Looking at the map, if you are travelling east, most trains actually take the same track as far Ulan-Ude, which is a four day, 5608km journey from Moscow. So nearly every train allows you to stop off at really interesting places like Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk along the way. At Ulan-Ude the line splits and your choice is to turn south and cross the Gobi Desert bound for Beijing (the Trans-Mongolian), to keep heading East towards Vladivostok (The Trans-Siberian), or to take the longer route to Beijing via Harbin in Northern China (the Trans-Manchurian).
Whilst all the routes allow you to enjoy the endless forests, remote villages and distant mountains of Siberia, the Trans-Mongolian is quite special, as you eventually climb out of the river valleys and up onto the Gobi desert, with its very different landscape - and its camels! Understandably, for this reason, the route is very popular with travellers. On the other hand, Vladivostok is an amazing city with a unique atmosphere and there is the option to take a ship onward to South Korea and Japan. Deciding on the route for your journey can therefore be a tough decision to make.
The best trains
Other than the route, the type of train you take and the class of travel you choose will make quite a difference to your overall experience. The biggest single difference is that the Trans-Mongolian route is serviced by a train with Chinese and Mongolian carriages, whilst most other trains that you will come across will be Russian.
All trains are pulled with locomotives and a restaurant carriage from the native country - in fact your locomotive will get changed at least once or twice each day. On the ‘Trans-Mong’ you will get to sample three different restaurant carriages - just be prepared for them to be moved to a different place in the train!
On Russian trains, a lower train number will often be an indicator of better quality carriages cabins and services. Some of the trains appear to almost be run as a franchise, with specially painted carriages, smartly dressed train staff and complimentary items on board like magazines and slippers.
Most long distance Russian trains offer three types of accommodation - two berth (‘spalny vagon’), four berth (‘kupe’) and open plan (‘platzkart’). Most people and ticketing agents refer to these as first, second and third class. The only real difference (other than the cost) between first and second class is the number of berths in your compartment, and the number of people with whom you will share the bathrooms at each end of the carriage. The open plan, or ‘platzkart’ carriages offer a chance for you to meet a lot of local people, and are generally clean and safe, but will be busy and have quite limited personal space. The carriages on most trains are air-conditioned and the bathrooms are modern. The staff from Russian Railways are highly professional and regularly clean and attend to everything.
The Chinese way
If you want to take the ‘Trans-Mong’ route, there is only one train that covers the whole journey, and it is Chinese run. The carriages are perhaps more dated than the modern Russian ones, and are mostly made up of two berth and four berth ‘soft class’ carriages, equating to first and second class on a Russian train. One unique feature of the first class carriages on this service is that they have an en-suite sink and washing facilities shared between each two compartments. The toilets are to be found at each end of the carriage, and are generally slightly more basic than on a good Russian train.
The idea of the private bathroom might sound appealing, but you may find there is little or no water pressure, and minor floods are common. Your neighbour might have different ideas about the use of your shared sink - on my last trip this room became a vegetable preparation area for one fellow passenger and another managed to accidentally leave the shower turned on all night!
You don't have to take just one train of course, but don't forget that not all services operate every day (some are every two days or just once a week), so the team at Real Russia will be able to link trains up into an itinerary that works best for you. Each train will offer you an amazing experience, and I hope, like me, you will enjoy life on board the most famous railway in the world.
Matthew Woodward with a Trans-Siberian train
Matthew Woodward is a rail adventurer, and the author of ‘Trans-Siberian Adventures: Life on and off the rails from the UK to Asia’, which can be ordered here. He has completed several Trans-Siberian rail journeys, from his home in the UK to places including Shanghai, Singapore, Lhasa and Tokyo.
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