Tips for the Trans-Siberian Railway

There are two main points about the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways. The first is that the Trans-Siberian proper runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and the second is that the railway branches out from Ulan-Ude to form the Trans-Mongolian route to Mongolia and China. This post is a review on Russian trains along the Trans-Siberian route.

Here’s a map to make it all clear from Mark Smith, who runs the excellent website The Man in Seat Sixty-One:

 

Which class should I travel?

The most expensive and comfortable is spalny vagon, or First class, which has two berths in each compartment. I didn’t travel first class, so I can’t really say anything about it, but there’s plenty of information and photos online and of course, on Mark Smith’s website.

I took kupeyny, or Second class most of the time. Compartments are divided into four sleeping berths and each passenger gets a pillow, sheets, a bedspread and a small facecloth. Note that while the sheets and facecloths are changed every time a new passenger gets on, the bedspreads aren’t. If you don’t have a problem with sharing skin cells and DNA with the person(s) before you, you can use the bedspread as a blanket because it’s quite warm. Kupeyny compartments can be locked from the inside at night when you sleep and are actually rather comfortable.

Berth no. 19, Carriage 9, on train no. 340

 If you’re travelling kupeyny, I would suggest you take the bottom bunk if you intend to take lots of photos because the view won’t be as nice from the top. Bottom bunks are also better if you’re a little on the heavy side.

 Platskartny is the Third class. I travelled platskartny from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude (seven hours) to try it out. Some people liken Russian platskartny carriages to Chinese hard sleepers, but I’ve travelled on Chinese trains before and they’re not the same. Chinese hard sleepers are divided into sets of six berths on one side of the carriage, with the aisle on the other side.

Russian third class carriages are also open-view carriages but the design is a little different. There are 54 berths in one carriage- 18 of these are arranged in a row on one side, while the remaining berths are arranged in sets of four. If you’re a solo female travelling platskartny, I would suggest one of the berths among the four- you’ll get a little more privacy that way. My berth was along the aisle (probably given to me because I was alone) and anyone who stuck his head out from his berth would be able to see what I was doing. Think of platskartny as a 54-bed dorm on wheels. It was fine, but I would have preferred one of the inner berths.

The joys of travelling in platskartny

Lonely Planet suggests that third class may be safer for solo female travellers because there’s no risk of you being stuck with three unsavoury characters in second class for four nights, but the reverse argument is that there are no lockable doors and therefore less privacy in platskartny. Besides,  there are now women-only compartments in second class and even if you feel uncomfortable with a man in your compartment, you can always request to move into another one.  Because of the nature of third class carriages, I have a feeling that travelling in them will be more bearable if you have company.

 

What are the toilets like?

In one word: small. The size is similar to that of airplane toilets but of course planes don’t sway from left to right (well, they’d better not!) and toilets on trains don’t have things like hand lotion, cologne and other such frivolities.

Can you bathe on the train? Of course you can, but you’ll need a small bottle of mineral water to fill up and throw water on yourself- a 1.5 litre bottle won’t fit under the tap. Bring your own shower gel and one of those quick-dry travel towels.

Are the toilets clean? That depends on who used it before you. I simply fill up my bottle and rinse the seat and surrounding areas.

 

So, like, what do I wear on the trains? 

If you’re travelling for more than 12 hours, I would recommend you change into something comfortable like track pants or loose trousers and a loose top. The trains are pretty well-heated, so the trick is to layer. Slippers are provided on board the train (except in third class) but you may want to bring your own pair of flip flops.

 

What about food?

There’s a restaurant car on board and an option to include meals when you buy your ticket (only for kupeyny and above) but everyone brings food on the train. I brought lots of bread, cheese, tuna and noodles with me. Things like powdered soups, tea/coffee, chocolate bars, cereal drinks and utensils like an insulated mug and cutlery would also be useful.

At certain major stops along the route, vendors will come onto the platforms to sell food. It’s quite fun getting down from the train and seeing what’s available even if you don’t buy anything. You’ll see locals selling bread, drinks, sausages, fruits and smoked fish, even wool scarves and small toys. In short, you’ll rarely go hungry. Just remember to stock up on long rides.

 

 

Get down from the train only when it stops for more than 15 minutes because you do not want to be stuck in Siberia in your flip flops when your train leaves the station. Note that not all Russian trains whistle before they depart-some leave without warning. Remember what your carriage attendant and carriage mates look like and make sure they’re still hanging around on the platform. There’s a timetable in every carriage so you can check how long the stops are but the Lonely Planet and Trailblazer guidebooks also have detailed schedules.

 

Where can I store my precious luggage?

If you’ve got a bottom berth, you can store your bags under it- all bottom berths, even those in platskartny, have storage areas. The ones in kupeyny are quite roomy, with enough space for one large rucksack and a smaller daypack. Someone would have to lift the entire bed to get at your bags, so there’s no way anyone would be able to steal your stuff when you’re lying down. If you’re worried that  your things might go missing if you leave your compartment, lock your bag and bring your essentials with you.

If you’ve got a top berth, there will be a storage area at your feet, above the door of the compartment. This is also very secure as someone would have to climb onto your berth to steal your things.  Once again, if you’re worried, lock your bags and take your essentials with you.

 

Is the train safe? 

Yes it is, but of course don’t flash your valuables and money around. I took out my DSLR and netbook only when I was in kupeyny, and only when I was sure it was safe to do so.

I had my kupeyny compartment all to myself for two whole days and I’ll have to admit that I didn’t bring my passport, money or cameras with me everywhere I went. There were times when I went to the restaurant car or platform only with my phone and some coins, but obviously do this after shutting the compartment door firmly so that no-one can see that it’s empty. For the record, none of my belongings went missing on the train, both when I had compartment mates and when I was alone.

As for my personal security, there were no untoward incidents and no-one tried anything, even when it was obvious that I was alone in my compartment.

 

Are there any plug points on the train? 

Chances are you’ll be bringing at least a mobile phone. I have two phones with me (my iPhone for wifi and a simple one for text messages and calls back home), two cameras (one DSLR and one compact, for occasions when using the larger one isn’t convenient or practical) and if that weren’t enough, a netbook for writing. Other people on the train had iPods and various tablet computers. Going back to plug points- yes, there are indeed power points in the corridor for public use, particularly on spalny vagon and kupeyny carriages. If the plug points happen to be located right in front of your kupeyny compartment, good for you, but if they aren’t, just plug your device in as usual but keep an eye on it just to be safe.

 

How much do the tickets cost?

A simple guide would be this: first class tickets cost about double that of second class tickets, which in turn cost double that of third class tickets. A great website which I’ll always be indebted to is Real Russia, which not only has ticket prices and schedules, but also provides assistance for visa invitation letters. As regards prices, note that there is no single train for the Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian route, for that matter), so there are numerous options for trains, and therefore, prices.

 

Should I go?

In one word: Yes. Go here to find out how to apply for your Russian visa.

 

© 2012 – 2014, Anis. All rights reserved.

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27 Responses

  1. Eileen says:

    Succinct and full of information. Love this post babes. Keep ’em coming

  2. Thanks, this is very informative. How/where do you keep your camera when you need to leave it though? In your backpack?

    About the bunk bed. Is it comfortable enough for a sixfeetflat.net guy? 😀

    And…

    There’s no group offering free hugs on the train? 😀

    • Anis Anis says:

      I didn’t keep my cameras in a backpack because I wanted them in front of me, so I carried them in a sling bag across my body. On the times when I left them in my compartment, there was some space between my mattress and the compartment wall, so I stuffed my bag there and covered it with my pillow.
      The bed should be comfortable for you, and no, sadly no-one gave me free hugs on the train 🙂

  3. Dave says:

    Great write up Anis. There’s not too much of this detailed stuff out there. I got a graving for some boiled eggs now 🙂

    Looking forward to the rest of your posts.

  4. Carol says:

    Great post! Do you need to buy train tickets and make reservations ahead of time, or can you show up at station and buy a few days before? What’s the cost difference between first and second class?

    • Anis Anis says:

      Hey Carol :). Generally you don’t have to book in advance if you’re not travelling from May-July (peak period) but some of these trains depart only once or twice weekly so you’ll need to at least know when those days are- clearly you don’t want to be stuck anywhere for a whole week if you’ve just missed your train by one day, unless you don’t mind that at all. A fantastic website to check schedules and prices is realrussia.co.uk. (A link I should’ve included in the post). Thanks for dropping by!

  5. chetok says:

    hi Anis, have you ever thought of sleeping at 3rd class compartment as you will meet so many people from all walks of life. Any formula to build trust in others or foreigners at first encounter as it deems risky right?

    • Anis Anis says:

      Actually I have slept in 3rd class compartments before, and you’re right, it was an interesting experience. I can’t think of any real formula except that I always trust my instincts when it comes to people! The minute I feel uncomfortable in any setting or with anyone, I just leave. I also find that sharing food around is a great icebreaker!

  6. ZAitun zainuddin says:

    Dear Anis. First,I would like to congratulate you on this less travelled but one of a kind Trans Siberian train journey which I personally would love to embark on. Alas,my age cannot take the rigor of the trip. Is your train ride paid for? And how much time did you plan it? Keep up the positive spirit,take care. May Allah protect you as the West and East belong to Him.

    • Anis Anis says:

      Thank you so much for the kind wishes, I really appreciate it. No,my trip is not paid for, I’m paying for this myself, every step of the way. I saved up for this and when I get back home, I’ll have to continue to watch my expenses!! Alhamdulillah,all is good so far :). To answer your question about planning, I started researching this trip seriously since November last year. I spend months reading up about an area I’m going to, not just guidebooks or websites but also travel literature by people who have done the same trip or regions. It’s a long process but I enjoy it 🙂

  7. ZAitun zainuddin says:

    Desr Anis. Its great to receive response from You. I am happy my email has cheered You up. To have saved up for suci a trip takes lots of courage which i think You have,especially on a lesu trodden road like Siberia, Mongolia. It shows that if one wills one self,one can achieve anything. I do envy You. Keep up With Your delightful travel stories and if its ok,i will keep emailing You,ok. Take care.

    • Anis Anis says:

      Zaitun, you mentioned earlier that you’re interested in the Trans-Siberian Railway but feel that you are limited because of your age. If you have any specific questions about that, please feel free to send me a private email (it’s listen on the ‘About me’ page). You may find out that you can still do it!

  8. Mohammed says:

    Anis, you have done something I have always wanted to do but never got round to it. If I were to confine the trip to 2 weeks, which part should I do. I have been to St Petersburg and Moscow, and am thinking more of starting eastwards from Moscow.

    • Anis Anis says:

      Hello, Mohammed. Two weeks from Moscow to Beijing is too short a time for you to enjoy the trip if you want to get down and stop for (at least) two nights in cities like Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. Bear in mind the time you’ll need to spend on the train: the Moscow-Irkutsk ride will take four nights, Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar (two nights) and from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (two nights), so if you want to enjoy both the ride as well as the places along the journey, two weeks is a very short time. Can you extend it to three weeks at least? Otherwise you might regret not seeing enough of the places along the way. There are many possible stops but the ones I’ve suggested are the minimum you should make along the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian route. Do try to set aside three weeks if you can.

  9. Susan says:

    Love Mark Smith. Love trains. Wonderful to hear your stories Anis.:)

  10. Gareth says:

    Thank you for all the information. I have one question though. I am a single traveler planning to travel 3rd class and I am worried about my valuables when I sleep. I can see how there will be now problem if I have a lower berth in 3rd class, but you say that

    “If you’ve got a top berth, there will be a storage area at your feet, above the door of the compartment.”

    What if you have a top berth in 3rd class (I am guessing the line above refers to second class as it mentions doors and compartments).

    • Anis Ibrahim Anis Ibrahim says:

      Hi there Gareth,

      Thanks for dropping by! Yes, I was referring to second class. If you’re in a top berth in 3rd class there won’t be any storage compartment close to you or within easy reach. You have two options:
      1- There’s a storage rack across the aisle, above the row of bunks which are separated from those arranged in groups of four. If you take an upper berth and are concerned about your valuables, I would suggest that the bag placed on the rack be locked.
      2- If you have a nice lower berth partner, they’ll probably be okay with sharing the space under their berths. The length of the space is about that of a regular single bed, so if the person sleeping below you is nice, they won’t mind. FYI, the storage options are similar for Chinese hard sleepers as well (if you’re thinking of going to China)- the racks are across the aisle and I don’t like that because I’m too short to reach the bags myself, and on the occasions when I’ve slept in top or middle berths, the person in the lower berth has always allowed me to dump my stuff in ‘his’ space.
      Not much help there, I’m afraid :-(. You’ll probably find your answer in the regular travel forums. Good luck and have a great trip! If you’re writing a blog about this, give me the link, I’d love to read about your journey.

  11. Chak says:

    Hello Anis,
    I have been meaning to do this trip since I was a teenager but it has taken me 40 years of of procrastination. Now that you have done it, I certainly should do it! I should ask, how much did this whole trip cost you? I presume you are a ‘budget’ traveler. And how long did it take for you to complete the journey end-to-end (including sightseeing)? Thanking you.

    • Anis Anis says:

      Hello Chak,
      Thanks for dropping by. I have a budget, but I’m not always a budget traveller- I don’t always stay in dorms. I like to have a mix of hostels, guesthouses and proper hotels, and I eat pretty well. For this trip, I spent two months travelling from start to finish (St Petersburg–>Kuala Lumpur). As for costs- the bulk was the one-way flight to St Petersburg and the train tickets in Russia and Mongolia, due to the distances and the standard of the trains. If you’d like an idea of how much the train tickets cost, you can go to http://www.realrussia.co.uk and check the prices there. If you want an actual figure, I’d rather tell you privately, so tell me and I’ll email you :).

  12. aeroair says:

    Hi Anis,
    I am also a solo female traveler and always felt like this trip will be quite unsafe. But you did it, and I should too!
    Anyway, I read one of your replies that you took 2 months for the whole trip. I am just wondering the cost for that two months you took (so that I can plan out of work and other stuff).
    Thanks
    Regards, aeroair

    • Anis Anis says:

      Hi Aeroair
      Thanks for dropping by :). Yes I took two months, and the total cost for the trip (flight, food, accommodation, train rides from St Petersburg-Kuala Lumpur, everything) was roughly US$3,700. You can take a longer or shorter time depending on how long you linger when you break your journey. Feel free to email me if you need to ask anything else.

  13. Nadiah says:

    I’ve been searching info about trans-siberian railway and I found your blog. Inspiring!

    But, with budget I have, I’m thinking of Trans-Mongolian only; from KL-Beijing-Ulaanbaatar-Irkutsk. And then taking flight from Irkutsk-Beijing-KL.

    Always wanted to proceed to St Petersburg but then… budget and time. 🙁

    What do you think with my trip plan?

    • Anis Anis says:

      Hi Nadiah, That’s a good enough route if you don’t have the time. Are you going overland from KL-Beijing or flying there? I hope you’re thinking of going overland because it’ll be a really interesting journey!

      As for food…..food is the least of my worries when I travel. I can survive on bread, potatoes, sandwiches, fish and eggs. Try to be flexible when it comes to meals- you can’t expect to find rice or halal meat everywhere you go. In other words, I become a pescatarian (someone who eats fish but not other types of meat) when I travel. My advice is to not be preoccupied with looking for halal meat and Asian food because you won’t always find it. There are lots of other things we can eat.

      If there’s anything else you want to ask, send me a message or an email (it’s on my Contact page). I’ll be happy to answer your questions 🙂

  14. Nadiah says:

    Oh, one more thing, what about food? Especially for muslims. Sorry for spamming

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