Traveling by train over 9000 km
Who is up for an almost ten thousand kilometers long train trip? The Trans-Siberian railway line connects Moscow to Vladivostok. The Trans-Mongolian route is more popular choice: after crossing Mongolia the trip ends in Beijing. We chose the main route and stayed all the time in Russia, taking trains on the southern part of the country. Our goal was to reach Vladivostok on the shore of Pacific Ocean.
The whole distance can be traveled in 7-8 days, but why to hurry? Several interesting cities and the Lake Baikal are on the way. We spent one month on the trip, made many stops, stayed at couchsurfing places mostly as we were on budget. We only payed for a homestay on Olkhon Island (on Lake Baikal) and in a hostel in Ulan Ude.
We selected couple of interesting cities to stop by, but we were not sure how long we will enjoy each. It was the reason we didn’t buy our tickets in advance, as it is impossible without an exact travel itinerary. The travel plan was shaped during the way.
Trains, tickets and worries
Couple of years ago buying tickets was a lot bigger adventure than it is nowadays. It required Russian knowledge even to check the timetables online. Luckily since the 2014 Winter Olympics the Russian Railway’s website has an English translation as well and you can buy easily tickets online. Although you still need to print or pick them up before the train, even only knowing the timetable and your preferred train helps a lot in case if you choose buying them in person at the railway station.
Three different train classes are available on the night (or long distance) trains and there are different ranks of trains as well. For example the second class costs double than the third, and the first class is roughly four times more expensive than the third class. The air-conditioned trains are also more expensive. The same applies to the ones that go to Beijing. It is possible to get from Moscow to Vladivostok even under 100€ traveling in third class (since the rubble is weak), but if you would like to have a compartment this could easily be 5-6 times more. We decided to try as many different trains as possible.
Our first ticket from Moscow to Perm was for second class, in a 4-berth compartment. This time we were still a bit afraid of the third class, “platskartny”, which meant that the whole car is an open sleeping car and you share it with the other fifty passengers. Forget about intimacy. The first class has only two berth cabins and some even have own shower. What a luxury!
Besides intimacy, we were a bit worried about our belongings. How will we store them? Can we sleep at night or we need to be always awake to avoid theft? If you have bed in the low level, you have a box under it where you can put your bags, then open your bed and it is locked as long as your bed is down. Nobody can access to it. Perfect! On the upper level there is a baggage rack above your berth. It is very high and basically you can only reach it if you climb up. Pretty good. We don’t have experience about the very touristy trains, but based on our experience the people are nice and helpful, and nobody had any problems with missing belongings.
You also have to choose bed when you are buying the tickets. But which one? The lower bed is more comfortable to sit, eat, talk. On the upper level it is better to just lay down and watch the not changing landscape for hours each day. When we had an opportunity, we took two beds above each other. If you are traveling alone and you will have a longer ride ahead of you, I would aim for one of the lower beds. If you travel on third class, try to avoid the beds in the aisle, especially the lower ones. Although your luggage is safe, all the people will be walking in front of your bed, so that is the worst spot you could pick.
And remember the fun with time zones on Russian railways! Moscow is in UTC+3 time, while the time in Vladivostok is 7 hours later. As the railway crosses many time zones, for simplicity, all the train departure and arrival times are in Moscow time. It can give you some confusion in the beginning. Especially when due to the several hours or difference you arrive a couple of hours later, or when your train leaves on a different day than it is printed on your ticket. If you travel towards east is not a big problem, but the other way you easily can miss your night train if you are not aware of this.
Other practical issues
Now, we have our tickets, backpacks stored safely, time to start our journey. Probably it is not surprising, you cannot do so many things on the train, but if you don’t wanna do this journey regularly, you will find it interesting for sure. You can read, play cards, drink cold (and pretty expensive) beer at the buffet car, talk and watch the landscape for hundred kilometers of steppe and industrial cities time to time. Of course you will sleep a lot too.
When the train arrives to a station, it may stay only 20-30 minutes at the station or even a couple of hours. Either ask the conductor, check timetable in the car or just simply don’t wander too far from the train. Many sellers come to and on the trains on these stops, selling fresh fruits, vegetables, bakery product and cold beer as well. If you take the whole Trans-Siberian trip without stop, you cannot avoid buying new supplies from them, but anyway worth to consider to get something tasty.
The toilets were kept in surprisingly good condition all the way. In every train car there are two conductors whose responsibility to keep order in the car, check tickets, give bed-sheets and to clean floor and toilets. It works really well. You can also buy tea from them. If you have your own tea and mug (you should take them with you!), you can get free hot water any time and make your own tea.
First stop: Perm
Our first stop was Perm. The city was not really attractive, typical European Russia. We visited the Gulag Museum Perm-36 at Kutchino village. Otherwise we had a nice stay with our couchsurfing hosts even though the communication was pretty hard. Karol could use Polish and they spoke Russian and it worked pretty okay. I could not add so much to it as my Polish knowledge is limited to basic conversations, but one of the hosts were also into photography and we figured out a nice way to talk using our pictures. We spent only few days in and around the city then headed east.
Stunning nature near Krasnoyarsk
Mostly local people took the trains, so our conversations were very short and limited with them. At Krasnoyarsk our host was already waiting for us at the railway station. His first notice was that we seem like knowing everyone on the train, because we said goodbye to 4-5 foreigners (i.e. all the foreigners on the train).
If you like hiking or rock climbing, Krasnoyarsk is the best location to go. The Stolby National Park is stunning. It is great to hike in the Eastern Sayan Mountains or climb one of the rock pillars. Our plan was only hiking, but our plans luckily never too firm. Our host was a rock climber and he had a free day at work, so it isn’t hard to imagine that we headed straight to the national park from the railway station. It was my first ever try, so you can imagine how it went. But I made it (with a little help)!The view from the top of the rocks rewarded my suffering.
The border of Europe and Asia: Yekaterinburg
Next stop, Yekaterinburg! I have heard a lot about the city from one of my friends. Indeed it is a very modern, rich city with new and shiny buildings. The city lays at the bottom of Ural mountains. It is at the border of Europe and Asia. About half an hour from the city there is one smaller monument about it. Although official city buses don’t stop there, we managed to get off the bus at the good place and on the way back we just hitched an UAZ full with workers and tools. It was one of my little dreams to travel once by UAZ, and here it happened. We didn’t even know that some time later we will have a whole day ride in another one.
Here we come, Asia: Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Before the trip I was waiting and expecting that Russia will be so different, but I didn’t feel it until we reached Asia. Probably I have spent too much time in Russia beforehand (mostly in Saint Petersburg and Petrozavodsk) and the soviet style architecture was nothing new anymore. Finally, near the Lake Baikal, this feeling has changed. It was Asia with all its colors, flags and decoration on buses and elsewhere.
We decided to go to Olkhon Island and the southern shore of the lake. It is easy to spend a few weeks around the lake. The island was very touristy compared to any previous places we have been on this trip. After getting off the bus at Khuzhir locals approached us. They were looking for customers to their homestays. It was easy to get an accommodation in few minutes. Tenting is another (free) option, but we didn’t carry it for the trip as we relied on couchsurfing, so we had to pay for our place this time.
Next days we drove around the island in an UAZ with other tourists. The island is the spiritual center of the Buryat people and culture, full with colorful religious memorials, shaman relics, the famous shaman rock and altars decorated with prayer flags. Besides the cultural places you can enjoy swimming in the cold Lake Baikal. It is the world’s deepest lake and the biggest sweet-water lake in Asia. It has 20% of the world’s fresh water supply as well.
On the southwest shore of the lake there is another important stop for every railway lover. The Circum-Baikal Railway starts from Slyudyanka – although the confusing name it does not go around the lake. It is only a 100 km long single railway track through over 40 tunnels on the lakeside. The view is amazing. The speed of the trains are less. It takes 5-6 hours to reach its end station (Port Baikal), which can be reached by ferry from Irkutsk.
Only 3-4 trains run during the week on the line and the settlements cannot be reached by road, only through the railway or by boat. Due to this conditions we could see people carrying literally everything on the modern train cars: flat TV, food, forage.
At Port Baikal we had some time to take a look on old ships and train remains. We wanted to go by train backwards as well, as we didn’t plan to stay longer in Irkutsk, there was no point to take the ferry, then a bus. We slept a few hours at the railway station at Port Baikal in couches as it was quite late night and we were tired. The lady who worked there promised us that she will wake us up before the train leaves. And she did. We were on the train again, this time without any views.
Trans-Siberia: Ulan Ude – Vladivostok and the accident
After Irkutsk we arrived to the dusty and hot Ulan Ude. The city is famous for its huge Lenin head statue on the main square. We didn’t have luck with any host, but we found a cool backpackers hostel for the next days. Ulan Ude is the city where the railway lines separate to Mongolia (and China) and to Vladivostok.
The train ride to Vladivostok lasts almost 3 full days, so we were thinking about a bit of luxury. The first class seemed too expensive, so we decided on an air conditioned, second class (4-beds) compartment. But we didn’t have too much time to enjoy the fancy conditions.
After 4 hours everything started shaking terribly, we could see only clouds of dust outside. Then we stopped. Huge mess in our compartment and the train. Broken glasses (as the tea is also served in glass cups), food, bags, people. Karol disappeared in a second with the camera, while me and the lady from our compartment (the 4th bed was empty) tried to understand what happened. We were in shock. As soon as we got out from the train, then we could see that the train derailed. It happened right after a bridge. Our car (last before in the train) and the last one got totally detached from the train. We could see the rest of the train stopped about a kilometer further.
After couple of hours they asked us to pack whatever we have and go to the beginning of the train that was still on tracks. There we have seen that two more cars were derailed, but there were still attached to the other cars. Those cars were detached. The 5 cars that were intact continued the way about 4 hours later than the accident. Seemed like they have practice about handling derailed trains. About injuries, luckily most of the people (like us) had only smaller bruises and cuts. The ambulance took away one person at the next station. During that time another derailing happened in Southern Russia with more serious injuries. I felt very lucky!
Finally, after two long and crowded days we reached Vladivostok. Another story, another world. Japanese cars, cool air, clean sea, little islands, boats, huge harbour. I could watch those for hours. That was a good time to start thinking of our way back and buy plane tickets to Moscow – they were basically in the same price as buying them 2-3 months ahead.
In total we traveled almost 10 000 km on the Trans-Siberian railway with all the detours in one month. The average speed of the trains were around 40 km per hour. We spent 10 days and 8 nights on trains and one night at a railway station.
We successfully crossed Siberia!