So the decision is made! Your next holiday is going to be a Trans-Siberian Railway adventure! After reading the first instalment of our special edition blog, you may realise that it is indeed a safe journey and it will not break your budget… but where to begin? You frantically read all that the Lonely Planet has to offer, you look through travel guides, travel blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter…and now you are not even sure if you are going on a Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian!
Since the holiday planning anxiety is a real thing, crossing the rail journey off your bucket list may indeed become a challenge. What should you do first? What is your next step? Will everything work ok? What is the best route to take? We will help to make things clearer!
Choice of routes
There are 3 main variations of the renowned Russian railway journey: the classic Trans-Siberian journey, the Trans-Mongolian journey and Trans-Manchurian train journey. But what is the difference?
Classic Trans-Siberian journey
The classic Trans-Siberian Moscow to Vladivostok route is just one part of the massive Russian railway network and almost the longest train ride of them all, 9,259 km. You can depart Moscow every day, unless you fancy a journey on board the Rossiya branded train#2. This one travels every second day and offers 3rd, 2nd and 1st class carriages. This is definitely a great experience as branded trains in Russia offer a high standard of service, design, comfort and additional services. Each train is decorated in a unique style reflected in its exterior and interior design. And each has its own name displayed on the side of the carriage. Most trains are air-conditioned and have electric heating. The train attendants serving the international routes will have a basic command of English and some other languages as well and each branded train will offer a range of additional paid services. It comes with a price though: a bed in a 1st class cabin for the 7-night trip to Vladivostok will cost around £850, and 2nd class – around £390.
Branded train devoted to famous Russian travellers and example of a cabin
However, if you are not interested in the branded train experience, you can get on train #100 that departs Moscow every day and will cost you only £260 for the one-way Moscow-Vladivostok ticket! Both trains arrive in Vladivostok at 6am so you can explore the beauty of the coastal city to the full. From there, we can organize a ferry ticket and get you all the way to South Korea and Japan as well.
If you do not fancy staying on the train for a full week, we certainly recommend breaking the journey down by visiting a few magnificent cities on the way. The shiny examples are Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk (with the amazing Baikal) and Ulan Ude.
Next, the Trans-Mongolian journey. Arguably the most interesting Trans-Siberian route to take. The train departs weekly (train #4 eastbound, train #3 westbound): it leaves Moscow for Beijing every Tuesday night. The 1st class 2-berth ticket for the 6 nights journey will set you back around £900; 2nd class – £550 per ticket.
The train will leave the main Trans-Siberian route 8km from Ulan Ude and will travel further 250km to reach the Mongolian border. The “all in one” journey without stops is rarely the first choice. Most passengers will be stopping in Siberia to enjoy the Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk. From there, the easiest option is to catch the train 306 (as it is virtually impossible to get on the train #4 in the middle of its journey!). The #306 departs just after 8am (or 3am since the train tickets in Russia display Moscow time!). After a brief stop in a little village of Dzhida (very brief indeed as it will last just 1 minute! And by the way, the Russian trains really do run like clockwork and every single stop is very well planned); the train will reach the border post in Naushki at 14:57. The border control is due to last exactly 110 minutes and you will be on your way to Mongolia at 16:47. Your next border control will take place in Sukhe Bator in Mongolia (from 22:29 to 00:14). During the border crossing, not only passports but also luggage may be inspected. So sit down and relax, and remember to refrain from taking pictures. The border control officers will not be too forgiving! Your first experience of Mongolia will be your pillow and perfectly dark skies (but just imagine the spectacular views of vast landscapes, with Mongolian yurts and Nomads somewhere in the distance!) You probably will miss the next 2 stops of Darkhan (the 2nd largest city in Mongolia!) and Dzun-Khara, until you wake up in Ulan Bator at 06:50 am!
It is very important to remember that a visa is needed to travel to Mongolia. There was a time, the UK citizens did not need a visa to enter the country, now we are no longer on the list of the lucky few who can come and go as they please. Nonetheless, it is still a quick and easy process and we will guide you every step of the visa processing.
If you opt for the train #306 from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator, you will have a few days to spend in Mongolia. (A trip to the Terelj National Park is a must!) Your last leg of the journey Ulan Bator to Beijing is not as easy as it seems. There are just few trains a week that will take you to China and the international train #4 (goes on Sundays only) is one of them. Do not get too excited though: it is not easy to get on the train #4 as there are still those who chose to travel from Moscow to Beijing without stops! And it is often impossible to get a 1st class berth. The other option is the Mongolian train #24 that starts its journey in Ulan Bator; this one departs on Thursday only. And if you are crossing the border by train, prepare for a 4h stop in Erlyan where the wheels of the train has to be changed to fit the Chinese track!
If you are still not sure what route to choose, there is another option and that is the great Trans-Manchurian train journey! This may be a good choice for those short of time to process the Mongolian visa, as you will be avoiding Mongolia altogether. Train #19 westbound / #20 eastbound, the Vostok, travels once a week on a Saturday (both ways!), via the older and slightly longer route through Manchuria (8,986km) in 7 nights. The Vostok was renovated in 2012/2013; it has great looking Russian-style 2-berth and 4-berth sleeper cabins, and a restaurant car. You may be se saving time and money on the Mongolian visa, but you will need to fork out a bit more for the Vostok train: the 2nd class ticket will cost in the region of £600 and 1st class around £970. And you will only have one fun border crossing in Zabaikalsk (Russia) and Manzhouli (China) where the wheels of train will be changed; the stop will take around 6h and as the train arrives in Zabaikalsk at 07:20am, you will have the daylight on your side! Have a walk and be amazed by the city of contrasts with vast empty landscapes and Soviet blocks of flats. Once safely back on the train, you will spend another day and a half travelling. You will pass Harbin, famous for its Winter Ice Sculpture festival that this year was celebrating its 35 years of existence…If you do finish your journey in Harbin, winter is a great time to be here. If you are on the way to Beijing…the 22 minutes stop will have to be enough.
Beijing and the Great Wall of China
You may have heard about the new 144h Visa Free trip to Beijing that was implemented in December 2017. Do not get too happy though as none of the international trains from Russia or Mongolia qualify in this case; you will need a Chinese visa on Trans Mongolian and Trans Manchurian trips and from November 2018, you do need to apply in person. Only if you enter China via Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing West Railway Station (connection with Hong Kong or Urumqui for example), Tianjin Binhai International Airport, Tianjin International Cruise Home Port, Shijiazhuang Zhengding International Airport and Qinghuangdao Port, you can enjoy 144h without a visa! *special conditions do apply though.
Last but not least, we must mention the BAM route! As funny as it sounds, it is a fascinating trip, known as the train less-taken or a journey to nowhere. The BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) stretches for 3140 km through Siberia and runs parallel to the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is a mere 400km further north, however it seems a world away: its towns and villages remain untouched by the rapid changes transforming the rest of the country, its passengers are mostly locals, and international travellers are a rare sight. The BAM splits from Trans-Siberian in Tayshet, 700 km west of Lake Baikal, and passes the Baikal from the north at Severobaikalsk. You can expect great landscapes and admirable views of Lake Baikal. The railway itself was built for military reasons as a backup to the Trans-Siberian. When the construction starter in the 1930s, the workers were Gulag prisoners, including German and Japanese prisoners of war, and an estimated 150,000 people died in the process. Work briefly stopped due to Stalin's death, but started again in 1974 as a Komsomol project. The line was officially finished in 1984, however the actual work continued until 1991.
Baikal-Amur mainline is quite a journey! There are a few fascinating places to stop at such as already mentioned Severobaikalsk; others would be Tynda and Komsomos-On-Amur – the latter being the biggest city on the BAM. From there we suggest branching south to Khabarovsk and get back on the Trans-Siberian track. BAM may be a perfect choice for an extreme adventure seeker; especially in winter when the temperature can drop to -47C outside!
We hope this short overview of the different routes will help you decide where to go on your next holiday. If you are looking for any more information, please do contact us. And keep an eye out for the 3rd installment of the Trans-Siberian adventure blog!
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