The railway is actually three trains. The true Trans-Siberian runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, rolling 5800 miles in six days without ever leaving Russia, or deviating from Moscow time. The other two both travel to Beijing: the Trans-Manchurian via northern China and, the most popular of the lot, the Trans-Mongolian train which goes via the Mongolian capital Ulan Bataar.
Passengers on each of these trains make up a motley band of traders, soldiers, families and tourists. The mix makes for unforgettable encounters as the train takes on the atmosphere of a week-long party, fuelled by vodka and the carefree spirit that comes from knowing all you’re doing tomorrow is watching Siberia go by from a train window.
Most passengers break the journey at least once. You should. Though the Trans-Siberian is one of the world’s great journeys, part of the fun is taking a break, getting out and seeing Siberia away from the tracks. On all but the international sections there are plenty of trains down the line each day making this easy.
Irkutsk, the gateway to Lake Baikal, is the most popular stop, though the chance to visit Yekaterinberg (where the Russian Royal Family met their fate in 1917), and taking a few days in Mongolia, are increasingly popular options.
Planning your trip on the Trans-Siberian railway
Tickets can be had for under £200 if you book yourself, but there’s a premium for using a Russian or UK-based travel agency. There’s no hop-on, hop-off ticket available, so if you’re planning on stopping along the way you need a separate ticket for each section of the journey. May offers the best balance of good weather (though it can be soggy any time of year) and avoiding peak times to travel.
The Man in Seat 61 has the best practical advice on planning a Trans-Siberian journey. Way To Russia can help with the finer points of visas and bookings should you decide to get local advice and use a Russia-based agency.
©2009 Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd