The Trans-Siberian Railway is a long-distance rail line that crosses mountains, vast grasslands and desert, and runs alongside the shore of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
You might think that there’s just one Trans-Siberian Railway but, in fact, there are three main Trans-Siberian routes. The most famous Trans-Siberian line stretches for 9,289 kilometres between Vladivostok in far eastern Russia and Moscow in the west. The other two travel on both the Russian and Chinese rail networks.
The most well known of these is the Trans-Mongolian route, which covers a distance of 7,621 kilometres from Beijing to Moscow, and crosses the Gobi Desert. This is the most popular route with Western tourists. The other main line is known as the Trans-Manchurian line, and it covers 8,986 kilometres from Beijing to Moscow, via Manchuria.
What to expect on the Trans-Mongolian line
Because the Trans-Mongolian route is much more popular with Australian and other Western tourists, and most tend to stay on for the whole journey, we’ve concentrated on this route. The Trans-Siberian route is used more by Russians for hops between cities.
Day 1 on the Trans-Mongolian line
The Trans-Mongolian departs Beijing’s main train station with a sense of excitement, stirring through the carriages as the six-day trip begins at 11.22am.
Gradually, the high rise buildings give way to smaller houses and eventually you are in the countryside, passing craggy mountain ranges, scrubland and farms until the hills give way to grasslands stretching into the distance. You eat dinner in the Chinese restaurant car – stir-fried meat and vegetables is a typical meal. At 1:00 AM, the train arrives at the Chinese border town of Erlian. The carriages are lifted off the rails, and different gauge wheels are attached for travel along the narrower Mongolian and Russian lines. The Chinese restaurant car is replaced by a Mongolian one too.
Day 2 on the Trans-Mongolian line
The next day finds you in the Gobi Desert, an arid, sandy-brown expanse occasionally studded with yurts used by Mongolian nomads. There’s little to do but read, relax and look for the unique two-humped Bactrian camels. Lunch is mutton and rice and Mongolian beer. By mid afternoon, the desert has given way to grassy steppe, and soon you are arriving in Ulaanbaatar. An hour or so later, you are on your way again. The grasslands continue, flat and relentless, until you arrive at the Mongolian/Russian border that evening. Here, a Russian restaurant car is attached, and Russian tea, borsch soup and ham and eggs is on the menu, and new friends are waiting to be met.
Day 3 on the Trans-Mongolian line
The train follows the Selenge River north from the border, and in the middle of the night the train pulls into Ulan-Ude, and swings into the main Trans-Siberian route. In the morning, you are immersed in the gorgeous forest and water scenery along the shoreline of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. Then, at just before 11:00 AM, you can join other passengers stocking up on dried fish, sausages, chocolate and other snacks on the railway station at Irkutsk. Use the hot water from the samovar at the end of each carriage to swell up your instant noodles.
Day 4 on the Trans-Mongolian line
You are now in Russian Siberia, following a forest of silver birch trees broken occasionally by onion-domed churches, wooden villages and industrial cities like Novosibirsk – the third biggest city in Russia after Moscow and St Petersburg. It was founded in 1893 after the land was identified as a good place for a Trans-Siberian Railway bridge across the river Ob. Coming up to midnight, another industrial city emerges out of the darkness. You are now in Omsk, an important railway hub.
Day 5 on the Trans-Mongolian line
Siberia continues, seemingly forever, and your railway compartment feels more like home. Before noon, your train pulls into Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. This city is an industrial powerhouse, on the edge of Europe and Asia. Onwards the wagons roll, through valleys and through hilly terrain rather than mountains, and into Europe itself. Early that evening, you approach your last major stop before arriving in Moscow, the city of Perm, on the banks of the wide Kama River.
Day 6 on the Trans-Mongolian line
Your final morning on the train includes travelling past more silver birches, mixed with pines, until you are among the apartment blocks on the outskirts of Moscow.
Soon, the whistle is blowing, and your journey by train, spanning seven time zones and two continents, has come to an end.
How much does it cost to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway routes?
On standard Trans-Mongolian trains, which carry regular passengers and tourists, expect to pay around $1,700 in a two-person sleeping compartment, and about $1,060 in a second class four-person sleeping compartment if you were to buy your tickets through a ticket agent.
Trans-Manchurian train prices are around $1,900 in first class and $1,200 in second class.
To travel on the Trans-Siberian train, from Vladivostok to Moscow, it costs around $1,600 in a first class sleeper compartment, and $820 in a second class sleeper compartment. You can also find third class open-plan dormitory cars on some trains.
A Russian agency, called Real Russia, can book berths on any of the trains. They can also book various segments of the journey if you want to break it up.
Tickets are a bit cheaper than the prices above if you buy them directly from Russian Railways.
Another option is to travel the Trans-Siberian railway route from Vladivostok to Moscow on a more luxurious private train. Berths on the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, a privately run train operated by a UK company, offers 14-night trips with sightseeing and more for around $20,000 per person.
For much more information check out the Trans-Siberian railway section of www.seat61.com.