|COVID-19 information: Trains going into China and Mongolia have been suspended until further notice, and travel to Russia has become very difficult due to the sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, domestic trains continue to operate although service may be reduced or cancelled. Check with Russian Railways for updates.|
|(Information last updated 16 Jul 2022)|
The Trans-Siberian Railway (Russian: Транссиби́рская магистраль Transsibírskaya magistral' or Трансси́б Transsíb) is the name given to the rail routes that traverse Siberia from Moscow. Routes not trains, note; there's no such thing as the "Trans-Siberian Express". There are three principal routes, with multiple train services along them:
- The Trans-Siberian proper crosses the enormous breadth of Russia, from Moscow via Perm, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Chita and Khabarovsk to the Pacific Ocean at Vladivostok.
- The Trans-Mongolian follows the same route from Moscow as far as Ulan Ude, then branches south via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to Beijing in China.
- The Trans-Manchurian follows that route further, past Ulan Ude to Chita, before crossing Chinese Manchuria to Beijing.
These routes are served by direct end-to-end trains, with those to Vladivostok at least daily and those to China once or twice a week. Several trains ply shorter sections, so you may not need to stay overnight to continue in the same direction. Like a meandering river the Trans-sib has changed its course over time so there are various parallel routes. Across European Russia the classic route is via Nizhny-Novgorod but other lines loop north via Yaroslavl or south via Kazan. The Trans-sib used to run via Petropavl but that is now in independent Kazakhstan: the route has therefore been diverted north but trains to Nur-Sultan still go the old way. The "BAM" or Baikal-Amur Mainline is a northern parallel line that eventually reaches the Pacific at Vanino / Sovetskaya Gavan; there is talk of extending it to Sakhalin island or even Japan. These are interesting side trips but not considered here as part of the Trans-Siberian.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, built 1891–1916, is the longest railway in the world. The longest train service in the world is from Moscow to Pyongyang along the Trans-Siberian route to Ussuriysk near Vladivostok, where it branches south into North Korea. This runs as a through-train twice monthly. The longest train itinerary, in essence greatly extending the Trans-Siberian with changes in trains but without leaving the rail network, is Portugal to Singapore.
- See also: Rail travel in Russia
A ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the few true adventures remaining.
The route from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station to Vladivostok spans two continents, 16 major rivers, six federal states and almost a hundred cities. Even today the bridges across the Amur, Yenisei and Ob are unique – they are the largest river bridges on the Asian continent. In total there are 485 bridges. It is the backbone of the Russian rail network and the connection between the Asian and European railway networks. It's the most travelled railway in the world, and much of Russia's oil is transported along it.
While the population is largely ethnically Russian along the whole route, more and more of various Asian ethnic groups will be seen as you approach the Pacific coast.
The people you most likely will learn to know are your fellow passengers. Especially those who travel alone will very likely get to meet locals in the compartment. It's a fantastic opportunity to get to know Russians, especially if you know the language a bit. Remember that most people do not speak a word of English, so bring a Russian phrasebook. An automatic translator in a smartphone or tablet may become an indispensable tool for understanding the locals.
- See also: Russian Empire, Soviet Union
Travel in Siberia before the railway was a desperate affair. Early routes, trade and settlement were north-south, using the great rivers to sail in from the Arctic during the brief summer. Attempts were made to build an east-west highway from the 16th & 17th Century, but early road-building was no match for the harsh climate and logistic problems. Meanwhile the great natural resources of Siberia remained untapped, and economically the east was looking to China not Russia, so the tsars then the Soviets persisted. But not until 2015 did Russia have a fully-paved, all-weather highway coast to coast. And even now that the highway is open, freight and people are moved via the railroad much more than via road – especially over the vast distances that are often necessary to get from anywhere to anywhere in Siberia.
A railway was a better prospect for shifting heavy freight, and construction of the Trans-sib railway began in May 1891 from both west and east. The first decade was a story of muddy heroism, with over 7000 km of railway built – no other railway has been built so fast. This despite all the hills, moors and swamps, despite the iron-hard frozen ground, impenetrable taiga and great rivers to be crossed, all with 19th Century equipment and know-how – and in a country often viewed as hopelessly backwards by contemporaries. There were up to 60,000 workers building the railway and many lives were lost. The whole 9288 km railway was completed in 1916, with electrification completed in 2002. It changed the face of Russia, which now became an Asian as much as a European nation. Siberia and Far Eastern Russia saw an economic boom, and a massive migration to these regions – not always voluntary. Towns along the railway, such as Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk, grew to large industrial cities. Equally, other places withered: Tomsk was intended to be on the Trans-sib but improved engineering allowed a shorter route via Novosibirsk, so instead it became a dumping-place for dissidents, a back-water, and its old town is better preserved as a result. To give just one example of the importance even contemporaries put on the railway, the French newspaper "La France" wrote upon completion: "After the discovery of America and the construction of the Suez canal, history knows no other event that had such massive direct and indirect consequences than the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway."
Types of trains
There are four different types of long distance trains. Firmennye (Фирменный) and skory (Скорый) are fast trains, the former offering a higher level of comfort. Passazhirskiy (Пассажирский) are slower and less comfortable, whereas pochtovo-bagazhniy (Почтово-багажный) are super-slow and primarily designed for post delivery. A higher train number means a lower train category and less service on the train. The train category is written out in the schedule. There are also local trains (Often called "Elektrichka" due to being the first electric trains in common use in Russia), but they do not cover the entirety of the line (often connecting a city and its suburbs along the line) and traveling along those would make the whole thing even more of an adventure – akin to trying to cover all of Europe on commuter rail and local buses.
The longer the section is, the fewer train alternatives you will have to pick from. Direct trains between Moscow and Beijing depart twice weekly (one train via Ulaanbataar and another via Harbin). Between Moscow and St. Petersburg there are more than 20 daily trains.
On long distance trains there are one or two attendants per car. They are responsible for cleaning the samovars and checking the tickets.
Independently or with a tour group?
Travelling independently is straightforward provided you are well-organised, and can plan and book all your stop-overs, accommodation and journey legs in advance. You will need to do this in any case to get your Russian visa, if your itinerary involves multiple entries into Russia. Then, like a spacecraft coasting between planets, you will almost weightlessly progress from train to hotel to train to hotel. Try to improvise it as you go along and it will be adventure verging on quagmire. You may get away with winging it along the Moscow – Saint Petersburg axis and in the CIS countries. However, Trans-Siberian distances and journey times are vast, and finding accommodation and booking train tickets locally will require at least a basic knowledge of Russian.
If you travel on an organised tour, all these problems disappear. You simply need to pay and show up at the right time. A group trip on the Trans-Siberian is about 30% more expensive compared to a DIY trip. It also means that you are bound to the schedule of the group and that your interaction with locals will likely be limited to greeting the waiter in the dining car.
Climate and equipment
Keep the luggage as small as possible and avoid bringing any valuables. What you should pack depends on the time of the year; in the summer the temperature can rise to over 30°C in Siberia and China. In winter it will be under -30°C in much of Russia and Mongolia. In the spring or fall just a couple of T-shirts, a sweater and a light jacket should suffice. If needed, clothes can be purchased cheaply at markets along the road. In the train, your clothing should be comfortable (e.g. sports clothes) and flip-flops. It's also recommended to bring enough stuff to read.
Suggested packing list
Packing the following items is recommended for any lengthy journey on the Trans-Siberian railway:
- Pocket knife For slicing up bread and vegetables you can buy from the sellers at major stops
- Cutlery Instant noodles, or its Russian version – instant potatoes, become essential snacks for most travellers, since each carriage is equipped with boiling water from the Samovar, unfortunately they often come without the usual plastic fork or spoon.
- Mess tins or large stainless steel mug with cover. Useful for preparing noodles or tea, and brushing teeth.
- Perfumed wet tissues/baby wipes/wet wipes These little things can do wonders for your personal hygiene.
- Head lamp On these long journeys (through 8 time zones), it often turns out that Einstein indeed was right – time does become relative. So bring a headlamp for reading when others want to slumber.
- Flip-flops or other slip-on footwear, for your days on the train
- Deck of cards or other easily explained games are great for socializing with your fellow travellers, and making the long hours spent on the train immensely more enjoyable. Bring a deck of 5 Crowns for this is a favourite in Russia. If you are a chess player, by all means bring a little chess set – the game is very popular in Russia.
- Pictures of your home, country and family and a phrasebook with a conversation section can work surprisingly well, since you'll have nothing but time to overcome the language gap. Many Russians tend to be curious about foreigners once the initial suspicion dies down, since they don't normally meet many – even these days. Recommended: make a list of vocabulary and study it in the train!
- Electronic device charger and external battery – many trains are not equipped with electric sockets.
Jewellery is best left at home. If you're bringing a cell phone, tablet or laptop they should of course be kept out of sight as much as possible. One thing that you should bring along is a camera with enough storage space. In all larger cities there are Internet cafés where you can upload your pictures or burn them to a disc. Also bring additional batteries or chargers, as charging your gadgets on board will not be easy (although possible).
The three termini of the Trans-Siberian are Moscow, Beijing and Vladivostok. There's also a bi-monthly connection from Moscow to Pyongyang, but it is generally not possible for foreigners to use this.
Moscow can be reached by train from many European destinations. Fares from London (one-way) start at around GBP200 and German Railways is a useful resource. You are likely to need a transit visa for Belarus on this route, unless you travel through Ukraine, make a detour from Warsaw up to Riga (multiple buses, need a few days) or from Germany via Helsinki (by train or ferry, comparatively expensive). Coming in the northern way makes it possible to include a visit to Saint Petersburg – accessible by train, bus or ferry from Finland and Estonia.
Eurolines is an European coach company, with routes from many cities. Fares from London start from around GBP60.
Aeroflot is the principal airline operating into and out of Moscow, in addition almost all European (and some Asian and North American) flag carriers and some budget airlines fly to Moscow.
Which Moscow station? First and foremost, your train departs from the station stated on your ticket, so check! But normally, trains along the classic Trans-Siberian route via Kirov depart from Moscow Yaroslavskaya Station. But several trains to the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East depart from Moscow Kazanskaya Station; it's adjacent to Yaroslavskaya Station and to Leningradskaya Station in the NE of the city, and the Metro stop for all three terminals is Komsomolskaya. Some other eastbound trains (mostly, those to Nizhny Novgorod) depart from Moscow Kurskaya, 1 km further south, and the Metro stop is Kurskaya.
Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital at the time when the Transsib was built, can be reached by train from Finland and Baltic countries. From there, you can either go to Moscow or take the northern Trans-Siberian route, circumventing Moscow, via Vologda and Yekaterinburg, where you will likely need to change the train to go further to Vladivostok or Beijing.
There are direct plane connections to Moscow and St Petersburg from many European airports.
DBS Ferry runs throughout the year to Vladivostok from Sakaiminato, Japan via Donghae, South Korea. By air, Aeroflot serves Vladivostok, among others.
Beijing can be reached by train from as far as Lhasa (Tibet) daily service, or Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), twice weekly service, or Hong Kong, alternate dates. Beyond Vietnam the rail connection breaks and there are no train routes from Thailand, Myanmar or India – though bus is often an option. There are plenty of international flights to Beijing and reasonably many to other eastern termini. For instance Air Asia offers budget options into China, Siberian Airlines S7[dead link] offer flight connections into Russia, while MIAT Mongolian Airlines operate to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Hong Kong in season.
More detailed visa information in the Russia, Mongolia and China articles
Most travellers will need visas for all three countries.
China and Mongolia are fairly straightforward. The best way to obtain a visa is through your own embassy or consulate or in Hong Kong. Visas for British citizens cost GBP30. However, Mongolian visas can easily be obtained from the Mongolian consulate in Irkutsk (Russia), and Chinese visas in Ulaanbaatar (For the moment it is not recommended to apply for Chinese visas in Mongolia, due to tightened regulations.) Citizens of the United States (90 days), Canada, Israel (30 days) and a couple of European and Asian countries can enter Mongolia visa free. To travel to China almost everyone needs a visa – the exceptions are citizens of Japan and a few small countries; see China#Visas.
Russia is more problematic. Invitations are generally required for issuing a visa. Practice shows you can get it from online services like Realrussia or VisaHQ. If you are buying your train tickets through a travel agency at home, they can almost certainly handle your visa application if they specialize in travels to Russia. A tourist visa gives you up to 30 days in the country. A business visa is a choice for people who want to spend up to 90 days, however, you might need to use travel agency in your country to arrange it.
Every foreign tourist has to get registration for stays in one place of more than 7 working days (9 days if weekend is included). Hotels provide it for free most of the time, some hostels will do it for an extra charge. Apparently any Russian can register you at his/her place by going to the post office and paying a small fee. If you stay in one place for less than 7 working days, you are not required to register. Train tickets and hotel receipts are a good proof that you did not overstay. In any case, it is strongly advised to keep tickets and receipts until you leave the country.
However, Russian transit visas issued in Beijing or Harbin last 10 days and require no invitation. This would be enough time to make the trip with no stops along the way and spend a couple of days in Moscow. The Beijing consulate is open from 09:00 to 11:00 but remember that many Chinese nationals are also trying to acquire visas with you, so show up early. The cost varies for each nationality, but Americans can expect to pay US$250 for same-day service or $150 for the five-day service. Upon arrival in Moscow you have four nights valid on your transit visa, which allows for one or two nights in Moscow, an overnight train and one or two nights in Saint Petersburg, but you must be across the border before midnight on the final day of your visa.
There are many ways to exit from Russia via Saint Petersburg, including buses and trains to Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Kyiv and various other places in Europe, but be wary that nearly all nationalities need a transit visa (or tourist visa) for Belarus (see here if unsure) so be sure to be prepared with a visa if your plans take you through Belarus.
|Note: Do you need a Belarus transit visa? Until July 2020, Western passport holders needed a Belarus transit visa to cross that country overland to reach Russia. It’s been announced that this no longer applies: your Russian visa suffices to get you across Belarus. But to date this is not confirmed on embassy websites, so vital detail is missing. First and foremost, is it true? – and official so you can print it out to wave as proof? What transit period is allowed? What entry and exit points are permitted? Is it the same rules on return from Russia? Do all classes of Russian visa count? – and so on. In the absence of confirmation, you’ll need to phone the embassy, or speak to your visa support agency. Good luck with that, because they’re probably all as much in the dark as you are.
A Russian transit visa cannot be extended under any circumstances. If you arrive from Beijing, you can register your visa after arriving in Moscow. If you have a 10-day Transit Visa and do not stay in one place (go to Saint Petersburg) you do not have to register your visa.
Citizens of Israel, South Korea, certain Latin American countries, the CIS member states and a handful of other countries do not need Russian visas.
See also Russia#Get around
The Russian train system is different from European systems. The train tickets are bought for fixed dates and all stops must be planned in advance. If you, for instance, have a ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok and step off the train in Irkutsk without your ticket stating you will be taking another train from there and the train leaves without you, you will be stuck in Irkutsk as tickets will not be valid on any later train. It’s somewhat similar to a plane going from New York to Moscow with a connection in Amsterdam – if you decide to go out in Amsterdam and miss your flight you can’t use your ticket for a next flight to Moscow. In general, trains stop for several hours at international borders, tens of minutes in large cities (for slower trains, in some cases more than an hour) and a few minutes at small stops. Therefore, you will be able to do some shopping at the platform and sometimes even take a look inside the station building, but in order to actually going sightseeing in the city, you'll need to continue your journey with a later train.
The rules state that a passenger is allowed to make one stop on his journey (for no additional charge), but this requires a little paperwork while on the train and will be difficult to arrange with the attendant without good knowledge of Russian.
There are four ways of buying tickets for the trip. You can purchase them from a travel agent (or online) in your own country, a travel agent in the country from which you will start the journey, turn up and buy tickets yourself at a station in Russia, or buy tickets online through the Russian railways website (see below). The first two options are the safest but the most expensive, the last two are cheapest but require some time and effort from your side. Popular trains can be sold out well in advance, particularly in peak season, so try to book early. Early means 45 days before the departure of the train. This is the earliest date when tickets are sold to individuals. Travel agencies can promise you tickets at a much earlier date.
It is possible to buy the tickets at any Russian station, not necessarily one on the route of the train. Be ready to queue up for some hours and do not expect any language except Russian at the counter. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and even the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania have a common ticketing network, so it is possible to buy a ticket for a Russian train in all those countries (e.g. Brest). The price will be roughly the same, unless you go to a travel agency. Small differences depend on whether bedding (~100 руб) and insurance (150-200 руб) are included. If the bedding is not included in your ticket, you will have to pay same price to the train attendant (but, naturally, this is not required for short trips during the day). The insurance is something that you don't really need, so just say bez strakhovkee (без страховки, without the insurance). When buying online, insurance is typically not included.
At some stations, there are still special windows for selling tickets only for foreigners, but the price of tickets should now be the same for foreigners and local people.
Tickets are always individual, with name and passport number written on them, so you will have to show passports for all travellers when you pay (a passport photocopy is usually enough) and when you enter the train (original document should be presented). Check this carefully. One wrong digit in your passport number printed on the ticket will most likely prevent you from boarding the train. Also, if you plan to buy tickets on more than one occasion, it may be useful to keep handy a piece of paper with the travellers names written in the Cyrillic alphabet instead of transcribing them each time. Also, pay attention to the train number – at big busy stations this will help you to the right platform & train, as there may be multiple departures around the same time, with no indication of the intermediate stations served.
In Beijing, international train tickets can be bought from China International Travel Service (CITS), which has two offices; one in the International Hotel on Jianguomen and one in the lobby of the Beijing Tourism Building, behind the New Otani Hotel. They must be bought in person.
Tickets can be purchased online. Most routes support "electronic registration" – a printout of your booking confirmation is sufficient, but it is safer and advisable to have your tickets printed out in an official manner. You can do this in any cash desk or in one of the special ticket machines, which are now installed on bigger train stations. Always print your ticket at least an hour before departure, because ticket machines are often jammed or out of paper, while cash desks are notorious for very long queues. Hand over your passport and order confirmation (or just the order number). The cashier will issue you a paper ticket for no additional fee. They can print all your tickets at the same time.
Buying tickets at the official Russian Railways website is quite difficult but a bit cheaper than at the stations because there will be no processing fee. You can also select the car and your seat/place, and explore all options. However, not all foreign credit cards are accepted. You can buy domestic tickets up to 45 days before departure, international tickets 60 days before departure. International tickets are usually more expensive than domestic ones, so it is advisable to make a stopover shortly before border crossing and travel with domestic tickets as far as possible.
Ticket offices in Russia
- Russian Railways, ☏ +7 495 266-8300 (International Ticket Office only in Russian). Website sell tickets online (in English)
- Transsib Reisen, ☏ +7 90959 1010-1. sell tickets at cost. They have been located in Saint Petersburg since 1991 and they speak English, German and French as well. Their website, however, is solely written in German but shows an integrated Google translator.
- RusTrains.com, ☏ +7-812-645-08-98, email@example.com. Convenient online ticket office. Working in Moscow since 2014, have website in English, Spanish and other European languages as well. Provide efficient customer support
Station numbers are used internally in the Russian railway computer system, but they are usually printed on the tickets as well. Knowing them may help when making the reservation in smaller stations (you could bring this page and use it for pointing), or when buying the tickets abroad.
At the ticket counter
Stations are listed in order from west to east
- 5100136 Warsaw/Poland – Central Station (Warszawa Centralna)
- 2100035 Brest/Belarus (Брест)
- 1000001 Helsinki/Finland (Хельсинки)
- 3100022 Ulaanbaatar/Mongolia (Улан-Батор)
- 3300100 Beijing/China (Пекин, 北京)
- 3300200 Harbin/China (Харбин, 哈尔滨)
List of major stations listed in order from west to east
- 2058000 Kaliningrad (Калининград)
- 2004000 St Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург)
- 2004001 St Petersburg – Glavnyi Station (Санкт-Петербург (Главный вокзал))
- 2004004 St Petersburg – Finliandskii Station (Санкт-Петербург (Финляндский вокзал))
- 2000000 Moscow (Москва)
- 2000002 Moscow – Yaroslavskij Station (Москва (Ярославский Вокзал))
- 2000003 Moscow – Kazanskij Station (Москва (Казанский Вокзал))
- 2000006 Moscow – Bieloruskij Station (Москва (Белорусский Вокзал))
- 2060001 Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород) – often listed with the former name of the city, Gorki (Горький)
- 2060500 Kazan (Казань)
- 2030000 Ekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг) – often listed with the former name of the city, Sverdlovsk (Свердловск)
- 2044001 Novosibirsk (Новосибирск)
- 2028170 Tomsk (Томск)
- 2038001 Krasnoyarsk (Красноярск)
- 2054052 Severobaikalsk (Северобайкальск)
- 2054001 Irkutsk (Иркутск)
- 2054785 Ulan Ude (Улан-Удэ)
- 2034001 Khabarovsk (Хабаровск)
- 2034130 Vladivostok (Владивосток)
Since January 2016 a new 'dynamic pricing' system has been in force in Russia. You can easily pay 70000 руб or more to get from Moscow to Vladivostok. Fares vary widely. The prices change with the quality of the trains. Low-numbered trains (001, 008, etc.) are more expensive and more comfortable. You are more likely to find yourself in an air-conditioned car with clean toilet ("biotoilet" meaning that it does not splash crap on the tracks and, therefore, remains open during the whole journey). High-numbered trains (133, 139, etc.) are less expensive and less comfortable. Expect older cars without air conditioning and with old-style toilets, which are locked when train is on the station and sometimes even 15–20min prior to that. However, Russian Railways do not guarantee any particular type of train car for your journey. Even expensive trains may get older, less comfortable cars.
Rough ideas would be:
- St Petersburg–Moscow overnight service about €80 (2nd class, one way), depending on dynamic pricing, train quality and date, and €85 for express Sapsan service, (standard class seat).
- Moscow–Ekaterinburg about €120 (2nd class, one way), for standard passenger service, standard season, or €180 for branded faster service.
- Ekaterinburg–Krasnoyarsk about €160-220 (2nd class, one way).
- Krasnoyarsk–Irkutsk about €95-125 (2nd class, one way).
- Irkutsk–Vladivostok about €225-275 (2nd class, one way).
In 2019, the price for a reserved seat (3rd class, "platzkart") was around 14000 руб, a compartment (2nd class, "kupe") 28000 руб and a luxury bed (1st class, "SV") 49000 руб for a one-way ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok (or the other way around) according to the web page of Russian Railways.
Russian Railways offer seasonal pricing for domestic train tickets (varying -20% to +35% of the "base price"). Tickets are usually more expensive in summer and cheaper in winter. Additionally, a so-called dynamic system is introduced on certain routes. This is similar to airlines. You get lower price when buying your ticket well in advance (40–45 days before departure) and a much higher price when buying the ticket on the day of the departure. Short trips may be ridiculously expensive (€2030 for 1–2 hours), whereas a journey for several thousand kilometres turns out to be surprisingly affordable.
|Note: Russian railways no longer all operate on Moscow time. Until August 2018, all timetables, station clocks, and crucially the trains themselves, used Moscow time, which in Asian Russia is several hours adrift from local time. It could be surreal, stumbling out of a train, platform and station hall all showing 10:00, to emerge into the gloom of a Siberian evening; but it was consistent, and a help to long-distance planning. Nowadays however they use local time, which is indeed Moscow time for much of European Russia including St Petersburg, but is ever shifting as you travel east. Russia has ten time zones and the Trans-Siberian route crosses eight of them, so check timetables and tickets very carefully. There's no change for trains in Mongolia, China and the "Stans", which have long used their national time zone.|
The Trans-Siberian trains have varied schedules: some trains are daily while some go on even dates, some on odd dates and some trains depart only on a couple of days during a week.
Russian Railways has all Russian train schedules, as well as some of the international trains departing from Russian destinations, such as Moscow–Beijing. Only actual availability is shown, which is released 60 or 45 days prior to departure for all Russian trains and 60 days for most international trains. Russian spellings are obviously in use: Beijing is Pekin, Moscow is Moskva, Saint Petersburg is Sankt-Peterburg, Yekaterinburg is Ekaterinburg or Sverdlovsk (old name of the city), Ulan Ude is Ulan-ude, Ulaanbaatar is Ulan-Bator, and Khabarovsk is Habarovsk.
Unless you travel all way from Moscow to Beijing or Vladivostok on the same train, especially if you embark outside a major city, you may have to take so-called "passing-by" (проходящие) trains that begin their journey very far, perhaps thousands kilometres away from your departure station. The distribution of tickets is a bit tricky. It is not "first-come first-serve" basis that would fill up the train in a random manner. Some seat ranges are reserved for departures from certain stations, so you can, at least in theory, buy tickets for any route well in advance. Once the seat range assigned to your station is sold out, you won't find tickets from this station any longer, until 72 hours before departure, when all remaining seats become available. If you are really keen on that, you can try to cheat the system by playing around with departure and arrival stations and finding the ticket you really want. But most likely you can get what you need without going too deep into how the system works.
Other good options for doing your own planning includes the Deutsche Bahn travelplanner. It's available in many languages including English, French, and Spanish. It has fewer transliteration issues that the Russian websites, but it includes only the limited firmenny "fast" trains. Another good option is the Poezda railway table (search Google) one of the few online scheduling tools in English that doesn't try to sell you tickets, and it has a nice simple interface to boot. If you understand Russian, the Russian Internet portal Yandex has a handy real time information service including schedules for trains and stations and current locations of trains are shown on a map.
It's not worth getting off at every stop. The places listed below (except the junctions and border crossings) are the most interesting ones.
The Trans-Siberian proper
The Trans-Siberian proper connects Moscow with Vladivostok.
Generally there is one train a day in each direction, either a slower or a faster one. From Moscow train 100 leaves Jaroslavl station at 00:35 in the night and arrives in Vladivostok almost 6 days and 19 hours later (19:35, however 02:13 local time). The slightly faster train, number 002 departs Moscow 13:50 and arrives in Vladivostok almost exactly six days later, at 13:10 (20:10 local time).
In the other direction train 099 leaves Vladivostok at 18:42 (Moscow time, in local time that means 01:42) and is in Moscow 6 days and 19 hours later at 11:03. The slightly faster 001 leaves Vladivostok at 04:25 Moscow time (which is 11:25 local time) and is in Moscow at 05:52, which means it takes 6 days, a hour and a half.
The time and route below are for the faster trains (002 and 001). Trains 099/100 take a different route from Moscow and pass via Yaroslavl instead of Nizhny Novgorod but joins the former before Kirov.
|City||km from Moscow||Time from Moscow||Time zone||Description|
|1 Moscow (Москва)||0 km||0 hr||Moscow||The Russian capital has some world-famous landmarks, including the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil. Moscow is obviously a superb destination for anyone interested in Russian history with museums, old churches and buildings both from the Soviet Era and earlier times.|
|2 Vladimir (Владимир)||210 km||3h||Moscow||Founded in the 12th century, Vladimir is known for its white medieval stone architecture which is one of Russia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a part of the Golden Ring. If you travel on the slower train which goes via Yaroslavl, the historic center of that city also on UNESCO's list and on the Golden Ring itinerary, although from a later time period.|
|3 Nizhniy Novgorod (Ни́жний Но́вгород)||442 km||6 hr||Moscow||During Soviet times, this 13th century city was called Gorki, and among the city's museums there is one dedicated to the writer. Like Moscow and some other Russian cities, Nizhniy Novgorod also has a Kremlin. Additionally, it boasts the Volga river and a great selection of traditional Russian architecture.|
|1 Volga river crossing||447 km||6 hr||Moscow||The first major Russian river you will cross is the Volga, just moments after leaving Nizhniy Novgorod's railway station.|
|4 Perm (Пермь)||1,436 km||20 hr||Moscow+2||Perm is known for its cultural events and institutions like PERMM, the only contemporary art gallery in Russia. Side trips include a cave in Kungur and a former Gulag camp turned into a museum.|
|5 Europe-Asia border||1,777 km||1 day, 1 hr||Moscow+2||The border between Europe and Asia is marked by a white obelisk in the forest. You are now a little over a day from Moscow.|
|6 Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг)||1,816 km||1 day, 1 hr||Moscow+2||The capital of the Urals region has an impressive collection of Soviet-period buildings and interesting museums showcasing local crafts, arts, and nature.|
|7 Tyumen (Тюме́нь)||2,144 km||1 day, 6 hr||Moscow+2||Tyumen was one of the early Russian forts in Siberia. It is a good starting point for expeditions into the Tyumen region, including the ancient city of Tobolsk, the first Russian settlement in Siberia and the place to see old Russian architecture, including abundant wooden houses.|
|2 Irtysh river crossing||2,706 km||1 day, 13 hr||Moscow+3||Before arriving in Omsk, you will cross the Irtysh river.|
|8 Omsk (Омск)||2,712 km||1 day, 13 hr||Moscow+3||Omsk was for a brief period after the revolution the capital of White Russia. Among the sights are a military museum, the Cossacks' Cathedral with a Cossack banner and Siberian carved-wood houses.|
|3 Ob river crossing||3,332 km||1 day, 22 hr||Moscow+3||Ob, yet another prominent Siberian river is crossed before you arrive in Novosibirsk.|
|9 Novosibirsk (Новосиби́рск)||3,335 km||1 day, 22 hr||Moscow+3||Russia's third largest city is not the most interesting stop on the track. Sights include historic areas of the city, a zoo and Lenin square with the nearby geographical centre of the Soviet Union. It is a starting point for journeys into the Altai Mountains and Kazakhstan.|
|10 Tayga (Тайга́)||3,565 km||2 days, 1 hr||Moscow+4||The village of Tayga isn't important on its own merits, but from here you can relatively easily get to Tomsk, a student city with wooden architecture.|
|11 Krasnoyarsk (Красноярск)||4,095 km||2 days, 9 hr||Moscow+4||The scenic city of Krasnoyarsk was established by the Cossacks. The city has several museums, monuments and trade-and-entertainment centres. Further away there's a huge hydroelectric dam and the Stolby Nature Reserve with granite pillars. If you're going to Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian, you've already come half the distance from Moscow.|
|4 Yenisey river crossing||4,101 km||2 days, 9 hr||Moscow+4||And also Krasnoyarsk sits by a large river, which you will cross on your journey eastwards.|
|1 BAM junction||4,515 km||2 days 15 hr||Moscow+5||After the village of Tayshet, the Baikal-Amur Mainline forks off to the north.|
|12 Irkutsk (Иркутск)||5,185 km||3 days, 2 hr||Moscow+5||Over halfway from Moscow to Vladivostok, three days into your journey, Irkutsk is located on the shore of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, namely Lake Baikal. The city itself offers traditional Siberian ornamented wooden houses, an icebreaker, a dam and, of course, several churches and museums dedicated to the culture and history of the region. One special souvenir to buy are kamusi – traditional fur boots. From Irkutsk you can also take a trip on the Circum-Baikal Railway.|
|13 Ulan-Ude (Улан-Удэ)||5,642 km||3 days, 11 hr||Moscow+5||The gate to the Ethnographic museum shows that you've come to the East and not just that – Ulan-Ude has a distinct Mongolian air with Buddhist sites and old mansions from the time when the city was a major trading point in the region.|
|2 Trans-Mongolian junction||5,655 km||3 days, 11 hr||Moscow+5||Not long after Ulan-Ude there's an important junction; the Trans-Siberian proper continues straight east to Vladivostok, while the Trans-Mongolian goes south to Mongolia and China.|
|14 Chita (Чита)||6,199 km||3 days, 18 hr||Moscow+6||The formerly closed city Chita offers a couple of religious sights. As the city sees few visitors, especially Westerners are seen as a curiosity.|
|3 Trans-Manchurian junction||6,312 km||4 days, 0 hr||Moscow+6||About exactly four days from Moscow the Trans-Manchurian tracks veer down towards Harbin and Beijing.|
|5 Amur river crossing||8,515 km||5 days, 11 hr||Moscow+7||After a very long stretch without any major cities you will cross the Amur, the last of the major rivers on this itinerary. The river bridge is depicted on the 5000 руб banknote.|
|15 Khabarovsk (Хабаровск)||8,521 km||5 days, 11 hr||Moscow+7||After the river you will arrive in Khabarovsk. If museums are your thing, there are several museums with the "Far Eastern" prefix where you can familiarize yourself with the region's military history, art, general history and... the Far Eastern Railway – which includes the easternmost part of the Trans-Siberian!|
|16 Vladivostok (Владивосток)||9,288 km||6 days, 0 hr||Moscow+7||Six days after you've started, or a few hours longer if you've taken the slower train, you arrive in Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. The railway station is built in the same style as Moscow's Yaroslavl Station, on the other end of the track. The Russian Pacific fleet is based here – the city was built for that purpose – so there are an abundance of naval sites and memorials to visit, as well as scenic nature of the Pacific coast.|
The Trans-Mongolian connects Moscow and Beijing. It follows the same tracks as the Trans-Siberian for a little more than half the way, then forks off south through Mongolia and into China. All stations in this section are five hours ahead of Moscow time.
The Trans-Mongolian, train 43 (identified as train K4 in China), leaves Moscow each Tuesday at 23:45 and arrives in Beijing on Monday afternoon at 11:40. Westwards, train number 33 (identified as train K3 in China) leaves Beijing at 11:22 each Wednesday and is in Moscow the following Monday at 13:58. In addition, there are two weekly trains between Moscow and Ulaanbataar. Train 6 goes from Moscow each Wednesday and Thursday at 23:45 and arrive in Ulaanbaatar on Monday and Tuesday morning at 06:45. In the other direction, train 5 leaves Ulaanbataar every Tuesday and Friday at 15:25, arriving in Moscow at 13:58 five days later, on Saturday or Tuesday.
Lake Baikal to Beijing
To continue after a break at the Baikal might be difficult, especially in peak seasons – so plan your itinerary and buy your tickets beforehand.
If you are in Ulaanbataar, need to get to Beijing and don't have a ticket, you're better off not taking the direct train as prices are steep and trains are often sold out at the ticket booth. There are, however, unofficial ticket touts around that are happy to sell you a ticket at three to five times the official price – obviously a bad deal. Instead, take a local train to the border at Zamiin Uud (USD15), cross into China by minibus and take a bus to Beijing (USD40).
|City||km from Moscow||Time from Moscow||Time zone||Description|
|4 Trans-Mongolian junction||5,655 km||3 days, 11 hr||Moscow+5||Just after Ulan-Ude, the Trans-Mongolian leaves the Trans-Siberian.|
|1 Naushki (Наушки)||5,902 km||3 days, 17 hr||Moscow+5||Naushki is the Russian border station and obviously the last Russian station on the line; or the first if you're coming from the other direction. Hopefully you haven't forgotten your visa. There is no time difference between Russia and Mongolia at the border.|
|2 Sühbaatar (Сүхбаатар)||5,925 km||3 days, 19 hr||UTC+9||Sühbaatar is the Mongolian border railway station. Like Naushki, the train is going to stand here for quite a bit longer than at earlier stations.|
|3 Ulaanbataar (Улаанбаатар)||6,304 km||4 days, 4 hr||UTC+9||Mongolia's capital is one of the highlights of the route. Sites dedicated to the history from the great Mongolian Empire to the present day and Buddhist monasteries. It is also possible to go hiking in the mountains near the city. The city is the best possible starting point for trips to anywhere in Mongolia; the nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park gives a taste of Mongolian nature and offers the possibility to sleep in a traditional ger.|
|4 Zamyn-Üüd (Замын-Үүд)||7,013 km||4 days, 17 hr||UTC+9||After a journey through the Gobi desert, the train arrives in the border station of Zamyn-Üüd.|
|5 Erenhot (二连浩特)||7,023 km||4 days, 19 hr||UTC+8||Also known as Erlian, Erenhot is the Chinese border station. Here the bogies are changed, to fit the Chinese gauge; yet another interesting thing about the trains between Russia and China. This takes 3-4 hours and you'll need to disembark with all your bags while they do it.|
|6 Zhurihe (朱日和)||7,182 km||5 days, 1 hr||UTC+8||A town governed by Sonid Right Banner, Xilin Gol, near a major training center of Chinese army.|
|7 Jining (集宁)||7,356 km||5 days, 3 hr||UTC+8||Also known as Ulanqab, an important railway junction and a mining city, from where travellers can get to the nearby city Datong in 2 hours by train, which has quite a few things worth visiting, even an UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Yungang Grottoes with 51,000 Buddha statues. Several monasteries, an 11th century pagoda, Heng Mountain which is one of the sacred mountains of Taoism and street food stalls add to the experience – you've arrived in China.|
|8 Zhangjiakou (张家口)||7,534 km||5 days, 5 hr||UTC+8||Zhangjiakou is a city northwest of Beijing. Part of Great Wall and a gate in the Wall, Dajing Gate, is in Zhangjiakou, which used to be an important part in the transportation and trade between Han and Mongolia people. Most skiing events of the 2022 Winter Olympics were held in Taizicheng Area in Chongli District of Zhangjiakou, and a zippy new bullet train line that was built for the occasion.|
|9 Beijing (北京)||7,854 km||5 days, 9 hr||UTC+8||Few cities have are so packed with historical sights as Beijing. The most important ones are Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall a one hour bus ride away, but you could easily spend a week exploring the city. From Beijing you can get to pretty much everywhere else in China – why not continue your train journey when you've come this far?|
The Trans-Manchurian is also known as Vostok (east) and like the former it goes to Beijing. It follows the Trans-Siberian tracks for a little longer (about two thirds of its length) after which it turns south and continues into China without going through Mongolia.
The Trans-Manchurian, train 20 (identified as train K20 in China), leaves Moscow at 23:45 each Saturday and is in Beijing at 05:46 the following Saturday. Train 19 (identified as train K19 in China) departs Beijing at 23:00 at Saturday night and is in Moscow at 17:58 on Friday.
|City||Kms from Moscow||Time from Moscow||Time zone||Description|
|5 Trans-Manchurian junction||6,312 km||4 days, 0 hr||Moscow+6||After about two thirds of the length of the Trans-Siberian proper, the Trans-Manchurian tracks veer off south.|
|1 Zabaykalsk (Забайка́льск)||6,666 km||4 days, 7 hr||Moscow+6||Zabaykalsk is the Russian border station.The cars will get different bogies that fit the Chinese gauge, which will make for a longer wait. China is one hour behind local Russian time.|
|2 Manzhouli (满洲里)||6,678 km||4 days, 13 hr||UTC+8||Across the border there's Manzhouli, the Chinese border station.|
|3 Hailar (海拉尔)||6,824 km||4 days, 19 hr||UTC+8||Downtown district of Hulunbuir, famous for its grasslands.|
|4 Bugt (博克图)||7,034 km||5 days, 0 hr||UTC+8||A town governed by Yakeshi (牙克石), a railway junction.|
|5 Ang'angxi (昂昂溪)||7,303 km||5 days, 4 hr||UTC+8||Ang'angxi is a district of the city Qiqihar. Zhalong Nature Reserve is southeast of the city, which is home to lots of birds including cranes.|
|6 Harbin (哈尔滨)||7,613 km||5 days, 8 hr||UTC+8||Harbin is a Chinese city with Russian influences, many buildings were constructed by the Russians a century ago, there's a sizeable Russian minority and you can even find matryoshka dolls for sale. Major points of interest include the Tiger Park, a couple of parks and a few museums. If you are here in the winter, don't miss the Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.|
|7 Changchun (长春)||7,819 km||5 days, 11 hr||UTC+8||Changchun was the capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. There are palaces and government departments of Manchukuo, and other buildings of Japanese style in Changchun.|
|8 Siping (四平)||7,934 km||5 days, 12 hr||UTC+8||An important railway junction.|
|9 Shenyang (沈阳)||8,122 km||5 days, 14 hr||UTC+8||Shenyang is the largest city in the northeast of China. Nuhaci's imperial palace, Mukden Palace, and the first two imperial tombs of the Qing Dynasty – Zhaoling within Beiling Park (literally Northern Tomb Park) and Fuling within Dongling Park (literally Eastern Tomb Park) are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.|
|10 Jinzhou (锦州)||8,364 km||5 days, 17 hr||UTC+8||An important railway junction and a mining city.|
|11 Shanhaiguan (山海关)||8,585 km||5 days, 19 hr||UTC+8||Shanhaiguan is where one part of the Great Wall ends into the ocean. The city also boasts other Great Wall related sights. A few minutes away by train there's the larger city of Qinhuangdao, best known as a beach resort, to which Shanhaiguan belongs as a district.|
|12 Tangshan (唐山)||8,721 km||5 days, 19 hr||UTC+8||Tangshan is an important industrial city near Beijing and Tianjin. There is Earthquake Museum in Tangshan, memorial of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, believed to be the largest earthquake of the 20th century by death toll.|
|13 Tianjin (天津)||8,844 km||5 days, 21 hr||UTC+8||Tianjin is one of the five national central cities of China. Tianjin's urban area is located along the Hai River, and was once home to foreign concessions in the late Qing Dynasty and early Kuomintang era.|
|14 Beijing (北京)||9,001 km||5 days, 23 hr||UTC+8||Few cities are so packed with historical sights as Beijing. The most important ones are the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall, a one-hour bus ride away, but you could easily spend a week exploring the city. From Beijing you can get to pretty much everywhere else in China – why not continue your train journey when you've come this far?|
There are some interesting destinations "off the track". Saint Petersburg is often visited before or after a Trans-Siberian journey. The capital of the Tatars, Kazan, is on the alternative track between Moscow and Yekaterinburg. Tobolsk, the old Siberian capital is a little over 200 km away from Tyumen. Tomsk, the most beautiful city of Siberia can be visited as a sidetrip from Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk. One highlight on the trip is Lake Baikal that can be visited from Irkutsk and Severobaikalsk; you will see the lake from the train but why not explore the region further? Those staying for a few days in the region often take a trip to the scenic island of Olkhon.
In Mongolia, the area around Ulan-Bator is worth visiting; for example the Terelj National Park or the Gobi desert further away. One of the main attractions of China, the Great Wall is not far from the railway.
One of the parallel tracks, used by the Trans-Siberian in Soviet times, dips into the north of Kazakhstan through the mining city of Petropavl before re-entering Russia and rejoining the standard route at Omsk. Western passport holders don't need a visa to visit Kazakhstan, the problem is that you exit Russia and can only re-enter with a double- or multi-entry Russian visa. It's not worth the extra trouble of arranging this just for a quick look at Petropavl, the point would be to go further south to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and to Almaty. These both have trains to Urumqi in northwest China, which has super-fast trains to Xian and Beijing. But this isn't a Trans-sib sidetrip but a whole separate itinerary, described in the Moscow to Urumqi article.
Costs depend mainly on the level of quality you want. A trip in second class and staying at mid-range hotels together with a simpler meal and sightseeing or a show will cost you €100–120 per day. If you want your train trip and hotels to be first class and take guided trips it's easy to raise the daily costs up to €500. Self-catering, travel in third class and staying at hostels you can get the daily expenses down to as little as €20–30. China and Mongolia are somehow cheaper and more accessible for tourism than Russia. There aren't really any discounts. An international (or local) student card can get you a few discounts, but senior discounts are unheard of.
Many world currencies can be exchanged at good rates in any city. Bringing local currency isn't necessary, as the rates in local banks are much better. Save for China, don't exchange moneys at airports (or just as much you need to get into town). In Russia, rates at exchange booths are usually similar to those in the banks. Money exchange is not possible on the train. In China the exchange rates are fixed by the government and private banks often refuse to change Swiss francs so you need to go to the governmental bank to exchange them.
Credit cards can be used in hotels, better restaurants, travel agencies and major grocery stores. In Moscow and Beijing they are widely accepted. Visa cards are the ones most frequently accepted in ATMs.
Travellers cheques can be cashed only at a few places, but the rates are acceptable.
A typical tip in Russia is 5–10%. You are not required to pay the tip when you are not satisfied with the service. In Mongolia the bill is usually rounded up. Neither of these practices is common in China.
You will learn to know many different cuisines on a journey like this. For a more elaborate list of local specialities, please refer to particular cities' and regions' articles. Below are just a couple of general train-related things listed.
Many of the trains have dining cars. Prices are high for the quality you get. A main dish will cost €5–8. You may get freshly cooked food during lunch and dinner time, but on other occasions expect frozen food, which is warmed up in a microwave and becomes less than palatable. Drinks and alcohol are about 2–3 times more expensive than in the stores. On the other hand, you are not allowed to consume alcohol (save for beer) on board, and you are not allowed to bring your own alcohol to the dining cars, so if you want to drink, pay the price or do it quietly in your compartment, as most locals do. First-class tickets and even some of the 2nd-class tickets may include food (snacks for breakfast, warm food for lunch and dinner). A lady will come to your compartment and bring a couple of plastic bowls with warm food. It is usually freshly cooked and quite edible.
On the Moscow–Vladivostok route the train stops for 20–30 minutes every 3–4 hours. Everybody can get out of the train, and there are often people on the platform that offer a variety of fresh local food (eggs, fish, cheese, bread, fruits, meat or cheese in a cake) and often some drinks for passengers. Many railway stations nowadays require them to purchase a license to keep their stand at the platform. Between Beijing and Novosibirsk, platform vendors were observed only in Choir, Mongolia, and Mariinsky, Russia. Prices are low; only Russian rubles are accepted. A highlight is the smoked fish (Omul) being sold on the shore of Lake Baikal (Station: Slyudyanka, a quick stop, so be fast). Some of the larger stations will have food marts with snacks and alcohol.
Food and drinks are also sold in kiosks at the platforms, but normally twice as expensive. To get a reasonable price, wait for a station with a longer stop, and just exit the train station, usually there are plenty of kiosks or small shops just outside, offering a wider choice. Supermarkets (not necessarily of the western kind), affordable food stands and simpler restaurants can be found at most stops. More lavish restaurants and fast food chains can be found in major cities. However familiar western chains are to be found only in Moscow and Beijing.
Coming from Beijing through Harbin, the last stop in China is Manzhouli. The food being sold there is quite expensive, but many Russians stock up on provisions (i.e. spirits and beer). You can take a maximum of 2 litres of alcohol (either beer or vodka or any combination of those) per person into Russia or you will have to pay a "penalty" (bribe) to the customs. Get rid of all your Chinese Yuan here unless you want to take them as a souvenir as they become virtually worthless once abroad. There are a couple of black market money changers in front of the station that change renminbi to rubles at ripoff rates. To get rubles, you have plenty of time on the Russian side of the border (Zhabaikalsk). Walk to the ATM located at the bank in town. Allow 30 minutes to go and come back. The train stops for several hours while the carriages are being changed, so you can do some shopping at the local food markets (bread, cheese, etc.).
Coming from Beijing via Mongolia into Russia there are still the same rip-off exchange touts. There is a very reasonable foreign exchange office at Ulan Baator station, in the waiting area. Most if not all platform vendors in Mongolia and Russia take U.S. dollars or euros. However, they take only notes, so know the exchange rate and buy a lot if you are using a €5 note. Always ask the attendant how much time is available before you rush off into a station to find a Bankomat (ATM) because the train will not wait for you. If you are not spending time in Mongolia, avoid acquiring Mongolian tögrög. They are worthless virtually everywhere else, and the export of tögrög is illegal. Therefore, spend dollars or euro, but get rubles immediately because Russian vendors are more likely to fabricate exchange rates than Mongolian or Chinese platform vendors.
Food is traditionally placed on the table in the compartment. It is not uncommon to share food. This makes for a nice picnic where you learn to know your fellow passengers. It is polite to let them invite you and that you also have something to bring along. Why not bring something from your home country?
Every carriage has a samovar (hot water dispenser, lit. "self cooker") that is kept hot throughout the whole journey. Have a stack of dried soups, teabags and Nescafe ready. Just bring your own cup, or ask one from the train attendant. Train attendants also sell tea, coffee, snacks and even freeze-dried meals at slightly inflated prices.
Alcohol is an important part of Russian culture and thus it's not unusual to have some vodka at your compartment picnic. At this stage, you have to be careful and you need to know when to stop. First, drinking strong alcohol is not allowed in Russian trains, but, as always in Russia, "not allowed" does not mean "forbidden". Carriage attendants will pretend not to see you unless you are making a noise or other drama. Police may go through the train and harass people who are drinking, so stay quiet and keep bottles under the table. Never drink more than you can. A drinking competition will for sure land you in a hospital or worse. Use your common sense when fellow travellers offer you something. You are much more likely to taste a good drink than to get into trouble, but troubles are not unheard of and range from bad alcohol to alcohol intentionally mixed with drugs that will make you an easy victim.
Other than that, tea is also an important drink; in Russia this will mean black tea with lemon, in China green tea. It's drunk at breaks, after meals and sometimes as an aperitif.
The samovar also comes in handy when you'd like some hot drinks (the water is free but bring your own tea or buy some from the carriage attendant). It's usually possible to buy soft drinks and beer in the restaurant carriage to bring back to your carriage.
It's worth having a basic phrasebook as attendants are unlikely to speak English and the drinks provided won't come with milk or sugar unless you specifically ask for them.
All tickets for long journey trains are for sleeping places. In the 1st and 2nd classes, they are about 1.9 m long and about half a metre wide. 3rd-class carriages have shorter berths. Some trains between Moscow and Saint Petersburg have seating places. Few trains in Russia have all 4 types of cabins to choose from:
- First class (SV) is, except the three 'M'-classes, the most comfortable and quite expensive. The price is at least twice as much as in 2nd class. Each cabin consists of two sofas flanking each side of the compartment, which convert into beds for sleeping. On some trains such as the Trans-Mongolian, the first-class compartments have private bathrooms. Service in first class actually somewhat resembles the service you would expect in Europe and North America, which is worth considering since Russian railways are notoriously bureaucratic and not very service-minded, to say the least. The compartment doors can be locked from within, but these locks can be opened from the outside with a key. If the security chain is used, the door can only be opened 5 cm.
- Second class (Kupe) somewhat compares to the standard on Western European sleeper trains. These carriages are compartmentalized, with each compartment holding 4 beds. You will share the two lower bunks during the day, and there is no other place to sit except for the dining car. Most trains will have male-only, female-only, and mixed compartments. You can choose any of the two depending on your preference. Kupe is a good compromise between relative comfort, and the ability to meet and mingle with the Russians. Prices are comparable to the cheapest economy-class plane ticket. 2nd-class tickets may be combined with food and "service". Food means hot food served twice a day. "Service" implies small things like toothbrush, sleepers, tea, coffee, and snacks included in the price of your ticket.
- Third class (Platzkart) bears some resemblance to the hard sleeper class on Chinese trains: many find this class to be much better than its reputation. These carriages are in an open layout with two lower and two upper berths (seat numbers 1–36), a narrow corridor, and another two berths that are stretched along the side of the carriage (seat numbers 37–52), the latter are not recommended.
There is little in the way of privacy here, but many do prefer this option, at least for a short overnight trip, because you do not find yourself locked in a compartment with three strangers. It also gives a more uniquely Russian experience, and you will see a larger – and different – demographic than in second class. The price is usually 40–50 % lower than in the 2nd class. Lots of middle-class people travel this way, but you may also meet young men returning from the military service and other noisy or drunk companions, so it is a bit more adventurous than hiding oneself in a closed compartment. On the downside, 3rd class carriages have shorter berths that will be uncomfortable for anyone taller than 1.75 m. Lights are dimmed, but not completely switched off during the night.
- Fourth class (Obshchy) is the cheapest way of travel. It can be found on slower trains. Most people will only use it for short trips not exceeding 10–12 hr. 4th-class carriages may have individual seats, as in European trains, but you are more likely to find yourself in a 3rd-class carriage, where each lower berth accommodates three people, and additionally one person is supposed to lie on the upper berth. In fact, upper berths are most popular here. They are filled first, regardless of seat numbers written on the tickets. Then other people will sit or lie on the lower berths.
If the train arrives at your destination before 08:00 local time, the carriage attendant will wake you up half an hour before arrival. Otherwise you will be notified 15 minutes before arrival.
While Russia is a huge country and some regions have their own local language, Russian is taught in every school, and serves as the lingua franca between different ethnic groups. If you know some Russian, you can use it throughout the trip. If you don't, it's still worth learning the Cyrillic alphabet, since many signs do not have a transcription in Latin script.
Mongolian, the language of Mongolia, also uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two additional letters. However, Russian is the most widely studied foreign language in Mongolia, so you would generally be able to get by in the cities if you speak Russian. On the other hand, Mongolians have a strong sense of animosity against China and find it offensive to be addressed in Mandarin.
In northeastern China Mandarin Chinese is spoken. It's a tonal language and someone unfamiliar with Chinese reading Latin transcriptions that don't show tones is unlikely to be understood by locals. Likewise, most locals are also unable to understand Latin transcriptions of Chinese. In other words, if you cannot speak Chinese (well), have somebody, for example at your hotel, write down addresses in Chinese characters to show to taxi drivers, etc. Russian is generally not widely spoken beyond the border towns.
English is spoken mostly by youth and educated people. Outside Saint Petersburg and Moscow, the locals' English knowledge is not very good, and they usually speak with a strong accent. A few older Russians can speak German and some younger people can speak French. English is also not widely spoken in China, though staff at major hotels and tourist attractions that see many foreign visitors usually speak a basic level of English.
Some say that the Trans-Siberian has a reputation of being a major route for illegal drug trafficking. This has influenced at least one film Transsiberian, which is set on the railway and follows a thrilling tale of drug smuggling and criminal activity along the route.
The journey on the Trans-Siberian route is quite safe, especially if you travel in groups of four and have your own compartment. Compartments can be locked from the inside with two locks. One can be opened from outside with a special key, the other cannot be opened from outside, and when locked allows the door to open a bit. It is advisable to use both locks during the night. The Trans-Mongolian and Manchurian train services once were hot spots of theft and gang robbery after the dissolution of Soviet Union, but as of Jan 2021 the routes are safe thanks to better law enforcement on board. You can't lock your compartment from outside when you go out. But the train attendant can do it for you.
3rd-class carriages provide less personal space and less protection. If you sleep on the lower berth, use the space under the berth to store your belongings. When on the upper berth, use the shelf above you. Take all valuable things with you when going out on to the station. Things are rarely stolen, but reasonable caution should be used.
Police in Russia can be your good friend or a bad enemy depending on the situation. Each train has at least one policeman who may shuffle around looking for drunks, drugs, beggars, and criminals. If you are harassed or threatened, contact the train attendant who will call the police. On the other hand, avoid doing something that can draw the attention of the police to you. After terrorist attacks in the early 2010s, each train station was assigned lots of police who tend to sporadically check documents and ask questions about your luggage. Never leave the train without your ticket and passport. Russian police are also very sensitive to people taking pictures of railways, stations, and trains. This is another aspect of anti-terrorist paranoia. Foreigners and especially Western tourists are less likely to face this problem. However, if you are approached by the police and asked to delete some photos, just do it and forget (or restore your photos later). Never try to take pictures of the police.
As a rule of thumb, smaller towns are less safe than bigger cities. If you are travelling alone, avoid areas void of people, near crowds the only thing to watch out for are pickpockets. If you are travelling shorter hops, it's possible that your train will arrive in the middle of the night. Stay inside the train station until the morning (unless you know well where to go), or choose a train that arrives in the daytime.
If you are an obvious tourist you are likely to get cheated at markets and especially by taxi drivers. The remedy for this is some knowledge of Russian and good bargaining skills. Always negotiate the price in rubles, even if the seller starts quoting the price in dollars and even if you plan to pay with dollars. Dollar prices are calculated according to the current bank exchange rates. Most places will not accept any currency other than rubles, though.
Often sellers and cab drivers will grab your arm to drag you to their stand or car. In this case it suffices to just rip yourself loose. They are there to make you pay high prices for their merchandise and services, not to hurt you.
There's prostitution going on in some hotels and even next to the train stations. To avoid possibly losing your money and health, steer clear. Same is true for drugs of any sort.
Likely the most dangerous city in the night time is Ulanbataar. Hotels and hostels often keep their doors shut between midnight and 06:00 because it's too unsafe on the streets.
You should be in good physical condition while starting a trip like this, with no reason to believe your condition will worsen during the trip. Good medical care according to Western standards is really only available in Moscow and at private clinics in Beijing. In Mongolia you should really have a first aid kit. For smaller injuries, private clinics in Ulaanbaatar are good enough but if something serious happens you should get to Beijing, Europe or the United States regardless of the costs.
Health risks include avian influenza and rabies. Keep your distance from wild animals.
Tap water may not be safe for drinking. Russians consider it safe after boiling, and this is what you get from the samovar. If you are cautious, bring bottled water but remember that you won't have any opportunity to warm it.
Especially if you travel alone you will be spending some time on the train with locals, so it's useful to learn basic do's and don'ts before the journey. Please refer to the respect sections of the Russia, Mongolia and China articles to learn about the culture in the countries you will be traveling through.
Despite the opening of the countries for tourism, photography is still not allowed everywhere. Do not take photos of military and governmental buildings, as this can land you in jail in the worst case. You should also think twice before taking photos of other government-owned buildings like railway stations. Museums often have their own rules concerning photography, as elsewhere in the world.
The level of comfort and the number of amenities depend on the type of the train you are taking. Newer carriages feature air conditioning and abundant power sockets, and have an overall nice look, while older carriages have none of those and may become uncomfortably hot during summer as well as very cold during the harsh Siberian winter. If you can choose between several trains on your route, the train with more expensive tickets is more likely to have newer, comfortable carriages.
Standard amenities include a berth, mattress, pillow, blanket, and bedding. Mattress, pillow, and blankets are stored on the shelf above your berth. Sometimes train attendants will prepare the bed for you, but most likely you will have to do it on your own, especially in 3rd class. Things are pretty heavy, so taking them down and manipulating them in the narrow space is not the most trivial task. People needing assistance should feel free to ask for help from fellow travellers. On a long journey, it is common to remove the bedding and mattress from the lower berths during the day, so that everyone can sit. On the other hand, people on the lower berths may prefer to take a nap. Then you have absolutely no space to sit and will be forced to lie on your upper berth, even if you don't want to. People traveling alone in 3rd class are advised to book the lower berth on the side of the carriage. This will give you the opportunity to sit and even use the table at any time, undisturbed by other passengers.
Sleeping on the train may not be as simple as you imagine. Windows are often bolted shut, which can be stiflingly hot in summer. Russian trains are not very smooth, so expect constant pushes, noises, and unavoidable disturbances from fellow travelers. 2nd class compartments offer much better conditions than 3rd class, but it is still the same as sleeping in a hostel and far worse than sleeping in your own room. The berths in the 2nd class are long enough for most people, but the berths in the 3rd class are slightly below 1.80 m. If you are taller than that, bend your legs. Letting them jut into the aisle is another option, but this will make other people hit you every time they pass by. Russians always sleep with their head toward the window and their feet toward the aisle. The opposite way of sleeping (feet toward the window) will not be frowned upon, but it is never used by locals.
Always use the dark window curtain that can be pulled against the window. This will save you from bright lights shining outside. Bring ear plugs and consider what else could help you to fall asleep in a noisy environment. A shot of strong alcohol, a favorite book, or just good music might be helpful. If you've never used night trains before, try yourself on a short, one-night journey before crossing the whole country.
Power connections may be difficult to find. Newer carriages have power sockets at each berth (or at least 2 sockets per compartment). Older carriages have only one "public" socket next to the toilet and another one close to the samovar. Train attendants have a few extra sockets hidden inside their compartment. All sockets are designed for shavers: you may see special signs saying that laptops and gadgets should not be charged there. You can, however, connect whatever you want (kettles are not recommended), but nobody takes responsibility for your gadgets. Although voltage is notoriously unstable, most gadgets survive this kind of shock treatment (see Electrical systems for some advice).
Train attendants are your best friends in a long journey. They may have useful facilities, such as a fridge, microwave and extra power sockets. Train attendants are usually reserved with foreigners and rarely know a word of English, but most of them become more friendly the moment you try to make a small chat or present a gift. They may also help you to negotiate with police, border control, and fellow travellers.
Toilets are usually found at both ends of the carriage. Newer carriages have closed-cycle toilets (so-called "biotoilets") that operate at any time. Older carriages feature something similar to a latrine (hole-in-the-floor) and remain closed when the train is on the station or approaching it. There is a formal schedule posted on the door of each toilet, although train attendants tend to be kind and lock the toilets right before arrival rather than 15–20 minutes in advance. Most toilets nowadays are clean and equipped with toilet paper as well as soap. Paper towels are not common, but you always get a tiny towel with your bedding. However, sinks are very small and difficult to use, so wet napkins remain your best choice. Bringing paper towels or toilet paper is a good idea.
Showers are available on most long-distance trains, including trans-Siberian routes. One or two shower cabins are located in one carriage somewhere in the middle of the train. A small fee is collected.
Internet is never available on board, except on a few of the newest trains that do not run on the trans-Siberian routes. However, you can do pretty well with a mobile connection (buy a local SIM card), even though the signal will be weak or missing in the middle of Siberian forests. These days, the majority of Russians have smartphones, and it is not uncommon to see laptops or tablets even in 3rd class. Of course, take care of your belongings.
If you have arrived in Vladivostok after a week on the train, you will feel like you have travelled to the end of the world, but as we know, the world isn't flat. Hence you will have the option to take the ferry to Japan or South Korea or the train to Harbin and from there to other destinations in China. It is theoretically possible, but practically very difficult to continue your journey to North Korea.
If your trip ends in Beijing, this is a great opportunity to explore other parts of China or even other parts of Asia. High-speed rail is the best way of getting around the country and for trips into North Korea, Beijing is a comparatively better starting point, though you will need to make sure you already have your North Korean visa before attempting this. If you have time, it's actually possible to get all the way to Papua New Guinea by a combination of trains, buses and ferries.
If your Trans-Siberian trip ends in Moscow, you can explore the Golden Ring, continue to St. Petersburg and all the way to the Nordic countries or take one of the several direct trains to European destinations. Notice that direct trains to Central Europe go through Belarus and practically everyone will need a visa (must be obtained in advance) to enter.