It had never dawned on me to take a train across Russia. Of all the exotic and adventurous things to do in the world, it wasn't one that crossed my mind in any memorable or substantial form. That is, until Christine suggested it back in 2012. Then I thought about it for a moment. I mean, sure, why the heck not?? An adventure across Russia – Siberia, no less! – on old Soviet trains? Sign me the eff up.
And so, this article will briefly review our trip and shed some light on the lessons we learned. Before you read on, though, feel free to take a peek at our favourite photos from the journey to pique your curiosity.
Now, all aboard? (see what I did there??)
PLANNING A TRIP ACROSS RUSSIA
Trans-Siberian Train Tickets
Generally speaking, there are two ways to book your trip: you can use an agency to book it, OR, you can book it yourself. Booking it yourself will allow you the most flexibility AND will be much cheaper...however, you will need to understand and speak Russian (or have someone who can help you) because it's not a very simple process. We found very few ticket operators in Russia spoke any english, and so we were very glad we went with an agency (Real Russia) to book our tickets. The downside of this option, in addition to costing more money, is that you have to choose your destinations in advance. This requires a wee bit of research and effectively hampers your spontaneity...BUT it will give you peace of mind, which is often worth the extra financial cost. Having the trip planned out in advance can also be helpful for the visa process, as well (because you will likely need a visa to enter Russia) since you can provide the consulate with your tickets and itinerary.
The first thing to do when planning your trip is choose where you want to stop along the way. This will actually determine if you are taking the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Mongolian, or the Trans-Manchurian (we took the Mongolian route). Where you will want to stop will be influenced by three main factors:
- What you personally want to see/do
How long you can sit on a train without going crazy
How much money you have
Since every stop requires a new train ticket, the more places you stop the more money your itinerary will cost. Additionally, every stop along the way will require you to find accommodation (obviously) which is an added expense. So, while you may want to see 8-10 destinations on your trip, you may actually be able to only afford 5. Compare your budget with your Bucket List and go from there – just make sure to keep in mind that 20-50 hours on a train can be...well, a bit much. Our longest leg was 53 hours or so, which was only tolerable because we had a 2nd class cabin to ourselves. If it were full, with 2 strangers up in our grill for 53 hours...well, it would have been unpleasant, to say the least.
This brings me to the final consideration for your tickets: class. Russian trains have 3 classes available:
First Class: 2 bunk beds in a private cabin, usually with your own bathroom
Second Class: 4 bunk beds in a cabin. You share a washroom with the rest of the train car
Third Class: An open train car with bunk beds lining the walls. Zero privacy, with one bathroom for the entire car.
Every train car will also have a hot water boiler for tea or noodles, regardless of the class you book. There are also meals cars which you can visit, though as a vegan I didn't bother with them.
We ended up booking tickets in each class just so we could try everything. Because we booked in the off season, however, we were bumped from 3rd to 2nd class when the time came so we never got to experience the...openness that a 3rd class train car has to offer. A shame.
When To Go: The Best Time For The Trans-Siberian
Summer and into autumn are the busiest months for tourism in Russia. Trains will be busier, which can be a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you may meet some other travellers to share in your adventures. On the down side, you may get stuck in a cabin with drunk and noisy travellers for many an hour. There can also be limited room in hostels during the peak season, however travelling during the off-season (as we did) may leave you with less-than-stellar weather.
Our trip was two weeks long (October-November, during the off season) which made for lots of extra space on the trains...and when we inevitably missed a train we had an easy time getting another. Even when we booked 2nd class cabins they were usually empty of other passengers, which meant we had extra space – a huge bonus when you spend an entire day on a train.
We started our adventure in Moscow and from there went on to Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, and then to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. We decided to end in Beijing, China instead of eastern Russia simply because it was easier to get flights home from China, and we wanted to see a few sights there while we were in the neighbourhood.
Looking back, I had no issue with our destinations, which was lucky seeing as it was part guesswork in advance of our trip. I would, however, adjust the duration of stay in a few. The following section is our trip in review, though you can just skip to the bottom for allllll our juicy tips. #juicytips
Our Trip: Backpacking Across Russia
I would have liked to start in St. Petersburg but Moscow is a perfectly good starting point, too! It's not a very tourist friendly city in the sense that most people either know little english OR just don't feel comfortable speaking it. There were not that many english signs anywhere, either...which I GUESS is fair, seeing as it's not an english-speaking country. We had a heck of a time finding our hostel, and we only found Red Square by wandering around until we came to it via some narrow alleyway. Then again, we really didn't use any maps or apps so that's partly our fault. Moscow does have a pretty rad subway system, though. The trains were old and unconventional, and they were so far underground that at one point I couldn't see the end of the escalator. Seeing as I grew up in a small town with ZERO escalators, this was pretty memorable for me. What was also memorable was our experience being harassed on the subway. Fortunately there was a kind stranger there to keep us safe and we made it out of the city unscathed!
One of Russia's larger cities, we picked Yekaterinburg for two reasons: first, it was a good distance from Moscow so we didn't have to be stuck on the train for too long. Second, it was a large city so we figured we would have plenty to see. It was here where Christine and I couch surfed with a pretty amazing woman. She gave us maps, told us what sights to see, AND then took us out for dinner – she epitomized the very reasons why I love couch surfing. The city itself was a nice city to walk around, and it was here where we first used the public bus system – a unique experience in and of itself. Each bus has a driver and then someone who collects fares from the passengers as they get on. Pretty different from North America, to say the least.
It was also in Yekaterinburg where I really started to notice the paradoxical Russian culture. New SUV's and BMW's side by side cars older than I was; modern city buildings and conveniences only miles from small, wooden shanty villages. There was a very noticeable economic divide and gave me a lot to ponder as we trekked onwards to Irkutsk.
Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
This was our longest haul on the train. Fifty something hours stuck in our cabin...and, of course, it ended up being the train that we missed! We missed our train from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk by mere moments after a mad 2km dash to the station, attempting to sprint with our +60L packs. Drenched in sweat, we missed the train by under 1 minute simply because we couldn't read the signs that told us where to board our train. Fortunately, our couch surfing host came down to the station and got us new tickets (and a partial refund!), saving us the supreme hassle of trying to figure everything out ourselves.
We only spent the afternoon in Irkutsk (where we eventually encountered a drunk man wielding a chainsaw) because our destination was somewhere nearby: Lake Baikal. The deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal was the destination in Russia I was looking forward to the most. We had 4 days to spend in the little fishing village of Listvankya, and after two major cities and a long train ride I was ready for some legit R&R.
In the summer, this little village is overwhelmed with tourists but in October it was ghostly quiet. We spent the days walking the village, hiking, and relaxing. It was a terrible place to find vegan food, no question, but it was cozy and the owner of our guesthouse was very kind. Having lost one of MANY card games en route, it was here where Christine paid the iron price and had to jump in the frigid water. For whatever reason I decided to join her...call it pity. The water as numbingly cold, but onlookers cheered us on as we dove in, applauding us as we ran back to the shore, shivering and screaming. It was one of those memorable moments in our adventure that we still joke about to this day.
Another thing we joke about involves a boiled wiener and a hungry pack of stray dogs. But that's another story.
This was our last stop in Russia, and I chose it for two reasons: first, it's the capital of Russian buddhism, and second, there is a giant statue of Lenin's head in the city centre. Just his head. 25Ft tall! How could we miss this place?!?
It was here where I spent my birthday, exploring some monasteries outside of the city as Christine stayed back to surprise me with a homemade vegan pizza AND dessert! After eating mostly bread and plain noodles on the train, actual oven-cooked food was an amazing gift. Our hostel was pretty great, too, and we caught up with some other travellers here. In the busy months, there are backpackers everywhere and you will no doubt run into each other here and there. But in the low season, in late October, it was rare for us to see other travellers so it was a nice chance to socialize.
From here, we left Russia to head into Mongolia, which was perhaps the most unique part of the entire trip.
I was really surprised by Mongolia and wish I had booked more time there. I definitely plan to go back, because there was just so much to do and see, especially if you venture out from the capital of Ulaanbaatar. We hired a driver and left the city for a day to visit the giant Genghis Khan statue in the dessert, explore an old monastery, and meet an oldschool nomad (which didn't go terribly smoothly). It was a wonderful experience and I can't recommend Mongolia enough. Ulaanbaatar was rather polluted and dusty, but the uniqueness of the city far outweighed the negatives. Check it out, for sure!
From there we rode a 1st class car into Beijing, where our trip officially ended. Now, what lessons did we learn from our little adventure? What tipcs can we share? Keep on readin'!
Quick Tips and Lessons Learned
- Choose your time of year, destinations, and durations carefully. Talk to as many people who have been on the trip and try to get a feel for the kind of trip you want. Remember, if you book with an agency you cannot change your plans on the go, so do your research!!
- In Russia, all the trains run on Moscow time. Even when you're neck deep into Siberia, thirty-something timezones away, the trains STILL use Moscow time. Just a little inconvenience to keep you on your toes.
- When you stop at a border you will be unable to leave the train until the customs inspection is complete. We spent 4 hours at the border of Mongolia, where we couldn't leave the train OR go to the bathroom, since the toilets just emptied onto the tracks...yeah. Unfortunately we didn't realize this until it was too late. Lesson learned.
- Border patrol will inspect the train with dogs, and they will come and question you. They will also be armed with machine guns. The documents you need to fill out are almost incomprehensible so just do your best to answer their questions and stay relaxed.
- Bring enough food for each train ride. Sometimes you will be on the train for days, so make sure you have lots to eat and drink. Noodles and tea were common snacks, and we actually brought a loaf of bread and a jar of jam – whatever floats your dietary boat, friends. There is a food car, and the train will stop here and there which will enable youto hop off buy snacks. If you have any dietary restrictions you'll want to pack your own food, so bring some containers! #budgetlyfe
- Make sure to bring things to do during those long rides. Sure, there is lots of beautiful scenery look at but you can only stare out the window for so long. Books, music, and cards are all great options. You can charge your electronics on the train as well (either in your cabin or in the hallway) which means you can bring a phone/tablet/computer. We spiced up our trip with a TON of betting. I lost a card game and had to wax a leg. Christine lost a game and had to swim in Lake Baikal. Get creative, people!
- Learn as much Russian as you can. I learned a bunch of stock phrases, which helped, but even that wasn't always enough. Being able to read some Cyrillic will go a long way because many Russians can't or wont speak english...and let's face it, at some point you'll probably get lost, too!
- Lastly, don't feed stray animals!
The Man in Seat 61: This is the most comprehensive train travel website there is and it has a VERY helpful section on the Trans-Siberian. When planning your trip, make sure to read this first!
Real Russia: This was the company we used to book our tickets. They were super helpful and I definitely recommend them if you are using an agency.
Happy Cow: This article addresses travelling on the Trans-Siberian as a vegan. Helpful to any fellow veg's out there!
Nomadic Matt: A guest post that covers a lot of the details for your trip. Worth a read.