The Trans-Siberian Railway – How to start your own trip

“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose take care of: for this moment I know where I am going” – Anna Funder, Stasiland

Did our imagination ever changed? The thought about trains evokes romantic feelings. It is an adventure full of freedom, followed by the sound of the wheels on the track and perhaps some country music in the background.

My favourite singer during this trip was Tracy Chapman

The train I will present you is a bit different than the one from your imagination. The train and his road are legendary. Of course I speak about the Tran-Siberian railway. 9288 kilometres from Moscow to Vladivostok

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The main route. Picture HERE

The road heads from west to the very east of the biggest country in the world. Following this railway is like going back in time by 100 years (Check out this interesting German article HERE).

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The end or the beginning of the journey. The “9288 kilometer” pole in Vladivostok

In THIS VIDEO you can get a summarized overview of what is waiting for you  Of course the video deals with all the cliches combined. In my opinion you will meet only less than the half of the seen pictures. If you are interested in our personal experiences along this legendary railroad, wait till the next article 😉

The following text will give you a detailed overview how to start your own Tran-Siberian adventure. Advice ahead: Take it easy and focus.

In my opinion there are all in all two mighty factors that will influence your journey: Money and luck.

You can enjoy the Transsiberian in the most luxurious and comfortable way, e.g. with the “Golden Eagle” train.

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Picture HERE

If money is nothing to worry about, than just book one of the luxurious and stylish “all-inclusive” journeys with a travel company. This kind of trip will give you a fantastic opportunity to visit the most famous places in Russia, dinning on extravagant food and enjoying a “hotel on wheels”. I heard that such a journey offers the greatest the 19th century experience but maybe is lacking of the social and cultural factor.

Well, but if your bank-account contains a lower number than your postal code then, you might reduce the factor “money” and get befriended with “luck”. Be careful: Luck is fragile!

Even so, you can cheat a bit on luck. Your cheat is “planning”. Actually to have a good plan can influence both main factors. You might ask me now: Why is planning not a main factor? It is not that easy to explain. All in all, you will deal with Russia and “Russia is the country of the infinite impossibilities”. Take a look on this great Video.

Take it easy, keep a cool head and start your preparation.

1.The first thoughts

You can begin your planning with the following questions:

  1. Will I travel alone?[1]
  2. How good is my Russian language or do I know somebody in Russia?[2]
  3. What would I like to see along the road?[3]
  4. Will my trip lead me out of Russia more than once?[4]
  5. Which train and class would I like to book?
  6. How long would I like to explore a waypoint?
  7. Where do I sleep there?[5]
  8. What shall I take in my backpack?

When you go to Russia for the first time, please inform yourself about the visa requirements. Start at least 2 months before your journey because this step takes time and energy. Read more HERE. However Russia is not the easiest country to get a visa.

Also take in note about crossing the Russian border more than once, especially if you go on the famous Mongolia/China track, in this case you will need the more expensive “multi entry visa”.

I would recommend you to buy the tickets one month ahead. The prices will be cheaper and you can choose between more seats. A great site for purchasing a train ticket is TUTU.RU. On TUTU.RU there will be no problems with payment by credit card or other options. Trust me on this point![6]

The site is also great because it provides you with all the necessary information about the trains and prices (of course in English).

If you rely on a travel agency, this first steps are not important for you. But the further information is a must for all travellers.

2. More than one track

There are two main routes along the Transsib.: Moscow-Vladivostok, Moscow-Beijing. If you going nonstop from the start to the end, then you will be probably spending a week in the train. This is the cheapest, easiest and quickest way to experience the Tran-Siberian railroad.[7] But where is the adventure if not in exploring the famous Siberian and Asian cities? Take your time and inform yourself about the different places.

On our journey we made a stop in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok. If you have missed our impression video about the route, then click HERE.

3. The Trains and Classes

If you travel from A to B, usually you can choose between different trains.

Russians told me that it is wiser to take a train with a lower number in its name. These newer trains have a higher comfort zone and are cleaner. This information could be true, but needs more evidences. Please read the additional information at TUTU.RU before buying a ticket. Some trains are company, express or business trains which have only two seat classes to offer.

And from this point it gets a bit complicated. Depending on what train you choose there will be different classes with names and letters like these: 2Э or 3 П, 3 У. Information for the different names you will find HERE.

So what’s the big deal between the classes except the money?

Usually there are four classes in a train. I will especially focus on the 2th and 3th class, which I personally experienced.

First class: Truly no idea. For more details check out HERE.

Second class: The compartment class. It is small and cozy. We travelled once in the second class during our longest route (Ulan Ude – Vladivostok). The compartment is a little cabin with four “seats”.[8]

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Second class

If you choose this class, that you have to deal with “luck”. Your comfort and fun during the journey will be influenced by your compartment mates. Mostly they will be Russians travelling from X to Y. During the long way you will be forced to communicate. Your mates, in the most case elders, will try to speak with you. Their motivations could be different: Interest, boredom or just habit. Even if you don’t speak Russian, you can get in touch with the people. Try to speak about interesting stuff like your homeland, your journey, food or alcohol. It makes a base for great communication everywhere.

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Enjoyng time together

From my point of view the worst things that can happen in the second class is:

  1. Silence or non-conversation time which creates a cold atmosphere (besides the marvellous air conditioner which usually drives on “Polar” modus).
  2. You will be overloaded with much food or alcohol. Depends how generous your mates are.
  3. Lively discussions about the II World War, politicians, football or Ukraine. It depends of course of your language skills.

Other negative situations you can be confronted with are: Loud snoring[9] and lovely feet smell.

Besides all the negative stuff the second class can offer you the best experience to get to know Russians, their culture or/and traditional food. In no other class you will be so close to Russian people.

Third class: The open coupe. When the luxurious train is a hotel on wheels, than this is a hostel. In the third class 52 people live in a tiny space with a bad air conditioning. This class is the most popular among Russians. It is cheap, it is crowded and it is a lot of fun.

When you purchase a ticket for this class you have to choose a seat/lounger. Try to get a place at a downer lounger. Avoid the places alongside the wagon floor. This lounger can be pretty annoying to sleep because it is the corridor and people will pass by nonstop,

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Third class and the corridor. Picture HERE

Why a seat below and not a lovely place above where I am more secured from the views of the others? Well, there are no ladders! You will have to climb on your own strength between people and a tiny space. Also the higher seats are not made for sitting straight, except you are smaller than 140cm.

The third class is a huge open space, where noises, smell and bright light is shared by all passengers. There is no privacy. On the other side the open space gives you a great chance to meet a lot of different people or witness some Russian traditions (singing, drinking, card games). Stay calm and friendly. Usually no other problems appear here.[10] Real drunk people will be watched by other passengers and be rebuked by the supervisor.

Did I forget to mention the law and order of the Trans-Siberian train? The supervisor, mostly a female person, identifiable by the uniform, is the chief of the wagon. He or she checks your ticket, gives you the fresh bed sheets, keeps  an eye on the passengers and provides you with important information (of course only in Russian!). If you’ve got a problem, contact the supervisor. Don’t give up! They are usually unfriendly but helpful.

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The supervisor with uniform. Picture HERE

Forth class: Similar to the third class, instead of lounger there will be only seats.

4. Surviving tips

Here some useful tools you can carry with you for the second and third class: Earplugs, headphones, sleeping mask, shoe spray, nose protector, cleaning tissues, plastic bags (!)[11], toilet paper (!) and a little soap.

The following notes are summarized from Uru and me and are influenced by our experiences:

  1. Take care of the time! All trains, stops and stations run on Moscow time. Even if you are at the Vladivostok train station the time is -7 hours.[12]
  2. Take toilet paper and wet tissues, as well as a disinfection spray[13]
  3. Do not buy seats at the end of the wagon. The toilet is nearby and the people constantly is passing by and you will be troubled with obvious smell
  4. The boiler in the front of the wagon is your friend. He provides you with hot water for tea or cupnoodles . But also forces you to carry boiling water in cups you filled too much through a moving train back to your seat by the narrow and busy corridor. You will need all your luck if you were stupid enough to fill two cups. Learn how to handle this Russian technology!
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Friend or foe? The water heater.
  1. Buy some food before the journey. Sometimes the train stops for over 30 minutes. At the station grannies try to sell homemade food, but is not a certain thing, so be prepared.

+ Bonus + Take a bottle of Vodka and some sweets to share with your neighbours. It improves the contact.

  1. Plugs are rare in the wagon. Mostly in the front- and backside. Sometimes they work sometimes not. The power is only 210V![14]

+ Bonus + Take distributor outlets and share them with people

  1. Do not try to keep up with Russians on the vodka intake. This game you will loose. By the time they get tipsy you definitely had much too much.

Now you should be pretty good prepared for your first Trans-Siberian trip.

If you have some more questions or you looking forward to share your experiences, please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

Uru and Artur

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[1] More company means more bureaucratic work. It is not easy to book tickets for a big group.

[2] Russian is the main language in Russia! Even a lot of people in the office area cannot speak English and a lot of important information will mostly be written in Cyrillic letters. So either you learn some useful Russian words, carry a good dictionary with you or rely on a Russian friend.

[3] Check out the route and the cities (wikitravel.org is a good friend). The more stops you make the more expensive the journey gets.

[4] If you are heading to Mongolia and/or China and back to Russia, you will need a multi entry visa for Russia.

[5] I highly recommend Couchsurfing. For us it was really easy to find hosts on the waypoints, and we made great experiences. Check out my other article about Couchsurfing.

[6] I lost a whole month because I had problems to buy the tickets from another Russian site. This official site was also less touristic friendly.

[7] From Moscow to Vladivostok the train needs about 6,5 days. A one-way ticket costs less than 300€ (third class).

[8] If you need even more private space, it is possible to book a cabin only for two (depends on the train).

[9] We experienced many times the bonus game: Double snoring dubstep, where the snoring star gets a choir of lesser volume snorers echoing him (best snore stars being men).

[10] Except the ones I already described.

[11] As a personal bin for food or used stuff.

[12][12] This can be VERY confusing. Every train station is like a different dimension with its own physical laws. Take special care when you purchase a ticket and have a look on the Siberian timetable.

[13] Some train-toilets have no paper at all and are in a really bad condition.

[14] I used it for my laptop and mobile phone. No problems appeared.

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