It’s the most famous train journey in the world, and also the longest. It crosses Russia, the biggest country on earth from the European west, across the Ural Mountains and Siberia, to the Russian Far East on the Pacific Ocean through 7 different timezones.
The traditional Trans-Siberian route stretches almost 10000 kilometers from side to side. We’re talking about 7 full days if you’re traveling on the train non-stop. Other variations are also popular, such as the Trans-Mongolian between Russia and China via Mongolia, and the Trans-Manchurian which also connects Russia and China, however this one bypasses Mongolia.
What’s it like?
An epic journey through never ending natural landscapes, small towns and even some farms, where you can simply catch a glimpse into the daily routines of Russians and what makes them tick. Passengers would usually be eating, sleeping, playing games or cards, drinking vodka, and having occasional philosophical conversations. Some venture to explore other carriages in search of the illusive ‘Party Wagon’ (at least that’s how I’d like to call it), where if you’re lucky enough you might find a group of young people (sometimes English speakers) playing guitar, singing, drinking and playing games. So whether you want to socialize and meet as many other travelers as possible, or simply just spend the time quietly reading and inwardly reflecting, how you choose to spend your time on the Trans-siberian is entirely up to you (most of the time at least).
Where to stop along the way?
Unless you’re adventurous or even crazy enough to travel on the train non-stop for 7 days, I would definitely recommend making a few stops along the way. Of course you need to understand that these cities are not to be compared with the grandeur of Saint Petersburg or Moscow, but they’re quite simply some interesting pit-stops that provide the essentials after a night or more on the train, such as a hot shower, washing machine, WIFI and cooking facilities.
The Capital of the Republic of Tatarstan; A historical and ancient city with an unusual mix of cultures ranging from Muslim Tatar to Slavic as well as others, and a Kremlin which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The gateway to the Urals, Yekaterinburg is best known as the place where the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in 1918, and for ‘Ganina Yama’, the site where their bodies were dumped and seven chapels were constructed, one for each member of the royal family.
A nice little city in the middle of Siberia known for some old streets and typical Siberian wooden houses. Just outside the city you can go hiking in the Stolby Nature Reserve which has a collection of fascinating volcanic rock pillars scattered throughout the wooded hills.
Irkutsk. The capital of Eastern Siberia and the jump-off point to the area’s main attraction… outstading Lake Baikal, which contains 20% of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water supply, and is the deepest lake in the world. For the best views of the lake, head to Olkhon Island which is an attraction on its own with its wooden houses and dirt roads.
Located close to the border with Mongolia, it’s considered as the center of Buddhism in Russia. Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia, home to Russia’s largest indigenous people, the Buryats. Interestingly enough it’s also the home of the world’s largest head statue of Lenin!
Hostels are a recent arrival in Siberia, and they tend to be no more than a couple of rooms with bunk beds in a residential flat. Before booking your hostel check your train arrival schedule and inform the staff of your arrival times by email or phone, to make sure there’s someone there to check you in or perhaps arrange for a pick-up option which you could definitely benefit from… I mean who wants to be stranded outside at night in Siberian temperatures!
What to pack
Food & Drink: Instant noodles seem to be the meal of choice for most travelers, along with basic snacks, oatmeal or porridge, fruits, chocolate bars, crackers as well as tea bags and coffee sachets. Vodka is optional but always a good idea 🙂
Keep in mind that you can always get meals on the train’s food cart or in kiosks located in the station whenever the train makes stops.
Clothing: shorts or pajama pants (depending on the weather), slippers or flip flops.
Toiletries: soap, toothbrush & toothpaste, wet wipes, hand gel and tissue paper.
Entertainment: books, games, and a deck of cards.
What to expect
-Pillows, sheets, blankets, and a towel are provided.
-Each carriage has a toilet on each end.
-A few electrical outlets are located inside the wagon or next to the toilets.
-Boiling water is available on every wagon, opposite the attendant’s compartment.
-Garbage bins are located opposite the toilets on one end of the carriage.
The Trans-siberian is not just a train ride; it’s one of life’s most interesting and exciting experiences, a spiritual quest even. It’s a mixture of climbing a volcano and going on a meditation retreat. It’s something avid travelers should do at least once in their lives.