It’s a trip of a lifetime
The Trans-Siberian train trip is a journey I dreamed of for so many years. After months of careful planning, I was finally able to make this dream come true. In September 2018, I started this epic train trip from Moscow all the way to Irkutsk in the Middle of Siberia. During this trip, I made stops in Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and lake Baikal.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a network of railways connecting Moscow with the Russian far East. With a length of 9,289 Kilometres from Moscow to Vladivostok, it is the longest railway line in the world. The trip across Siberia is a unique experience, it is not like any other train trip in the world and that’s not only because of the distance. Rather, it’s about the unique rituals and traditions of this train ride which you will never experience elsewhere.
In this blog, I will share with you the details of my trip in addition to my personal impressions and some tips and recommendations . I believe it will be my longest blog as there is an incredible amount of information to share about this epic train ride.
Planning for the trip
I recommend that you plan for your trip ahead of time. First of all, you will need a visa to Russia if you are a European or North American. Therefore, you need to prepare for your visa application in advance. You need to get your train tickets, and you need to decide which cities you want to visit along the way and what to pack for the train.
You have the freedom to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway either Eastbound or Westbound. Most of travellers start the trip in Moscow. They either have a journey all the way to Vladivostok or stop somewhere in the Middle of Siberia just like what I did. Some others take the train from Moscow and continue the journey towards Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia) or even Beijing, China.
For most of North American and European citizens, you are going to need a visa to travel to Russia. If you want to know more about the Russian visa policy, click here . For more information about the Russian visa process, click here . Furthermore, you may want to start your trip or end it in China and in this case, you will have to pass through Mongolia so you might end up needing a visa for these two countries in addition to the visa to Russia. click here to find more information about Chinese visa policy and here to find more information about Mongolian visa policy.
I highly recommend you buy your tickets from the official Russian Railway site as this will save you a lot of money. To access the English language page of the official Russian Railway site, click here. Some international travellers prefer to buy tickets from agencies such as Russian Railways as it’s slightly easier to do so but they will be charged more than the official Russian Railways website.
Russian trains have 3 classes: СВ (Spalny Vagon) is the first class. It’s 2-berth compartment. One Spalny Vagon car accommodates 9 compartments so that’s up to 18 passengers in one train car. Each car has 2 toilets and some new train cars have a shower room for a fee. Second class is known as Купе (Kupe). Most of international travellers choose this class for the trip. Each compartment has 4 beds. Each train car accommodates 9 compartments so there will be up to 36 passengers in one train car. The third class is known as Плацкартный (Platskartny): It accommodates 54 beds in one car in an open space. It’s the cheapest way to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and probably the most adventurous way to travel but definitely not the most comfortable.
If you are going to have your trip in the summer and you are planning to get 1st class tickets, you must buy tickets months in advance as 1st class tickets usually sell out quickly. About the cost of tickets, it depends on type of train and on the fare you are getting but as an estimate, expect to pay around 130 USD for a first class ticket for every 24 hours you spend on the train. For example, if you are planning a journey from Moscow to Novosibirsk, that’s about 46 hours train journey and the cost of ticket will be around 260 USD. For second and third class tickets, cost is significantly lower (around 1/4 the price of 1st class ticket). When you buy tickets, you buy separate tickets from one city to another so that you can make stops and enjoy Siberian cities. Some people buy 1 ticket from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok but I personally don’t recommend that as you will be spending 7 days on the train and you will miss the chance to explore other cities.
Summer in Siberia can be surprisingly hot and trains can be overcrowded with travellers so I recommend that you avoid peak summer months. I would say, May, early June, end of August or September are good months to do this trip. I did mine in early September and the weather was fantastic.
What to pack
Most of Russians who travel on train for days bring their own food and drinks. I recommend that you do the same! There is a restaurant on the train but food there isn’t always great and it can even be expensive. I recommend that you pack some food such as instant noodles, instant mashed potato, pastries, sandwiches, bread, coffee powder, fruits, vegetables, tea bags, etc. There is a hot water boiler “Samovar” in every train car which you can use as much as you want. One of the most important traditions of Russian train is sharing; Russian people are hospitable and they will share their food with you and you should at least offer them some of what you have.
You also need to pack some books; bring some Russian literature books for Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy as reading that in the middle of Siberia will bring you a lot of joy. Download some movies and series as you may not have wifi all the time. Get some card or board games. I also recommend that you bring body wet wipes especially if you are planning to spend more than 1 night on the train as you may not have an access to shower. There’s a large space to store you luggage inside the compartment so you shouldn’t worry about that.
The train conductor “Provodnitsa” will give you a warm welcome (but that depends on her mood) and will bring you a clean mattress, cover, and a pillow case. A train ticket usually includes one meal even if the trip is for multiple days, you will still get 1 meal only and you will have to pay for anything extra. Provodnitsa should be your best friend on the train and let me tell you a secret, Provodnitsas love chocolate so get her a bar of good quality chocolate as a thank you and she will take an extra care of you. It also helps if you speak some Russian as most of them don’t speak any English.
Moscow – Where it all started
I arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg with a high-speed train. I spent 2 nights in Moscow where I met my friends, visited some sites, and prepared myself for the big trip. I stayed in Izmailovo Hotel which is the largest hotel in the world that was built for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. I had a nice stay there and spent a great time with my Russian friends. I was happy to be in Moscow but I was even more excited about the upcoming Trans-Siberian train trip.
Boarding the great train
At the day of departure, I was full of excitement about the trip. I had to board the train from Kazansky station. I checked out from the hotel and headed to the station where my train leaves.
There are 9 railway stations in Moscow and it’s interesting how they are named . For example, if your train is heading to/arriving from Minsk, Belarus then train departs/arrives from/in Belorussky station. Trains to Kiev, Ukraine depart/arrive from/in Kievsky station and so on. Trains to Siberia usually depart from Yaroslavsky station. However, since my train was heading to Kazan first, I had to board the train from Kazansky station in Moscow.
To board the train, you simply need to head to the platform, go to your train car as per your ticket, show your passport to the Provodnitsa who will check your registration and allow you to get inside the train. I was so delighted when I entered my compartment, it’s a place that’s going to be home for 26 hours. I expected to share the compartment with another passenger but no one showed up so I had the whole compartment for myself until I reached Yekaterinburg.
The compartment is very comfortable and even spacious! There are hangers inside the compartment, a large storage space, TV that I never used, a power socket, a food basket and amenity kit. In addition to these amenities, each traveller gets a clean pack of mattress, bed cover, pillows, and towels.
I felt happy like a kid when the train started to move. A few minutes later, the Provodnitsa entered my compartment to take my order for dinner. 20 minutes later, my dinner was being served. The Provodnitsa was very cheerful and friendly but sadly, I only knew a few phrases in Russian so wasn’t able to have a long conversation with her. It helps a lot if you know some Russian as people on the train are always willing to have interesting conversations with travellers.
After finishing my average meal, and since I didn’t have anyone in my compartment, I needed to socialize with people so I went to the dining car, ordered a drink and a few minutes later, I met some cool people from the Netherlands and Russia. I had a crazy evening with these guys and then I realized that myself, 2 Dutch girls and 1 cool Russian guy will all stop in Yekaterinburg so the Russian guy offered to show us around the city of Yekaterinburg, which is his hometown.
After spending a nice evening with the new friends, I returned back to my compartment and spent the first night on the train. I had a good sleep and I woke up at around 5.00 am . When I woke up, we were already making a 30 minutes stop in Kazan. I had no energy to get out of the train so I decided to stay in my bed. One of the things I regretted after having this trip is not having a stop in Kazan. I guess it was a mistake and I hope that I will be able to visit Kazan in the future. I slept again for 1 more hour then woke up and had my morning coffee and some pastries for breakfast. At around 10 am, we arrived in Agryz, a small town in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia. The train made a 15 minutes stop there so it was an opportunity to get out of the train and walk around a bit. I noticed the name of the town written in both Russian and Tatar languages. Also, people started to look different as there were more people with darker skin and Tatar features and less Slavic looking than in Moscow so I realized that I am getting really far away from Moscow. After the short stop, I boarded the train again, read a chapter, listened to some folk Russian music and then went to the dining car to meet my new friends and made plans to meet in Yekaterinburg next day.
Two hours before arriving in Yekaterinburg, the train made a 28 minutes stop in a village called Druzhinino. The village was more than 2 hours away from any big city so I was amazed of the tranquility and peace there. The air smelled so good, weather was perfect and the sun was about to set. Being in the centre of all that brought a real happiness to my heart. Anyhow, I returned back to the train and in 2 hours, we arrived in Yekaterinburg where I spent 2 nights.
Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals
I arrived in Yekaterinburg around 8.20 pm. It is the 4th largest city in Russia and it hosted some football matches in 2018 FIFA World Cup. I arrived there after spending 26 hours on the train and after crossing 2 time zones. The distance I travelled from Moscow so far is 1,816 Kilometres.
Yekaterinburg is a beautiful city located East of Ural Mountains, the city is the gateway to Siberia but its residents like to be called “Urals” rather than “Siberians” so I realized that 26 hours on the train from Moscow still didn’t get me to Siberia yet.
I spent 2 beautiful nights in the city; visited the church of all saints where Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia and his family along with members of the household were murdered by the Bolsheviks. I also met my new friends there, visited some nice parks and cafes and had delicious Russian pancakes. I also visited the roof top of Vysotsky skyscraper where I had an amazing view of the city.
After spending 48 hours in the city, the time has come to go back to the train station and to get ready for a new train ride to Krasnoyarsk. The train ride was for 35 hours.
A train to Krasnoyarsk, the heart of Siberia
I was waiting for my train at the platform, my train had arrived and this time I am boarding it with confidence as I became familiar with Russian train rituals so I was sure I wasn’t looking like a fool who was exploring everything on the train for the first time. The train left the platform at 21.42 pm. I also booked a first class ticket for this route and once again, no one showed up in my compartment. I probably felt good about it as I needed to rest. I read something and then converted my seat into a comfortable bed.
Next morning, I woke up at around 6 am and realized that I am finally in Siberia. At 6.41, we had a 15 minutes stop in Siberian town called Ishim. It was my first time to step a foot on a Siberian soil so I got myself outside the train and walked along the platform enjoying the fresh morning air. A few minutes later, I returned back to the train, had my morning coffee along with a breakfast I already packed.
Travelling in “Spalny Vagon” or simply first class is very comfortable and the positive side of it is that you get a lot of space and a lot of time to yourself but the negative side of it could be the lack of interaction with other travellers. One of the greatest things about the Trans-Siberian train trip is the experience you have with the different kinds of people you meet on the train. There is a better chance to meet people when you travel in the 2nd or 3rd class than in the 1st class. However, it was my first time on the train so wanted to try the comfort of the 1st class and I guess that it was a good choice.
At 11.04, we made a stop for 16 minutes in Omsk which is one of the largest cities in Siberia. Arriving in Omsk means that we have already crossed 3 time zones and we travelled for 2,676 Kilometres from Moscow.
I returned back to my compartment and I got myself busy with a bunch of things; was watching the massive Siberian land through the window, reading, texting with friends, and even napping! I was waiting for the next long stop which will be in Novosibirsk, the 3rd largest Russian city and the beating heart of Siberia.
Exactly on time, at 19.52, the great Trans-Siberian train arrived in Novosibirsk. The stop was for 51 minutes so it was a good opportunity to wonder around the station, to make photos, and to buy some food. When the train approached the platform, some locals were standing by the platform selling different kinds of fresh food and souvenirs. I got myself some pastries and potato stew for dinner. I wasn’t going to visit Novosibirsk now but decided to make a stop there on the way back (I flew from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and spent 2 nights there).
I returned back to my compartment to find out that I will have a company for the next 12 hours, my compartment neighbour was a middle age Russian man. First thing he did right after saying Hello was sharing a pack of chips with me. Russian people are generally hospitable and they can become very friendly once they get to know you more. His English was limited and my Russian was terrible but we still managed to communicate. Later in the evening I went to the dining car hoping to meet some people to socialize with; I met 2 Russian women in their late 30s, had a nice chat with them and then returned back to my compartment and decided to sleep. I was excited about my next stop next morning, which is, Krasnoyarsk.
The train arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 8.53 am. I said to myself “Now I can say that I am deep inside Siberia”. Arriving in Krasnoyarsk means that I travelled for 4,065 Kilometres from Moscow and crossed 4 time zones. The city is the 3rd largest in Siberia and its cultural centre. I had only 30 hours to spend in Krasnoyarsk and that was probably another mistake as the city definitely worth spending more time. I ordered a taxi from the station to my hotel, checked-in and had to get some sleep on a real bed after spending 2 nights on the train. Later in the afternoon, I was so excited to meet a great friend of mine who lives there and who showed me around some beautiful spots in the city.
In Siberia, you will see many right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. When I saw a car like this for the first time, I thought there is something completely wrong and I was wondering how would a right-hand drive car drives on the wrong side of the road than what they were designed for. A few minutes later, I started to see more and more right-hand drive cars. A bit later, after meeting my friend Inna, we went to my friend’s car and to my surprise, her car was also one of these! I was in disbelief and even said “How are you able to drive such a car here?” and her cold Siberian response to that was “Easy, you just get used to it”.
We drove the car uphill to a gorgeous spot where the beautiful Paraskeva Pyatnitsa chapel is located. This chapel is one of the symbols of Krasnoyarsk and it decorates the 10 Russian Ruble banknote. We entered the chapel; Inna picked up a scarf, covered her hair and prayed (women must cover their hair when they enter an Orthodox church). I was standing there, watching, and thought of “how similar religions are”.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit other important sites in Krasnoyarsk such as Stolby Forest Reserve, which is located outside the city. I promised myself to do that next time.
Next day, I was heading to the train station to take my last train ride of this trip and this time to Irkutsk, which is 17 hours away by train from Krasnoyarsk. I was picked up by a deaf taxi driver who was extremely friendly, he asked me where I am from (by typing on google translator) and I managed to tell him that I am Canadian. He was so excited when he read that and then he explained to me that he loves Hockey so I showed him images from my phone of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and of some legendary Russian players who played in NHL. He was so delighted and I was glad that I met such a genuine person.
The last train ride
My last train ride which was from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk was about to start. I entered my compartment and I found a man in his 50s surrounded by a massive amount of books and food sitting there! I later realized that he boarded the train in Moscow and he’s going to Khabarovsk which is 6 nights away from Moscow. Therefore, he’s been on the train for 3 days! I greeted him and then unpacked and made myself comfortable. He was hanging a Marine suit so I realized that he’s in Russian Navy. A few minutes later, he wanted to start a conversation but we struggled to communicate because of language barrier and then later he told me that he served in East Germany before the fall of Berlin wall and that he speaks German. I speak some German too so we ended up communicating in German!
It was my last night on the train so I went to the dining car to celebrate that; met some travellers from Germany who were heading to Vladivostok without making any stop (it’s 7 days on the train from Moscow to Vladivostok). I am glad I made stops in some Siberian cities as there’s a lot to explore in Siberia. Just before midnight, the train made a stop in a Siberian town called Nizhneudins. The German guys wanted to go outside for a smoke so I joined them. I returned back to the compartment and went to bed as I needed to wake up very early next day.
I woke up at 6.45 am, I was supposed to arrive in Irkutsk at 7.43 am so I changed, had my morning coffee and prepared myself to bid a farewell to this great train.
The train arrived in Irkutsk, my epic train trip is over! Travelled for 5,153 Kilometres and crossed 5 time zones across Russia, the largest country in the world. I admit that if I regret something, it would be not continuing this trip either to Vladivostok or to Mongolia or China. My last stop was Irkutsk and I made a stop there to see the lake Baikal which is the largest fresh water lake in the world.
I had a weird feeling when I realized that my train trip is finally over and that everything I will see and do from now on will not involve any Russian train ride. However, the trip isn’t over yet as I still have 2 days to explore Irkutsk and lake Baikal and then I’ll be flying to Novosibirsk, which was my last stop in Siberia.
Irkutsk is a mid size city in Siberia (600,000 inhabitants) and it has a nickname of “Paris of Siberia”. The city is a gateway to the nearby Lake Baikal but it also has a lot to offer. In the 19th century, many Russian artists and nobles were sent to exile to Siberia for revolting against Tsar Nicholas I and many of them ended up in Irkutsk so the city became centre of intellectual, art and social life.
In my first day, I went out to explore the city. The following day, I took a bus from Irkutsk bus station to Listvyanka on lake Baikal. Trip took around 1.5 hours each way.
Irkutsk is a nice city and just like other places in Siberia, I found people there incredibly hospitable and genuine. In Irkutsk you will see more and more Buryat looking people who mainly live in the neighbouring Buryat Republic but many of them reside in Irkutsk as it’s not far away from their homeland in Buryat Republic. Seeing them made me realize how multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Russia is, It’s just incredible.
Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world. It contains more fresh water than The Great Lakes combined, imagine? It is also the deepest and the oldest lake in the world. It is the sacred sea of Siberia and one of the most gorgeous natural sites in the world. In the winter, the surface of the lake freezes for 4-5 months. I loved being there in the end of the summer (I was there in September) but I wish to ice skate on the surface of the lake someday.
I had a day trip to Listvyanka which is a town on lake Baikal and had the opportunity to hike along the lake. Listvyanka is only 1 hour away by bus from Irkutsk main bus station. It’s a nice town and there you can find traditional shops selling local products and souvenirs such as Omul dried fish, wooden products, or even fur! The lake is one of the most gorgeous sites I’ve ever seen in my whole life and there are numerous activities you can do when you are there. Sadly, because I didn’t have enough time, I couldn’t arrange for a trip to Olkhon Island. It’s one of the things that I truly regret not doing and I really hope that I will have the opportunity to be there again so that I visit that stunning looking island.
Listvyanka is a nice area if you want to explore the Baikal lake for the first time but if you want to be in a remote location and isolated from the rest of the world and to experience a real tranquility then I believe that visiting Olkhon Island is a must.
After spending a great day at the lake, I said to myself that I should have dedicated more time for the lake as there are some gorgeous sites to explore along the lake such as the island or Circum-Baikal Railway which is historical train ride which runs across the Northern shore of the lake.
I returned back to the beautiful city of Irkutsk in the evening and had a delicious dinner there. It was my last night in Irkutsk but I was excited about another trip I will be having next day; I was going to fly to Novosibirsk with Russian S7 airlines. I was looking forward to seeing a new Siberian city.
In the early morning, I headed to Irkutsk airport and boarded my flight to Novosibirsk. I flew with S7 airlines and the flight was generally comfortable and on time.
Novosibirsk – My last stop in Siberia
I passed by Novosibirsk when I was travelling on the train from Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk. I didn’t want to miss the chance to check out Siberia’s capital and most populous city so I decided to visit the city on the way back.
I landed in Novosibirsk, rushed to my small hotel, had a rest and then went out to explore the city. Novosibirsk is a large city; it is the largest in Siberia and the 3rd largest in Russia. However, the city has this relaxing big city vibe. The city is full of museums , monuments, boutique stores, shopping malls and some really good cafe and restaurants. The quality of food, drinks, and service I had there was comparable to Moscow and St. Petersburg. I only spent 48 hours in Novosibirsk but was enough to get a very positive impression about the city.
I was invited to have dinner with a group of people who live in Akademgorodok. It is located 30 Kilometres away from Novosibirsk and was built in the 1950s as a mecca for academics. It’s a beautiful town and is worth a visit if you are in Novosibirsk.
After spending 2 days in Novosibirsk, my time in Siberia had come to an end so I was getting ready to leave Russia to a new country, Kyrgyzstan. It was only 2.5 hours flight from Novosibirsk to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan and I flew with the same S7 Airlines.
Trans-Siberian train trip is more than just a railway trip.
It’s about diving into the deep Russian soul, it’s about discovering the mysterious Russian land, it’s about uncovering the real beauty of the largest nation on earth, it’s about the genuine people you meet on the way, it’s about train traditions, it’s about the majestic scenery , it’s about the powerful trains, it’s about the interesting provodnitsas…
And more and more and more…
It is certainly the best trip I have ever had and certainly a wonderful learning experience. You will meet genuine and interesting people and you will learn about a beautiful culture which was behind an iron curtain for long decades.
This trip is ideal if you want to get out of your comfort zone and explore places which not many people had the chance to visit. It’s not the most comfortable trip as train rides can be too long sometimes but it is definitely worth it. I am writing this blog now and feeling nostalgic about the time I had on the train and in Siberia hoping that I will get the chance to do this trip again.
About the cost of the trip, as I mentioned above, a rough estimate of a seat in a 1st class cabin (Spalny Vagon) is around 130 USD for every 24 hours you spend on the train. Remember that cost depends on the fare and the type of the train. It would cost you 30% of that if you travel in 2nd or 3rd class. Since I am quite familiar with Russian trains now, I believe I will travel in 2nd class if I want to travel across Siberia again as it’s significantly cost effective.
Cost of food, accommodation and transportation in Siberian cities is significantly less than Moscow and St. Petersburg but it’s not always cheap and still not cheaper than some countries I visited such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Belarus. Quality of food is generally good and service is alright.
Don’t expect to hear any English in Siberia. The deeper you get inside Siberia, the less English people you will hear. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from doing this epic train trip. Just learn to read Cyrillic Alphabets and learn some Russian phrases and you will be fine. I managed to get by with my limited Russian and you can always find a local person who speaks English.
The train is very comfortable and clean. Toilets were always kept clean but that can vary from one train to another. In my experience, everything was clean and tidy.
Train is always on time, which is really impressive! It’s amazing to see a train crosses more than 9000 Kilometres that always arrives on time and leaves on time.
Finally, I regret that I didn’t travel on the train for even further than Irkutsk; I should have visited the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryat Republic which is a Buddhist republic in Russia or to go all the way to Vladivostok, a charming Russian city on the Pacific. I regret not planning that but I hope to be able to do it next time.
That’s all I can say about my Trans-Siberian railway trip for now. Please comment if you have any questions and I will be more than happy to answer.
Thank you for reading!