Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tackling the Trans-Siberian: Q&A for taking the train across Russia

I quite often get friendly emails from would-be Trans-Siberian travelers. Since this train trip from Vladivostok to Moscow is one of the best experiences of my life, I'm always happy to answer their questions, so here is a summary of the info most people are looking for. If you've got more questions, just add them in the comments.

Why should I take the Trans-Siberian?

Why not? I dreamt of doing this trip for years and it was even better than I could have imagined. I played card games with Russian kids on board the train; I smelt the fish they were selling at the stop closest to the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal; and I ate Russian snacks bought from the elderly locals who lined the train platforms every time the train made a 20-minute stop. Not to mention the innumerable joys on my stopovers, staying with Russian families. I can't imagine a Trans-Siberian journey being anything other than memorable.

Should I book train tickets in advance?

It depends. I did, because I'd heard you could spend hours in queues trying to get your next segment, and I had a pretty good idea where I wanted to go and how long I wanted to stay - in fact, this trip was really much more about the journey, the being on the train, then the stopovers (although they were great too). Having all my tickets in advance, and homestays booked, made it a fairly worry-free trip, and I liked that.

You can also buy your own tickets as you go, but be aware that a few popular routes may be tricky to get tickets for. I trust what the train-loving Man in Seat 61 has to say on the matter: book through a Russian agency - you get relatively cheap tickets, but you avoid the hassle of waiting in lines and risking not getting the ticket you want.

Which direction should I travel?

I'm biased, because I think my way was fantastic - I went the less-touristed route of Vladivostok travelling west towards Moscow. I loved it because you can see a kind of progression of Russian society and end up in glitz and glamour - the other way round might not be quite as fun. More organised tours go from west to east than vice versa, so if you're more keen to mix with the locals, start in Vladivostok.

Lots of travellers leave the Trans-Siberian route at Ulan Ude to take the Trans-Mongolian route down through Mongolia and on to China - a great trip too, but not technically the classic Trans-Siberian - or come up from China and miss Vladivostok and the far east altogether. The choice is yours.

Where should I stop?

Occasionally people ask me whether they should stop at all, but that's a no-brainer to me - even a train enthusiast like myself doesn't want to spend a full seven days on the train. My stops from Vladivostok were at Irkutsk/Listvyanka (Irkutsk is on the train line, and Listvyanka a short drive away, and on the shores of Lake Baikal), and Yekaterinburg, before arriving in Moscow. I'd recommend all of these - and Lake Baikal is a 100% must - but there are also other interesting possiblities. If I went again, I'd also look into Khabarovsk, Ulan Ude, Omsk and Perm.


How can I get ready?

I might not be the biggest Lonely Planet fan these days but here's an exception: get a copy of their Trans-Siberian Railway guide. I have their 2002 first edition, so I'm hoping they haven't changed things too much, but I loved the maps where you could follow your journey by travel time and distance, because when you're on the train, the next stop is a big highlight of the day. The info for the cities where I stopped over was fine too, although you might not find it so handy for arranging cheap accommodation.

Another excellent resource is, as I mentioned above, the awe-inspiring Man in Seat 61 who has more train-related information than you could possibly ever think existed (and not just for the Trans-Sib). Check the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum too - many experienced travellers there will help you out with tips and advice, but check their Russian train page first to see if it's all been said before.

Will I get bored?

Maybe. I didn't, but I love train travel (especially sleeping on trains), I love having "captive" time to relax, read and write, and I love just staring out a window and watching the changing landscape pass by. And I love chatting with new people, even if I have to struggle with phrase book sentences to do so. If you're too different to me, then maybe this kind of journey is not for you.

6 comments:

  1. Awesome, thanks for blogging about it! I've already started researching what places to visit and what to do on the trip. I don't know when I'm gonna go but I get more excited about it everyday. I'm gonna try to take a Russian language course in Moscow, and no doubt I'll go to a fair share of hockey games.

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  2. can you tell me if you pre-booked accommodation in Moscow? Where did you stay? I am struggling with the irony of the word 'budget' in Russia. I am from Melbourne and heading there in early August(the beginning of peak time). Any info you have would be great, you should be getting paid for this! thanks Nat www.feltlikewool.blogspot.com

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  3. Thanks for the great info...I'm about to set of on an overland train trip from Melbourne to London including the Trans Siberian Mongolian route and am really excited.

    I'm having a bit of trouble with Russian visas though as I'll be travelling for more than 90 days before I get to Russia so they'll expire. Do you know if it's possible to get Russian visas in China?

    All the best, Trish

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  4. Been great reading your blog. Thanks for all the information - it has me all excited for a long train trip I'm about to take from Melbourne to London (all except Darwin to Singapore!).

    Part of the trip is going to be the Trans Siberian from Beijing via Mongolia and I wondered if you might know if it's possible to get a Russian visa in China (I have an Aussie passport)? I'm going to be travelling for more than 90 days before I reach Russia so if I get a visa in Australia it will have expired by the time I get there.

    Any advice would be really great! Thanks again and all the best, Trish

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  5. Trish, what a great trip you have planned!! As far as I understand it it's possible to get your Russian visa in China and I've heard that Shanghai is the best place, but I'd try to get more detailed info if I were you esp on how long it might take. Personally I got my Russian visa in Japan and it was relatively fast (one week, I think) and easy, but I'm sure that's partly because there were a lot of Japanese staff at the Russian embassy in Osaka who were super-helpful. The second time I went I organised my visa through an agent somehow - strangely I can't quite remember how it went, but I was living in Germany at the time. Good luck anyhow and happy travels!!

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