At 10,000km in length, the Trans-Siberian train is the world’s longest continuous railway journey and undoubtedly the most iconic. The train journey ploughs through Siberia travelling through no less than 7 different time zones, connecting east and west via 3 primary routes: the classic Tran-Siberian (Moscow – Vladivostok), the Trans-Manchurian (Moscow – Beijing via Chinese Manchuria) and the Trans-Mongolian (Moscow – Beijing via Mongolia).
Completed at the start of the 20th century, the Trans-Siberian completely transformed Russia, bringing economic upswing for Siberia and far-eastern Russia. Importantly, the railway enabled huge migration to new regions through the growth of industrial towns created along the rail route. It was completed in 1916 and electrified in 2002, however it wasn’t until the 1990s (with the demise of Communist Russia) that the Trans-Siberian became accessible to foreign tourists, opening up a whole new way of travelling to the Far East.
It had been an ambition of mine for many years to travel on this legendary route through the mysterious lands of Siberia. The Trans-Siberian is regarded as one of the few true adventures left in the world, travelling through some truly exotic destinations. Villagers in the towns the train flies through still flock to see the momentous train passing through - it is a completely different way of life.
Another compelling reason for this journey was to travel to Mongolia, to see a fascinating world locked in decades gone by. The magic of visiting a population primarily living their nomadic lifestyle in yurts in wild countryside was something I had to experience!
After doing the Trans-Siberian train, I loved it so much I did it again. I did the journey in reverse, and although I visited mainly the same places, I had a completely different experience. The beauty of this trip is the locals you can meet, socialise with and befriend on the trains. They make for a unique experience every time!
The Trans-Siberian train travels from St. Petersburg or Moscow to Beijing. You can travel the entire route in 7 days with no stops but I'd wholly recommend jumping off for a few days in some of the destinations the train travels through. With this in mind, you probably need to allow between 12 and 21 days.
The train begins in St. Petersburg or Moscow in Russia, giving you a perfect opportunity to arrive a few days early and explore either of Russia's two major hubs. The cities are very different from one another; St. Petersburg has exquisite baroque architecture and opulent palaces of the Russian royalty, complimented by its pretty tree-lined streets; Moscow is the powerhouse of Russia, with its dominating buildings, Red Square and Kremlin, where the politics of Russia dwell and Lenin lies in his tomb.
From these cities, the train rolls through the Urals to the town of Yekaterinburg, famous for its connection to the murder of the Romanov family which led directly to the beginning of the Communist era in 1918. Yekaterinburg is right in the midst of Europe and Asia, being only 20 miles into Asia.
The next major stop-off is Irkutsk, regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Siberia. Irkutsk not only boasts stunning old buildings and traditional old mansions but is also the platform to view the enormous Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake.
Being over 600km long and 80km wide, Lake Baikal can even be seen from space! It contains one-fifth of the earth’s fresh water and is home to a whopping 1,700 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world. You can take a hike around Baikal or if brave, take a swim in the lake (a maximum of 9 degrees at the height of summer!)
From Irkutsk, at Ulan-Ude, the train leaves the Trans-Siberian railway and joins the Trans-Mongolian railway, beginning the 2 day voyage into Mongolia. You will travel on a Mongolian train for this section which is a bit more basic than the previous Russian models, yet still provides all of the thick bed linen designed for those Siberian nights.
The first stop in Mongolia is the capital, Ulaanbaatar, a product of the Russian Soviet and Chinese battles for influence. Since 1990 when Mongolia broke free from its Soviet clutches and became a democracy, the city has evolved with its own character and returned to its traditional Mongolian roots. The small yet vibrant city has a cosmopolitan feel, with added references to Mongolia’s national hero Genghis Khan. In fact, the local beer ‘Chinnghis’ is named after him, as is the local vodka, also ‘Chinnghis’ - the only two drinks you’ll order!
The highlight of my visit to Mongolia was getting into the countryside and staying in a traditional Mongolian yurt camp. A 'ger' (Mongolian yurt) is a round felt tent used by the nomadic Mongolian people as a home, which they transport 2-4 times a year, depending on the best pastures for their livestock. Although simple looking on the outside, yurts are pristinely decorated inside with traditional painted designs adorning the walls and comfortable beds surrounding a central stove. They are also very warm and cosy despite the arctic temperatures outside!
Homestays with local nomadic families are a great way to experience the traditional Mongolian way of life, learning about their craft trade and the local food – a simple diet of meat, vegetables, dumplings and milk based products. You can also do overnight ger stays in a range of yurt camps set up around the country, including in the Gobi Desert.
From Mongolia the train journeys into China at which point you get to experience an interesting event: the changing of the train wheels. As the Chinese tracks are a different gauge to those in Mongolia, the train carriages are hydraulically lifted off their wheels and set on new China-proof wheels. The best part is that you're in the carriage whilst this is happening – a very bizarre experience!
Once you reach Beijing, the incredible Trans-Siberian experience may be over, but fortunately you finish in an incredible city with an abundance of distinguished attractions. Make sure you check out the magnificent Great Wall of China, the infamous Forbidden Palace and the iconic Tiananmen Square, not to mention you can feast to your heart’s content on tasty Peking duck!
Firstly, the trains are huge! The carriages are divided into separate compartments (like rooms) which are 4 berth sleepers (2 berth if you go for 1st Class). Within the carriages the rooms are set up with 4 bunk beds that fold out into chairs for daytime use. Bags can be stored inside the bottom beds or in a designated luggage ledge at the top of the cabin where the upper bunks are. There is a little table for playing cards and eating meals. Comfy, warm bed pillows, duvets and linen are all provided to keep you warm during those chilly night time journeys. The best bit about your cabin is the large window that gives amazing views of the outside world as you travel.
It's best to stock up on food from a supermarket before each journey. Hot water dispensers are provided in every carriage - perfect for tea, coffee and the essential instant noodles! There is a restaurant carriage on every train which has to be experienced. The food isn’t great however it is the place to socialise with all the other passengers (you will invariably find you're the only tourists and the other passengers love it!) Go for a beer, vodka or a traditional snack and see where the night takes you (generally supping vodka with a fellow Russian!)
As it can be difficult to arrange visas and the entire Trans-Siberian train journey is comprised of numerous different trains, I would definitely recommend organising your journey through an experienced company to ensure you make the most of your trip.
Travel Nation can book your Trans-Siberian train tickets for you and arrange the visas you’ll need along the way. We can also advise you on the best route to take and which stopovers to make. If you'd like more information about this journey, simply call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.