The Trans-Siberian Railway is not so much a single railway line as a set of tracks and routes that cross Russia, Mongolia, and China. Direct trains from Moscow run to Beijing via either Mongolia or Manchuria. The other line, the official “Trans-Siberian” line, stays in Russia and ends at Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.
Our plan was, and is,* to take trains across Russia and Mongolia to Beijing, with stops along the way. This is known as the Trans-Mongolian line. We’ve previously written about the various Russian stops that we made along the Trans-Mongolian line, and will post shortly about our time in Mongolia. This post, however, is just about our time on the train since it has felt like a completely different journey from our town time.
*As of this post, we are in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We plan to continue to Beijing by train, though we are in a bit of a pickle. Apparently, the Chinese Embassy here stopped issuing visas to non-Mongolians for a few weeks last month. It looks like they have started issuing visas again, so we have our fingers crossed that we’ll be able to pick up our visas tomorrow. Otherwise, we’ll have to fly out of Mongolia since we are land-locked between Russia (where our visa has expired) and China.
Booking Trains in Russia
Our pre-trip online research had suggested that the official Russian train website was not available in English and didn’t accept foreign credit cards — meaning that foreigners either had to work with a travel agency and pay a markup, or had to go into the train station and purchase tickets in person (and in Russian).
Upon arrival in Russia, we booked our first segment (from Saint Petersburg to Russia) in person at the train station. We wrote down the train information in English and Russian on a note card, passed it through the ticket window, and after some confusion were able to successfully book our train. However, we subsequently found out that the Russian train website now has an English button and worked with our foreign credit card after registration! This worked great for our Russian segments. We got to skip the train station (and its lines and lack of English) and pick our seats directly.
Unfortunately, international segments still must be booked in person. For our Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar segment, we used the Russian train website to figure out seat availability and asked for specific open slots at the train station.
For those looking for a bit more handholding, or uncomfortable with the official Russian train site, you can also explore fares and schedules on Real Russia. Extra information on the train journey, types of trains, seat classes, and how to read a Russian train ticket can be found on The Man in Seat 61.
How the Trains Work
Each Russian train car is managed by a provodnitsa. She wakes you for your stop, tells you to make your bed, cleans the car, and brings food and drink. Essentially, each car is the provodnitsa’s kingdom and she runs it like a tight ship. And yes, in Russia I think it’s almost always a she.
Second or Third Class?: The big decision that we faced for each segment was whether to select second or third class beds (first class is way too expensive). Second class compartments are similar to many European trains where you have a compartment that has two benches facing each other with a small table in between. The benches become the lower beds (with the aid of a thin mattress and sheets) and there is an upper bunk above each bench. For those with lower bunks, the seat lifts up for baggage storage. For those with the upper bunks, there is a large shelf above the doorway/hallway to store bags.
Unlike second class, where up to four passengers share a compartment, third class cars are a big open room with bunks. Two thirds of the bunks are arranged like the bunks in second class, while the other third are along the other wall. The beds along the wall are generally seen as less desirable because they are directly on the hallway, but for a couple they can be great because you get your own table during the day (instead of having to share with two other people).
Food and drink: Each train has a dining car, but like most passengers we packed a bunch of food for our journeys. Hot water is available free of charge from the samovar on each train, so instant noodles and potatoes are popular options (and available in Russian grocery stores and at shops at the train stations). The provodnitsa would also come through each car occasionally to sell everything from drinks to pizza to ice cream and fairly reasonable prices.
Our Journey in Segments:
1. St. Petersburg to Moscow
While not part of the Trans-Siberian in any official sense, the train is the best way between Russia’s two largest cities. The timing works well to travel overnight and sleep. We booked the upper beds in a second-class compartment (because upper beds are cheapest!). Two men, probably traveling on business, took the lower bunks. They probably figured out quickly that we don’t speak Russian, and didn’t speak to us.
In the evening, the provodnitsa in our car took breakfast orders from the two Russian businessmen. The she looked at us, probably figured that we could not discuss breakfast in Russian, and said, in English, “Your breakfast: pancake.” That was fine with us. We were just happy that breakfast was included with our ticket (which we’d learned by studying our train ticket with the help of The Man in Seat 61).
The Russians also got tea in nice glasses, which we would have liked. It was unclear if tea was supposed to be included or not and there wasn’t enough time to figure out the answer before our stop. We ended up using our own containers for tea, using tea we brought from New York. There are perks to speaking the local language.
There are some choices about train quality when booking trains in Russia. We ignored these distinctions and booked based on timing and availability. It turned out that our St. Petersburg to Moscow train was the nicest that we’ve taken so far.
2. Moscow to Vladimir
While the long-distance trains run from Moscow to Vladimir, we took a commuter train. It was pleasant and uninteresting (with normal seats!).
Since the trains from Moscow to Yekaterinburg run through Vladimir, so we were able to easily continue on our trip.
3. Vladimir to Yekaterinburg
This was our experiment with third class. We took bunks along the wall because that was the only way that we could get a top and bottom bunk together. It was too loud and too many people walking down the hallway for Elizabeth to sleep well, and the bed was too short for me to fit without a big bend in my knees. We quickly decided that this would be our only overnight in third class. Fortunately, during daytime the bottom bunk folds into a table and chairs and was perfectly pleasant.
The segment was about 22 hours, which worked out to a day given the time change. The view out the window was mostly trees. Our car was not social, so we read books and listened to podcasts to pass the time.
4. Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk
This was our long segment — three nights with an evening departure and morning arrival. We upgraded to second class, but took top bunks. They are cheaper. We figured that in second class, it’s not as big of a deal to share the bottom space during the day and then crawl up to the top bunk at night.
The booking system showed the bottom bunks booked, but didn’t say when or where the passengers would join us. One passenger, a young man named Vladimir, was returning home from somewhere near Omsk to Novosibirsk. He was a pleasant person to speak to briefly, but we all went to sleep soon after he joined us. The other passenger never showed up.
The view started with mostly trees, but eventually yielded more meadows and hills. It was pleasant and relaxing, though not exciting. Stops with time to walk around included Krasnoyarsk, which had poor air quality.
We didn’t go looking for people to talk to, but out car didn’t seem very social. I think most of the other passengers in our car were Russians, and few went as far as we did.
[Elizabeth’s note: I actually really enjoyed having two full days on the train and wouldn’t have minded another. It was very relaxing knowing that we had nowhere to be and could just enjoy the day. I imagine that, for me, this was partly because we’ve been on the go for so long that it was nice to have forced down time.]
5. Irkutsk to Ulan Ude
This is the segment that makes it all worthwhile, running mostly along the Southern shore of Lake Baikal. We made sure to take a daytime train, and since we would not be sleeping, we opted for third class, selecting window seats on the North side of the train (for this segment, that’s the four-bunk side of the train).
This segment starts by leaving Irkutsk and ascending through the woods. The train then passes through a tunnel and exits with a view of Lake Baikal from the hillside. The train then winds it’s way down the hillside to the shore, and runs along the shore for several hours before turning toward Ulan Ude.
Our car was mostly empty and not social. So much for the famous vodka train in Russia. But on this segment it didn’t matter, at least not with the view I enjoyed.
6. Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar
This segment is an international one, so we had to book it in person. We noted that our friends Kara from Australia and Arthur from Ireland were in carriage six, and booked tickets in the same carriage. Our gathering to play cards made this our most social carriage, even if this was a bit pre-arranged.
Our train, number 43, was a full-length Trans-Mongolian train, beginning in Moscow and continuing to Beijing. This meant that the journey only took 14 hours. Most trains between Ulan Ude and Ulaanbaatar actually take about 22 hours! Once the train pulled into the station, we discovered that it was a Chinese-operated train. No more provodnitsas (making this our dirtiest car yet). And Chinese beer for sale — not the best.
[Elizabeth’s note: This segment was a bit disappointing. I had heard that the trains that go all the way from Moscow to Beijing were supposed to be the nicest. I’d also heard that the Chinese trains were really nice. Instead, this was the worst train that we traveled on. It was dirty and there were no supplemental mattresses over the seats. Hopefully our final segment into Beijing will be on a nicer train.]
We took the train overnight, which meant the view became dark soon. In addition to cards, we spoke to a traveler from New Zealand who was bringing his bicycle along for the ride. Our car seemed to have a lot of non-Russians and non-Chinese travelers. It was somewhat social until the border crossing, when we all had to retreat to our own compartments. Since the carriage was half-empty, this put a end to most conversation.
The border crossing is strange but pleasant.
On the Russian side, our passports were reviewed and stamped and we were asked to confirm that we had no narcotics, no musical instruments, and none of something we couldn’t understand. I guess Russia is concerned about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Then Russian officials check the overhead and under-seat compartments, but did not inspect our bags. We later heard that they briefly looked through Kara’s rolling suitcase, but apparently they don’t care to look though backpacks. Why? Don’t try to make sense of Russia.
After close to a two hour stop on the Russian side of the border, we continued on for about 30 minutes and then stopped on the Mongolian side. We went through a similar process, except this time they collected our passports and disappeared with them while we filled out customs cards. We had to declare that we were not carrying any material subject to intellectual property rights, which made me wonder whether we were bringing any items not subject to intellectual property rights…
The customs check on the Mongolian side was a simple check of our customs form. However, we had to wait quite a while before our passports were returned, during which time the train started moving. Backwards. Then forward. Then backward again. Then forward again. Then the passports were handed back. Why? Don’t try to make sense of Mongolia.
As Americans we were lucky and didn’t have to have a visa to visit Mongolia, but most people did. Instead, we were just stamped in with no questions asked (I guess they did ask questions on the immigration form, but they picked it up after returning our passports).
The Mongolian official was nicer than the Russian officials. As we would soon learn, this would become a recurring theme in Mongolia.
Was It Worth It?
While the train journey was mostly uneventful, it was quite pleasant and I am happy to have traveled this way. Even the final segment into Mongolia, where there is a bus that makes the same trip in less time, was enjoyable and relaxed. Flights would be faster but there is something nice about the train and how it stops the hurry that can often make travel unpleasant.
Hopefully we’ll be finishing our Trans-Mongolian journey in a few days — assuming we get our Chinese visas. Wish us luck!
[This post describes our journey on the Trans-Mongolian line of the Trans-Siberian Railway in September and October of 2016.]