The Trans Siberian & Mongolian Express

Trans Siberian Express

There are three ways to cross Asia by train, and they all come under the Trans Siberian umbrella. The first and most famous is the Trans Siberian Express, which is also the longest at 9,250km. It only runs through Russia – so lots of vodka and samovars, and a lot less border bureaucracy compared with those which cross into China. The Trans Siberian links Moscow with Vladivostok, a port city on the east coast, near the Chinese and North Korean borders. Whether you choose a small group vacation or a tailor made trip, you’ll need to set aside around two weeks if not more in order to stop off in some of the key places en route.
On the Trans Siberian Express you can travel east to west, or vice versa. If you start in Moscow, you will want to take time to immerse yourself in its contemporary and historic wonders, before that exciting moment of boarding the train in Yaroslavsky Station. The first popular stop is Suzdal, one of the glistening jewels on Russia’s Golden Ring where a string of ancient churches includes the Suzdal Kremlin. Then you hit a long stint, with 26 hours of mountain magnificence through the heart of the Ural Mountains en route to Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia. Then into Siberia itself and the fascinating town of Irkutsk, with time out on Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world, a must. You can take a separate seven-hour train ride around it to really get the picture. Finally you’ll journey from here to Vladivostok, with its full on marine and military history, as Russia’s main naval base.

Trans Mongolian & Trans Manchurian Express

This is one of two routes between Moscow and Beijing, although it is possible to start the rail journey in St Petersburg, either on the high speed, four-hour train, or the famous Krasnaya Strela (Red Arrow) sleeper train. From Moscow, you begin a 7,621km journey between the two iconic cities, via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Or vice versa. The first few stops are similar to the Trans Siberian, but once you’ve passed Lake Baikal you head to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. As well as exploring this city, with a somewhat drab and functional vibe still reminiscent of Soviet times, you also get to explore its Terelj National Park and stay in a traditional ger camp. Here, you can spend time with Mongolian people, to discover their extremely welcoming and rich culture.
You’ll arrive at Beijing after border controls, lots of bureaucracy, a change of currency and a change of wheels. Really. Beware the bogies, the name for a set of train wheels, which have to be changed as the Mongolian and Chinese track gauges are different. It’s all part of the fun. This trip departs once a week.
The Trans Manchurian route is the third option, and is also a once a week affair between Moscow and Beijing, missing out Mongoia. It passes through Harbin, an extraordinary Chinese city which was built by Russian emigrants fleeing the Revolution in 1917.

What do these trips entail?

On all of these trips, your trains and seats are booked for you, whether you are traveling as part of a small group or on a more independent, tailor made trip. The advantage of traveling with a group, and tour leader who speaks the local languages, is that they help you with border controls, visas and any other hiccups en route.
Depending on the route you take, there will be a certain amount of nights spent on board the trains, although itineraries also include lots of time in situ, staying in hotels or small guesthouses. When on board, sleeping arrangements usually consist of first, second or third class compartments. These correspond to the number of bunks per compartment, the size of the bunks and the amount of compartments per coach. The trips that Responsible Travel recommend make use of first or second class compartments with no more than four bunks per compartment and no more than nine compartments per coach. There are managers in charge of each carriage who, in Russia, are known as a provodnik (male) or provodnitsa (female). They do everything from collecting tickets to distributing your bed linen, and shrugging shoulders in the most inimitable way when there is a delay, or food runs out on the menu. But that is a common unspoken language on many rail networks around the world.
Travel Team
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Trans Siberian & Mongolian Express tips

Why choose the Trans Siberian Express?

Rachel Wasser, from our supplier G Adventures: "I spent a few years running the Trans Mongolian as a tour leader so that trip definitely holds a special place for me. It’s so fantastic to cross three different countries with different food, languages, cultures and landscapes. It’s a great mix of getting out and exploring and downtime on the trains watching the taiga forests of Siberia whizz by."

Cultural tips

Olga Sitnik, co-founder of our tour suppliers ExploRussia, shares her local knowledge of Russia: “Stereotypical, non-smiling Russians do exist; however, be aware that smiling is considered to mean that you want something which is why it rarely takes place with strangers. A few words of Russian spoken by a foreigner, especially an offer of hot tea, will unlock those smiles and break the ice over the course of a long train journey. But remember – Russia is so vast that it can often provide a cultural shock for its traveling citizens too. Don't be surprised if you ask a few questions about Siberia and are met with equal bewilderment.”

Food advice

Anna Rice, from Responsible Travel offers non-meaty alternatives: “The dining car is definitely worth visiting at least once and provides an opportunity to get out of your cabin, stretch your legs and talk to a few new, or familiar, faces. The menus are quite meat heavy but there are usually one or two vegetarian options; bring a phrase book with you to help you translate or ask the dining car attendants to be on the safe side.”
Olga Sitnik, co-founder of our leading Trans Siberian Express supplier, ExploRussia, also shares her advice on what to eat: “If a fellow passenger offers you some food, make sure you take them up on the offer. Grandmas, especially, often insist their grandchildren take far too much food on a long train trip, so much so that they're often happy to lighten their load by offering it around the carriage.”

What to do in the Winter

Chris Owen from Responsible Travel braved the Trans Siberian in January. He shares tips on winter trips: “Get as much daylight as possible and don't be tempted to hibernate for the entirety of the trip. Heaters are in every cabin and there's just something about wrapping up warm and braving the elements at every station that makes the Trans Siberian Express in the winter like nothing you've ever experienced before.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kyle Taylor] [BANNER: Kyle Taylor] [What do these trips entail?: Anthony Knuppel] [Cultural tips: Anthony Knuppel] [Food advice: Annie and Andrew]