Sunday, April 29, 2012

Trans Siberian Railway - The Making Of An Epic Journey

We've talked about Russia.  We've talked about Mongolia.  And we've covered our trip in Beijing.

What's missing?  The train journey that took us there - the Trans Siberian Railway.

Traveling in January during the dead of winter, we would cover some 5,000 miles across multiple timezones, through vast empty landscapes and sprawling cities.  So, without further ado, here is our take on the epic Trans Siberian Railway journey.  It's not in our normal blog style but we wanted this to be informative while passing on the stories along they way.  Its long and I mean long, but its full of good information and stories.  I've added a table of contents to help a with navigation. Enjoy!


One of the misconceptions about the Trans Siberian is that it is one train.  There actually is no single train called the Trans Siberian.  It refers to the network of railways than run across Russia and Siberia ending at various destinations extending beyond the borders of Russia.  In saying that however, you can take one train from Moscow to Vladivostok which is a seriously long way, but most of the time travelers take a series of trains instead, opting to do a little sight seeing while breaking up the journey.  The three common routes are called the Trans-Siberian (to Vladivostok), the Trans-Manchurian (to Beijing via China) and lastly, our route, the Trans-Mongolian (to Beijing via Mongolia).

We took the easy way out and had an agent book all of our train tickets in advance after we customized the trip.  It was more of logistics help than a guided tour.  The agency booked all of our train tickets, hotels, a few transfers to/from the stations, walking tours or guides in each city and even one bonus outdoor activity in Yekaterinburg.  

Why did we go with an agent?  At the end of 2011 we were both busy at work, trying to organize our international move from London to the US which included organizing our cats’ importation, trying to say goodbye to nearly 5 years of friends and colleagues by having Christmas and/or leaving drinks/dinners almost every night, Christmas shopping and trying to pack and plan for 5 months of travels.  This meant we just didn't have the bandwidth to do the research or planning needed to buy the tickets ourselves.  We paid a premium for it, for sure, but that was the only way it was going to happen for us.

Russian Visa

The Russian visa process wasn't nearly as difficult for us as we thought.  We had heard horror stories of pages and pages of forms and providing endless documentation of your finances and/or employment.  Other than a normal amount of visa paper work we did have to book the train and hotels before we had a visa.  It seems backwards and is a little unsettling for the what-if scenario, but its common practice when traveling to Russia.  Once you book your hotels and/or tours then the hotel or tour company provides you with the essential "invitation" that you need for the visa application.  We thought this was all simple enough.   

Travel Guide

Almost as important as the tickets, we also promptly bought Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian handbook – an absolute essential guide book for your journey.  In addition to giving you a guide for all the cities you could possibly stop in, it also gives you a kilometer-by-kilometer guide of what you are seeing outside the window.  The only catch is seeing the markers.  They are next to the track and the best way to see them is to smash your face up against the window and wait for one to fly past hoping to make out the number.  It took a little practice but we got the hang of it.

It was fascinating to be passing a small unassuming town and to know interesting historical, political or other random facts.  One of the best was being made aware that you can see the Great Wall from the train.  Thanks to the timetable posted in each train car which showed the timing and duration of each stop for that particular train, we knew what time we'd be approaching the Great Wall.  

So, the next morning we woke early and started our morning ritual of instant coffee.  With our faces smashed against the windows looking for kilometer markings, we finally arrived at the range where the Great Wall should be within view.  Ok, so where is it?  It is supposed to be this great, massive structure, right?  Kilometer after kilometer passed and we weren't seeing anything.  There were mountains in the distance and we knew for sure it should be somewhere on the mountain edge or base but we found nothing.  So, we pulled out the zoom lens and began inspecting the mountains through our camera.  Ah!  There it is.  No wait.  Hang on, that can't be it.  There it is, I think...

Sure enough, it was there.  A thin, small line at the base of the mountains.  The barren mountains were the color of golden sand and the wall was made of rocks in the same shade making it quite difficult to spot.  The view from the train was a little anti-climactic but without the book we wouldn't have known to even look for it.  Even though seeing it at such a distance, it really built the anticipation of seeing it in person!  

We ended up reading the handbook cover to cover and loved every page – sadly, we left our copy on a bookshelf in a Beijing hostel to save on weight…I was actually looking forward to having it proudly on a bookshelf in our home.

Boarding the Train

We began our journey in St Petersburg, Russia, standing on the platform ready to embark on one of the greatest train journeys on the planet.  We were full of excitement and itching to get started.  This was the first of our four legs taking us to Beijing, but it was the shortest leg.  We are planners and don't like being unprepared so this was the perfect way to start for us - a quick journey almost like a trial run to get a better picture of what was ahead.  After that leg we could re-evaluate, picking up any needed supplies or making any changes for a more comfortable ride.  At the station we watched intently as others boarded the train, looking for routines and tips.  Do what the locals do right?

For these train journeys it is helpful to get there as early as possible for two reasons.  First, to give yourself plenty of time to find your carriage.  Running to a carriage at the other end of the platform with all your luggage isn't fun.  Second, to try and be the first people in the cabin so you can get settled before the crowd arrives.  Get in, pull out what you need and store your bags, so you can relax as you meet your fellow cabin mates.

Boarding our first train was fairly straightforward, even with the cabin attendant only speaking some English.  We showed our tickets and passports then were allowed to board.  The first thing we noticed was the temperature on the train, it was HOT!  We quickly tucked our bags away awaiting our cabin mates who arrived early too.  They were a young Russian couple and in watching them settle in the cabin, we took notes.  They had a more comfortable set of clothes/pajamas easily accessible which they pulled out to change in to.  They immediately stored their main bags and had a separate smaller bag that had "train provisions" such as their food, forks, napkins, drinks, etc. which they just slid under the bottom seat (our version included a few extra items below).  After they settled in we found that he could speak a little English which made for some light conversation.

Our Train Provisions Bag

The guide book mentioned above prepares you well for this but we wanted to add our two cents of what we immediately pulled out of our bags upon boarding:  
  • thinner/cooler/more comfy clothes - it was hot on the train and we often needed to peel off the thermals and layers we had been city touring in.
  • train shoes - any kind of flips flops, house shoes or slide on shoes.  You don't want to be doing up laces every time you want to walk around or go to the bathroom.  Josh didn't have any slide on shoes for the first train but lucked out that our lovely Yekaterinburg hotel had those free cheap house shoes for use in your hotel room.  They wore out by the time we got to Beijing but perfectly fit the bill!
  • silk sleep sacks - we didn't need much covering at night; these are lightweight and we enjoyed the freshness of our own sleep sacks.  These babies are one of our favorite pieces of travel gear, by the way!  Expensive, yes, but they are very comforting in "rough" sleep environments.  
  • toilet paper - the bathrooms often run out of this necessity.  Plus what's stocked on board is worse than tissue paper.
  • anti-bac hand wipes - self explanatory, I think.
  • baby wipes - for everything other than your hands...again, hopefully self explanatory given you're on a train for many hours/days without showering facilities.
  • reading material - we had paper guide books and Kindles - perfect!
  • Thermos and/or thermal cups - we had a 20 oz. travel mug that we used to transport hot water from the samovar to our cabin to make coffee in our mugs or cook our pot noodle dinners.
  • our food bag which we slide under the lower bench seat, complete with a pack of small plates, forks, knives, spoons, normal plastic cups, vodka shot sized plastic cups and napkins.  The larger grocery stores in cities along the way aren't unwise - they have handy little packs of all of these mentioned goodies.  We couldn't believe they even had the vodka shot cups!  Strange as it may seem, our guide pulled out one of these packs the day we went ice-fishing for our lunch so I guess they're not just used on the trains.
  • and plenty of cash, stashed safely in your waist belt of course, because we didn't see any ATMs easily accessible along the way.
Eating Onboard

This is a big topic since you don't have many options for food.  We ended up opting to eat mainly pot noodles for reasons below.

The Dining Car.

The book and lots of online blogs just rave about the dinning car.  Our experience however, didn't live up to the hype.

It was about 7:30pm as we entered the dining car on that first train from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  We expected it to be full, wondering if we'd get a seat or if we'd have to share and who we'd meet.  Opening the door most of the lights were off.  Walking to the bar we found some menus when a lady came out of the kitchen and flipped on the lights revealing a bright green spaceship looking dinning room.  But, we were the only customers.

Sitting down we brushed up on our Cyrillic and settled on a "hidden chicken dish, a pork dish with mushrooms and a side of potatoes to share.  They came out in about 10-15 minutes served on small salad plates.  It was a good thing we didn't have a massive appetite but they tasted good and we were satisfied.  As for prices, its not good value.  All in all, we paid about $25 without any drinks.  Not the best value but we didn't have any problems with the quality or taste.

Initially we'd budgeted dinner in the dining car every night.  It was supposed to be part of the experience and we would be happy to share some Vodka with a few Russians or whoever we could.  

On another train, we tried again.  The first was a shorter train journey and maybe people just didn't eat in the dining car on that train.  This time on the Mongolian bound train, the lights were on but the attendant and chef were watching a movie on the TV, again without any other customers at dinner time!  Although, one other passenger came in for a quick meal while we were ordering.

This menu had one page in English which made ordering a little easier, opting for a chicken dish and a beef dish.  They had different dish names and different descriptions but when they were served, each had the same topping of tomatoes, cheese, pickle and maybe a little mayo or sour cream looked exactly the same.  Since we were 2 of the only 3 diners, we figured the chef couldn't be bothered to make two distinctive meals.  The food was tasty and hit the spot.  The portions were bigger but it was more expensive.  A little over $30 without drinks.

When it came time to pay the bill it was higher than we expected.  We saw a page in the menu in Russian that said something then "10%" so we figured part of it was a 10% service charge.  But there was still another excess 100 rubbles we couldn't figure out.  Trying to tell the waitress our problem, I wrote down the price we thought we should be paying.  She shook her head and pointed to the laptop we had plugged in the electrical socket next to our seat.  Then she pointed to the extra 100 rubble charge on the bill.  Are you kidding?!  You're charging us to use the electrical socket?!  It was only about $3 but she wasn't having any part of us disputing it.  

The frustrating thing was that there were outlets in the hallways of the cabin cars that they don't charge for.  Tip for other travelers - use sockets wisely!

That was our last trip to the dining car.  Pot noodles won out.

Bring Your Own Food.

For most of our journeys we stocked up on groceries because that's just how we are.  Each train carriage also has a samovar - a boiler where you can get an endless supply of hot water for drinks or food.  We were able to get big hearty pot noodles in stores for about $1 each.  They come in plastic or Styrofoam containers with spice packets and freeze dried veg and/or meatball packets.  All you had to do was add hot water.  We also brought along instant coffee of the 3-in-1 variety so we didn't have to mess around with sugar and creamer packets as well.  For breakfast, we simply bought some fresh cinnamon rolls or sweet rolls from the grocery store bakeries.  And, it goes without saying, we were prepared with the customary bottle of vodka.  

Note you can also buy pot noodles and other snacks and drinks at station stops very easily.  There isn't a huge need to carry enough for you entire journey.  It'll cost a little extra but the bulk of the noodle containers can be a bit cumbersome.  Save the space for harder to come by things such as bottles of vodka.  

One other side note, we planned really far ahead and brought along some freeze dried food for breakfast.  Before we left Kentucky, my dad gave us a few "eggs and bacon" meals for the journey.  The train was only a few days into our trip so we didn't have to carry them for very long.  They made a good change from pot noodles a few mornings.

Included Meals.  

I'm not sure how common this is but our overnight train from St Petes to Moscow included dinner.  Err, sort of.  As the train was departing a lady came around carrying a duffel bag full of small food containers.  Our cabin mate had a hard time translating the options to us so we just followed his lead and said we'll have what he's having. Daring?  Yes.  It was a small container of thinly sliced raw white onions with a touch of carrots and maybe some vinegar or something.  That was it…not quite a full dinner.  I only managed a couple small bites (neither of us like straight-up onions).  Josh, being the polite and adventurous traveller, downed his dish.  This was a mistake.  He woke up in the middle of the night being sick.  That wasn't a good experience with the state of the toilets on that train.  Avoid the included meals, especially if they are of the raw fruit and veg variety as that is a notorious travel no-no.

As we pulled into the station in Moscow after Josh had his sick night, he had to escape the sauna before being sick again.  He was feeling weak and terrible and needed to cool down.  This left me to pack and get all of our bags to the platform.

A rule of thumb to consider when traveling with a partner or friend, is to not pack more combined bags / weight than one of you alone can carry.  If one of you goes down injured or sick, the other person needs to be able to manage the bags at least for a little while.  We passed the rule, but only just.

The Cabins

There are different classes of tickets you can book but almost every traveler books the standard 4-berth cabins.  Other than some trains being slightly older/newer - the setup and amenities were almost identical on every train: 2 western toilets in each carriage, no showers (that we knew of...), a constant supply of hot water in the samovar and a cozy 4-berth cabin.  The cabins had two bench seats (beds) with a small half table at the window.  Above each of those was another bed that flipped up during the day to make the cabin feel a little less claustrophobic.  There was also a deep storage cavity above the hallway - often used to store bedding supplies during the day or larger luggage.  

We had the same class of cabins throughout but did luck out that the Yekaterinburg bound train was regarded as a premium train.  It didn't have any other amenities but it was lighter, brighter, newer and had a wonderfully clean toilet with toilet paper and paper towels. 

Our premium train car was empty being just us and one other passenger in the entire car.  I'm sure the cabin attendant was expecting an easy day's work given he only had 3 passengers.  However, we couldn't read the Cyrillic signs in the bathroom and apparently toilet paper in the loo is a no-no for the fancy premium toilets.  Each of us mistakenly put paper in the toilet which of course created a clog.  To fix it, the attendant had to reset the electricity on our train carriage.  The lights flashed and it reset.  We had an unhappy attendant come to our cabin to try to explain what we had clearly missed on the signs.  Oops, our apologies!

With it being the middle of winter and after the holiday season most of our other trains were similarly spartan.  For the majority of our trip it was just the two of us in our cabin.  Depending on your comfort level of sharing cabins with total strangers for days on end, this was a perk of traveling in the winter.

Sleeping Onboard

They supply a pillow, sheets, blankets and sometimes an additional layer of padding for the bed.  We used our silk sleep sacks and only rarely had to pull on an additional layer for warmth.  It's a fairly decent nights sleep for people of average height especially when you don't have noisy or snoring cabin mates.  The curtains are fairly thick and do a decent job at blocking out light (although we were there during the short winter days).  Actually going to bed was a bit magical for us.  You make your bed, you're toasty warm and soon enough with the rocking of the train and the repetitive clickity clack of the wheels, you find yourself in dream land in no time.

Temperature Onboard

Since we travelled in the winter, the heaters were on and the windows locked shut.  All of the trains we took were on the hot side.  Throughout Russia the trains run off electricity so there is plenty of energy to heat the train and they did - to a minimum 75 degrees (24 C).  Traveling during the winter you need to prepare for boarding the trains with a lightweight change of clothes.  We arrived to the trains in full winter thermals because we had been city touring.  So, changing clothes almost immediately upon boarding was always required and many Russians will be doing the same.

We changed to shorts and t-shirts most of the time.  The Russians opted for some form of pajamas or lightweight athletic wear.  You could almost break a sweat just staring out the window.

The trains along the way may use coal for power instead of electricity.  Those tended to be cooler but still only jeans and a long sleeve shirt at most.  Possibly a blanket at night.

Another related tip is that you can kick out your cabin mates to change clothes.  One of our cabin mates did just that by saying, "Can you exit the cabin for the lady?"  Seeing we were confused he clarified with "Change dress".  Ah, ok, sure.  She wants to use the cabin to change clothes.  For those of you who don't want to use the onboard toilets to change clothes then keep this in mind.

Passing The Time

For us passing the time was peaceful.  It was tropical weather onboard and we were in shorts and a t-shirt, staring out the window at the vast and snowy countryside of Siberia.  We literally did nothing most days - staring out the windows, snapping a few pics and catching up on reading in our guide books - mainly the histories.  It was wonderful!  It's a good dose of rest and relaxation at a leisurely pace.  Eat when you want, sleep when you want.  I think I'll have another coffee.  And best of all, no Internet or phone.  For once in our lives, we didn't even have mobile phones.  Enjoying the beautiful snowy scenes from a warm and cozy train was fabulous.

The time passed amazingly fast!  

Scheduled Stops

All of the trains make scheduled stops along the way.  These stops are posted in the cabin and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours (only at border crossings).  The average stop was probably between 10-20 minutes.  We would get off the train for a few minutes to stretch our legs, buy some additional food/drink or just to see some old train engines on display.  At the stops its easy to pick up a variety of provisions.  Sellers stand on the platform selling the basics or you can venture to the main station shops to pick up more essentials such as beer or toilet paper.  Some platform sellers also offer things of a wider variety such as drinking glass sets, if you fancy that sort of thing!

People Onboard

I understand this will be individually different on each train but part of the purpose of taking the Trans Sib is to meet interesting people along the way.  Here are some stories about our new friend, Andre, who we met on the way to Mongolia.  


Boarding our longest leg to Mongolia from Yekaterinburg we were the only people in the cabin.  The train departed at an awkward 1:40am and it wasn't long till we hit the sack.  Our guide said don't be alarmed if somebody joins you later on.  And sure enough, in the middle of the night, maybe 5 in the morning, someone was pulling on our locked cabin door.  After letting them try a couple times, hoping they were actually at the wrong door and they'd go away, I finally came around enough to unlock the door and a single guy entered.  

The next morning, we greeted our new cabin mate - a 30 year old guy named Andre, from Russia.  He spoke pretty good English and we were able to have all sorts of conversations with him throughout the day.  We talked about food, our jobs, the cities we're from (both Lexington and London), rent prices, our families, music (he really like Sinead O'Connor and Alanis Morrisette) and our travels.  In our very first conversation we said we were going to Mongolia.  Before we could finish he interrupted with, "Why?" and a confused look on his face.  It became the running joke of the day - he just couldn't believe we were going to Mongolia.  

We had good fun sharing a few beers with him and talking about a little of everything.  At some stop along the way Josh and Andre braved the cold temperatures for a drinks and pot noodle run.  The train only stops for at most 20 minutes so you have to be quick.  I stared out the window expectantly since I knew they were on a beer search.  They came back with happy grins, a few extra beers and Andre commenting on the attractive lady working at the shop.

He was an interesting fellow and possibly more so since he was roughly our age.  He worked in the police force and was on his way to some training, leaving his wife and young daughter for a few weeks.  Talking to him gave us an interesting view point into Russian life at our age.  Sometimes he had to resort to using hand motions or pointing to things in his auto magazine to convey some words to us.  A couple times after struggling for the English words, he would laugh and say, "my mother told me 'learn English, learn English, learn English'", while waving a pointed finger as you do when scolding a child.  As we were saying our goodbye the next day when we arrived at his stop he thanked us for the free English lessons. Off he went leaving us to relish the chance of meeting him.

Border Crossings

Into Mongolia.

We really had no idea what to expect for the border crossing and it made us a bit nervous.  Part of our nerves were down to the fact that as Americans, we didn't have to have a Mongolian visa in advance.  Although several sources had confirmed this it still felt odd showing up on a train without a visa.  

As we neared the border, the carriage attendant passed out Mongolian immigration forms.  A few Russian border guards boarded the train and proceeded cabin by cabin, taking our passports.  Then they were off and we just had to wait.  About 45 minutes later they came back on, handed us back our passports with our Russian visa now showing an exit date.  The process completed with a guard searching or our cabin  We can only imagine they were looking for stowaways or clearly obvious immigration rule violations.  They only really lifted up the seats to see our stored luggage sitting there, nothing to worry about.

The train started again and rolled about 20 minutes down the track before stopping again.  This time at the Mongolian side.  Here they collected the immigration forms, collected passports and did the same cabin inspection.  All in all, very uneventful.  Border formalities completed, we were ready to head to bed as we would arrive in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia early the next morning.

Into China.

The Chinese / Mongolian border crossing had a little bit of added drama.  Russia built their extensive railway system with a wider gauge track than the rest of Europe and Asia; and because Russia heavily controlled/supported development in Mongolia they, too, had the same larger tracks.  This means you need to change out the wheels, also known as bogeys, of the train cars at the border.  So how do change the wheels on an entire train with passengers still in them?  We were anxious to find out!

We pulled in to the border station and the Chinese border guards came on, took our passports and began the immigration process.  The train then reversed from the platform back to a huge long building so they could change the bogeys protected from the elements.  Once inside the building, all the carriages were separated and each one was lifted up.  We could hear them working underneath the carriage and we could only imagine they disconnected the Russian wheels and rolled in the Chinese wheels.

This was quite a time-consuming process, we were told sometimes lasting 4 hours, so while we were all in the hall talking we got excited when another train pulled up next to us in the building for their wheel change.  This gave us a clear view of what they were actually doing to our own train since we weren't allowed to exit.

We were finally lowered back down on the new wheels.  The only thing left was to reconnect the carriages and we'd be on our way.  It had been nearly 4 hours without the use of the toilets so we were all getting anxious (the toilets just open up to the tracks below so clearly you can't use them if workmen are hanging out below!)  I was talking to an English lady we had met, while standing at the door of our cabin with Josh was sitting inside.  We could faintly hear some loud bang sounds about every 30 seconds and figured we were about done.  Before too long, we found out what that "bang" was...I flung out my arms to catch myself as I was nearly knocked to the ground as the carriages behind us pushed in to ours to connect.

Unfortunately for the little Mongolian toddler behind me, she couldn't catch herself as easily and fell firmly on her back at this huge jolt of the carriage.  Thankfully there was a little carpet as padding (and she didn't really have that far to fall) so after a few tears of surprise she was ok.  We were all left a little wide-eyed though - couldn't they have warned us?  And with that, our train slowly backed out of the building, went forward to the original platform where our passports were returned and with our Chinese visa now validated we were off to Beijing.  

Final Thoughts

Reflecting back on the entire journey, it was pretty awesome.  The cities we stopped in were all epic in their own way.  The journey itself was beautiful, fascinating and peaceful during the winter.

What would we do different?  Not much. We recommend the stops along the way which give you more of a feel for Russia.  Things change drastically outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg so try and see another city or two.

The combination of epic cities and a truly relaxing train journey made for an amazing start to our 5 months of travel.

Winter or Summer For the Journey?

I know others interested in this journey will be asking themselves the same question.  I think this is a matter of what you want to get out of the trip and sometimes, just general timing and availability.  We had this epic vision in our minds of Russia in the winter and it DID NOT DISAPPOINT.  Epic.  Amazing.  Cold.  Awesome.  We loved Russia in the winter!

The "timing" was also a big factor - based on our roughly planned "we want to hit certain countries in certain months for certain reasons" it just made sense for us to do the journey in January.  The route was clearly not as busy as it may be in the summer, but we still met many people and honestly enjoyed a bit more space and relaxation.  

I think our only "disappointment" was that we couldn't do many of the outdoor activities in Mongolia that they are famous for.  However, on the flip side, we did get to experience stunning cold weather that we may not experience ever again (well, at least until we travel to Antarctica...or Greenland...or Alaska...ok, we may experience it again!).  The winter Mongolian countryside was beautiful; we got to see their farm animals wearing "clothes" and their hearty food and infamous milky tea might be almost unbearable in a hot summer.  We do think Mongolia would be amazing in the Spring so maybe we'll have to go back (they have some insanely hot summers too so be mindful when travel planning!).  

So, there you go.  Decide what you want out of the trip and go with it.  I guarantee any time of the year you will come away with an unforgettable journey of a lifetime!


I'll leave you with a quirky bit of nostalgia.  The engine of one of our trains was our age.  Yep, built in 1980.  And in the USSR!

Is There Anything We Missed?

Is there any aspect of the journey that you're still curious about?  We'd be happy to expand on our experience!  Just drop us a comment on the blog and we'll do our best to respond.

No comments:

Post a Comment