Russia is a huge country spanning 17,125,200 square miles and consisting of approximately 1/8 of the earth’s inhabited land. From vast freshwater lakes to huge rocky mountain ranges, Russia’s unprecedented size and dramatic landscapes cannot be understated. So, how do we even begin to think about exploring a country that is almost twice the size of the rest of Europe combined? Well, by train of course!
Travelling by train in Russia is not without its problems. For one, train stations, especially in larger cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, are notoriously crowded and deal with both domestic and international passengers. In rural areas, navigating trains can be difficult since timings, place names and information is mostly in Russian with very little English available. Aside from this, train travel across Russia will take you hours which is understandable for a country of its size.
Despite these difficulties, travelling Russia by train is an enriching and albeit rewarding experience for any traveller that wants to really see what Russia is about. While planes may take you across Russia in a fraction of the time, trains allow you plenty of opportunity to really immerse yourself in Russian culture from your seat. What’s more, travelling by train has less impact on the environment than other forms of transport, so what’s not to love?
Around 2680 miles long, the Baikal-Amur mainline was built as an alternative to the Trans-Siberian railway, officially starting from Tayshet (although western travellers often join at Irkutsk) and travelling east towards the Pacific Ocean. Much of the BAM is constructed over permafrost so highly durable materials that can withstand severe terrain and weather conditions have been used as part of the track design.
Lake Baikal – One of the most popular tourist spots in Russia, Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1,632m and measuring 23,000 cubic km in size. Aside from spectacular views, the lake is home to the only freshwater seal in the world.
The Kirov railway is a Russian rail network linking Murmansk with St. Petersburg. Although a relatively short railway journey (around 900 miles) compared with the Trans-Siberian, the Kirov is still a popular journey for tourists wanting to explore The Northern-most parts of Russia. The line was originally known as the Murman railway and has been of strategic military importance since Murmansk is one of the few ice-free ports on the Arctic Sea.
The route (ARKTIKA):
Mumansk – Murmansk is a port city located in the northwestern part of Russia close to the Norweigian border, now home to numerous naval monuments and even a museum ship, Lenin. Aside from the city’s impressive military history, Mumansk and the Kola peninsula is one of the best destinations in Russia to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) with over 40 days of clear night skies.
As the longest railway in the world at around 5772 miles, the Trans-Siberian is without question one of the most extraordinary engineering achievements of recent times. Renowned for its ability to connect Western and Eastern Russia (Moscow to Vladivostok), the Trans-Siberian is an icon for train enthusiasts and travellers alike. This major route works as an artery for traversing Asia and splits into three main routes, the first, official route leading to Vladivostok, the second starting from Moscow and heading to Bejing, China (Trans-Manchurian), and the third starting from Moscow and heading to Bejing via Ulaan-Baatar (Trans-Mongolian).
The route (Trans-Siberian)
Kazan – A major tourist destination located on the banks of the Volga River, Kazan is known for its multi-ethnic history and was the capital of the Tatarstan Republic. This city boasts a multitude of cultural delights including the only surviving Tatar fortress in Russia, the Kazan Kremlin and the Qol Sharif Mosque.
Ulan Ude – Ulan Ude is a vibrant city close to the border of Mongolia, and home to the Buryats an indigenous people with a proud heritage spanning many generations. Today, the city is known for being the centre of Buddhism in Russia.
At Real Russia, we pride ourselves on being able to deliver a fast, stress-free service to our customers. Our live train schedules highlight any days that trains are departing between your selected cities and the scheduled trains section will list all trains running for your chosen month. We also offer a secure order tracking process so you can double-check your train tickets before you travel. Need help planning your journey? Our destinations page will go through some of the most popular Russian cities to visit. For more information on how to understand and book your Russian train tickets, please visit our dedicated Russian trains page or contact us directly.
If you are interested in booking any supplementary tours along the way, why not take a look at the Russian tours we have on offer? We have a range of excursions to suit any budget.
So, what did she experience on the world’s most famous rail journey?
We booked on the Rossiya, the flagship of the Trans-Siberian. Interestingly, for staff benefit, no matter how many time-zones we passed the train kept to Moscow time – this is crucial to understand when using the restaurant car!
The Rossiya was home for four days, we travelled hundreds of miles with ever-changing scenery. From the riches of central Moscow we noticed changes in housing immediately, memorably an estate of pink houses with marshmallow like roofs.
As we made a stop at its grand station, I concluded in hindsight I would have liked to have stopped at Yekaterinburg, famously where the massacre of the Romanov Royal family took place. Now memorialised in a little church a little way out of the city.
We arrived at Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, to see Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. We booked a day trip to Lake Baikal from Irkutsk by taxi. As it came into view the site was immediately breath taking, on one side of the lake was a seaside complex and on the other majestic mountains loomed large.
Serene Lake Baikal – a jewel of the Trans-Siberian
Ulan-Bator, Mongolia’s capital, the land of Genghis Khan. We arrived at 5.45am to the most glorious sunrise. 1.5 million people live in Mongolia, and 1 million of them live right in the capital. A huge golden god oversees the capital and is worth a morning trek. Mongolia is known as the ‘land of sky’, nothing but miles and miles of horizon. We found four more travel companions and hired a jeep and driver, who would also be our chef for the next six days to head into the Gobi. At the time, there were no roads to the Gobi; only well used scrubland tracks with flocks of sheep, goats and camels that scattered when our jeep appeared. We stayed in local yurts along the way and our meals were rice with goat meat, only horse milk was available.
Our train was now the Trans-Mongolian, a proud engine with 16 coaches. As night descended the train pulled into a huge factory-type complex. My daughter said, ‘I feel like I’m going up’; we drew back the curtain to find ourselves 10ft in the air, supported by hawsers, as the men below changed the wheels from 8’ to 6’. Foreign trains could not use China’s tracks without this change.
We arrived in Beijing and stayed in the Old City. We explored Tiananmen Square, with the huge photo of Chairman Mao being the meeting place for all tours and taxis. We visited the Forbidden City, home of China’s emperors for 500 years. We climbed part of the Great Wall whose route we had already followed along the train journey from Mongolia. We experienced a cultural evening of song, dance and food. We visited a silk factory and finally, a jade factory.
We left Beijing after 4 days and travelled to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta army. It was impressive, each face unique, the detailing intricate. Our guide pointed out though sometimes described as life-size, being made around 2,200 years ago they would have been huge compared to the population, therefore formidable guardians to protect the emperor in the afterlife.
We visited a Rescue Centre for pandas, after an hour of waiting Bam Bam appeared right in front of us. He put on a tree climbing display for half an hour before shuffling back into the undergrowth.
Shanghai was a beautiful modern city where we stopped for 3 days before Hong Kong, our final destination.
We climbed to Victoria Park on the funicular railway revealing a stunning harbour view; and visited the oldest Taoist temple in the world where a local shaman will put a curse on the head of your enemies at £4 a head. You will also find the third largest Marks and Spencer in the world, constructed in adherence to Feng Shui naturally.
We did a whole island tour by coach and sampan, Hong Kong was beautiful, the temperature is never lower than 15 degrees throughout the year.
We flew back to Heathrow, my dream holiday over. We had physically traversed over a third of the planet by train.
Where would you go?
Javier Sinay travelled 5,793km across the iconic Trans-Siberian route (the whole thing measures 9,288km!), seeing unrivalled natural beauty, and finding himself equally entranced by the locals and travellers the route attracts. Here are a few excerpts from an article he originally published in La Nacion, telling the tale of his Trans-Siberian adventure.
The Tran-Siberian Train, sometimes called The Tran-Sib, isn’t a single journey. Its central route is 9,288km from East to West Russia, ending in Vladivostok, the great Russian port of the Pacific Ocean. The route is a collection of unforgettable images showing the changing and varied cultures of Russia. Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, home to the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude are some of the most memorable stops on the train. Ulan-Bator and Beijing appear beyond, like two intense epilogues.
The train was created at the end of the 19th Century, under the government of Tsar Alexander |||, to unite St. Petersburg and Moscow with Sibera, a giant region rich in resources, and the Pacific Coast. In 1891, some 90,000 workers, soldiers and prisoners, began the work of cutting roads, cutting down trees, digging tunnels and building bridges. It took 25 years to complete.
The rail foundations to Vladivostok cost around 330 million rubles, equivalent to 7,000 million dollars today. It was too much for a disappearing empire but China was expanding in the South, and though half the Russian territory was almost empty, the Tsar could not idly stand by. The train was inaugurated in 1916 and by then a war with Japan, in 1904 and 1905 had served as an early trial for rail utility.
With the passage of time, some 4 million people arrived in Siberia from the West to work in the new stations and in the budding infrastructure of a new steppe. Russia built the Trans-Siberian railway, and in return, the Trans-Siberian railway helped build Russia.
I’m travelling in a Platskartny car, the third class. The wagon has 54 bunks, without doors or divisions, a single plug to share, and no WiFi. There are almost no foreigners, instead local families, workers and soldiers travel. I carry a Russian to Spanish phrase-book and when I say “Ya iz Argentiny”, there are surprisingly long talks.
Zina is my travelling companion for the 900km journey between Yekaterinburg and Omsk. She’s a quiet, shy girl who studies Geography and lives in Omsk, near the Kazakhstan border. She was, in fact, raised in Petropayl, a city in Kazhakstan. I ask about Petropayl and her face lights up, she tells me it’s quiet with lots of trees.
We have the simple, nostalgic melody of the train as accompaniment while we talk, play chess and share sandwiches. Although one of the most repeated tips I heard was, “Do not accept Vodka from strangers on the train”, I do. On the last leg of my Trans-Siberian journey, I am the one with homemade vodka, a gift from a muzhik from Irkutsk, and offer it to strangers.
Anton, another neighbor, cannot believe I’m Argentinian and travelling on the Trans-Siberian train; Zina acts as our interpreter. It’s past 10PM and the train lights have gone out. We use our cell phones for light, and the sudden intimacy makes it seem like we’re huddled around a fireplace. Anton works in a river port processing fish. He tells me about his village, Ust-Ilimsk, where a hydroelectric dam operates. The nearest large city, Irkutsk, is 650km away. “Only a few hours’ journey”, he says, accustomed to the enormous Russian dimensions.
The forests we see occupy almost half of Russian soil, and here, in the middle of Siberia, they appear like an incessant image through the windows. We watch the spectacle of nature, hypnotized. The sights merge with the clank of the train in a small fragment of our lives that, with the reddish colours of the morning, look like a movie. I have learned to say, ‘Krasiva Siberia’.
The trains run along the Trans-Siberian railway all year round, as well as the Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian railways. Whether you want to experience Ulan-Bator on the way to Beijing, or take in the immense natural beauty of Lake Baikal before heading to Vladivostok, Real Russia will be able to help. Who knows what friends you might make on the way?
An American traveling by train is a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, the United States severely lacks a sophisticated rail network. So, while I’d heard of the iconic Trans-Siberian railway, I couldn’t quite relate to the notion of traveling an entire country by rail. Thankfully that changed, all starting in Beijing.
Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided that I would be sure to experience each seating travel class throughout the journey, splitting it into several legs, so I’d have a true understanding of the different ways to travel by train. Would third class be so bad? Would first be that good? Time would have to tell.
I got my visa, started studying Russian, and booked the tickets. Though that wasn’t as easy as you might think. Especially starting in Beijing. I was glad to be working with a third party to purchase the tickets, because while I tried to buy them in person, I spent hours going from place to place in the city to end the day still without a ticket. China tends to be difficult for English speakers, and leaving is no exception.
I loaded up on snacks and drinks for the ride, not knowing what would be available on the train. In the US, everything is more expensive on planes and trains, so to avoid extra costs, I was stocked up. But I gave the dining car a chance and was pleasantly surprised. Appropriately from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the car served Chinese food, which switched at the border to a Mongolian car, and at the Russian border, to Russian food. All reasonably priced, and more importantly, a great representation of the local cuisine.
While I had a hard time shaking the urge to bring my own provisions for the ride, I can’t say it’s necessary.
I am officially a fan of rail travel. I write this while on a train. Way less security, train stations are closer to everything than airports, no mucking around with bags, people are friendly, food is good and you can sleep. I’m not sure what more one could want in their mode of transportation.
Thanks, Jessica for sharing your experiences onboard the world famous Trans-Siberian railway.
It is a popular (mis)conception that border guards the world over can be officious, cold and unfeeling. This is particularly true of Russia and other states who have, historically, been quite closed off to the rest of the world. No doubt this has left more than one traveller a little concerned when the time came to interact with these guards. I certainly felt this way; particularly as I always seem to be the passenger who is randomly searched/checked!
So, how was my experience?
Remarkably good is the answer. Completely painless.
The ticket check shortly after leaving Helsinki was quick, easy and hassle free. I simply remained at my seat as a gentleman came and scanned my passport before offering me my migration card to fill in while we travelled.
The migration card, for those who do not know, comes in two parts. One that you offer to the Russian border guards on entering the country, and one that you will hand to the border guards when leaving. Both parts require your personal details, your passport number and who your sponsor is (the company from whom you received your invitation).
At Kouvola customs officials boarded the train and a black dog surprised me by running past my seat! While I am not 100% sure on why it was present – it could have been taking a short journey home – I imagine it was there to sniff out any illegal substances. The officials then proceeded to check everyone’s passport at their seats.
There is a customs declaration form that must be filled in while en-route if you have anything to declare. These are available in Finnish, Russian, Swedish and English from a leaflet rack within the carriage. A helpful guide as to what must be declared is also provided, and while the English translation was not perfect in places, it is very clear as to what items must be declared.
At Vainikkala, the Finnish border station, the train stopped for around five minutes allowing the Finnish border guards to disembark. The train then got underway for the Russian border!
Next came the process I feared most, the Russian border guards.
After crossing the border, the train stops at a small town called Vyborg where the Russian passport and customs officers are collected. From Vyborg to Saint Petersburg, the train is in a ‘customs control zone’. After a few minutes the officials started their checks along the train, with some checking what luggage passengers were transporting and the others checking passports, visas and the migration card that was issued earlier in the trip. The officials take the entry section of the migration card and then move on.
This whole process was much easier than I had expected. I did not have to leave my seat, or even open my bags. It was quick and very efficient. I feel slightly silly for being worried about the process.
At the beginning, I mentioned that I had concerns about this process. Many based on preconceived ideas (and some prior experience) of border guards. I am pleased to say I could not have been more wrong. I also saw no other passenger searched. Questions were asked of a few people, but nothing more involved or complicated than that.
So when crossing the border from Finland, sit back, relax, and take in the view!
P.S. One more thing, something I noticed while travelling through the Finnish countryside; there is a distinct lack of fences anywhere! I do not remember seeing any. In place of fences there just seemed to be ditches. Lots of ditches. It gave the small villages along the route a much more pleasant, open-plan feel than you would find many settlements in Europe!
Have you crossed the border on the Allegro? Have you crossed going in the other direction? Have you entered Russia via any other land border? Share your experience below or on Facebook.
Over the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure of travelling through Finland and Russia, experiencing the people, places, food, culture and, importantly, the trains first hand. Over the next few weeks, I shall be trying to sum up my experiences into a series of blogs in order to give you a brief ‘insider view’ into the good, the bad, and the ugly, of travelling in this region.
Before finding out what I thought, or felt, it may help to have some context. What did I expect to find in Finland and Russia? How did I expect to feel?
Russia ‘is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. The words of Winston Churchill in 1939 hold just as true today as they did 75 years ago. It is unique. Both in the sheer size of the country, and in everything that is within those borders.
What I am trying to say is this, that even though I have been working with Real Russia for 10 months now, I still did not know what to expect. Particularly after the events of 2014.
All of the above?
To find out how I got on, and whether any worries I had were necessary, stay tuned to our social media and follow my blog posts over the next few weeks.
Spoiler Alert: Generally, Russia has been very kind to me, particularly the colleagues that I have met for the first time in our Russian offices, and any worries I may have had were unfounded.
Russian Railways, RZD, have announced a change to the current schedule of one of their most famous trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As of the 26th May 2013 the Rossiya Train #2 will leave at the new time of 13:50, making the departure time around 10 hours earlier than before (23:45).
The Rossiya service is one of the most popular trains along the Trans-Siberian route, running from Moscow to Vladivostok. Departing every-other day, you can enjoy one of the longest and most spectacular train journeys in the world.
If you have planned, or are planning, a Trans-Siberian trip and would like further information then do not hesitate to contact a member of our travel team who are happy to help.
From 1st March 2013 Russian Railways (RZD) are introducing “dynamic pricing” to some train routes.
Tickets for each train will be for sale 45 days before departure as they are normally. However, with “dynamic pricing” the earlier the tickets are bought, the cheaper they are. So when the tickets go on sale for the first time, passengers will get the cheapest fares possible for that train.
As the seats start to fill up and the demand for the train rises, so also does the cost of each ticket. The higher the demand and fewer seats, the higher the price of the tickets.
The trains first affected with the departure date of March 1, 2013 are:
From January 23rd 2013 Russian Railways (RZD) has announced the closure of bookings for the Lev Tolstoi train, an overnight train from Moscow to Helsinki.
In addition, from February 1st 2013 RZD have announced the closure of bookings for Allegro, high speed trains between St Petersburg and Helsinki.
There has been no further information at the current time to confirm when they will be made available again. We will update our blogs when we have any further news.
If you have any questions or require any further information please contact our travel team who will be happy to assist you. Alternatively access our train schedules page to book train tickets.
Update: RZD have confirmed that they are now taking bookings for the above trains and the planned closures are not now taking place.
From January 2013 Russian Railways (RZD) will replace the international tariff for selected trains on the Trans-Siberian route with the domestic tariff.
Not only are domestic tariff prices generally more expensive but, unlike the international tariff, may increase or decrease depending upon the travelling date. The change in tariff will only apply to the segments of a journey that are wholly within Russia and segments that start or end outside of Russia will remain on the international tariff.
There has been no official announcement from RZD but we understand that the popular trains that are most likely to be affected will be:
#002 Moscow – Vladivostok (Москва-Владивосток)
#008 Novosibirsk – Vladivostok (Новосибирск-Владивосток)
#010 St. Petersburg – Irkutsk (Санкт-Петербург-Иркутск)
#016 Moscow – Yekaterinburg (Москва-Екатеринбург)
#056 Moscow – Krasnoyarsk (Москва-Красноярск)
#087 Novosibirsk – Omsk (Новосибирск-Омск)
#102 Moscow – Adler (Москва-Адлер)
These changes were announced less than a month after confirmation that Trans-Siberian Train #9 was changing its schedule and route from the end of May 2013.
The latest prices for our 2013 Trans-Siberian tours are now available, and the Trans-Siberian Planner for independent travellers. Of course, our Trans-Siberian specialists are available by contacting our travel team who will be happy to help.