Riding the Trans-Siberian Railway
Spanning 5,753 miles of track and two continents, the Trans-Siberian is the journey of a lifetime. Here’s how to do it right.
By Andrea Minarcek, Friday, Apr 1, 2011, 4:00 AM
A view of Lake Baikal from Olkhon Island.
For more than a hundred years, the Trans-Siberian has been the stuff of travel fantasies, an epic trip into some of the world's most remote landscapes, through spruce forests, traditional villages, and sweeping steppes. It's possible to ride from Moscow all the way to the Sea of Japan in one long stretch (a whopping six days, two hours, and eight minutes), but breaking up the trip into legs is far more enjoyable.
Before buying your ticket, you should have a general idea of the stops you'd like to make along the way. Surprisingly, you can't buy hop-on hop-off tickets-only point-to-point ones. Bryn Thomas's Trans-Siberian Handbook is a handy place to start your planning, with profiles of each stop on the rail line. Or you can see it all with your own eyes: Google and Russian Railways recently debuted a series of videos that depict every minute of the Trans-Siberian route; visit google.ru/transsiberianvideo.
Whatever the itinerary, most travelers begin their trip in Moscow at the city's main Yaroslavsky Station. You can buy your tickets there in person within 45 days of departure, or book online at sites like bilet.ru/eng or russianrail.com. If you'd like to reserve seats further ahead, you'll have to go through a travel agency, which will charge markup fees of 15 percent or more. In general, budget at least $1,500 for train fare.
Get on Board
Many visitors are surprised to find all the train signs in Cyrillic-and only Cyrillic. But this year, Russian Railways is making navigation a bit easier by upgrading stations with helpful timetable screens. Until then, however, plan ahead: When purchasing train fares, it's best to hand the railway agent a written request to prevent any confusion. Visit budgettravel.com/transsiberianphrases for a printable list of useful, train-themed phrases written in Cyrillic, such as "Pardon me for not speaking Russian. May I please buy one second-class ticket to ____ city?"
Regarding which kind of ticket to purchase, most visitors opt for second class over a premium fare, which can be double the price. The coed kupey (koo-pay) compartments accommodate up to four overnight passengers on separate berths. They don't offer the privacy of double-berth premium cars, but you'll meet your fellow travelers, which, after all, is half the fun.
1 day, 1 hour, and 43 minutes minutes from Moscow
One of the most renowned cities in Russia, Yekaterinburg is full of historic sites: the gold-domed Church on the Blood, where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918; the 1912 red-brick Opera and Ballet Theatre; and the wooded 109-acre "mafia cemetery" (the Shirokorechenskoye Kladbishche) where famous 1990s criminals were laid to rest. Downtown, the 97-room, Soviet-style Hotel Iset is newly renovated. hoteliset.ru/eng, doubles from $107.
Center of the Line
2 days, 19 hours, and 20 minutes from Moscow
About 17 miles west of the small town of Nizhneudinsk, the Trans-Siberian reaches its halfway point, roughly the distance between New York City and Los Angeles. By now, most visitors should have learned a few rules of the rail: For instance, vodka is perfectly acceptable at breakfast, and the pieces of smoked fish sold for about $2
by babushkas at the stations are fresh and delicious. Also, no one commands more respect than the provodnitsy, the Russian Railways version of flight attendants. They collect tickets, sell snacks and bottles of beer for about $3, and serve free hot water for tea in ornate glass-and-silver steins. Treat them right and your trip will be all the smoother.
3 days, 3 hours, and 51 minutes from Moscow
Once considered "the Paris of Siberia," Irkutsk still draws visitors with its 19th-century mansions, but it's best known as the jumping-off point for Lake Baikal. Ringed by snow-covered mountains, Baikal is the largest freshwater body in the world and one of the more ethereal sites in all of Asia. From Irkutsk, local tour companies such as Baikal Club International arrange bus service to and from the lake, 40 miles south, for any day-trippers. baikalclub.com, one-way bus service from $5.
5-hour bus ride from Irkutsk, then a 30-minute ferry
Flanked by rocky cliffs, Olkhon Island rises like a fortress from Lake Baikal, with unsurpassed views of the water and jagged peaks beyond. The island's pine forests are filled with colorful prayer flags-a glimpse of the locals' unique Shamanic traditions-along with hiking trails and the occasional wild horse. At Nikita's Homestead, you can get a cozy private cabin, Russian-style sauna, and three home-cooked meals a day. olkhon.info/en, doubles from $54.
3 days, 10 hours, and 22 minutes from Moscow
Set at the edge of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude is home to Russia's most important Buddhist monastery, Ivolginsky Datsan. A 30-minute bus ride from the city center takes you to the sprawling complex of yellow- and green-roofed pagodas. The datsan has a small hostel for pilgrims on-site; be prepared to be awoken at dawn by the chants of the Buddhists gathered in the various temples. datsan.buryatia.ru.
End of the Line
6 days, 2 hours, and 8 minutes from Moscow
With icebreakers crowding its harbor, and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traders hustling its docks, Vladivostok is the busiest port city in Russia. From here, you could simply turn around and ride back to Moscow. Or take a nine-hour flight. For the cheapest fare, book with one of the aviakassy (ticket offices) scattered across the city or directly at the airport desk of a national carrier like Aeroflot Russian Airlines. Expect to pay around $300 for a last-minute ticket. aeroflot.ru/cms/en.
The Five Don'ts
1. Don't forget a second watch. The Trans-Siberian spans eight time zones, but all schedules are set to Moscow time.
2. Don't smile all the time. Russians consider it insincere-or dim-witted.
3. Don't say "Cheers." It's "Nazdarovye" (naz-da-rov-ye)! Master that and you'll have friends aplenty.
4. Don't sweat it. The Russian version of warm is broiling; pack light layers and bring some dry shampoo to freshen up (compartments don't have showers).
5. Don't turn down vodka. Ever. It's just plain rude. A sip is sufficient. And remember: Nazdarovye!