Matthew Woodward shares his first hand experiences on board the ‘Vostok’ – the Trans-Manchurian train that connects the 5623 miles between Moscow and Beijing, via the Manchuria region of China, just once each week.
Train 19 leaves Beijing westbound for Moscow, whilst train 20 travels east from Moscow arriving in Beijing. The journey on this train takes seven nights (going east, six going west – owing to time zone changes). The route offers a classic view of Siberia with opportunities to break your journey in several interesting places. Manchuria is a historically interesting region, and it is a little used way into China for most. The main reason for this is because it is a longer and less direct journey than the Trans-Mongolian route.
The Vostok is a ‘firmeny’ service, which means it is of a higher standard than many others. It uses modern (if not the very latest) Russian Railways (RZD) air-conditioned carriages. The electric Russian locomotive that pulls the train is changed several times each day. On board it is run efficiently and kept to a high standard. There are minor differences in comparison to the ‘Rossiya’ train (001/002), mainly to do with fewer services (such as amenity kits) and fewer operational features in the carriages (television, key card locking doors, vacuum toilets).
In first class you get a compartment with two lower berths. If you choose second class it has four berths, two lower and two upper, in the same amount of space. There may also be a third class (plaskart), where 54 beds share an open plan layout, but this is not always present on this train.
The berths are comfortable with high quality cotton sheets and blankets. They are not overly wide, but you adapt to them after a night or two on board. The ride is quite smooth compared to some trains on the same route, owing to the modern rolling stock and regular stops to de-ice the train in winter.
Inside each first class compartment there are three sets of lighting, and usually a headphone socket. There may be a television, but it does not always work and has no international content. There are a variety of small cupboards above the seats/beds and a table between the two berths. Notably, the older, but comfortable, carriages that are normally used on this train have no 230v power sockets in the compartments, but there are sockets in the corridor and in the provodnitsa’s (carriage attendant) compartment.
Each compartment has luggage space beneath the berths and also above the door. There may be a metal box beneath the beds, so you can slide in luggage approximately 40 cm high and 65 cm deep for part of the length of the bed. Above there is usually room for smaller bags – up to 30 cm tall by 65 cm deep.
There is a menu of snacks and souvenirs that can be purchased at any time from the provodnitsa. The restaurant carriage attendant also regularly passes through each carriage supplying drinks and snacks (even ice cream). They will also serve a full meal in your compartment if you don’t want to visit the restaurant carriage.
The air conditioning on board is efficient and the climate on the train will normally be kept around 20-25 C, but it may get hotter at times. Most of the windows in the compartments have a small skylight panel that can be opened in the summer, but this will be locked shut in the winter to allow the air conditioning to function correctly in extreme outside temperatures.
There are two toilets, one at each end of each of the coach. These contain a single washbasin and a flushing toilet. The standard of cleanliness is normally high, but the class of accommodation you choose will determine the number of people whom you share these bathrooms with. The way to determine if you are in the very latest type of ‘firmeny’ carriage is that two vacuum toilets will both be at one end of the carriage. Normally the Vostok uses the older type, with simpler toilets at each end. Whilst vacuum toilets are better for the environment, they are prone to blockage, so the older carriage type is actually often better in this respect.
Security is generally good with double locking doors inside your compartment. The provodnitsa will lock your door whenever you request it if there is no key card system in operation.
A standard Russian restaurant carriage that is older than the other passenger coaches is normally positioned in the middle of the train. These vary in style but are often quite cosy and comfortable places to spend an hour or two each day. There will be a menu (normally with an English translation), but be prepared in case the English menu is missing or hard to understand. I suggest having a picture book of food or an app on your phone that can help with translation. The restaurant also sells a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and snacks.
Restaurant carriage on train 20 of the Trains-Siberian railway
There are usually a lot of locals travelling on this train. Most will be on shorter journeys, maybe lasting a day or two. These are a mixture of people from all aspects of Russian and Chinese society – businessmen, soldiers, sailors, traders and students. Some will be in hibernation and rarely seen outside their compartments, others will be the life and soul of the restaurant carriage. There are generally fewer non-Russian travellers on this train, especially between Irkutsk and the Chinese border.
The Vostok is a great train to include in some itineraries. If you are purely travelling to Beijing, the 003/004 service offers a more interesting route and takes a day less; this is why the 19/20 is much less used by travellers. The main advantage of the Vostok is that it is a Russian ‘firmeny’ service, and is generally cleaner and more comfortable than the Chinese 003/004 train. It is also fair to say that the scenery of Manchuria is not as interesting as the Mongolian journey.
If the departure day suited your itinerary, it would be a good train to take for part of the journey, for example between Moscow and Irkutsk. This would then allow you to combine it with other trains if you wanted to take the Trans-Mongolian route. On this train you are able to combine relatively good standards of comfort with an opportunity to meet local people. In general it is much less ‘touristy’ or party-like than the Trans-Mongolian, and this may or may not suit your preferences.
Matthew Woodward is a rail adventurer, and the author a number of books about travelling from Europe to Asia along the Trans-Siberian railway. His books are available now in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.