As the world’s longest railway, the Trans Siberian boasts some impressive numbers. It is 9,600km long and crosses six time zones, passing through a multitude of different terrain, from forest to mountain to desert and steppe. It spans two continents and goes through 90 cities, making up to 120 stops along the way. If you want to travel continuously from Moscow to Vladivostok, it takes six days. However, most people traveling the route for a vacation, rather than simple transport, will break the journey, hopping off at fascinating cities, ancient lakes and beautiful nature reserves along the way.
For much of the 19th century, foreign speculators petitioned to build a railway across Russia, but work only began on it in 1891, using funds purely from the Russian treasury. This was to become a national endeavour; a people’s project that would unite wild Siberia with the network of Russian railways that already existed further west. It was completed in 1916, but during the Civil War, many bridges were blown up and a great deal of track deteriorated. A major renovation of the line was completed in 1925 and it services have continued, without a break, since then.

There are two other lines that branch off from the main Trans Siberian: the Mongolian and Manchurian. The Trans Mongolian line was built from 1940 to 1956 between Ulan-Ude at Lake Baikal, across the Gobi desert to the Chinese capital Beijing. The Trans Manchurian coincides with the Trans-Siberian as far as Tarskaya, around 300km east of Baikal, then heads southeast into China, also terminating in Beijing.

Where to get off?

Lake Baikal is an established, must-see destination on the route, with most travelers getting off in Irkutsk on its western side. If you’d like to see a less-visited side of the lake, try hopping off in Ulan Ude on its eastern side. This is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, with a large Tibetan Buddhist population, where Buryat is spoken alongside Russian. Visit the huge statue of Lenin’s head in the central square and the open-air Ethnographic Museum, which has great examples of Siberian architecture, before heading for the lake.
Olga Sitnik, from our supplier ExploRussia, has this advice for breaking up a Trans Siberian Railway trip: “We recommend staying on the train not more than 30 hours or so. Why? It is simply starting to get boring. So try to get off the train and stay for a couple of days in different places which are not further than 30 hours by train from each other. We know it sounds like a lot, but you know, Russia is a big country! Usually there are cities worth visiting within an overnight train ride from each other. You can find all kinds of experiences along the way: great nature spots, culture, big cities, small villages, and depending on what interests you, you can decide which stops to make.”
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For trekking and lovely scenery, get off at Krasnoyarsk for Stolby Nature Reserve. Interesting, pillar-shaped mountains (stolb means pillar in Russian) are reached on well-marked trails through woodlands. If you’re after culture and science, Novosibirsk is the place to disembark. Novosibirsk is home to the Theatre of Opera and Ballet, where classical concerts also take place. It’s home to Akademgorodok, too, the educational and scientific center of Siberia, situated in beautiful forest on the edge of the city. The Novosibirsk State University is here, alongside 35 research institutes, a medical academy, apartment buildings and houses, shops and hotels.

Food & drink

If meals are included with your train ticket, expect pancakes or porridge for breakfast and a main meal and salad for lunch or supper. Be aware that vegetarian options often aren’t available. There is also a restaurant car on each train, serving food all day. Local people aren’t generally allowed to sell their goods at stations, but if you get off at smaller cities, stock up on good regional food, like porozhki (small pies with different stuffings), or dried fish, honey and tea for your journey.

How to travel

You can’t hop on and off the Trans Siberian with a single ticket, like an Inter-Railer in the 1980s! You have to buy point-to-point tickets that cover each section. That’s why organised tours that travel all or some of the Trans Siberian are so convenient, as they include all the train tickets, plus activities, transfers and accommodation at key stop offs. Summer is the most popular time to travel on the Trans Siberian, but vacations run in winter, too, and riding this epic train through the snowy landscape makes for a unique and unusual trip. If you hope to travel independently, be aware that during the summer in particular, local people use the Trans Siberian for their own trips and vacations, so tickets will sell out sooner – book early.

Two trains travel along the Trans Siberian. The Rossiya train offers a higher comfort level and it travels faster, stopping at just 90 cities. Train 100/99 travels a longer route and makes more stops (120). It only has second and third class accommodation, but it’s cheaper.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Bernt Rostad] [Topbox: Kyle Taylor] [Where to get off? (Ulan Ude): Jason Rogers] [Stolby NP: Ninara] [How to travel: Bernt Rostad]