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Siberian Railway: How To Put Together The Overlanding Adventure Of A Lifetime

Siberian Railway: How To Put Together The Overlanding Adventure Of A Lifetime

Old Aug 18, 19, 4:22 am
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Trans-Siberian Railway: How To Put Together The Overlanding Adventure Of A Lifetime

If you’re an adventurous traveler then you’ve probably heard about the Trans-Siberian railway: a network of railways with a maximum length of 9,289 kilometers. It runs all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. It is the longest railway in the world, with connecting lines into Mongolia, China and even North Korea.

The Trans-Siberian is the perfect stage for a multi-day (or week) overlanding adventure, where you’ll be sleeping, eating and LIVING on the train. The railway has beautiful stops along the way and offers chance encounters with incredible locals, allowing for a deep dive into Russian culture. Intrigued yet? Then read on to find out exactly how to make this trip happen for yourself – from why this journey should be on your bucket list, to an ABC of train life and practicalities such as booking tickets and (surprisingly affordable) budget.

But first… Who are we, you may ask? We’re Naick & Kim, a Belgian couple (of weirdo’s) who left our jobs to do what we loved most for at least a year – TRAVEL and see the world. We left Belgium on January 4th and visited Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia before starting our biggest journey yet: an epic 12,000 km overland trip from our hometown of Brussels all the way to Beijing, China. We travelled through Eastern Europe to Saint-Petersburg, Russia using only buses, trains and hitchhiking. In Russia we then started our Trans-Siberian odyssey…

So what’s all the fuss about, it’s just a bunch of old Russian trains… Right?

Blasphemy! To Russians, the Trans-Siberian railway is not just a train system, it is a way of life. Historically, most of Russia’s largest cities have flourished precisely because of their proximity to the Trans-Siberian Railway (read: unparalleled connection to the outer world, especially in a time where there weren’t any airplanes yet). Many Russians you’ll meet along the way will tell you that even these days they prefer the train over plane rides because it’s a more relaxed way of travelling (did we mention sleeper berths?), gives them a chance to enjoy spectacular scenery along the way and – last but not least – allows them to spend time with friends and family, or find new ones.

Words can’t do the experience enough justice, so if you’re interested in seeing exactly what it’s like to travel on what is rightfully the most famous railway system in the world, you can check out this video from our YouTube channel. It’s the first leg of our own Trans-Siberian journey, taking a 26-hour overnight journey from Moscow to Yekaterinburg:


Okay okay, where to captain?

The first thing you’ll have to decide when planning your journey is your route. You can choose to travel on the longest stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway, the line between Moscow and Vladivostok which will take you from Russia’s cultural heart all the way to the Pacific coast in the far east. If you do it in one haul, you’ll be on the train for 7 days straight. But half the fun of the Trans-Siberian is in exploring the places you’ll get off along the way – so no need to do it all at once. Take your time – this is the journey of a lifetime and there’s no need to rush it!

Alternatively, you could travel the Trans-Mongolian line which branches off from the previous one in the Russian city of Ulan Ude and then heads south through Mongolia, ultimately leading all the way to Beijing, China. I think this is about 6-7 days on the train if you start from Moscow. So again, plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful (truly stunning) views you’ll have along the way!

Or you could opt for the so-called Trans-Manchurian line, which also runs between Ulan Ude and Beijing but detours slightly in getting there because it does not pass through Mongolia (which is the most efficient route in terms of kilometers).

For an easy visualization of this (including some popular stops along the way), you can head over to this website: https://www.thetranssiberiantravelco...route-options/

How to book tickets: go it alone!

When booking tickets you can choose to either do this yourself via the website of the Russian railways rzd.ru (English version here: Trans-Siberian Railway Russian Railways) or use a tour company. The best tip we can give you: book them yourself! It’s really not that difficult. The English website is pretty decent, not that hard to use and even has a pretty handy app. If you go through an agency, it could end up easily costing you double. Don’t ask me why because they do the exact same work you would otherwise do and send you the tickets, so that looks like a pretty lucrative business.

“Much ruble, very cheap?”

So exactly how much will a trip cost you?

There are a few variables here, including which route you take, time of year to travel, obviously the distance you’ll be doing on your trip, etc., but we found that aside from the aforementioned obvious factors the 2 main differentiators in ticket prices are 1. which train class you’ll be travelling in (there’s a whole bunch to choose from) and 2. whether you’ll be taking old or new trains.

TRAIN CLASSES

In terms of train classes, you can choose between 1st class (private cabin sleeping only 2 people on lower berths), 2nd class (shared 4-people cabin with 2 upper and 2 lower berths), 3rd class (open train carriage sleeping 54 people – yes, it’s essentially a GI-GAN-TIC dorm room on wheels) and 4th class (we’re not sure this is even an official class but legend has it this is similar to 3rd class, except that it’s not 1 person per bed – instead, it’s just as many people sitting on each bed as humanly possible. Yes, even when you’re on an overnight journey…).

As for us, so far we mostly travelled in 2nd class because it’s a good balance between privacy / comfort and price. For a sneak peek into a 2nd class cabin, check out the video of our 56 hour train journey into Siberia (yes, 56 – that’s not a typo. Russia is H-U-G-E):


We also did one shorter ride in 3rd class – while very entertaining, we would not recommend this for longer rides. The carriage will get smelly, noisy and busy. Want to see what 3rd class is like and whether all 54 people in the carriage made it (to our destination, that is)? Then watch this video. One of our favourites of all our videos, actually:


We did one 1st class journey so far and although this is by far the most comfortable option, you won’t meet locals (and/or fellow travelers) nearly as easy as when you’re in 2nd or 3rd class. We definitely made the most of it though, munching on fancy snacks, enjoying WILDLY beautiful scenery and nearly locking ourselves into our fancy cabin (repeatedly):


OLD VS. NEW TRAINS

There are a whole bunch of trains running on the Trans-Siberian railway which have probably been there for longer than I (Kim) have been on this planet – and I’m 31, in case you’re wondering. So, are we recommending taking one of the many newer trains? Heck no! If you want to feel like you have just entered the Hogwarts express in a Harry Potter movie, then take one of the older models for sure! They have (fake?) wooden paneling instead of clean white walls, may not always have power plugs inside your cabin and maybe are ever so slightly more noisy, but they are incredibly charming. ALL the trains we took were old trains and we LOVED them. All of our videos linked above show the older trains – and the “old world Russia” charm they’ll give you for your travels.

Newer trains are, well, newer… And generally much more expensive! When comparing the same class on newer vs. older trains, the newer ones sometimes can cost up to double (or more) of the older ones! I imagine they’re more modern and fancy, so it just depends on what you’re looking for, I guess.

How to tell if you’re booking an old or new train? Look at the train number while making the reservation, generally the new ones have the lowest train numbers e.g. n 001, 002, 003. The older ones will have much higher numbers e.g. n 845 – you get the gist of it: the older the train, the higher the number!

I WANT NUMBERS, DAMMIT!!

Ok ok, I was working up to that. Here’s the price for each of the legs which we completed on the Trans-Siberian so far (all older trains, as mentioned above):

- Moscow to Yekaterinburg (26 hours, 1 night on train) in 2nd class: 68 EUR per person

- Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk (56 hours, 2 nights on train) in 2nd class: 115 EUR per person

- Irkutsk to Ulan Ude (7 hours, day train) in 3rd class: 24 EUR per person

- Ulan Ude to Ulanbataar (17 hours, 1 night on train) in 1st class: 123 EUR per person

- Total Moscow to Ulanbataar: 330 EUR per person

Generally, you can expect to spend 1,5x or 2x these prices for the same journey in the same class on a newer train (though there may be exceptions).

The section we have coming up from Ulanbataar to Beijing, China is more expensive than the previous legs though, especially the portion after the border crossing into China. It is A LOT cheaper to step off the train at the last city before the border, then cross by minibus into China and take a sleeper bus to Beijing. Still looking into this option ourselves, but just putting it out there for anyone currently planning the journey.

A must for any good trip: food & other supplies (plus, more food…)

You’ll get hungry on the train. There is a restaurant cart, but the train food is… let’s say not so good and not cheap either. The provodnitsa, i.e. your carriage attendant (think flight attendant on a train), sells some basic snacks on the train (instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, instant coffee, cookies – those are not instant, thankfully) but you’ll probably want to bring some supplies yourself. The reason instant food is so popular on the Trans-Siberian railway is because every carriage has a samovar (free hot water dispenser). So bring some sandwiches or instant noodles to keep yourself fed. You can also get off at one of the stops along the way where there will usually be a small shop selling snacks (or, sometimes, full meals) on the platform.

Food aside, just bring everything you think you’ll need for a good night’s rest. Ear plugs could be a good idea if you’re staying in 2nd class – you’ll probably want to double up on the ear plugs for 3rd class!! Bedding / linens will be handed to you by your provodnitsa shortly after boarding the train. All classes except 1st class make their own beds (and then give the linens back to the provodnitsa before disembarking).

Especially on multi-day train journeys, make sure to bring a book, sudoku, etc. to keep you occupied.

Best stops along the way

If you’re covering long distances on the Trans-Siberian and your sanity matters to you, you’re going to want to break up your journey into several legs. As much as we loved those train rides (and for us they’ve been a highlight of our 8 month trip so far), spending say 1 or 2 days confined in a small space, possibly with roommates, is about the most we could do in one stretch (and as we said before, Moscow-Vladivostok is 7 days straight on the train if you do it in one haul).

Thankfully there are plenty of incredible places to visit dotted all over the Trans-Siberian railway where you can stop for a few days if you’d like. Starting in Moscow, we stepped off in:

- Yekaterinburg, a modern Russian city that surprised us with its beautiful, lush parks – and complete lack of tourist crowds!


- Irkutsk, the heart of Siberia and a 1-hour ride from the beautiful, massive Lake Baikal


- Ulan Ude, a Russian town that’s a lot more Asian than the rest of Russia we visited



- Ulanbaatar, where we currently are. We’ll be spending 1 month in Mongolia before finally making our way to Beijing, China.

If you want to get a feel for these places, you can check out the videos linked above and we also recommend this article from The Culture Trip on the 10 most beautiful stops along the Trans-Siberian railway for planning your own journey: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/ru...erian-railway/

Final thoughts…

Ow, you’re still reading on? Cool, thank you! A quick word about visas. Russia isn’t exactly the most lenient of countries when it comes to visa requirements. Depending on your nationality, you’ll likely have to apply for a Russian visa in advance – and that is no picnic. You’ll need a whole bunch of papers, including an invitation letter from a Russian travel agency (which pretty much any agency can get to you in less than a day for a small fee, regardless of whether you travel with them or not). Make sure to start this process well in advance.

What’s next for us?

Mongolia, baby!! It’s sometimes called the “Big Nothing” because it is considered to be the most sparsely populated sovereign country on earth. Mongolia is the 19th largest country by area at 1.566 million square kilometers, but there are only 3 million residents living here, half of whom live in the capital of Ulaanbataar (humans, at least – there are waaaay more animals. We strongly suspect goats are secretly running this country because they are everywhere).

If you’re curious to see what Mongolia is like, you can check out our video on the infamous Gobi desert here. Sleeping in a traditional ger (Mongolian nomadic tent) under the most beautiful starred sky we have ever seen, enjoying views of a desert canyon from atop the infamous flaming cliffs (dino eggs, anyone?):


After Mongolia, we’ll then head into China towards Beijing and after some time in this massive country, we’ll be exploring a few other places in South East Asia too.

Thanks for reading, hope you found it useful! If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask away – we’d love to help!! And if you’re interested in following the rest of our journey, we’d love to have you join the trip on our YouTube channel.

Have a great weekend,

Naick & Kim

Last edited by KimDDD; Aug 18, 19 at 4:46 am Reason: Typo in title
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Old Aug 18, 19, 8:57 am
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That looks like an amazing trip - it’s on my ‘one day’ list!
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Old Aug 18, 19, 11:04 am
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You should definitely do this, it's such a unique trip. It really sparked our love for train travel!
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Old Aug 18, 19, 2:35 pm
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Thank you!

The section between Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok (the most fascinating part of the Trans-Siberian Railway) is missing in the report.

Tickets from Russian points to China (either via Ulan Bator or Harbin) can be booked on pass.rzd.ru, as well - without any surcharge. However, you need to pick up the paper ticket at a ticket counter in Russia.

Last edited by warakorn; Aug 19, 19 at 3:00 am
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Old Aug 19, 19, 5:45 am
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Thanks for posting such a comprehensive report.

Third class doesn't look too terrible for overnight trips. It looks like sleepers in Malaysia and Thailand. To meet that style is preferable to Indian-style 3rd class sleeper where it's a small compartment with 3 people on each side.
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Old Aug 19, 19, 6:16 am
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I did this back in 2007, over the course of a month, going through Ulan Bator and into Beijing.

Was absolutely brilliant, and this report brings back some very fond memories
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Old Aug 21, 19, 8:30 pm
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Heading out to Beijing this weekend to do this exact thing.
Trans Mongolian Railroad backwords. Beijing - Ulan (5 days) - Irtuksk (3 days) - Moscow and then 2 more weeks goofing around the eastern bloc countries.

Stoked, fly to Beijing Sunday.
Maybe we’ll cross paths in UB
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Old Aug 29, 19, 12:35 am
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This is a fantastic Train Report. It's an often overlooked form of travel.

Incidentally what kind of washroom facilities are available on the train?
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Old Aug 29, 19, 2:29 pm
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Always wanted to go this! Thanks for so much detail and info!
Maybe one day ...
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Old Aug 30, 19, 3:59 pm
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They have a few luxury trains that do the same route. The Zangold is I think the most luxurious. But it's $20,000!!!!!
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Old Aug 31, 19, 7:17 am
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Originally Posted by Bretteee View Post
But it's $20,000!!!!!
Well, don't think 20000 for a train is that much. But I don't really have the place to store it.
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Old Aug 31, 19, 3:28 pm
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Thanks for the great TR, hope to do this one day although I have yet to sort out a route etc. Great to see all the useful links in there and I think I will keep coming back to this TR for reference for some time to come.
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Old Sep 3, 19, 9:44 am
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There's a toilet space in each carriage (2 in every 3rd class carriage), with a small sink and that is pretty much it. We heard (but were unable to confirm) that if you pay a few thousand rubels you can also have a (hot?) shower on the train. But I'm not sure if every train has it and we didn't hear or see anyone taking it... Wet wipes are the way to go on these trains
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Old Sep 8, 19, 5:42 am
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You two are adorable & hilarious and the videos are well-produced. Thank you for taking us along with you!
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Old Sep 10, 19, 5:35 pm
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I took the Trans Siberian from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia in 1997 before the era of digital photos! Every once in awhile I dig out the old photo album and have a look and reminisce about the journey. We did the whole trip in one go, (not stopping and staying in any place along the way) I was amazed at how fast the train ride went , 6 days on a train, I was with a bunch of friends and we were never bored! As much as I love airplanes, train travel is a nice, relaxing way to see a country!

Thanks for the trip report! I will be re-reading this for awhile!
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