Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway

Laura Pattara

An unforgettable overland trip traversing some of the most remote and spellbinding regions on earth – learn all about the hurdles and rewards of an epic journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway

One of the most impressive feats of modern engineering and the world’s largest rail network, the Trans-Siberian Railway nowadays connects half the globe. An unmissable overland journey for those who prefer an in-depth and intense experience when they travel, the Trans-Siberian has had a cult following among intrepid adventurers ever since it was first built.

The Trans-Siberian crossing the Gobi Desert. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
The Trans-Siberian crossing the Gobi Desert. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Trans-Siberian Railway Construction – a century in the making of a legend

The railway’s initial stretch was constructed in 1891 and has been added to over the last century, culminating in an overall distance of 9,289km, the distance it stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok. Two secondary routes, the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian combine with the Trans-Siberian to create a maze of incredible travel options by rail, reaching some of the most fascinating destinations in Far East Asia whilst crossing sensational landscapes and captivating cities.

During the first 100 years in operation, the railway line has inspired novels and movies and played a pivotal role in the Russo-Japanese War, WWI, the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, securing its title as one of the world’s most significant railway lines. Nowadays, the Trans-Siberian Railway connects Russian cities spanning eight time zones and, perhaps more importantly, represents the most vital trade link between east and west. Over 60 million tons of goods are moved every year between China and the European side of Russia and with the ongoing strive to extend the railway link onto Central Europe and even south to Pakistan, the trade-power of the Trans-Siberian Railway is set to rise exponentially.

Mongolian Steppe: one of the most picturesque regions on earth. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Mongolian Steppe: one of the most picturesque regions on earth. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway – An epic journey to the exotic Far East

Offering sensational insights into enigmatic destinations in western and eastern Russia, Mongolia and China, a ride on the Trans-Siberian is a journey back in time, a time when world travel was about slow and meaningful meandering and the discovering of places still way off the beaten tourist path. The train is not luxury personified, if you follow our drift, so if you have visions of 5* dining on the Orient Express now may be the right time to cast those aside. You can pay extra to guarantee a private cabin yet the level of luxury is quite uniform through 1st, 2nd and 3rd class. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, what the Trans-Siberian lacks in luxury it more than makes up for in pure character and experience, one which you’ll be hard-pressed to forget.

Inside of the Train.
Inside of the Train.

The most popular stretch of rail is the one that begins in Beijing and ends in Moscow (combining the Trans-Siberian with the Trans-Mongolian) as it offers arguably the greatest concentration of highlights and combines the historic enticement of the Trans-Siberian with the more picturesque landscapes of the Trans-Mongolian. From a tourist and traveller point of view, this is the most interesting and beautiful stretch. The journey can, of course, be booked in reverse.

Not including stopovers in major cities to discover the surrounding areas, the journey takes six nights and covers an impressive 7,600km.

From the mesmerizing sights of the verdant steppe and wildflowers of the Gobi Desert and the startling sight of Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake on earth, to the historical treasures of Irkutsk and Ekaterinburg, alongside a flurry of sites in both Moscow and Beijing, a ride on the Trans-Siberian offers passengers the enviable chance to soak up the unique spectacle of the Far East outback, one of the least known treasures of the whole region. Away from the crowds, the cities, the buzz and the lights, the rugged and incredibly unique landscapes are simply unforgettable and this is especially true of Mongolia and China, two of the most picturesque countries on earth.

Riding the southern fringes of Lake Baikal. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Riding the southern fringes of Lake Baikal. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Special mention, however, must go to the train ride itself, an exercise in cross-cultural relations that you won’t experience anywhere else. With a healthy flow of Mongolian and Russian beer and plenty of hours to play charades with your new comrades, you’ll be making friends in no time. A common language seems suddenly unnecessary!

Best time to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway

The most popular time to ride the Tans-Siberian is during the Summer months (June-August) although that’s primarily because the railway is very popular among European travellers who take their holiday at this time. As we are suckers for resplendent, colourful foliage, we’d highly recommend planning your journey in Autumn (mid-Sept to mid-November) to soak up breathtaking views of the seasonal burst of colour. If you’re a romantic at heart, then tackling this historic journey in Winter (December – March) would be truly epic. Seeing the endless horizons bathed in thick snow coverage and encountering very few foreigners along the way, would make for one truly sensational adventure.

Riding the Trans-Siberian in Winter. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Riding the Trans-Siberian in Winter. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

What to pack for a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway – the musts!

The season in which you choose to travel will obviously determine what you need to pack yet there are few must-haves that ought to make it in your suitcase regardless of when you travel. Speaking of which: make sure you pack conservatively as storage space, on the train, is not extensive. So pack smart…but small! Make sure you have comfortable house-shoes and clothing for the long hours on the train; trust us that after just a few hours, you will want to make yourself very comfortable. Make sure you bring a windproof jacket even if travelling in Summer (because, Siberia!) and bring some sleep aids (eye mask and ear –plugs) for some much-needed shut-eye…although the constant rocking of the train does have an incredible drowsy effect nevertheless.

Pack a travel power-adapter strip to recharge all your electronics on board as well as extra camera memory cards and batteries, just in case. Don’t forget reading and writing material and bring plenty of cash (in USD bills) to change into the local currency as you travel along. Small bills – $20 and $50 – are best. Snack and drinks vendors will line the platform at every stop, so you’ll want to have some small denomination bills to pay for incidentals during your journey. Hot meals are served aboard the train’s restaurant compartment although not all trains are guaranteed to have one, so you’d be well advised to stock up on all the food, snack, drinks and alcohol you’ll need for the long, non-stop stretches.

Oh, and one last thing: for reasons that need not be mentioned, no-one’s ever regretted packing a roll of toilet paper and some plastic cutlery, so do buy some before boarding.

Irkutsk: one of the highlights on a journey on the Trans-Siberian. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Irkutsk: one of the highlights on a journey on the Trans-Siberian. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Planning and booking your journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The logistics of organizing a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway are substantial, with somewhat complicated visas needed for the entire trip, route decisions to be made and tickets to be pre-purchased in accordance with your stopover desires. If you didn’t know to stop in Irkutsk, for example, and you had a ticket for a shotgun ride through, then you won’t be able to get off the train unless you’re prepared to repurchase your ticket. Different class tickets offer varying degrees of comfort and privacy and do be aware of the time differences when planning your journey as you will pass several time zones as you travel along and most online ticket websites do not account for that and display all trains on Moscow time.

All of this is what makes our Trans-Siberian Railway Tours so very popular: we take care of all the logistics, provide you with invitation letters for your Russian and Mongolian visas, all the planning and bookings, so all you have to do is sit back, enjoy a warm cup of tea and the formidable ride whilst looking forward to brilliant excursions along the way and even overnight stays in authentic Mongolian ger camps.

An all-encompassing journey through one of the most fascinating regions on earth.

For more detailed info on journeys on the Trans-Siberian Railway and ideas on how best to create a bespoke itinerary to suit your desires, simply contact one of our GetaboutAsia travel specialists today.


Author: Laura Pattara

“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”

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