I’m looking for any suggestions from those of you that have done or are planning on doing the transiberian from Moscow to Beijing this Jan/Feb. My tentative plan is to catch the end of the winter festival in Moscow, and arrive in Beijing for the Chinese new year. I’m doing it solo, and not part of a tour group.
Any information and/or company along the way would be appreciated!
I travelled from Beijing to Moscow in May of this year, so the opposite direction to you, but probably along the same route that you’d take, assuming you’d do the typical one. I went with my mum and due to time constraints we did it all in one go, rather than stopping to do sightseeing along the way.
The journey takes six days if you don’t get off the train anywhere. We spent a day travelling through China, then crossed the Mongolian border late at night, spent a day travelling through Mongolia, and finally four days through Russia … which is mind-blowingly huge. It was definitely an interesting experience and I would do it again, probably back the other way next time.
As I travelled with my mum, we went in one of the more ‘luxurious’ carriages as she didn’t want to share with strangers. So, we had a two bunk room with a little bathroom area in between that linked through to the next room (consisting of a sink with cold water, and a small shower head that to be honest was more hassle than it was worth!). I say ‘luxurious’ in inverted commas because it really wasn’t first class by most standards, but in comparison to the other rooms (4-6 people) it was nicer.
In all of the carriages, there is a shared toilet room at one end, and a hot water heater at the other. There are no showering facilities unless you count the shower head we shared with the room next door, which gave out little more than a trickle. So, pack lots of wet wipes and antibacterial hand gel! In general, the train was cleanish, not sparkling but the train staff do some cursory sweeping / wiping each day.
There is a restaurant carriage that changes in each of the countries you pass through – so we started off with a Chinese carriage, then when the train crossed into Mongolia that carriage was detached and a Mongolian-style carriage was added (complete with carved wood panelling and decorative rifles!) and finally we got a Russian restaurant carriage. The food changes along with the carriages, so you get the chance to try a variety of different beers plus some fairly simple local dishes. I’m a vegetarian and I was a bit worried about the food situation, but it was fine … nothing massively exciting but the staff in general were willing to accommodate. The prices were fairly reasonable and we ate in the restaurant once a day.
For our other meals, we took lots of packeted food that just required hot water – pasta, packet soup and porridge, plus hot chocolate and cups of tea. It was quite fun and felt a bit like an extended camping trip. You have the opportunity to get off at various stations to stretch your legs, and you’re able to pick up bits of food there, so we got some fresh bread and fruit along the way.
As I said, my mum and I didn’t leave the train for sightseeing, but most of the other people on board did. When we got on in Beijing, our carriage was full with other tourists, but pretty much all of them disembarked in Mongolia to go horse trekking and stay in yurt. We then ended up with some more interesting neighbours, including a Mongolian throat singer and a Russian oil worker.
Each day, the train stops at a number of stations – these can be busy stations in large cities, or tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The train stops for anything from 5 to 30 minutes. There’s a schedule posted up in each corridor so you can check where you are and how long you have. It’s not really worth it (or safe) to get off during very short stops, but you should be okay with anything that’s more than 15 minutes. You won’t be able to do much in that time other than walk up and down the platform, possibly nip out and grab some snacks from a nearby shop, and maybe if you’re brave venture a little way out of the station so you can say you’ve properly stepped in that town!
I know this sounds monotonous and I was a bit worried that we’d get restless and bored on the journey, but I have to say that this wasn’t the case. I took a few books with me and loaded up my laptop with things to watch, but most of the time, the scenery we were passing through was so amazing that just looking out the window was entertainment enough. I didn’t actually do that much reading because whenever I sat down with a book, I’d suddenly see another interesting view and have to leap up to take a look.
You travel through such a variety of landscapes that everything is constantly changing and fascinating. You’ll pass through sprawling dusty Chinese cities with rows of half-finished tower blocks, collections of yurts in the middle of the Mongolian plains, people galloping on horseback alongside the tracks, little ramshackle farms with children waving at you from the yard, small colourful villages that look like they probably haven’t changed for centuries, gold-topped Russian churches and of course stunning natural scenery as well, including passing along the shore of Lake Baikhal (the world’s largest lake). The journey takes you across roughly a fifth of the world’s circumference, which isn’t really something I could comprehend until I gazed out at it unfolding from the train window.
Sorry, I realise this is getting quite long and possibly not that helpful! In terms of practical advice, I didn’t book the journey as I was already travelling, but my mum organised it through Go Russia. I would look into doing it independently, however, as travel companies do add a mark up. The biggest hassle was organising visas – companies such as Real Russia can do this for you, but if you’ve got the time it’s cheaper to sort this yourself directly through the embassies.
Any more specific questions, let me know!
The general info is good. I have some friends that have done it, and most of what you said aligns with their info, but it seems most people do it in the spring/summer. I’ve found that trains are running less frequently in the winter, and the stops might have different things to watch out for – less food, for example. Nevertheless, I definitely want to make a snow angel in Siberia haha.
I have a place to stay in Moscow (tentative), and possibly another at least one other stop along the route (they may or may not be traveling). I’m just trying to find out if some places are better in winter that might be skipped in the summer – such as a winter sport city.
The current plan is to do it independently, it’s much cheaper, and I’ve heard that it’s relatively easy to buy tickets point-to-point from friends that have done it the other direction. It will give me more flexibility as I go, but it’s just a matter of making sure I don’t get stuck somewhere for a week, when I would normally only spend a day or two.
My biggest concern is visas, honestly. The Chinese one should be OK, I don’t need one for Mongolia, but I’ve heard Russia can be really time-consuming, and as I’m already traveling, that may prove a bit of a challenge. That being said, Real Russia is based in London, so I can pop in there if I have to and let them handle that particular one for me if I’m running short on time. The other issue is filling in the planned stops, and invitations as I will likely be staying with locals in Moscow, and there’s definitely not enough time to get them to get the documentation in for me. I have heard that you can “plan” to stay at a hostel, and if your plans change once you have your visa it’s not an issue, but I don’t want to run into too many problems at the border if they ask for confirmation of booking, etc.
Yeah visas were definitely a big hassle for me as well – I was travelling whilst trying to get them, and I ended up having to go to Hong Kong to get the Russian and Chinese visa! I went through an agency, which was more expensive but I was willing to pay for the convenience; had I been in the UK I’d have tried to do it independently.
With the Russian visa, it does seem very complicated what with the official letter of invitation required etc., but you can buy this invitation online and really it’s just a formality – they don’t actually care where you’ll actually be staying. For me, the visa company I used just chose a random selection of Russian cities as my ‘stops’ along the way; I don’t think I even passed through most of them and it wasn’t an issue. They also had a list of hotels and chose one at random to put down the address. It’s mostly just bureaucracy for the sake of it, and you can easily jump through the hoops.
The Chinese visa was much simpler; I got it in HK and it only took a couple of days, but I think regardless of where you apply for it, they don’t require quite as much paperwork as Russia. Where are you at the moment? Is it easy for you to get to an embassy?
Just wanted to check about Mongolia – you say you won’t need a visa, is this because you aren’t passing through, or because of your nationality? Even though I didn’t disembark and stay in Mongolia, I still had to get a Mongolian transit visa, which I think is valid for 72 hours … this was really expensive and a bit of a blow considering that most of what I saw of Mongolia was through the train window! I’m sure you’ve checked already but just be careful that you won’t need this.
If you don’t have it already, you’ll probably want to get the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. I didn’t get this but luckily some of our neighbours had a copy so we were able to read through it, and it’s really useful. I think it has info on travelling in the winter, as well (which sounds absolutely amazing – I would love to see the snowy scenery!!). Lake Baikhal will be beautiful at that time. I’m quite jealous! ;-P
One thing I will say is that all the information my mum and I read, online and in this handbook, talked about the local women who will be waiting at each station the train stops at, with carts of delicious freshly-cooked regional food that you can buy extremely cheaply and use to supplement the food on the train. Now, I don’t know exactly what happened to them on our journey, but this was absolutely not the case at all – we didn’t come across a single food cart and it was very disappointing! We were able to buy stuff at station shops etc., but there definitely wasn’t an abundance of vendors walking up and down the platform selling their wares.
Again, sorry I can’t help with the specific info you’re looking for but it sounds like you have a good idea already – just get that book if you haven’t. I also found that the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum has a lot more up to date information – there isn’t a lot on gapyear about the Trans Siberian, but if you have questions you’re likely to get a quick answer on Thorn Tree.
I’ve heard that the women with the carts only go during specific times of year – maybe you were outside of that as well? Not sure. In any case, I’ll be stocked up on food supplies. Was there somewhere I can boil water on the train?
I’m definitely planning on picking up a book on the trans-siberian, just currently haunting a castle in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, so my resources are limited to the internet. (the randomness of traveling, haha). I’m hoping I can find something more specific or at least with comprehensive information on doing it in the winter as it’s a bit different during this time of year.
Canadians don’t need visas for up to 30 days in Mongolia. It’s definitely a bonus, as I had initially thought I would need one, and then realizing I didn’t – one less thing to worry about – I may or may not have done a mini victory dance haha.
I’m looking at applying for my visas in the UK. Had initially wanted to do at least one while in Ireland (and may still try) but as I’m planning on moving over to the UK pretty quickly, I can’t have my passport tied up at an embassy. Unfortunately, the Chinese one can’t be completed until after I leave Ireland as it’s too far in advance (3 month rule). It is possible for me to do the Chinese one in Moscow, but I’d like to have both before I head to Russia. I do know that Real Russia (and companies like it) can guarantee timeframes and have an office in London to help with at least the Russia one if I go this route, but I’m not sure.
How did you register your stay the first day there if you weren’t staying where you said you were (or did you?)? I’m assuming there are places you can go to register, but wasn’t sure if I even needed to worry about it.
I appreciate all the info!
Haha, I was inclined to think the women with the food carts don’t actually exist, but perhaps it could be that they only make an appearance at certain times. ;-P We did it in mid-May so you’d think they’d be around by then. Oh well, guess I’ll just have to do the journey another time to check!
Castle in Ireland sounds lovely! Like I said, check out Thorn Tree as I’m sure there will be people on there who’ve done it in the winter. I imagine it must be a gorgeous sight.
I would try and sort the visas before setting off, just to make sure you don’t end up being denied entry! I’m sure that Real Russia was able to organise all of the necessary visas (not just Russian), so if you do have limited time that might be an option worth considering – it would be more expensive, obviously, but you’d only have to send your passport away once and hopefully it would arrive back with everything sorted for you. Very lucky re the Mongolian visa, by the way!
It is no doubt different arriving in Russia from Europe, but for us, we entered Russia on the train from Mongolia and immigration inspectors came on board, collected everyone’s passports, took them away for a while and then brought them back with the entry stamps inside. It was very simple (although slow) and all we had to do was sit and wait. So we didn’t need to go and register anywhere and they didn’t seem to care that our first port of call was somewhere completely random that we clearly weren’t going to be visiting.
And finally, yes you’ll always have access to boiling water on the train – there’s a samovar (boiler) at the end of every carriage and that’s where you can make your cups of tea and pot noodles!
I wrote an article about independent travel in Russia – it may help with your visa
Good to know that boiling water is readily available! That was the one thing I wasn’t sure about – not sure I could go without a cuppa in the freezing cold for any real amount of time.
The castle is amazing. We’re haunting it – literally – for Hallowe’en. It’s been grand!
I did look into that, and the Chinesse / Russian ones can both be done in 10 business days with Real Russia combined. I’m thinking depending on time I might try to process it in Edinburgh as there is an embassy there, but I’ve made sure to check into that in case time doesn’t allow for it. Definitely don’t want to get stuck!
I have entered Russia from Europe before, but last time I cheated and took advantage of the 72 hours visa-free rule in St. Petersburg by boat – it was pretty straight-forward, and I’d imagine it’s the same at most border checks. Depending on cost and time, I might actually fly to Tallinn, Estonia and bus or boat across, but I haven’t gotten that far and have to be careful with that as my 90 days outside (I maxed out my Schengen time on Oct. 7) of Schengen will be tight… haha.
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