The Trans-Siberian Railway deserves a spot on every traveler’s bucket list. A massive 5,752-mile length of rail stretching the entire width of Russia — from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the far (very far!) east —it’s the key to a myriad of sights and experiences you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.
With a trip of this magnitude, there has to be some planning and research involved. While this guide is in no way exhaustive, it will give you a good idea of what to expect and tips for ensuring a safe and exciting ride along one of the longest railways in the world.
Choose Your Route
The first step is choosing which Trans-Siberian route you want to take.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is actually just a part of the Russian railway system, and to travel the length of the country, there are three major trips you can choose from. It all depends on what you are looking to see and how far you want to go.
The Trans-Siberian: the traditional route that most people imagine, this train stays in Russia and goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. You will likely need to buy a ticket into Moscow and out of Vladivostok before you get your visa.
The Trans-Mongolian: this trip branches off in eastern Russia and heads south through Mongolia and into China before ending in Beijing. You will need to secure a Russian and Chinese visa with travel-specific dates, which requires a bit more planning, but is totally worth it. You’ll want to check with your country consulate to see if you need a Mongolian visa, as well.
The Trans-Manchurian: this train passes through Mongolia before turning south through northeast China (Manchuria) before arriving in Beijing. Again, you’ll need both a Russian and Chinese visa.
All of these journeys are different and may require different paperwork. For convenience’s sake, however, all of the routes in this article will be referred to as the Trans-Siberian.
Buy Your Ticket
You have three options for ticketing. First, you can buy one-way ticket. This is a straight shot, and only good if you want to do the entire stretch without stopping (which we highly discourage). With a one-way ticket, you can leave the train at the station, but you can’t venture out into any cities.
Second, you can research cities and the timetable, choose the cities you want to stop in, and buy your tickets in advance. RealRussia.co.uk has an excellent trip planner and their customer service is excellent. This option is good for people who want to explore, but like to have a schedule.
Lastly, you start in Moscow or Saint Petersburg (our favorite) and buy your ticket at the station as you go. This is the most liberating option, but also the most risky as the trains actually do fill up, so you may not be able to leave on the day you want to. This can also cause problems if you don’t reach your exit point before your visa expires. You’ll also likely need to know at least a small amount of Russian to get around.
Learn the Russian Alphabet
I know. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, right.” Honestly, it’s pretty easy and necessary, as many streets, train stations and restaurants outside the big cities don’t offer English translations. Good English speakers in general are scarce.
Learning the alphabet doesn’t require any real working knowledge of the Russian language — you just need to know how to pronounce the sounds. Remember: even if you butcher the language, the most important thing is to be understood! Check out this site for a quick tutorial, and this one for a more in-depth look.
While the Trans-Siberian is an exciting adventure, it is also a long train ride and there will be hour long stretches when you’ll be sitting on your bunk bed watching the endless expanse of birch trees in the Taiga fog slide by your window. And let me tell you: once you’ve seen a few thousand birch trees, you’ve seen them all.
Bring some books. If you have an e-reader, stock up before you leave. If you’re a writer, artist, or knitting fiend, bring your supplies with you (or it may be the perfect time to take up a new craft). Whether you are traveling with friends or alone, bring a deck of cards: you never know who you’ll meet over a friendly game.
Be cautious of relying on electronics for the entire trip. Most carriages have chargers in the hallways, but they don’t always work. Also, since they are open areas, you’ll want to monitor your devices carefully.
While each train has a dining car, it doesn’t serve food all the time, and unless your Russian is really good or you have some help, it may be hard discerning when it’s actually open. There is also a ticket option that includes meals, but, again, it’s hard to figure out what time you’ll actually be served. Before you leave, stock up on snacks like fruits, sausage, cheese, and bread. Water is an absolute must, as the water on the train is undrinkable. There is, however, a samovar in every carriage you can use for hot water, and the carriage attendant will provide you with a mug for coffee or tea if you ask.
It’s also never a bad idea to bring along a spirit of your choice — maybe something unique from your country. A little liquid courage may help loosen any tensions in your sleeping berth, and, if not, it can always help you sleep!