What does a Trans Siberian vacation entail?

Making sense of the Trans Siberian

Although we refer to the experience as the 'Trans Siberian' throughout this travel guide, there are actually three routes taking passengers from Moscow eastwards by rail – each with a different name. Firstly, the Moscow to Vladivostok route (the actual Trans Siberian) runs every other day, solely through Russia, and is the longest line at just over 9,250km. The second longest line (just shy of 9,000km) takes passengers from Moscow to Beijing via Harbin once a week and is known as the Trans Manchurian. The Trans Mongolian also makes one trip per week and is the shortest of the three lines at 7,621km as it cuts through Mongolia en route to Beijing from Moscow.
All three routes take about a week to complete and offer the most affordable and efficient means of travel for passengers using the train for work or to visit friends and relatives. Sleeping arrangements usually consist of first, second or third class compartments and correspond to the amount 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.

Why should I go on the Trans Siberian?

This is way more than just another train trip or means of getting from A to B; this is the longest railway on the planet and invites you to experience the wilds of Siberia, the depths of Lake Baikal and the rolling steppe landscapes of Mongolia en route to one of the world's most iconic, manmade creations: the Great Wall of China. Believe me, you will never look at a packet of dried noodles in quite the same way, ever again.

How long does the Trans Siberian take?

Although it is possible to travel from Moscow to Beijing or Vladivostok in a week, organised trips allow you to spend plenty of time off the train with several nights at guesthouses, homestays or Mongolian ger camps along the way. This not only breaks up the journey but also gives you a chance to meet local people, go sightseeing or stretch your legs during activities that range from boat rides on Lake Baikal to archery lessons in Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The Trans Siberian trips that we recommend can take anything from 12 days to three weeks with tailor made or small group options allowing travelers to experience life on and off the train at a relaxed vacation pace rather than a hectic commuter rush.

What can I expect on the Trans Siberian?

Basically, you're on a train for what could be a fair old amount of time. Moscow to Irkutsk, for example, takes the best part of four days (80 to 87 hours). What you do with your time is up to you which is why what you pack is pretty important, especially where food, recreation and comfort are concerned. For a nine compartment coach you can expect one wash room at either end of the corridor. You won't find any showers apart from in the first-class coach on the Trans Mongolian, so you can cross soap on a rope off your packing list.

At the end of each carriage there's an unlimited supply of boiling water in a large metal dispenser known as a samovar. Window slits can be opened along the carriage and in your compartment and there are also small heaters and air-conditioning to deal with summer and winter temperatures.
The section where one carriage attaches to the next is usually where you'll find the smokers, and passengers tend to stick to their own carriages rather than wandering about, unless they're heading to the dining car which offers snacks, meals, drinks and a change of scene. Meals onboard are fairly affordable but don't expect everything on the menu to be in stock. Aside from the dining car, and your own stash of dried food, it's possible to replenish supplies at platforms where you'll find vendors and elderly women (babushkas) selling everything from boiled eggs and beer to home-made cakes and salted cucumbers.
The person in charge of each carriage is known as a provodnik (male) or provodnitsa (female). These guards are responsible for ticket collection, linen distribution (towel, pillow and sheet per person), and making sure everything is shipshape and running smoothly. Not all will speak English and not all will smile; however, they will become as much a part of the experience as who you're sharing a compartment with. Finally, fellow passengers come in all shapes and sizes but don't judge a book by its cover as you're bound to discover some fascinating and entertaining stories locked away behind a seemingly unreadable façade.

What shall I pack for the Trans Siberian?

As mentioned, the samovar at the end of each carriage invites travelers to pack lightweight dried products that can instantly come alive with hot water. Noodles, Smash potato, tea, coffee, porridge etc. With this in mind it's essential to pack a bowl, mug and cutlery if you're intending on making the most of instant sustenance. Trips to the dining car and to platform vendors require Roubles in Russia, Yuan in China and Tugrik in Mongolia although US Dollars are also accepted, and currency can usually be exchanged on the train as you cross borders, with. Bring smaller denominations to help out small time vendors and dining car workers.
Packing toilet roll, wet wipes and a full first aid kit is advisable alongside standard washing items. Playing cards, books and games, like chess or travel games, are a good idea as are phrase books, stationery and travel guides. Although the majority of the passengers wouldn't dream of taking anything that wasn't theirs it's probably best to advise against packing any expensive pieces of kit that you're not prepared to lose as well as bringing a lock for your luggage, just to be on the safe side. Layers are the key where clothing is concerned and will depend on what time of year you're traveling and what you're planning on doing off the train rather than on it. Definitely pack your own pillow case, sleeping bag, ear plugs, eye mask, torch and alarm clock and anything else that you simply can't do without.

Organised tours vs. independent travel

There are plenty of tour operators offering small group or tailor made trips on the Trans Siberian. These sorts of organised experiences give you the peace of mind that visas, border controls and unforeseen circumstances are covered, as well as offering a great choice of accommodation, activities and excursions to enjoy off the train.
Tour leaders will usually be able to speak and read Russian which comes in very handy when trying to decipher Cyrillic script or asking just what it is that a fellow passenger wants to know. You can also make the most of the highlights or lesser-known facts along the way that a group leader or self guided trip notes are able to point out. Tour leaders will also try to ensure you don't miss a train when it's getting ready to depart from a station and the added assurance of 24hr assistance is often an invaluable option to put your mind at rest in the event of an emergency. In addition, Trans Siberian tickets are not hop on-hop off, so unless you are planning to stay on board the whole way, an organised trip is by far the easiest way to organise tickets for each leg of the train journey, along with homestays and private transport each time you spend time away from the train.

At the end of the day it's down to you how you travel on the Trans Siberian but as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it pays to make the most of the experience both on and off the train.
Photo credits: [What does it entail : Kyle Taylor] [Why should I go: Anthony Knuppel] [How long does it take: Michel Eisenriegler] [What can I expect: Bernt Rostad] [What shall I pack: John Pannell] [Organised tours vs Indi: Anthony Knuppel]
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Boccaccio1]