I’ve always thought we’d travel on the Trans Siberian Railway I just didn’t realise it would be this summer. When Thom said he wanted to go to Eastern Russia, or Mongolia, I went to the library to look up guide books and came across the Trans Siberian Railway Lonely Planet book. A quick flick through and I realised we could go to Eastern Siberia and Mongolia (and also Beijing to see the sites we didn’t see during our first China trip), on the train! The only other overnight train ride I’ve done before is the Caledonian Sleeper Train from London to Scotland and that’s not even that long. We’ve done a lot of overnight bus journeys together but travelling on the Trans Siberian Express, or more specifically, the Trans Mongolia Railway, would be a whole new experience.
We didn’t really know what to expect when it came to travelling on a hard sleeper ticket on the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and then the Russian train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. Somewhere I’d read that the toilets would be squat toilets and that the bunk beds would be three beds high with no room for us to sit up, and too short for Thom to lay flat. Luckily this wasn’t the case at all and we were more than pleasantly surprised.
If you’re planning to travel by train from Russia to China on the Trans Siberian Railway, the Trans Mongolian Express or the Manchurian Railway here’s a guide to what to expect and how to travel the Trans Siberian Railway.
About the Trans Siberian Railway
The Trans Siberian Railway is one of the world’s best rail journeys. This train across Russia brings together unique landscapes; from the Gobi Desert to the world’s largest freshwater lake and hundreds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
The Trans-Siberian Railway was once called the “fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars”. Nowadays it’s the Trans Siberian Railway refers to the tracks that fan out from Moscow in Russia and cross seven time zones to the Pacific edge of Asia.
No matter which route you take along the 8,986km of track, your Trans Siberian journey will be packed with unforgettable moments. From Moscow’s Red Square to hiking the Great Wall of China just outside of Beijing, discovering Siberia and experiencing the festival of Naadam in Mongolia.
The journey is long and slow (average speeds are 60km/h), but that’s all part of the fun and the highlight of our two weeks spent travelling the Trans Mongolian Railway was definitely the train journeys. The trains are comfortable, even in the amusingly named “hard sleeper” carriages, and if you, like us, tend to pack your days full of activities when travelling, the train gives you a chance to slow down and relax.
Where does the Trans Siberian Railway start and end?
Wondering “where is Trans Siberian railway?” The main, longest route on the Trans Siberian Railway goes from Moscow in western, European Russia, to Vladivostok in eastern, Asian Russia. Of course, you can also go the opposite way by getting the Beijing to Moscow train.
However, there are also other routes of the Trans Siberian Railway.
The Trans Manchurian Railway goes from Moscow to Beijing without going through Mongolia and is 8,986km (5,623 miles). This was completed in the 1900s making it the older of the two routes going to Beijing.
There’s also the Trans Mongolian Railway which is the route we travelled on. The name kinda gives away the fact that this route of the Trans Siberian Railway goes through Mongolia on its way to Beijing. This route is 7,621km (4,735 miles) long and is considered to be one of the most interesting train trips.
Take a look at this Trans Siberian railway map which also has a Trans Mongolian railway map and Trans Manchurian map.
How long is the Trans Siberian Railway and how long does the Trans Siberian Railway take?
The Trans Siberian Railway is the longest journey in the world. The Trans Siberian Railway route from Moscow to Vladivostok takes 9,258km (6.152 miles) and takes 7 days.
How old is the Trans Siberian Railway?
The railway was built between 1891 and 1916 to connect Moscow with the far-east city of Vladivostok.
Best time to travel on the Trans Siberian Railway
The best time to ride the Trans Siberian Railway is between May and September. This is because you’ll get the longest hours of daylight and the best weather. Plus, you’ll be travelling through the freezing cold of Siberian so if you want to get off the train and explore, the summer months will be the most enjoyable.
If you want to travel the Trans Siberian Railway on a budget, tickets are usually cheaper in the winter.
How much does the Trans Siberian Railway cost?
I’d always assumed that taking the Trans Siberian Railway was the type of train journey that would cost an arm and a leg like the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find out that it’s not too expensive. Sure, it’s not cheap either and getting an overnight bus is definitely going to be cheaper but, if you see the journey as part of the adventure rather than just a means of getting to somewhere else, it’s totally worth the cost.
The Trans Siberian Railway price depends on two things: the route you’re taking and whether you want to travel in first, second or third class. On top of this, booking in advance through an agency online is going to cost you a lot more than if you are able to book in person at the station.
There’s a great breakdown of approximate prices here. This site gives the rough cost in euros for the whole routes as well as from city to city as you take the China to Russia train.
Another thing to consider when budgeting for your Trans Siberian Railway trip is whether you’ll be getting off the train. If yes, then factor in the price of hotels, food and activities too.
Note: Prices are in USD and these rail fares are a rough estimate, they’ll vary depending on when you travel.
Trans Siberian Railway tickets cost
If you do the Trans Siberian Railway in one go on the Moscow to Vladivostok train it’ll cost around $850 USD in a second class compartment. The Trans Siberian Railway 1st class ticket price is roughly $1330.
Cost of Trans Mongolian Railway tickets
The Trans Mongolian route from Moscow – Beijing via Mongolia in one go will cost about $715 US in second class and first-class tickets on the Trans Mongolian Railway costs around $1050 US.
Cost of Trans Manchurian Railway tickets
A second class ticket on the Trans Manchurian Railway costs around $742 US and a first-class ticket is about $1175.
How to book Trans Siberian Railway tickets
Nowadays you can book your Trans Siberian tickets online in advance. This is recommended if you’re travelling during the summer months since this is the busiest time, especially if you want to travel in first-class since there are fewer first-class carriages.
I’d read that you had to book in advance as the trains all sold out but, given a ticket mishap we had, I now know that this isn’t always the case. What actually seemed to happen was that the tour companies you book through have a specific allocation of beds. They may sell out quite far in advance, but you can usually still buy some tickets at the train station.
Having said that, if you’re only travelling for a short period of time and want to make double-y sure that you get tickets still book in advance. If you’re in the area for a few months and can afford to have your journey delayed by a few days on the off-chance that they are all booked up, then save some money and book in person a few days before.
Another thing to note is that if you’re breaking your journey up you’ll have to book your tickets through a company from that country. E.g. we broke our journey up by spending a few days in Beijing, a week in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and finally a few days in Irkutsk. We booked our tickets through CITS (a Chinese travel agency), but they had to use a Mongolian company to book the Mongolian leg and, had we wanted further train tickets in Russia, we would’ve had to have used a Russian website to book that.
Where to book Trans Siberian Railway tickets
Recommended websites to book train tickets through include:
- Russian train booking sites: Russian train tickets can be bought from Russian Railways & Transsib.com
- In China: CITS – this is the company we used. Fast & easy communication
- Mongolia train tickets: Can usually use a Russian or Chinese ticketing company but you’ll find they probably use New Juulchin Tours.
How far in advance should you book Trans Siberian Railway tickets?
If you’re travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway in summer then look to book your train tickets about 3 months in advance. This way you should be able to get the class of tickets you want as well as the dates.
We booked ours 2 months in advance and on the dates we wanted to travel the only class left was hard sleeper (which actually turned out fine!).
What are the different classes on the Trans Siberian Railway
There are three classes of travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway and on some of the trains there are actually only 2 classes.
We travelled on the K23 between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar and the 3 Between Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk and stayed in hard sleeper on both. We also walked up and down the train to see what the other classes were like.
Hard sleeper on the K23 and 305 trains
We’d originally wanted to book the soft-sleeper beds on the Trans Mongolian route but were told they were already sold out. Therefore we booked hard sleeper tickets and were pleasantly surprised by how comfortable they were. In the end, we were very glad we hadn’t spent so much more money on the soft-sleeper beds.
The hard sleeper beds on the Trans Siberian trains have 2 bunk beds so 4 beds in total. There’s a small table, a few charging points under the table, and linen and blankets are provided. Each bed also has a personal reading light so you can carry on reading if others in your berth are sleeping.
The beds were pretty comfortable on both the Russian and Chinese trains; more comfortable than some hotels we’ve stayed in!
The carriage has a western-style toilet at each end and a big water boiler which you can use for hot drinks and instant noodles. The Chinese train, the K23, also had a couple of sinks outside of the toilet for washing both yourself and any mugs.
Soft Sleeper class on the train from China to Mongolia
We almost booked this and were glad we didn’t since it cost a lot more and didn’t seem to offer anything extra.
The soft sleeper berths are still for 4 people and seemed to have the exact same beds. There’s also a table and some plug points. The only difference seemed to be that they had a water thermos on their table which we did not. However, for $93US extra I’d rather walk to the water boiler and fill my mug!
The train from Mongolia to Irkutsk didn’t have a soft sleeper class or a dining car. So make sure you’ve bought plenty of snacks with you for the journey.
Trans Siberian Railway first class compartments
Trains Siberian first-class carriages and Trans Mongolian Railway first class compartments sleep just 2 people. The beds are still bunk beds but they’re both on the same side and then in the empty space, there’s an armchair. The bedding also seemed to be a bit more luxurious.
You still have to share bathrooms as with the other carriages.
If you’re positive you don’t want to share your journey with anyone else then book a first-class train ticket for that privacy. Personally, I think part of the experience is meeting some new people on the ride!
Is there much storage in the compartments?
There’s plenty of storage in all the compartments. We were travelling with one big backpack each and then one smaller day bag. There’s plenty of space underneath both bottom bunks to fit a large suitcase or backpack. In addition, there’s storage in an alcove above the door to your compartment.
What happens on the border crossing on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
When travelling on the Trans Mongolian Railway you’ll have to cross two borders. One as you go into Mongolia and the other as you go into Russia (or into Mongolia and China if you’re travelling eastbound).
We’d heard lots of crazy stories about the border crossing along the Trans Siberian train route but, other than being long, nothing out of the ordinary happened to us. Here’s what to expect from the border crossings on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Border crossing from China to Mongolia on the Trans Mongolian Railway
The border crossing on the China to Mongolia train on the Trans Mongolian Railway takes a long time. We arrived at the last town before the border around 8 pm and the border crossing wasn’t complete until about 2 am.
First, you’ll pull up at the town of Erlian where guards will come onto the train and take your passports from you. You’ll then be bumped along the track to a garage where the train is split into two. You’ll then be lifted up into the air and the train’s gauges (where the wheels go) are changed. This is because the railways in Mongolia and Russia are larger than in China. This is a long process that involves a lot of shunting of carriages. So, even though it’s the middle of the night you probably won’t get much sleep. However, it is quite interesting to watch what’s going on.
Once this is completed, you’ll head back to the station on the Chinese side. The guards come back on, check you against your passport and hand it back and have a quick check there’s no one hiding under your beds.
Then it’s about 20 or so minutes to the first Mongolian station. Here the guards come on again (they were a lot more smiley than the Chinese), take your passports for a few hours, come back on, check the compartments and hand back the passports.
We weren’t allowed off our carriage at any point during this border crossing, although some people in other carriages had got off at the station and sat inside the station while we were transferred to the garage. We also couldn’t use the bathroom for the whole 5 hours so make sure you’ve gone before you’ve reached the station!
What’s the border crossing on the Trans Mongolia Railway like between Russia and Mongolia?
The crossing between Russia and Mongolia is much the same except that there’s no changing of the train gauges. It also happens overnight so your sleep will be disturbed and still takes about the same amount of time.
The guards in Russia were more thorough with their checks of the compartment and even got a torch out to check no one was hiding.
Life on the Trans Siberian Railway
If you’re travelling the full length of the Trans Siberian train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok or to Beijing, there’s going to be a long stretch of time where you ride the train non-stop. For us, the max was about 36 hours, but Moscow – Irkutsk, for example, is about 3 day’s worth of train travel.
When you’re planning on spending that long on the train, it’s nice to have an idea of what to expect beforehand. Here are a few things I’d have found useful to know.
What’s the food situation on the trains?
The trains usually have a food car although there wasn’t one on our train between Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk. These food cars change depending on the country you’re travelling through, both in style and food served.
The Chinese food car was pretty plain looking (especially when compared to the Mongolian one!). They served mostly meat and vegetable dishes with rice on the side. They were reasonably priced at around 30RMB for each main dish and 15RMB for rice.
TOP TIP: Get to the food cart early. On our trip from Beijing – UB, the cart opened for dinner at 4 pm. We went at 5 pm and the cart was pretty much full. By 5.30 they’d sold out of most dishes on the menu.
The Mongolian food car was added at the border crossing. This was a super fancy car with ornate, golden finishes. They served big pots of tea and more of a get-what-you’re-given type dinner. The two people we shared a compartment with went for food in the Mongolian car and it seemed a lot more expensive than the Chinese one. They said they were just presented with various dishes and charged 200RMB for it. Maybe that was because they didn’t have Turog, maybe not, but that price is just something to be aware of.
Outside of the food cars, there weren’t many opportunities to get extra food. I’d read that there were people at every stop selling noodles, drinks and other snacks, but I only saw this once at one of the stops in Mongolia. Some of the bigger stations have small convenience stores where you can grab snacks but it’s best to take plenty with you (see packing essentials below!).
What is there to do on the trains?
Travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway is a great way to force yourself into relaxing. There’s isn’t a whole lot to do but that’s what I loved about it.
I read books, wrote my travel diary, played cards with the others in our compartment, ate snacks, drank beer, listening to podcasts and watched the landscapes outside change.
Can you charge electric items on the train?
Yes! There were two outlets within our compartment, plus some in the hallway too. It’s a good idea to have a battery pack too, but don’t worry about your phone running out and not being able to charge it at all.
Can you get off the trains?
At a lot of the Trans Siberian railway stops you can get off the trains. However, this seems to depend a little on the guard for your carriage. While we were stuck on our carriage during the border crossing from China to Mongolia, other carriages were allowed off.
Before you get off the train, make sure you check the train’s schedule (it’s printed out and on show on every carriage) so you know to get back on the train at the right time. Sometimes the train stops for just a few minutes, other times it’s 30 minutes plus.
Also, remember to take some money and your passport and visas with you just in case you do miss the train. That way you can get a taxi to the next stop and get back on the train.
Most of the time there isn’t much to do once you’re off the train and you can’t leave the station. You usually only get off if you want to stretch your legs a bit more, or buy some drink or noodles from the sellers on the station.
IMPORTANT: If you plan to get off the train and stay in a certain city for a day or two, you’ll need to book a ticket to that exact station and then book another ticket for your onward journey. You cannot book a direct ticket from Moscow – Beijing and then stay in another city along the way.
How often does the Trans Siberian Railway stop?
The train stopped quite a few times along both journeys. Here’s a picture of the Trans Siberian Railway timetable for the trains we took. I don’t think they change much (if ever), so this is a useful Trans Siberian Railway itinerary for you.
What time zone do the trains use?
There are 11 time zones if you’re travelling the full length of the Trans Siberian Railway. That’s a lot of time changes and it gets even more confusing than you’d think since the Trans Siberian uses Moscow time. That means that if you’re leaving from Moscow and heading eastbound the train timetable sticks to GMT+3 times. It’s a good idea to keep your watch to Moscow, or set Moscow time on your phone. This will help stop you from missing your train or arriving way too early.
Since we were travelling Westbound and didn’t catch trains once in Russia, there were no time changes to make. Beijing, Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk were all on the same time zone. The trains left from China and Mongolia and so used the local time zone rather than Moscow time.
What to pack for the Trans Siberian Railway
There are a few things you can pack that’ll make your Trans Siberian Railway journey a lot more pleasant. I’ve listed my top 5 items to pack below. You can see my full Trans Mongolian (but will work whichever route you’re taking) packing list here.
- At least 1 good book: I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux while on the train.
- Some snacks and water: instant oatmeal is great for the morning, as is instant coffee. We also had noodles for lunch or dinner. Also, take plenty of water (we had a big 5L bottle). You’re not going to want to drink water straight from the sink.
- Cash: For the dining cars and if you want to get off the train for snacks. Make sure you’ve got multiple currencies depending on which countries you’re going through.
- A sleeping bag liner: While the sheets were clean enough, there were a few questionable stains so having a liner is nice.
- A travel mug and water bottle: To be filled with water, tea, beer or wine!