Easy guide to plan your Trans-Siberian trip!

Long train journeys have always lured travelers. There is something exhilarating about gazing at the changing landscapes passing by your train window aided by the conversation and companionship of strangers with whom you are thrown together in a train compartment.  If you are among those that make a bucket list, you’ve already added the trip on the Trans-Siberian express to your list. It probably ranks high up among your other trips.  No less than an epic trip, the Trans-Siberian line chugs along three countries and spans some 6000 miles cutting across the desolate landscape of Siberian Russia, the rolling meadows of Mongolia and wilderness of China before arriving in Beijing.

The train - Russian side
The train – Russian side

Recently, I took the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow all the way to Ulan Ude in Siberian Russia and then transferred on to TransMongolian express heading to Beijing.  Planning the Trans-Siberian trip can be daunting and confusing more so for an Indian because one needs visas for three countries and at least two of them can be tricky to obtain (a separate post on visas coming up soon). In this post, I break everything down for you – the route to tickets to possible stops to budgeting.

A scene outside the train window
A scene outside the train window

Read on and leave a comment to let me know if you find it useful.

Select your route and stops

The TransSiberian express offers numerous interesting destinations along its route. The hardest part always is to decide on where to make a stop and which one to avoid (and to remind yourself that it’s simply not possible to cover everything). Depending on the time you have in hand, decide on the stops. I had three weeks. Typically, travelers start their journey in St. Petersburg (which is where I started my trip). I took pit stops in Moscow, Suzdal, Perm, Omsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Ulan Bataar, terminating the trip in Beijing China. I also flew to Japan taking advantage of the country’s proximity and spent a few days there. I did not stop at the usual suspects Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.

St. Basil's cathedral, Red square
St. Basil’s cathedral, Red square

Buy / Reserve your tickets

It is crucial to buy / reserve your tickets in advance. For one, it is a necessary document to be attached with your Russian visa application. I used and liked the services of Real Russia. They offer a letter of invitation (and an itinerary) free of charge after you deposit £50.00 per person as a deposit. The letter of invitation is also a requisite document to be attached with the visa application. Real Russia also keeps tab on the booking window and books your tickets.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

I used the second class coupe tickets all throughout. If you want to travel cheap (and not mind groggy passengers disrupting your sleep in the middle of the night to board / disembark at respective stations), you can opt for the Platzkart. Frankly, the Platzkart is not so bad if you are used to travelling in sleeper class reserved compartments in India. Do not expect to have friendly conversations, however, with locals. Russians are a closed lot and it takes some nudging for them to open up and very few speak English so even if the conversation happened it would be limited. The coupe, of course, is shared by four persons and offers you relative privacy. Keep in mind that upper berths are priced cheaper than the lower ones.

Plan your budget

I am yet to make the final tally on my expenses but it is my guess that I had spent about 2 lakhs INR (USD 3000, roughly). This is slightly on the higher side because I flew to Japan from Beijing and extended my trip for another 10 days. The train ticket starting from Moscow to Beijing in 2nd class coupe cost me Rs. 46000 (USD 698 roughly). The most expensive part of this trip is going to be your tickets (count your air tickets in and you are looking at spending at least a lakh rupees (USD 1500, roughly) on tickets alone).

If you are not planning on any side trips, the budget for your accommodation and food should not exceed 50 USD per day. You will mostly spend your nights in trains (which means you save on that day’s budget) and you can get a decent Russian meal of Pelmeni (boiled meat pies) or Posikunchiki (small fried pies with meat, mushrooms and potatoes) for 300 Rubles (about 5 USD). Sometimes I got by with cookies and stiff Russian rye bread.

Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal
Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal

Book accommodation / side trips

Though it is probably easy to walk around and find a hostel yourself at your destination, I prefer to book my accommodation in advance. That saves me time with which I can explore the town. Essentially, I had booked hotels before I arrived at a place on this trip (it also probably helped that I had a nervous travel partner who wanted everything in place before we started the trip). My side trips included a day hike in the Basegi National Park in the foothills of Ural Mountains, hiking the Great Baikal Trail by the Baikal Lake, the Flaming Cliffs and the sand dunes of Gobi desert in Mongolia. I also visited the Great Wall of China.

By the shores of Bikal
By the shores of Bikal
A Mongolian sunset
A Mongolian sunset

What to pack?

In the second class coupe, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that I wore a pair of boxers. In fact, the Russian men were mostly flaunting their flowing bellies, while the women were with tank tops and three-fourths. The moral? Pack a pair of train clothes for comfortable travel. If you have space, I recommend packing a simple cutlery set with your luggage (a mug, spoon and a little knife perhaps). Though the Russian trains offer you a pack of plastic cutleries every time they serve you your obligatory meal along with the goody bag (more on that later), you tend to not save them.  You will miss a plastic knife during the long duration trains when you need to apply marmalade on your rye bread or a mug for a hot cup of coffee.

Hiking the Ural
Hiking the Ural

Resources

I used the website www.rbth.com extensively for research on Russia. It is a great source of information on travels in Siberia and Russia. For more clarity on booking tickets on the TransSiberian express, do check the www.seat61.com website. I am not hesitant to admit that my travel partner bought the Lonely Planet guidebook after we planned our trip. Turns out, we have had at least 7 of the top 10 destinations covered during our trip, recommended by Lonely Planet. Long live independent research!

Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
The train, Mongolian side
The train, Mongolian side

Did you find it useful? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, if you are planning your TransSiberian trip and need any help, do ask. I’d be glad to help.

Next post: Life aboard the TransSiberian express. Check back in a week.

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15 thoughts on “Easy guide to plan your Trans-Siberian trip!

  1. Very cool post! Trans-Siberian trip is on my bucketlist, hopefully I will accomplish it when I’ll have more free time – maybe a month or two. So it was very interesting to read about your trip preparations. And it was two times interesting to read it from non-native Russian/slavic traveller.

  2. This is bloody brilliant Prathap bhai, can’t thank you more for this post.

    This is one of those details about which I have not yet dared to ask (not as yet) but always wanted to know and this post paints a very clear picture about the things I had always wanted to know.

    Cheers,
    Rajiv

  3. After reading your wonderful and exhilarating write up, who would not want to make this momentous journey, Prathap? I already have, vicariously 🙂 through your posts shared on FB. Hope to experience in person, the destinations painted on your ‘Sunlit Window’ .

    Kudos to you for making the most of your trip and sharing your wonderful experiences through your posts. Loved your write up along with the photographs. Made inviting and exciting reading.

    All the best. Wishing you many more memorable journeys, in the far corners of the Universe.

    Ciao.

    Sheila

  4. Woah! You travelled on the Trans-Siberian express! Kudos!
    I love train travel (personal travel and Paul Theorux are mainly responsible for this) and as you rightly have put it, this is definitely in the top 5 train travel bucketlist. Also ever since i’ve read ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ and seen the noir movie ‘Transsiberian’, I have been devouring everything related to this particular railway line.

    The post was quite informative, and gives a good idea to any novice about what to expect and what kind of expenses are incurred. I am looking forward to your reflections while you were doing this week long journey. And of course, getting a Chinese visa – man that’s a royal pain!

    I’ll have a lot of questions on your Transsiberian voyage, whenever we meet next:)

    Cheers:)

  5. Hi Pratap, a fellow blogger had recommended your website to me, and I must say, this post on Trans-Siberian Express is really useful. And I’m glad to know that you had booked your accommodation in advance, didn’t book the sleeper class and that you had referred to Lonely Planet because I’m not the kind of traveller who just “go with the flow and see what happens” hahaha. Good stuff you have here. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Cheers,
    Kat

    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by Kat. You’ve a beautiful blog 🙂
      And yes, I like to travel with some amount of planning and do not necessarily subscribe to the romantic notion of going with the flow 😀

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