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Trans-Siberian Express

Trans-Siberian Express

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Old Jul 7, 03, 10:53 pm
  #1  
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Trans-Siberian Express

Anybody done it?
I'm starting to think about my RTW a year from now (award trip), and think this would be a cool thing to build into it. I'd want to do Beijing-Moscow, and then perhaps take trains on to visit friends in Poland.

Questions:

1. Have you done it? If so, what would you do or not do if you're doing it again?

2. Is it possible to stop for a night or two en-route, and catch another train a day or two later? If so, what stop(s) are recommended?

3. Who did you book through? I see both very expensive options with tour companies, and have read about people who booked first class on the regular train and did fine for much less.

4. How long did the trip take you?

5. I've got a cousin in Alma-Ata (Almaty), Kazakhstan. Any idea how crazy I would be to attempt Beijing-Alma-Ata-Moscow?

My apologies for cross-posting this in the Asia forum--as the trip covers both, I thought I might reap better responses in both.

Thanks!

JP


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Old Jul 9, 03, 5:42 am
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A woman and daughter did the trip in the winter about 2 years ago, and wrote an excellent story about it. It is well worth reading.

I think it was in the St.Petersburg times, but could have been in the Moscow times.

You can access the story by searching on key words.
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Old Jul 9, 03, 8:15 pm
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by slawecki:
A woman and daughter did the trip in the winter about 2 years ago, and wrote an excellent story about it. It is well worth reading.

I think it was in the St.Petersburg times, but could have been in the Moscow times.

You can access the story by searching on key words.
</font>
Excatly! I do remember the story. It was on www.themoscowtimes.com
As I recall, the woman somewhat enjoyed the trip, but decided to fly back from Beijing?

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Old Jul 15, 03, 5:01 pm
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by j379pa:

1. Have you done it? If so, what would you do or not do if you're doing it again?
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Pieces of it, at various times. I would NOT do the whole thing. You will quickly discover just how boring train travel can be. I love taking the train in Russia, but there are limits. The full route (Beijing-Almaty-Moscow) will take something like ten days, I believe. Around the third day you will begin to lapse into a coma. This is especially true if you cannot speak Russian--at least that way you can chat with your fellow internees, er, passengers. (Note also that there are NO SHOWERS on this train. I was in a compartment in Kazakhstan once with a guy who had been traveling all the way from Kiev to Almaty, via Moscow. He did not smell very fresh.)

<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">
2. Is it possible to stop for a night or two en-route, and catch another train a day or two later? If so, what stop(s) are recommended?
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Yes. Irkutsk is a nice place to stop, so you can take a side trip to see Lake Baikal.

The Trans-Siberian sounds very romantic in its way, but really, you'll get all the romance and avoid the boredom and discomfort by just doing a few overnight sections. One or two nights in Russia and one or two nights in China/Kazakhstan ought to give you all the flavor you need.
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Old Jul 15, 03, 11:03 pm
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Thanks! I heard back from cousin, and he thinks he may be back here during that time (hmmm, housesitter...). So, I'm backing away from the idea for now, but haven't given up completely.

I did an overnight from Moscow to Kursk maybe 8 years ago, and didn't get a lot of sleep because of the frequent stops. I would hope maybe some of these legs have fewer stops.

JP
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Old Jul 16, 03, 5:48 am
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by j379pa:
Thanks! I heard back from cousin, and he thinks he may be back here during that time (hmmm, housesitter...). So, I'm backing away from the idea for now, but haven't given up completely.

I did an overnight from Moscow to Kursk maybe 8 years ago, and didn't get a lot of sleep because of the frequent stops. I would hope maybe some of these legs have fewer stops.

JP
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In that article, the woman stated the train stopped very many times, and moved unbelievebly slow (5-10 mph) over long periods of time.

We did LED-MOW on an overnight. It was a beautiful old train. First class for 2 was under $100. If the train had showers, I would consider spending nights on the train and visiting alternate cities daily on my next trip.

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Old Jul 16, 03, 5:44 pm
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Doesn't Red Arrow train between MOW and LED have showers in SV (First Class) cars? I thought they did
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Old Aug 22, 03, 3:08 am
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I will be doing Hong Kong - Beijing - Moscow by rail this September/October. I may post some experiences somewhere on Flyertalk if there is the demand, though 'Flying' isn't really the point.

East to West seems not to be the preferred route for tourism. With hindsight I would have probably gone the other way. A number of problems with the itinerary would have lessened or been totally eliminated.

I used CTS in London to do most of the bookings, but in keeping with the Flyertalk ethos will be doing some of the hotels and all of the flights with points/miles. Ian Tuton at CTS has been wonderfully patient with my requirements and changes to itineraries. Highly recommended for anyone booking from the UK.

The biggest disappointment so far has been how difficult getting onward rail from Moscow to the UK has been. You can't get the ticket issed in the UK, and you can't get a Belarus transit visa without a photocopy of the ticket. I originally wanted to go 'coast to coast' and cross Asia and Europe by land. Oh well.
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Old Sep 1, 03, 8:39 pm
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by phb:
The biggest disappointment so far has been how difficult getting onward rail from Moscow to the UK has been. You can't get the ticket issed in the UK, and you can't get a Belarus transit visa without a photocopy of the ticket. I originally wanted to go 'coast to coast' and cross Asia and Europe by land. Oh well.</font>
Ive done prague to moscow via belarus in 1994 and Bealrus accepted russian visa's at that time. There is also a train thru the ukraine that avoids Belarus. Seems like a private sleeper car at that time cost $30.
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Old Nov 13, 03, 2:55 am
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by phb:
I will be doing Hong Kong - Beijing - Moscow by rail this September/October. I may post some experiences somewhere on Flyertalk if there is the demand, though 'Flying' isn't really the point.
</font>
So how was it?
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Old Dec 4, 03, 7:21 am
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Well, I've done it now and can't recommend it enough. Beijing to Moscow took six days and was great fun. We took the Mongolian route and didn't regret it for one minute.

Few points to note.

Food on the train was terrible, but you could buy from the station or traders. Don't miss the smoked fish from the stations around lake Baikal.

Pay for 1st class. The shower might be cold, but it is a shower!

Once you get past the East of Siberia it gets a little 'samey' in terms of scenery. Most interesting views are Mongolia, China near Beijing, particularly when you go through the wall, and around Baikal.

Try and get a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. It's better than the Lonely Planet guide, but periodically goes out of print. Ours was the only copy on the train and was much in demand.

The most unexpected pleasure was the Hong Kong to Beijing train trip. This takes about 27 hours and was wonderful. You start in the tropical scenery of southern china and when you wake up it's like a whole different country. You also arrive at what may well be the worlds most spectacular train station (from the outside!). Seriously, if anyone flies this route occasionally, consider taking the train, you meet some amazing people.

I'm (Slowly) writing the trip up from my notes and photos. If anyone wants the result then let me know.

[This message has been edited by phb (edited Dec 04, 2003).]
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Old Dec 12, 03, 4:00 pm
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by phb:
I'm (Slowly) writing the trip up from my notes and photos. If anyone wants the result then let me know.</font>
Please do post that, especially your your Mongolian experience. I've been interested in going through some of these areas for a while, and this seemed like a nice way to do it.

Off to go find the Thomas book (I already have the LP one).
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Old Dec 15, 03, 11:48 am
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">2. Is it possible to stop for a night or two en-route, and catch another train a day or two later? If so, what stop(s) are recommended?
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To make stops en route you have to buy separate tickets like Beijing to Irkuttsk, Ikutsk to X, X to Y, Y to Z, Z to Moscow specifying your dates of travel in advance. The best trains in Russia are "firmenny" trains - they are more comfortable and make fewer stops; they all have names. The problem is, most (if not all) tickets on firmenny trains are sold from their originating point: e.g., almost all passengers on Irkutsk to Moscow firmenny (the Baikal train) will board the train in Irkutsk. So it'll be very difficult (if at all possible) to buy a ticket on that train and board it further on along the route. Now the problem is, most hubs where these firmenny trains start from are huge industrial cities you normally wouldn't want to travel to. One happy exception is Irkutsk which is both an important railway hub and quite a nice city next to Lake Baikal. Apart from that, either you'll be travelling in fast comfortable trains between grim industrial cities or you'll be taking slower and less comfortable trains from one nice little gem of a place to the other. If your travel agent can book you tickets on firmenny trains between inermediate stops, let us know

PS Two of the most pleasant cities in Siberia are not even on the Transsib: Tobolsk has no railway at all and Tomsk is on a secondary branch

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Old Dec 19, 03, 7:09 am
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As requested, this is the bit from Beijing through Mongolia.

---

Beijing main railway station is impressive, but lacks signage in western script. We head for the ‘soft class lounge’ but are turned back. After a while the departures board directs us to the international departures lounge. This turns out to be the soft class lounge, but this time we are allowed in. Onto the famous no.3 train to Moscow.

The train conductors are smartly turned out and stand to attention on the platform at the door to the train (at least when people are watching).

Locating the compartment is no problem, with each carriage numbered. Our compartment is a relic from the seventies, with plastic ‘wood’ panelling and brown fixtures. Two beds (one above the other), an armchair facing rearwards and a small table. Lots of storage space under the lower bed and in a large cubby hole above the door. There is even a small wardrobe. There is a small ‘bathroom’ with a washbasin and a hand held shower (note that to get a decent flow with the shower you need to press the button on the showerhead, something that took me a couple of days to discover). The interlocking of the doors into the shared bathroom is non-intuitive but bears investigation. If you don’t have the compartment that shares the bathroom occupied then you can gain access and spread out. Fortunately this isn’t much of a security problem, as the doors to unoccupied compartments are kept locked. All in all a comfortable place to spend the next six days

[note to all you curious types who have read the horror stories about the trans-siberia toilets. One of the two toilet compartments in our carriage was indeed locked for the exclusive use of the staff. However the other was kept very clean and stocked with paper. In fact our carriage attendants spent some effort guarding it from other (non-1st class) users]

At the end of the carriage is a boiler and hot water system, which you can use to fill the vacuum flask that’s provided for each compartment.

We set out heading west past the Great Wall at Badaling. This has to be one of the greatest sights you can see from a train anywhere in the world. Looking at the number of tourists on this section of the wall we were glad to have made the effort to go to the quieter section at Mutianyu.

At each station, signal box or junction we pass there is a uniformed railway employee standing to attention in a small white painted square. How else do you keep all those people employed?

The conductor brings us a cup of tea and gives us tickets for a free dinner and lunch.

Exploring the rest of the train shows that there is hard sleepers toward the front, then first class, then more hard sleeper, with the dining car at the rear.

For the next 300km the great wall is visible on occasion from the train. It’s interesting to see much of the non-restored wall and guard towers. One of the most impressive sights is distant ridgelines on which are silhouetted guard towers at frequent intervals, must have kept those Mongols in their place.

At km268 (1245hrs) there are some interesting old towers with a sloping side profile (sort of truncated pyramid). We spend a lot of time debating these and come to the conclusion that they may be a relic of one of the first two walls.

Lunch is entirely unmemorable, chicken rice, nuts and celery.

At Datong we make our first foray onto the platform and purchase some bread, which turns out to be a fried cornbread. It goes well with a cup of Jasmin tea from Bob’s magic bag.

Crossing the line of the wall for the last time shortly afterwards we enter Inner Mongolia.

We grab a couple of cold beers from the platform at Jining (Y5 each, expensive but worth it). Train enthusiasts might like to look out for a coal depot about 30 minutes after Jining that has a number of working steam locos, the only ones we see on the entire trip.

We have some interesting travelling companions with us, at least as far as Ulaan Baator. We’re sharing a bathroom with a couple of Norwegians on a fishing expedition for unfeasibly large Mongolian salmon. They show us a photo of their previous expedition and the largest freshwater fish I’ve ever seen.
On the other side are a group from the British Embassy in Beijing escaping to Ulaan Baator for the week to avoid the Chinese holiday period. Everyone seems friendly and gregarious with the exception of a Chinese couple in the end compartment who just lock themselves in. Elsewhere in the train there’s Kevin in hard sleeper, who’s travelling on a budget and seems to be planning to carry on as long as he can. His next destination is Eastern Europe.

1845hrs The attendant hands out customs and emigration forms for the China/Mongolia border. As darkness falls we see a stream of sparks flowing past the windows, an eerie sight. A quick expedition locates the source as a coal/wood burning boiler located in each carriage. One of the carriages toward the front of the train must have a problem with its spark arrestor. At least they have theirs lit. Ours remains stubbornly unattended for much of the trip.

A quick trip to the dining car to check out the available alcohol. Settle on a bottle of
‘Chinese Red Wine’, which shows you what the choice was like. It’s Y20 ($2.50), which turns out to be about Y20 too much. The wine is sweet and rather Dubonnay-like. Bob’s entire tasting note is a rather shocked “oh!”. We offer the remaining wine to the carriage attendants, who have not exactly been friendly up to this point.

Not to be outdone, we open the Bottle of ‘Dragon Seal Red’ that Jin had given us. Much better, but not stellar by any means.

2045hrs Arrive at the border crossing. All the formalities take place in the compartment. The health check is a cursory few questions and the pointing of a thermometer ‘gun’ at each of us. The emigration ‘officer’ takes his time, frowns, crosses his arms, frowns, until a more senior officer turns up. She stamps things immediately. Customs forms are collected. Can we leave now? No, they have to check everyone’s passports again. Can we leave now? No, there’s a customs problem further down the train (apparently the Chinese in the hard sleepers are getting the full treatment with sniffer dogs and panels being removed from the ceilings and walls). Eventually we leave some 90 minutes behind schedule. Now we’ve left China, all we need to do is enter Mongolia!

We arrive on the other side of the border, and go through it all again. We stay on the train for the bogie changing exercise, a sight worth seeing. Immigration is the most severe looking woman I’ve ever seen. A cross between Rosa Klebb and Ghengis Khan in a very military uniform. She must apply her lipstick with a ruler. Trying not to laugh, we respectfully hand over our passports for the stamps and fill out the customs forms for entry. We wait for customs, and we wait, and wait, and fall asleep waiting.

0700. Wake up in Mongolia at a very pretty station, all pastel colours and white detailing. Train is locked and we can’t get out for a look. The customs forms are still on the table in the compartment from the previous night.
Once we pull out from the station the landscape rolls past the windows, featureless scrubby grass to the horizons, sometimes distant hills and mountains. Just the railway, 2 fences and a line of telegraph poles. Occasional horses, camels and yurts, some with their 21st century 4x4 parked outside. Sometimes a glimpse of a horseman in ‘traditional’ costume. Wonderful, this is why we came really.

Wander down for breakfast with no expectations. Unbelievably the shabby Chinese dining car has been changed for a Mongolian car dripping with ornately carved wood and decorated with bows, rifles and musical instruments. Wow.

Y50 buys us breakfast of onion, carrot, omelette, jam and tea. Expensive, but it hits the spot. I manage to offend our vodka drinking acquaintances from the previous night by turning down their invitation to kill another bottle with breakfast. Doesn’t stop the dinning car staff from helping them out though!

Good views of the Gobi as we’re running late. It would have been dark had we been on schedule. We get to Choyr at 1155 local time. For a change it’s not pink, blue and white. We get 15 minutes to stretch our legs and say hi to the local traders, who seem to specialise in hot lamb and potatoes, and fermented mare’s milk. The mare’s milk turns out to have a sharp flavour and an intense cheesy aftertaste. Not unpleasant, but a serious culture shock!

The rolling plains and distant hills seem to go on forever, punctuated only by occasional (abandoned?) military bases and strip mines. The strip mines seem a particularly sad sight in this unspoilt landscape, but what other industry is there? We pass a bizarre sight, in the middle of nowhere and entirely on its own, a 5 storey apartment block. All we can surmise is that it’s military accommodation built to some soviet standard blueprint.

One thing I find incredible is that I can get a perfect cell phone signal here, more than I can manage in the UK!

Approaching Ulaan Baator we pass miles upon miles of Yurts organised into ‘Shanty Towns’. I assume that this is a result of the bad winter of 1999/2000 which killed off much of the country’s livestock. It must be a grim existence if you’re used to the nomadic lifestyle.

The station at Ulaan Baator is busy and there is 20 minutes or so to get out and experience some of the flavour of the place. You could dash out of the station a little way, but we confine ourselves to the platform and the street outside. I buy postcards, huge colourful stamps and a loaf of fresh bread. A really enjoyable stop at a bustling lively station, unbelievably small for the major station of the capital of a country bigger than half of western Europe.

After Ulaan Baator there’s only Kevin in the hard sleeper who could be classed as a tourist. There’s only one other occupied compartment in 1st class. We have a long and frustrating ‘conversation’ with its occupant, an engineer travelling from UB to Ulan Ude. We have no language in common, but have fun trying. We exchange gifts (postcards from home for a calendar in Russian) and stand in the corridor for a couple of hours admiring the scenery.

That night the dining car allows us to chill the bottle of trockenbeerenauslese we had ‘liberated’ from the Concorde Lounge at Heathrow. I have a cheese omelette, Bob has borscht and a schnitzel (which turns out to be a grey looking burger). We drink beer and Russian Demi-sec ‘Champagne’ (surprisingly good after the Chinese red wine experiences) with Kevin.

We watch an awesome Mongolian sunset from the dining car while sipping the Trock, which is everything we had hoped it would be. A memorable evening.

Immigration and customs takes most of the night, but they don’t bother 1st class much. Our Chinese friends (and Kevin) in hard sleepers get the full treatment with the dogs again. Old Grumpy ******* (as I’ve taken to calling our carriage attendant) is forced to unpack his locked compartment full of consumer goods from Beijing. When he loads them back on I could swear that there’s less than he unloaded. I wonder where the rest went?

We wake up in Ulan Ude (there’s only Bob and I in the carriage now) with the Moscow-Vladivostok train on the next platform. Rush to get my camera, but too late. Still, we’re in Siberia now.

One interesting thing is that we haven’t had our customs forms returned to us and dire consequences are predicted by the guide books for those unfortunate not to have them when leaving the country. I wonder what will happen? Bob and I resolve to spend all our currency prior to leaving, they can’t take what we don’t have!


[This message has been edited by phb (edited Dec 19, 2003).]
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Old Feb 4, 04, 11:03 am
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<font face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" size="2">Originally posted by StSebastian:

Off to go find the Thomas book (I already have the LP one).
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I think the Bryn Thomas book is now back in print.
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