Even with half a year of planning and reading, you can’t get everything right. There are numerous things I wish I’d known before hand, most of them completely incidental, but when trapped in the strange time warped train bubble, they feel very, very important.
Once again, sorry to friends and family who have no intention of making this journey, but as hindsight is such a wonderful thing, I feel compelled to share our lessons learnt to aid any of you who fancy this journey yourself.
Prepare a small train bag
Get your stuff together in a small bag that you can keep next to your bed, so you can put your big rucksack away for the duration of the trip. Realising you left your toothpaste in your big rucksack which is now trapped underneath a 90 year old Russian woman’s bed is really annoying. All the babushkas we travelled with had a plastic zip bag they kept at their feet with their essentials in.
Don’t bring tuna
Bring food, and pick your food wisely. There was next to nothing on offer at the train stops apart from pot noodles at marked up prices. The restaurant car was quite expensive with a very limited menu, and varying opening hours, which were even more difficult to follow when you change time zone twice a day. Tuna stinks, and some bread goes mouldy quickly. I recommend the age old traveller’s classic of salami and cheese, with some cucumber thrown in to avoid your sandwich turning into a fudge like consistency. As hot water is always available, coffee, noodles, and porridge are all great things to have.
Photography on the train
The scenery is stunning, especially in autumn. Each tree at a different stage of its transition from green to red leaves. The difficult part is trying to photograph it, as the windows are dirty and most of them don’t open. Each Trans-Siberian train has a different set up, so different tips apply to each train.
Travelling on Train #006 from Moscow to Irkutsk, a grey Russian RZD train, no windows open on the carriage at all. Some in the corridor open a fraction, but not far enough to get a camera out. I tried walking to the back of the train to get photos out the back door, but the angry Provodnitsas don’t let you through most of the time, and the one time I got through, the back door was locked anyway. On this Russian #006 train, the best photos are to be had from the restaurant car, which has the same fold down windows as the carriages, but they fold completely down 180 deg, allowing you to get your arm and head out.
From Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar we travelled on the famous #004 train that runs from Moscow to Beijing. All but one of the carriages are the green Chinese run carriages, with the very last carriage behind the restaurant car being a grey Russian RZD carriage. In these Chinese cars, it looks like the windows don’t open at all, but there are handles at the top of each of them, which slide the entire window down. Every window in every berth does this, but nobody on our carriage worked this out before we had already veered off the stunning lake side tracks at Lake Baikal.
The best scenery is the 180km stretch where the railway line hugs the edge of Lake Baikal, winding through its colourful forests from Slyudyanka 1 at the most Southerly point of the lake, up its Eastern edge to Mysovaya. It was minutes after leaving the lake that we discovered we could open the windows, so the scenery is stuck in my brain rather on camera for once.
Russian trains are nicer
The Russian train #006 is far nicer, warmer, and more comfortable that the Chinese #004 train, which is all grey and bland. The Chinese carriage attendants also have no supplies to sell you, so no morning teas or coffees, and the hot water supply is not constant so you can’t rely on eating whenever you like. If you are on the Chinese #004 train, bare in mind there is a Russian carriage at the back behind the restaurant car. Here, the provodnitsas do have the regular supplies of chocolate and coffee which you can buy off them. It is a tenth of the price of buying them in the restaurant car itself, so worth hunting down.
Buying tickets at the station
We read all sorts of tips and advice online about booking tickets independently, some of which has turned out to be wrong. I do highly recommend using Russian www.rzd.ru website to book all trains within Russia. It is face value, you get to select your exact seat, and you can buy e-tickets which are sent to you immediately. You can’t use this website to book international tickets to Ulaanbaatar and Beijing though, and “the internet” said these tickets were impossible to buy at the station before 24hrs prior to the train, unless you book through an agency (roughly double the price). This may be the case in peak season in summer, but we travelled in mid September from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar on the #004 train which was supposedly always full, and we bought tickets at Irkutsk station (International booking office, upstairs on 1st floor in Entrance 3 of Irkutsk train station) 4 days before the journey for 7,000 RUB (£80).
The same applies to tickets on train #004 from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, which we were also told you couldn’t buy before 24hrs prior to the journey. Again, 4 days in advance, we went to booking office in Ulaanbaatar and they were available. This makes it far easier and cheaper to do this trip independently in the shoulder seasons than the rest of the internet would have you believe.
Read about the journey or check out photos here.
The Trans-Siberian portion of our trip has not been as expensive as I thought it would, largely because we took the indirect route into China rather than the expensive #004 train direct to Beijing. Here’s a price breakdown, all face value fares booked ourselves in 2nd class kupe carriages (4 beds per berth):
London-Paris £56 2h
Paris-Moscow £210 40h
Moscow-St Petersberg £25 4h
St Petersberg-Moscow £25 4h
Moscow-Irkutsk £140 76h
Irkutsk-Ulaanbaatar £80 24h
Ulaanbaatar-Erlian £40 14h
Erlian-Jining Nan £5 5h
Jining Nan-Kangzhuang £5 5h
Total London-Moscow £316 2 days
Total Trans-Siberian £270 6 days
Total London-Beijing £586 8 days