routes running from Moscow across Siberia. You can choose from the Trans-Siberian line proper, which goes from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific, or the Trans-Mongolian line that runs from Moscow to Beijing, China, via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. The Trans-Manchurian route takes you through Siberia and Manchuria to Beijing.
The longest of the three routes is the one between Moscow and Vladivostok. It covers 9,258 km (6,152 miles) and takes seven days to travel from start to finish. Although one longer rail journey from Ukraine to Vladivostok exists, the Trans-Siberian experience remains unmatched as a stunning introduction to the biggest country in the world and its spectacular scenery.
When’s the best time to go?
The best time to cross Siberia via rail is between May and September, when you’ll have the best chance of good weather and plenty of daylight. However, it’s cheaper in winter, when there are fewer hours of daylight and the nights are long.
Do you have to do it in one go?
If you take the Vladivostok route, break your journey into sections. This allows you to stay in hotels overnight and experience some of the local culture as well as meet local people. A single stop in Irkutsk is popular for the city’s museums, churches and streets full of log cabins. Otherwise, if you can afford a really upmarket trip, you could choose to travel in luxurious hotel-train style on Golden Eagle Luxury Trains. They offer a number of great itineraries throughout the year.
Which route should you take?
The Moscow-to-Vladivostok route takes seven nights to complete and runs every second day. It offers first-class (spalny vagon), second-class (kupé) and very basic third-class (platskartny) coaches and has a restaurant car. This route is the least popular of the three with Western travelers. The Manchurian line to Beijing offers one train a week and takes six nights to travel.
It offers Russian first- and second-class coaches. Both routes to Beijing involve a change in bogies under the coaches at the Chinese border because of differences in track gauge. The Mongolian route to Beijing runs just once a week but is considered the most interesting route. It takes six nights to travel and offers first and second class.
What’s it like on board?
On the public trains, you will be given bedding in first and second class. The beds then fold into seats for the daytime. Each sleeper car has a minimum of two Western-style toilets and a washroom with sinks only, so come prepared. Showers are only supplied on the Trans-Mongolian route.
The food offered on board is usually adequate, but your choices are limited. In Russia, you will usually get fried eggs and ham for breakfast and schnitzel and potatoes for lunch or dinner, when you’ll also get salads or soups to start off with. The bars sell snacks and chocolates as well as vodka, beer and Russian champagne. The Chinese dining cars serve several different Chinese dishes, while the restaurant car on the Trans-Mongolian route usually serves mutton and rice.
When the train stops at stations along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to pick up food and snacks from local vendors. Avoid meats and salads, and don’t venture too far from the train or you might be left behind. It’s happened before!
Along the way
All three routes follow the same track from Moscow to Ulan-Ude, where you can break your journey at several different places. The massive Kremlin is a World Heritage Site because of the historic architecture hidden behind its walls. If you’re interested in the history of the late Russian royal family, stop at Yekaterinburg to see the church built on the site of their murders. Irkutsk is full of incredibly ornate buildings and has been dubbed the Paris of Siberia.
While going through the Ural Mountains, you will pass a white obelisk that marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. Opportunities for photography enthusiasts abound, especially during the nearly 200 km route past Lake Baikal. This is the oldest lake in the world and also one of the biggest. Its clear water is home to hundreds of species not found anywhere else on earth.
If you choose the Trans-Manchurian route, you will witness the splendor of the grass-covered steppes and also pass through the magnificent Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan. The Mongolian route traverses the Gobi Desert, where you might be lucky enough to see herds of Mongolian horses or camels.