Few journeys evoke the reverence that the Trans-Siberian Railway does. Stretching across the great expanse of Russia, the classic route begins in Moscow and makes its way over nine thousand kilometers to the eastern port of Vladivostok, on the cold shores of the Pacific.
The idea of spending a week on a train through the Ural mountains and into the great wilderness of Siberia has long lured travelers into testing their hardiness, and possibly their sanity, on the world’s longest railway. Like many other popular travel routes, the Trans-Siberian is filling up with backpackers eager to experience the famous journey recorded by travel writers like Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, as the railway becomes more accessible, some of the trip’s charm is lost as entire trains depart from Moscow laden with pajama-clad tourists and their week’s worth of food supplies. Luckily, however, there is still one secret to beating the hordes and experiencing the authentic Trans-Siberian and the real Russia…. get off the train!
Dozens of cities and towns pepper the rail line, each with their own unique history and architecture, and offer an opportunity to experience a part of rural Russia foreign even to Muscovites. While English is a rarity, don’t expect it to deter old Babushkas from talking with you, or at you, for hours. There’s also no shortage of strangers willing to help lost travelers, although this doesn’t apply to the ticket sellers in train stations who are notoriously difficult and unfriendly. However, with a good guidebook, a basic understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet, and a sense of adventure, everything will be just fine!
In this itinerary we will begin in the culture capital of St. Petersburg and continue on to the icy waters of Lake Baikal, cutting through the Mongolian steppes before finally disembarking in Beijing. Days suggested include travel time, usually on overnight trains.
Days 1-2: St. Petersburg on the Neva
While not officially part of the Trans-Siberian route, the Europeanized city of Saint Petersburg, or ‘Peter’ as it’s known locally, is a great starting point for your journey. The city is defined by its breathtaking neoclassical buildings, elaborate churches and the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest museums.
The Nevsky Prospekt, famously alluded to in many of Dostoevksy’s novels, is the city’s main street for shopping and nightlife. Be sure to sample a hearty bowl of borscht with traditional savoury or sweet pies, and stop in at the ubiquitous blini shop for a mid-meal snack.
Leaving from the Moskovsky Rail Terminal, start logging your train hours with an easy 6-8 hour hop over to Moscow.
Days 3-5: Moscow
Prepare to be surprised at the stark difference between Russia’s two largest cities. The laid-back, artistic, dreamy Saint Petersburg seems hardly related to the more austere, yet at the same time cosmopolitan, Moscow.
Start with a visit to the symbolic Kremlin and Red Square in the city centre. Catch a quick glimpse of the embalmed Lenin on display before snapping a few photos in front of the iconic, onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. If you plan your timing right, you’ll make it for the impressive changing of the guards ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As this may be your last chance for international fare, take the opportunity to try out some of the trendy cafes and restaurants springing up around the city. From cheap buffet eateries to expensive, traditional restaurants along the Arbat, there’s something to suit everyone’s tastes.
Enjoy the busy city vibe before catching the twelve-hour overnight train past the shadow of the Ural Mountains and into the heart of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Days 6-9: Kazan
At first the capital of Tatarstan doesn’t seem like much, but there are wonderful things in Kazan bubbling just under the surface. There are indicators of progress happening all over the city, including the introduction of new international hotels, stadiums and arenas, as the city prepares to host the 2013 Summer Universiade games.
Balancing the new with the old, there are plenty of traditional sites to remind visitors of Kazan’s rocky history within Russia. The stunning Kul Sharif Mosque built alongside Roman Catholic churches best represents the large religious communities of Muslims and Christians that now live together peacefully in the city.
As Russia’s largest university city, at one time hosting both Lenin and Tolstoy, Kazan is full of young, bright-eyed students who are optimistic about the future of Kazan and the growing popularity of the region.
Stock up on instant coffee, noodles and supplies for the 27 hour haul to Omsk. If two nights on the train sounds too grueling, consider a stop in Yekaterinburg or Tobolsk.
Days 10-13: Omsk
Although Omsk doesn’t have as much on offer as the other stops along the route, it’s a good place to break up the train journey and pick up supplies. Restaurants here serve traditional fare of solyanka, a hearty sour soup, and the popular kvass, a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rye bread. The supermarkets are light on fresh fruit and veg, and heavy on assorted pickled herrings, cheeses, black breads and meats.
In its defense, this quirky Siberian city does have a beautiful cathedral, a handful of museums and an abundance of Lenin statues. See if you can spot them all!
Hop on the overnight train with fresh supplies for a 14-19 hour stretch to Tomsk.
Days 13-15: Tomsk
This charming city once served as Russia’s far-eastern military outpost, later becoming a notorious dumping ground for exiled members of the bourgeoisie. Pining for the creature comforts of Saint Petersburg, the wealthier families spared no expense in revamping their traditional Siberian timber homes. With incredible intricacy, delicate carved “wooden lace” architecture frames every window and door of the more lavish houses.
Interesting buildings and a handful of bustling eateries make the downtown stretch a pleasant place for a stroll. Soak it all in before the 34 hour trek to the world’s deepest freshwater lake, Baikal.
Days 16-20: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Once known as the “Paris of Siberia”, Irkutsk is now mostly used as a starting point for visiting Lake Baikal. An hour and a half away by bus, or harrowing mashrutka ride, visitors can’t fail to be impressed by the overwhelming size of the lake and its stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
Stop for a day trip in the small town of Listvyanka to sample delicious smoked Omul from the market or take in the view from the historical section of the Circum-Baikal Railway. The truly adventurous can continue north by ferry to the wilderness of Olkhon Island.
As this will be the last stop in Russia before branching off onto the Trans-Mongolian route, make sure you have all of your travel documents in order for the long border wait.
Days 20-25: Mongolia
[Also see our travel article “Mongolia Travel Guide“]
When you wake, the great Taiga will have receded into vast swathes of grassland, dotted with the odd cluster of traditional gers. As the train rolls into the vicinity of Ulaanbaatar, the clusters grow larger before being replaced by stark, concrete structures and heavily congested roads. In busy UB there are a number of tours to the countryside, catering to all kinds of interests. Book a trek through the mountains, ride camels through the Gobi, learn about Mongolian culture and lifestyle, or simply try an overnight stay in the nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
More than 40% of Mongolians live in large tents called gers (sometimes known as yurts) and spending the night at a ger camp can be an interesting way to experience the famed Mongolian steppes. Activities at the camps include archery, horseback riding and overland trips to visit real-life nomads! The high elevation of the impossibly flat steppes, which are removed from all sources of light pollution, makes Mongolia one of the world’s best places for stargazing. So keep an eye to the sky!
Although the distance from UB to Beijing is relatively short, the border crossing makes for a lengthy travel time. The immigration process is painfully slow, as the carriages must have their wheels changed to run on a smaller, internationally accepted gauge (a reminder of Mongolia’s Soviet past).
Days 26-28: Beijing
[Also see our travel article “Beijing Travel Guide“]
Disembarking from the train into China’s busy capital city will bring a wave of conflicting emotions. Take a day to unwind with a pleasant stroll around the three Shichahai lakes and enjoy the plentiful restaurant and bar options in the evening.
Wander through the The Forbidden City’s imposing red gates and pay your respects to yet another embalmed leader in Tiannanmen Square, Chairman Mao. Once you get your bearings, escape the downtown boulevards and head into the warren of ancient hutongs to check out some traditional courtyard homes.
Experience an edgier, artistic side of Beijing in the 798 Art District. Here, contemporary pieces and exhibitions are on display within a decommissioned factory complex from the 1950’s.
Get your fill of roast duck, hotpot and stall-food snacks before heading home. And if this small taste of China has caught your interest, I’ve heard there’s a good train to Shanghai…..[/caption