A Traveler’s Guide to the Trans Siberian Railway

Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok, Russia

Crossing Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway is on many traveler’s bucket lists. I flew to Vladivostok and spent a month taking the train all the way back to Moscow, making multiple stops along the way. I had read a lot about traveling the Trans Siberian Railway before I began the journey, but there was plenty of information that ended up being inaccurate and dozens of other little things that I wish I would have known.

For those thinking of making this journey, here are some things to consider:
 

Which route to take?

 
The traditional Trans Siberian route stretches 9288 kilometers between Moscow and Vladivostok (contrary to what some may say, it does not technically stretch on to St. Petersburg). However, two variations are becoming increasingly popular – the Trans Mongolian, which runs between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia, and the Trans Manchurian, also running between Moscow and Beijing, but bypassing Mongolia.

Most travelers start their journeys in Moscow and go east, although it is certainly possible (and perhaps more interesting) to go in the opposite direction as I did.  If you are keen on interacting with locals and practicing your Russian skills, consider starting in Vladivostok or Beijing and heading west. You will likely encounter fewer tourists (if any) and more locals who are simply taking the train as a means of transportation, not as an adventure.
 

Where to stop along the way?

 
Unless you love the idea of spending a week straight on a train, I recommend making at least one stop along the way, if not more.  In my opinion, one of the best things about the Trans-Siberian is the opportunity it affords you to see more of Russia than just Moscow and/or St. Petersburg. If you have the time, I would suggest at least two or three stops.

Some possible options include:

  • Nizhny Novgorod. Sitting on the banks of the Volga River, Nizhny features a 13th century monastery, 16th century kremlin, several churches and a variety of museums to make it a worthwhile first stop after departing Moscow. River tours on the Volga are also possible in the summer months.
  • Kazan. Technically a detour from the main Trans Siberian route, this 1000-year-old city is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan and one of the most attractive cities you might visit on your journey. Its Kremlin is a UNESCO World Heritage site and just outside of town is the unique Temple of All Religions, a building combining 16 world religions. If you are visiting in June, don’t miss the celebration of Sabantuy, the most popular folk holiday in Tatarstan.
Kazan, Russia
Mosque in Kazan.
  • Yekaterinburg. Stop here to visit the site where Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his family were murdered in 1918. An easy day trip can also take you to Ganina Yama, the site where their bodies were discarded into a mine shaft. Now considered holy ground by the Russian Orthodox Church, seven chapels have been constructed on the site, one for each member of the royal family.
  • Krasnoyarsk. Spend a day just outside of the city hiking in the Stolby Nature Reserve or in the winter, hit the slopes at the nearby ski resort. If you have a week or more to stop and really want to get off the beaten path, Krasnoyarsk is also a great starting point to explore the Khakassia and Tuva regions, known for shamans and throat singing.
  • Irkutsk. The main attraction here is Lake Baikal – the deepest lake in the world. Irkutsk is not actually on the shores of the lake so a stop for at least two days is ideal to allow time for either a day trip to the town of Listvyanka on the lakeshore or a longer trip to Olkhon Island, the largest island in the lake. A minimum of three days is best for Olkhon – a day to get there, a day to explore the island, and a day to return.
Lake Baikal
View of Lake Baikal from Olkhon Island.
  • Ulan Ude. Just an eight hour train ride from Irkutsk and not far from the Mongolia border, Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia, home to Russia’s largest indigenous people, the Buryats. It is also a center of Buddhism in Russia and if you stop here, a trip outside the city to the Ivolginsky Datsan (Buddhist monastery) is a must.  For a different approach to visiting Lake Baikal, you might also plan a few days for a side trip up to the village of Ust-Barguzin on the lake’s southern shore.
  • Khabarovsk. Just 19 miles from the Chinese border, Khabarovsk has an international feel to it – more so than most other Russian cities. A stop here may be a highlight for avid museum goers, with options including Far Eastern art, regional history and military museums, as well as city, railway and geological museums.  And if you are braving the Trans Siberian in January, Khabarovsk’s annual ice sculpture festival shouldn’t be missed.

Wherever you stop, I recommend trying to arrive in the morning or early afternoon and departing the following night at the earliest. This gives you time to get a feel for the city after you arrive and freshen up and allows a full day to explore more in-depth or arrange for a day trip outside of the city.

Hostels have just started to appear in Siberia over the last few years, although they tend to be no more than a room or two of bunk beds in someone’s flat.  However, they provide the essentials after a night or more on the train: a hot shower, washing machine, wi-fi and kitchen facilities. Prices run about $15-$20 per night. Try to book in advance and inform the hostel of when you plan to arrive as many do not keep staff on-site.  If you are interested in staying with a Russian family, many local tour companies can arrange homestays – prices range from $30 to $60 per night with meals included.
 

Booking Your Tickets

 

When to book?

 
If you are on a tight schedule, it makes sense to book your tickets in advance.  Tickets can be issued up to 45 days in advance and many travel agencies can do this for you. I used Real Russia and highly recommend them – they can also help with obtaining a letter of invitation for visa purposes. You will get an electronic ticket for each leg of your trip, which you then take to the station with your passport and exchange for the actual ticket.  It is also possible to book online yourself at www.rzd.ru  or www.poezda.net if you can read a little Russian (Google Translate can help!).

Note that the timetables provided on the Russian Railways websites are shown on Moscow time, while the timetables on Real Russia’s website are on local time.

For the more flexible travelers, you can purchase your tickets at the stations as you go along. However, be prepared for the possibility that the train you want may already be sold out and don’t be surprised if none of the cashiers speak any English. And again, schedules posted at the stations generally will be on Moscow, not local time.
 

Which type of train?

 
Russian trains vary in speed and quality – the lower the number of the train, generally the higher the standard of service and faster speed of the train. Standard passenger trains are indicated by 3-digit numbers and are slower (40-50 km/hour) with quality that may range from poor to good.  Firmenny trains, on the other hand, provide newer cabins, better toilets, restaurant cars and nice digital signs at the end of each car with the current time, temperature and whether the toilet is free.  “Fast” trains travel faster than the standard passenger train, but if they are not also firmenny the quality of the train may vary. I traveled on all three types during my trip and while the differences were noticeable, I didn’t feel they were significant.
 

Which class?

 
Most trains offer three classes of sleeper service – spalny vagon (1st class), kupe (2nd class) and platskartny (3rd class). Spalny vagon compartments have just two berths, with both beds at the lower level. Kupe are 4-berth compartments consisting of two upper and two lower bunks. Finally, platskartny are open 6-berth compartments with both upper and lower bunks. Both spalny vagon and kupe have doors that lock, while platskartny compartments are open – this makes third class a little more social, but a little less secure. Note that there are rumors that platskartny may be eliminated in the future.

Kazakhstan train
A platzkartny section on a train in Kazakhstan; Russian trains are quite similar.

 

Upper or lower bunk?

 
If you book early enough, you should be able to select an upper or lower bunk (lower bunks are odd-numbered).  If you have a lower bunk in kupe, you’ll have a bin under your bunk where you can store your luggage. My 55L backpack fit just perfectly – anything larger (or any type of suitcase) may have been tough. For the upper bunks, storage spaces are located adjacent to the bunks, extending over the hallways. It may be a bit of a hassle to get a big pack up there, but once it’s there, it’s pretty secure. Keep in mind that during the day, people from the upper bunks tend to hang out on the lower bunks. This can be great if you are looking to socialize or annoying if you’d prefer to stretch out and read a book or sleep.
 

Single sex compartments?

 
Many trains now offer single sex compartments, so if you are a single female traveling alone, this may be something you want to consider. I never bothered and while I typically shared my kupe compartment with at least one other male, I never felt uncomfortable (although on one occasion I did get really annoyed with two elderly men who just kept rambling on to me in Russian when I really just wanted to sleep).

passenger train hallway
Hallway in the kupe section of a passenger train.

 

What to pack

 

  • Food:  while you can buy snacks and drinks along the way in the dining car, from vendors roaming the hallways or from kiosks at station stops, you will likely save money and enjoy a better selection if you bring your own. Good options include dried fruit, nuts, sandwiches, crackers, chips and instant noodles or instant oatmeal (to be prepared with boiling water available from the samovars in each carriage).
  • Comfortable clothing:  shorts, sweatpants, tank tops and various forms of pajamas are all common. If you are traveling in the winter months, be prepared for it to be surprisingly hot. Most of my trains departed in the evening and people often changed clothes as soon as we left the station.
  • Slippers or flip-flops/thongs:  much easier to slip on than your shoes or boots each time you want to roam the halls.
  • Toiletries: soap, toothbrush & toothpaste, baby wipes, deodorant. It’s also a good idea to bring some extra toilet paper. I found the toilets to generally be well-stocked, but every now and then they ran out.
  • Entertainment: books, a Kindle, playing cards or anything else to keep you entertained for hours on end, especially if your bunkmates are less than sociable.
  • Dishes: depending on the type of train and class of service, these may not be necessary, but it may be a good idea to bring your own coffee mug for tea/coffee and your own bowl and spoon for preparing noodles or oatmeal.

Most importantly, try to pack light as luggage space is limited. If you are carrying a large pack, put everything you need for the train in a separate bag so you can easily access it throughout the journey.

backpack in train
The storage area underneath the lower bunk. Once your pack is in here, you can’t get to it again without lifting up the bunk.

 

What to expect on the train

 
Time: The trains run on Moscow time, so that is what you will see on your ticket and on the schedules posted on the train and in the stations. If you are on a nicer, more modern train, there may be a digital display at the end of the hallway showing the time; otherwise, don’t count on seeing a clock anywhere on the train.

Boarding: You will show your ticket and passport to the attendant before boarding and she will come by your compartment to check your ticket again once the train has departed, making note of your destination.  If you are scheduled to disembark in the middle of the night, the attendant will likely wake you up (but I would set an alarm to be on the safe side).

Bedding: Pillows, sheets and blankets, as well as a hand towel, are provided.

Toilets: Each carriage has a toilet on each end and they will be locked for up to 30 minutes before, during and up to 30 minutes after most station stops (and border crossings if you’re heading into China or Mongolia).  The toilet doors usually have a schedule showing these closures.

Trasn Siberian train toilet
Toilet on a passenger train.

Water: You will find a samovar with boiling water on one end of the car, usually opposite the attendant’s compartment.  If you bring your own water bottle, you can also refill it with drinkable water from the attendant.

Cleanliness: Trains are generally kept quite clean, with floors being swept at least once a day and toilets cleaned regularly. Garbage bins are usually located opposite the toilets on one end of the carriage.

Electronics: Outlets for charging cell phones and the like are available in the hallways. Most carriages have fold-down seats so you can sit with your device as it charges, although it was not uncommon for people to leave theirs hanging unattended.

Internet: The trains are not equipped with wi-fi (at least they weren’t when I made the journey in late 2011), but if you have a Kindle with free 3G or a phone with data, you should be able to access the internet when the train is stopped at most towns. If you purchased a cell phone or SIM card in Moscow or St. Petersburg, it may or may not work once you are on the train; my Moscow SIM card did not have coverage outside of Moscow and I didn’t learn that until it was too late.

People: Your experience will likely vary based on a variety of factors: what time of year you travel, which direction, what type of train you are on and whether you are in spalny vagon, kupe or platskartny. Heading west to east throughout the month of November, I felt like I was the only tourist on board and certainly the only English-speaker. I shared my kupe compartment with a grandmother and granddaughter, an orphanage teacher, a university student, members of a girls’ volleyball team, a few businessmen/women, a couple military men and an engineer who was anxious to practice his English with me.  If you begin in Moscow and travel during the summer or early fall, you are more likely to encounter other tourists. If you are looking for the most social experience possible, consider giving up some privacy and comfort for the more open atmosphere of platskartny.
 

Have you traveled on the Trans Siberian? What advice would you add?

 

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41 thoughts on “A Traveler’s Guide to the Trans Siberian Railway”

  1. thanks for the article. Its very good.
    I used realrussia.co.uk too and I was very satisfied. I tried to do that via rzd.ru, but my card wasn’t accepted.
    If you buy in advance you will get much better price. I think 45-31 days before departure, but only on domestic routes. From Vladivostok to St.Petersburg with 5 stops for 390 Euro.

  2. I couldn’t believe all the people that literally wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian, rather than experience anything along the way. They actually dream of sitting on a train for 7 straight days? Apparently I do not have my finger on the pulse of the hip and trendy, because I’ve sat on trains for 24 hours, and the thought of multiplying that by 7, without stopping for a day or two along the way, drives me absolutely insane. Although I did meet a few people who did that, and appreciated the break after a serious month of high-speed travel…

    And I hope they don’t get rid of platzkart. It was my favorite. I actually considered it safer than the other options, because you’ve got 50 potential witnesses instead of 2 or 3. As long as your bag is under the seat, no one can get it anyway.

    1. I totally agree – I loved stopping along the way and actually would’ve made more stops but I had signed up to volunteer for 2 weeks in Irkutsk so had to squeeze the rest of my stops into a 2 week period. (and as it turned out, my volunteering fell through one I arrived so I was stuck in Irkutsk for 2 weeks while I could’ve been traveling on and stopping in other places!).

      Not sure how serious they are about getting rid of platzkart – just read a couple weeks ago that the idea was out there. I only did kupe in Russia, but did platzkart in Kazakhstan and Belarus and I liked the little bit of additional privacy of kupe better.

  3. Hey Katie,

    This is an awesome entry. I am preparing for my next long travel that is to begin at the end of next year and I am definitely going to take the trans-siberian route. I have been also looking for place to volunteer along this route, so your piece is a great point of reference for me.

    I was a bit nervous trying to search for information – thanks to you I know where to start now!!!

    1. Thanks Makiko! Glad you found it useful! The organization I was supposed to volunteer with was the Great Baikal Trail organization. It turned out they just didn’t have anything for me to do when I was there in November, but depending on when you go, there may be other opportunities.

  4. I’m so bookmarking this post! When I planned to travel Trans Siberian this year I couldn’t find many blog posts that would answer some of my silly questions (about power outlets for example) and you just did it! I’m hoping to finally go to Russia in 2014 *fingers crossed* and I already know this will be one of the main sources of information for me! Thanks Katie!

    1. Hey kami, I am taking the transiberian train in september.Looking for a travel buddy. let me know if you are interested.

  5. One of my dream trips is taking the train from Beijing to Moscow (via Mongolia). And what fun would it be to not stop off along the way? Thanks for this great guide! Booking the tickets individually, approximately how much does the whole train journey cost?

    1. It’s hard to put a price on it because it depends on a lot of factors – how many stops you make, what type of train you book, what class you book in and how far in advance you purchase your tickets. I made 5 stops, rode entirely in kupe (2nd class) and took a mix of passenger, firmenny and fast trains and my total was around $525 (going from Vladivostok to Moscow).

  6. This sounds absolutely amazing – you’ve inspired a whole load of wanderlust in me now. Seriously, I’ve just spent the past half hour or so looking at train times and flights. Agh! Some of the stopovers sound really interesting, too – Irkutsk, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnoyarsk all sound like pretty interesting stopovers. I think I’d go with the Trans-Mongolian train, were I to embark on this journey.

    1. Haha, yes, easy to get caught up with it! And there are so many good options for stopping – it took me forever to decide where I would stop and for how long! I would say Irkutsk is a must because of Lake Baikal. Kazan was also great, although it was covered in about 2 feet of snow when I was there, so I think I would’ve enjoyed it more in the spring/summer/fall. 🙂

  7. I’ve given up on persuading my kids to come along on the Trans-Sib, so I’ve decided to just do it on my own, possibly in 2014. This is an incredibly useful post, Katie – thanks a million 🙂

  8. Happy Christmas&NewYear,Katie!

    About sim card…
    My job involves, including a wholesale supply of SIM cards in the Moscow region, so let me some comments.

    My job involves , including a wholesale supply of SIM cards in the Moscow region , so let me some comments .
    So . Any Russian SIM card tied to their region . Such as Moscow, St. Petersburg , Vladivostok .
    BUT!
    By purchasing a SIM card in Moscow (operators Beeline, MTS, Megafon) and arrived with her in St. Petersburg , you get to national roaming .
     And if you use the Internet, without additional options , then very soon the balance for prepaid simkarty tell you

    But , any sim card , Beeline, MTS, MegaFon , which is bought in Moscow will liaise across Russia by default since purchase.
    The main thing to be formatted dialing , for example , or +1 +7-9 ***
    And of course ** sluduet for balance on the account.
    For a successful call to national roaming , you need at least 10 rubles to balance on one minute.

  9. Any idea of costs on going TSR west to east, how much more expensive and if you book in advance is there any flexibility on start dates, stop dates.
    Is seat 61 good for booking or a better site Tks

    1. I don’t think you can actually book tickets through Seat61. I would use the websites I mention above or Real Russia. It’s impossible to say how much more expensive one way is because it all depends on how many stops you make and between which cities, plus what type of train it is and what class you book. Trains run just about every day and in some cases, multiple times per day, so you can customize a journey as much as you want. You can either book it all in advance if you know where you want to stop and for how long, or book tickets at the train stations as you go along.

  10. Great post! We are in the process of quitting our jobs in London to travel in Asia for a year and enter via the Trans Siberian (Mongolian) railway in June. We’re planning on making stops in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk and a month in Mongolia.

    Did you ever “risk” trying to get your tickets at the counter days in advance as opposed to 45 days in advance with Real Russia?

    1. I had limited time so I booked everything in advance with Real Russia. I was traveling at an off time of year and the trains didn’t feel that crowded so I probably would’ve been fine booking point to point as I went along, but if you’re traveling in the summer/early fall, it may be more difficult to buy tickets on the spot.

  11. Hi there. Nice to read the blog. We’re finalising our plans, but have one question we can’t find an answer to anywhere…

    We plan to break up the journey quite frequently… Did you notice many places in stations to leave luggage (like lockers etc)? Some times we’d like to just get off the train early in the morning, explore for the day, and hop on the next one in the evening and sleep on the train.

    1. Hi Ross – I’m not entirely sure. I always stayed overnight at least one night on all of my stops. I would say you are more likely to find storage lockers in larger cities like Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk and Kazan. (I vaguely remember showers being available at the Yekaterinburg station). You might check out the Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian and see if they mention anything.

  12. Hey Katie,
    I visited many, many places and lately, China for about 9 Months, I renew my Visa in HK, Macau, Vietnam Laos. Toughest place I ever been but so magnificent, sometimes weeks, months, without seen any westerners. But I want to go back, (plan for 2015)and go from Beijing to Vladivostok to Moscow. Any suggestion? How is the spending in Russia. Is Stopping days in each Cities in Russia is a problem?
    THX

  13. Hi I did the trans mongolian journey last year. I wentjust my self and my son who was 9 years old. It was fantastic. We stayed in Moscow for 1 week, then irkusk for 1 whole week again, down to Mongolia Ulan bator for 18 days and stayed for the nadam festival and we also stayed with a family out in the country in a ger for 4 days. Lastly in Beijing for 2 weeks before flying home. All the tickets booked on line through realrussia. Tickets were collected in Moscow, and Mongolia. The company is fantastic. All my accommodations were homestays with family’s. Which everyone thought was crazy, all was fantastic also. All this was done alone with my son who thoroughly enjoyed and engrossed everything in. I would do it again in a Minuit. Homestays are really recommended. I would love to write an article about traveling alone with my son but not too confident about wether an interest isour there for viewers to read. X

    1. Yeah, Thanks for the reply, I wrote on my note book travelling alone so long. You see things that tourists don’t see, and you experiences so much. I am not a writer and English is not my mother tong, so I don’t even go further but for you should, It give people advice and dreams.
      Experience cannot be pass on but when you read you are out there. Go on girl Write on!

    2. Hi Liza,

      I know this was a long time ago now so this may not come through but I was just wondering, how did you arrange the home stays? I think that would be a lot of fun, although I would be travelling on my own as a female. Also, how long would you recommend staying in Mongolia? I was thinking between 1 – 2 weeks.

      Thanks.

      Mirte

  14. Hi,
    I’m will be travelling on my own, female also.
    I plan to do from Vladivostok to Moscow from 17th to 31st April. If there is anyone who is likely to do the similar travel, just write me an email 🙂
    I will be glad as I heard there aren’t so many tourists in this direction… and nobody on the train speaks english….
    :**

    1. Thanks! Can’t say I saw any young kids in the train cars I was on, but I was in 2nd class and would guess many of the families traveling were in 3rd class. I really didn’t encounter any other tourists at all on my journey, given the direction I was going and the time of year.

    2. Great Post, Katie!

      Would love to bring children along too. Did you travel already? Do you mind sharing the experience or know the child rate?

      Thanks for the post!

  15. Hi Katie,

    I really like your article! Really looking forward to do the same in December! I have a question regarding the ticket prices during Christmas: Do you know if the prices in this season (Mid December-January) are higher than usual? Or are they more or less the same if I book them early enough, like 45 days in advance?

    Thank you!

    Haison

  16. Hi Katie!

    Your page is fantastic, but I was just wondering could you give me any info on how much you budgeted or would advise to budget for this trip? Also, how well/much Russian did you learn/speak during your journey?

    Thanks a heap 😀

    Alice.

  17. hi,

    Just wondering is it advisable to do Moscow -Bejing circuit from 25 dec onward upto middle of January.

    is it dark and train windows get covered by frost and you cant see much.

    if travelling independently arranging transfer to okhlon near lake baikal is restricted.

    Thanks

  18. Hi Haison and Vikram

    I am planning Moscow – Beijing around 25 December. Let me know if you’d like to join.

    Thanks

    Asif

  19. Hi there, lovely blog. Thanks
    My question is: In the kupe compartments what happens to the upper bunk during the day? I’ve heard two different things. One said that it is folded up during the day, otherwise those sitting on the lower bunk wouldn’t have room to sit upright. The other said that if you have the upper bunk you could retire up there for a nap or naps during the day, meaning the upper bunk wouldn’t be folded up. Help! I have to make a decision on whether to go upper or lower.
    Thanks again! Respect, Brendan

  20. Hi Katie. Great webpage. Looks like a great adventure. I’m planning on doing this trip from Beijing to Moscow then onto Riga and hopefully travel during the night and exploring cities during the day. Do you know if the major stops have appropriate luggage storage for suitcases so then we can explore the city then come back in the afternoon for the next train? I’m thinking Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg etc.

    1. Hi Beejay – I’m not too sure, but I would guess most do – at least the big cities like Yekaterinburg. You might see if there’s a current version of Lonely Planet’s Guide to the Trans-Siberian – that might tell you.

      Enjoy!

      1. I start the journey from Beijing to St Peterburg in just over a week. I really appreciated your advice about luggage, particularly the photograph showing how much space there is to stow away my stuff.

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