How to do the Trans-Siberian

At 9289 kilometers, the Trans-Siberian is the longest train-ride in the world. It is possible to do the train-ride from Moscow to Vladivostok without stops, which would take you almost a week. But I strongly advise to stop at least a couple of times to see more of Russia.

Is it fun?

Out of 20 solo travels I did all over the world, the Trans-Siberian was one of my favourites. Firstly, I met plenty of nice and interesting people, both Russian and foreign. Further I found it an adventure, since it passes different time zones, landscapes and cultures. Pick your stops wisely - I heard of tourists that only stopped in some big industrial cities and got bored.

Where to stop

On the way to Irkutsk

A mix of cultures, landscapes and things to do make a trip more interesting. Therefore you should stop in at least one of the cities that are culturally different from Moscow. I recommend spending time in Ulan-Ude with its Buryat culture (a subgroup of Mongolian) and nearby Buddhist temples. Kazan with the Kul Sharif Mosque and strongly visible Tatar culture is another highlight. But don’t just wander around busy cities, you might want to experience nature as well. Most tourists stop in Irkutsk and take a bus to nearby Lake Baikal. There you can hike or take tours around the lake. In “A guide to 13 stops on the Trans-Siberian” I write more about what to visit and what to avoid.

The route

It’s both possible to travel by train from Moscow to Vladivostok or the other way around. A lot of tourists do half of it, namely from Moscow to Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude, after which they go into Mongolia. This is called the Trans-Mongolian. From Chita it’s possible to go straight into China as well, called the Trans-Manchurian. Other travellers I met had limited time, and took a plane home somewhere along the way. Many tourists start in Saint-Petersburg. Technically not on the Trans-Siberian, this is still a fantastic city to visit.

Booking the Trans-Siberian

You can book the entire journey through the website of the Russian railways, available in English via eng.rzd.ru (for more information read my article “how to arrange transport in Russia”). I met foreign travelers who arranged their journey through a travel agency. A travel agency saves you the hassle (or fun) of planning, but it obviously costs more.

You buy a separate ticket for each leg of your journey. For example: you want to go from Moscow to Vladivostok, but with a stop of a couple of days halfway in Irkutsk. In that case you have to buy a ticket for Moscow-Irkutsk and another ticket for Irkutsk-Vladivostok. It’s recommended to book train-tickets in advance, since they do sell out. The times on your tickets are local times. Trains all over the country used to run according to Moscow time-zone, but thankfully this changed in mid-2018.

Life on the train

Most passengers on the train are not tourists, but Russians on their way to friends, family or work. It’s a long journey, so you will get a bunk bed instead of a chair. Unfortunately there is no shower. Every carriage has a samovar with hot water, which passengers use for their instant coffee, food (like instant mashed potatoes, noodles and soups) and tea. Some of the trains have a restaurant-carriage as well, with basic meals and cold beer. I found a restaurant-carriage on the ‘’002 Moscow-Vladivostok’’, the ‘’70 Moscow-Chita’’, but not on the ‘’008 Novosibirsk-Vladivostok’’. Toilets are basic but regularly cleaned. Wifi rarely works, even if it is available.

View of lake Baikal

Corridor in second class

The train has scheduled stops ranging from just a couple of minutes until over an hour. A schedule in the corridor shows at what time and for how long the train will stop. People use the stops to stretch their legs, smoke or buy supplies. There are vendors on most stations, selling food, drinks and all sorts of goods. On my way to Irkutsk I lost a toothbrush, but managed to buy a new one during a stop in the middle of the night.

What class to choose

There are three classes: third (platskard / плацкарт) , second (coupe / купе) or first class (CB). A third class carriage is one big communal compartment with 54 beds. Second class carriages are divided into compartments of four beds. First class compartments have just two beds. I traveled third and second class. Second class is more comfortable, with more space, longer beds and without the noise of 54 people. Third class can feel safer though. While you can have bad luck with your roommates in second class, third class is usually a mix of families, old people and youngsters. In Irkutsk I met a French girl who had to share a second class compartment with three drunk guys. She was fine, but still preferred to travel third class because of this.

Second class cabin

Third class carriage

Third class carriage

Safety

This brings me to a question I hear often: is the Trans-Siberian safe? Since old people and families with young children use this train route, I’d say yes. Further, I met a lot of people (foreign/Russian, young/old, male/female) traveling alone. None of them told me they found it dangerous. And every carriage has two conductors working in day/night-shifts, overseeing everything. I saw security-guards on the train, too. In a rare worst-case scenario you can end up with intimidating people in your carriage, as mentioned above. But you can opt for the safer third class to avoid this. Help on the train is always nearby.

Trans-SiberianArjan Mook