Information we used to plan our trip, and lessons learned from our 20 day Trans-Siberian trip from Moscow to Beijing.
Information sources for planning our trip
All of the information that we needed to plan our trip could be found in the 4 sources listed below. We did use other websites as well and they are listed in the Resources tab on this website.
- Trans-Siberian Railway by Lonely Planet
- Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas
- Real Russia
- The Man in Seat 61
Should I book a tour or do my own planning?
If you are traveling alone and do not speak Russian, I would recommend a tour. If you are not traveling alone, and if you are inexperienced travelers, I would also recommend booking a tour for this trip. An exception might be if you speak Russian. If you are an experienced traveler, or traveling with another experienced traveler, you can plan your own trip but I would recommend learning some basic Russian phrases and familiarizing yourself with the Russian alphabet.
When to start planning(if you are not taking a tour)
If you are not working full time, you could start planning as late as 2 months prior to departure, but I would not recommend this. Four months would be more reasonable. If you are working full time, you may need to start 5 or 6 months in advance.
Should I travel straight through on the ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’, or stop along the way?
For us it was much more interesting to stop each day and spend time in some of the cities along the way. However, it does appear that most tourists purchase one ticket and travel ‘straight through’, more or less non-stop. If you do travel straight through, you will be in the same compartment for the entire trip and you will be traveling with mostly Europeans. If you stop each day, as we did, you will end up taking several different trains and rarely see any Americans or Europeans. This is what we found on our trip.
Look for constraints and plan around them
We found that the train schedules from UlaanBaatar to Beijing had a large impact on our entire trip schedule. In the spring of 2011, trains departed UlaanBaatar for Beijing only on Friday and Sunday. So we actually ‘backscheduled’ our entire trip based on the train departure from UB to Beijing.
Visas and a Russian Invitation will be needed
If you have a valid passport, you will need to apply for visas for both Russia and China and also obtain a Russian ‘Invitation’. If you are American and you are staying in Mongolia for less than 30 days, you will not need a Visa. We were able to handle all of this by going through a company called VisaExpress.net in Houston, Texas. Houston is one of the few US cities to have consulates for both Russia and China. The entire process took about 3 weeks. Costs were as follows:
- Russian Visa $140
- China Visa $140
- Russian Tourist Invitation $30
- VisaExpress fees $88
- FedEx service charges $34
How to get Train Tickets
We reserved all train tickets online before we left home. We chose a UK company called Real Russia to purchase all of our train tickets and this worked very well for us. When you handle it this way, Real Russia will email you a confirmation along with a bar coded document that looks much like an airline boarding pass. But it is not a boarding pass, and it is not a train ticket. It must be exchanged for a real train ticket at your departure station. If you are like us and do not speak Russian, this can be an interesting endeavor the first or second time. See my travel journal. You do have 2 other options:
Real Russia has an office in Moscow and they will deliver all tickets to your hotel in Moscow. We probably would have chose this option except that our itinerary had us arriving in Moscow Friday afternoon and leaving late Sunday night. Real Russia’s offices were not open at a convenient time on the weekend, in case of any unexpected problem so we decided against this.
Another option is for Real Russia to mail you the actual tickets. We started planning too late to use this option, and it may also have been too costly.
Should I buy First Class Train Tickets?
This is going to be an individual choice. We tried all 3 classes that were available to us, and I’m glad we did it this way. First class is much more comfortable than second class but usually costs twice as much. Platskartney, the lowest class of sleeper is fine if you are on a tight budget and don’t mind being in close quarters with 30 other people for long periods of time. This may require some flexibility and tolerance. Kupe class, or second class, is a compromise in that you have a closed compartment for 4 passengers. Most likely you will be with passengers who speak a different language than you, so it depends on whether or not you are comfortable with this. You will have some ‘war stories’ to tell when you travel Platskartney or Kupe class! One option is to buy 2nd class tickets but buy all 4 seats, as first class tickets are not always available. This will be slightly cheaper than first class and give you more privacy. This would have been nice on a couple of the 30 hour train trips we took.
Note: On the train we took to Novosibirsk, females were required to be in different compartments than males(for Kupe class). In our compartment with us was a male Russian military officer but his wife was in the compartment next door which was all females. We did not encounter this on other trains that we took.
Total cost for myself for the 20 day trip was
Hotels 571 (cost for 2 was $1142 in total)
Create a detailed itinerary
Start with a rough list of places you want to see, but then create a more detailed itinerary. Here is the one we used:
English is not spoken widely in Russia, making travel in Russia more challenging than most European countries. We did find that English was spoken in most of the hotels we used, and those hotels were lower cost, 3 star hotels. We found that no English is spoken at most Russian Rail Stations, even at the ‘administrative’ windows. No English was spoken by any of the attendents on any of the trains that we scheduled.
I did study the Russian language for about 20 – 30 hours before I left. This allowed me to speak common courtesys such as ‘please, thank you, good morning, how much, where is…., I do not speak Russian etc. I thought this helped a lot. The biggest challenge with the language however is that is difficult to read without some study. For example the city Kazan is written in Russian as Казань. If you are not an organized tour, it will help to study cryllic and be able to convert Russsian to English and vice versa. If you do this, you’ll find that your ability to read some Russian will improve as you travel and make the trip more interesting.
Wifi was available in the hotels and some of the hostels that we used. Wifi was not available anywhere along the Trans-Siberian railway in 2011, including the railway stations. A Smartphone with 3G would be very useful for Russian travel especially on the railway. It would have been nice to have latitude and longitude stored on our photos. Google Maps would have been very helpful on our city walking tours. Also Google Translate is an invaluable tool for Russian travel!
If you bring a ‘hard copy’ map, make sure the map shows the Russian street names in Russian and not English. The street signs in Russia are in Russian only in most places so English on the map is not helpful.
We found only 2 ways to do laundry on this trip. The first is doing it by hand in a sink or bathtub in a hotel room. The second is to take your clothes to the front desk of the hotel where they will be sent out to a cleaning company. In the hotels where we stayed, there was never a washer or dryer available for anyone but the maids. On the hotel websites, laundry was always listed as a service of the hotel, but in reality it always meant that your laundry would be sent out for a fairly steep charge. We never saw a public laundromat in a any of the cities where we stayed.
There are very helpful videos on You Tube that deal with Russian Travel. For example, one of the first things you may do in Moscow is to take the Air Express Train from one of the airports to the city. There are some videos on You tube that show you exactly how to buy a ticket and board the train.
There are also some videos on using the Moscow Metro.
On the routes we traveled, we found no English anywhere in the Moscow Metro. At the Metro stations that I used, there were no ticket machines as there are in almost every other Metro in the world. We had to buy our tickets from a person at the kacca window. Do use the Metro in Moscow as it is a tourist attraction in itself. Just take your time and ideally do it with someone else. Write down your destination and key stops in Cryllic before you go! There are some internet sites with videos that you can study before you go.
You will cross as many as 8 time zones on this trip. Make sure you have the correct date and time set on your camera as this will help you identify locations of your photos when you return. We keep resetting our cameras to local time but this can make your photos display out of order in some cases. An alternative might be to use Moscow time, at least in Russia, as this is the time used in the train system.