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I am planning a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Bejing and am wondering if I should purchase the tickets in Moscow or buy them online? What is the best season to go? Also, is it difficult to get a Russian visa? What would be the one unmissable thing to do in Moscow if I'm only there for two nights? And finally - would it be OK to travel solo?
Our top two readers' responses (for more readers' responses - and our expert's response, please see below):
My partner and I travelled Moscow-Beijing last October on the Trans-Siberian and had the most amazing experience. It really is one of the most amazing journeys in the world. However, it's not a trip that you should do without serious planning. Buying a ticket in Moscow is not a good idea as the tickets are released by the Russian authorities 90 days in advance of the journey and most are supplied to agencies rather than walk-in travel agents. In reality, you would probably not be able to get a decent ticket as they tend to sell out pretty quickly. Also, if you want to stop off mid-way, you will have to buy separate tickets for each stage of the journey.
My recommendation would be to use a UK based agency. We used Real Russia
who were superb. They sorted out all our visas and tickets; basically it's independent travel with someone else doing the boring work. To get a Russian visa you need to normally have a letter from a hotel proving that you will stay somewhere. Real Russia will sort this out. They will also sort visas for China and Mongolia if you need them. They will ensure that you have the tickets reserved 90 days in advance and send them to you in good time.
The other thing you definitely need is the Bryn Thomas Trans Mongolian Express guide (pretty much every westerner on the train had this book!), look in a travel bookshop or online for this. It's the most comprehensive guide to the journey.
Finally, travelling alone is perfectly safe as there are lots of other travelers around as well, although I would probably recommend paying the extra £50 or so to book a first class cabin to yourself as the carriage has its own guard who will look after your luggage while you're walking around a platform, heading to the buffet car etc. It's perfectly safe as long as you don't wander too far from the train when it stops. The guards (and the Bryn Thomas book) will tell you which stops give you time to stretch your legs.
If you want something to see in Moscow then Red Square is a must. This has Lenin's Tomb (closed on Mondays if I remember correctly). Also go to the Moscow armory next to Red Square - these have the world famous Faberge Eggs on display. Try to travel in autumn as the scenery is amazing and it's not too cold (don't travel in January unless you like arctic weather!)
Have fun, am very envious!Lee
I did the same trip last year. I bought my train tickets in advance from a UK travel agent, but I regret this; it would have been half the price just to buy them at the station. This would have also given me more flexibility in my travel plans as the tickets I bought were not exchangeable. The only time when it's advisable to book in advance is during the popular summer months when the train gets full quickly. Travelling solo is no problem at all. You will meet lots of other travellers and have a great time. Buy some vodka and share it around with your fellow passengers of an evening. There is no particular season which is better or worse, it just depends if you want to look out on snowy vistas or flower-filled meadows.
It is not difficult to get a Russian visa but it can be time-consuming. You can get same day visas but this is expensive. I suggest applying one month in advance so you know that it is sorted out before you go. Don't forget the Chinese visa (and Mongolian if you are going via Ulan Bator).
In Moscow, visit the fabulous art galleries and make sure you have a red caviar pancake!
What the expert thinks
Overland travel expert Mark Smith, who runs The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the winner of The Guardian and Observer's Travel Website of the year 2008:
Many people travel the Trans-Sib solo, and you'll find many fellow westerners on board the two direct weekly Moscow-Beijing trains as well as Russians and Chinese. There's a party atmosphere on board at times! The Friday night train passes directly from Russia into China via Manchuria, but the Tuesday night train passes through Mongolia and crosses the Gobi desert, requiring a Mongolian transit visa but arguably the most interesting Trans-Siberian route of them all.
May to September are the busy peak months with longer hours of daylight for scenery watching, but don't let that restrict you: The trains run all year round, are cosily heated and Siberia in winter is a sight to behold.
Domestic Russian rail tickets can easily be bought at the station a day or two in advance, but demand for the direct Moscow-Beijing trains exceeds supply. Russian travel agencies buy up tickets when they are released to them 60 days before departure, and resell them for whatever price they can get. This often leaves none left at all when bookings open for the public 45 days ahead. So don't try to book these trains at the ticket office, shop around the various reputable Russian agencies selling Trans-Siberian tickets, for example Real Russia
(managed by an ex-pat Brit), Svezhy Veter
or Way To Russia
. Buying from a Russian agency is much cheaper than buying a Trans-Siberian tour from a western agency.
The same agencies offer a visa service which takes the hassle out of getting a Russian visa. They provide 'visa support' for a small fee which allows you to get a visa without actually having to pre-book any trains or hotels if you don't want to. Behind the scenes, the agency will have an arrangement with a hotel, dummy hotel reservations are made for you which allows the visa to be granted, even though the agency, the hotel (and probably the Russian government themselves) know they will never be used.
I've written a complete guide to planning, booking and making a Trans-Siberian train journey independently at seat61.com/Trans-Siberian.htm
Finally, London to Moscow by Eurostar and sleeper train takes just 48 hours, with several departures daily. The Trans-Siberian starts at St Pancras! Mark Smith
The rest of our readers' responses:
I recommend not booking ahead or using an agency - they charge double the ticket face value and generally tickets are available a day or two in advance. You'd also be tied down to a schedule rather than going at your own pace. Most travellers will want to spend a few days in each city, or each 'stop', so booking the next leg of the train journey upon arrival is not a problem. Only once, from Mongolia to China, did I find that the train was fully booked, and then we still managed to get an indirect one linking to a night bus.
In Russia there is actually little to see, tourist wise, beyond St Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk, unless you have an interest in Soviet history, in which case one could add the industrial cities of Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. Although I think a long four-day stretch on the train is fantastic and part of the experience - visits to these centrally located cities would break up the 'long haul' for those who wish to.
Stock up on food before each stretch. All carriages have a constant supply of boiling water and a restaurant. Depending on the train, you may be able to recharge a phone, but little else; it's a matter of discretion for the almighty powerful carriage attendant (or 'provodnitsa')! The toilets are fine and the attendant may be able to rent out a length of hose so you can have a makeshift shower.
There are usually 2-3 stops of around 20 minutes each day.
My tickets were booked on the day of departure, or one to three days before, either in person at the station or through my hostel. Tickets are generally cheaper during the off-peak season and for 3rd class (I generally travelled 'kupe' - 4-berth 2nd class). I had few problems travelling during the busy summer period. Prices vary depending on train number/speed, but here was my breakdown...
*Tallin [Estonia] to St Petersburg [Russia] - 14/07/07
Seat - 6 hours - Approx 217 miles
*St Petersburg to Moscow - 18/07/07
'Kupe' 2nd class - 1 night - Approx 375 miles
*Moscow to Irkutsk - 22/07/07
Kupe 2nd' class - 4 nights - Approx 4,735 miles from Moscow to Beijing
*Irkutsk to Ulaanbattaar [Mongolia] - 30/07/07
'Kupe' 2nd class - 1 night
*Ulaanbattaar to Chinese border - 09/08/07
'Kupe' 2nd class - 1 night
*[Direct train fully booked, sleeper bus from border to Beijing] - 10/08/07
*Beijing to Hong Kong - 14/08/07
Hard sleeper - 1 night - Approx 1,242km
I would recommend at least two weeks in Russia and at least a week in Mongolia - this would give you enough time to see the highlights.
Plan your visas a couple of months in advance as the Russian visa procedure is somewhat nightmarish. You'll need visa application support paperwork - the most affordable place to obtain these 'invitation' and hotel booking documents is the RealRussia
website. The Mongolian visa can, in theory, be arranged in Irkutsk (Russia), but it's best done in advance, along with the China visa, which - for Brits - has to be in person in London.
I hope this is of help.Tom Grundy
As Moscow is one of the great rip-off capitals of the world, I would recommend getting a Trans-Siberian ticket from a local travel agent, who can also get you your Russian visa. However, make sure you don't buy one of those ridiculously inflated tour packages.
For me, the best season to go is winter, because that is what makes Siberia unique. If you go in winter, I would also recommend taking the trans Manchurian, as the winter scenery is best east of Ulan Ude (which is where the trans Mongolian line leaves the Trans-Siberian line). Also - if you take the trans Mongolian, you have to get a Mongolian transit visa.
Travelling alone: The last time I took the trans Manchurian in winter, I was the only person in the entire carriage! (First class). So security and safety were not problems. Too bad, though, if you are looking for company.
Finally - Moscow: Apart from the usual (i.e. Red Square, Kremlin) try the Novodevichy Convent. Beautiful setting, magnificent buildings, fascinating museum, awe inspiring art work!Allen
I travelled from Moscow to Beijing last July and will be doing the same journey in reverse this summer. It was wonderful and can't wait to do it again, it is such an easy and relaxing way to travel.
I strongly recommend you buy your tickets online before you leave, rather than from a Russian train station. Demand exceeds supply on all Trans-Siberian routes because the Russian Railway service opens up its tickets to agencies two months before the train's departure. By the time you go to buy a ticket in person they will all have been bought by agencies and sold online. The easiest way to buy tickets therefore is through a Russian agency who will do all the paperwork and bookings for you, but at a third of the price of a UK agency. I recommend Svezhy Veter
but have also heard good things about Real Russia
. I used Real Russia for all my visa requirements as I wasn't living in London and couldn't get time off work to go to the embassies in person. Getting a Russian visa is in fact not difficult, but reading the websites and forms for advice on it makes it seem nigh on impossible! Just go to the embassy site and download a form for a tourist visa if you do it yourself. Otherwise for a fee Real Russia will do it for you. It's a good service and you can call and speak to someone on the phone if you have any questions. They can also do your Chinese visa for you, which you will need before you get on the train in Moscow.
I travelled in July which showed a very different side of Siberia to what I had been expecting. It is lush and green with rolling hills, endless forests of silver birch and gorgeous purple flowers and lakes. The sunsets could be stunning. You could get off and stretch your legs when the train stopped at main stations and the heat really hit you. It was so hot and sunny! Siberia looks like a great holiday destination - particularly for the campers we saw all around Lake Baikal. In contrast, a friend travelled in mid-winter and has a very different set of photos! Everything was covered in six-feet of snow and there wasn't much else to see, but it was beautiful in its own right. The snow certainly didn't affect any of the travel arrangements, it was all very smooth and efficient. His photos also show him wrapped in thermals, jumpers and all his bedding whilst on the train so I'm not sure how effective the heaters were. For us after a couple of days of getting up and getting dressed, we soon adopted the Russian style of wearing pyjamas the whole time. The train was set at a constant 20 degrees and very comfortable. When choosing the best season to travel it might be worth considering if you're going to stop off anywhere on the way or at either end of the train journey - would you rather sightsee in the snow or the sun? Also worth a thought is which route you're going to take. Going via Mongolia for example requires a week-long stay in the country. It is popular to go and stay in an urt for a few days in the countryside - this is what my friend did in the snow and venturing out to the toilet in the middle of the night sounded quite character building.
I travelled with my partner which was handy as with his beginner's Russian we managed to make stilted conversation with the two Siberian women sharing our four-berth cabin. However, having now done it once, I would be comfortable doing the journey alone. It is a very safe way to travel. It is a train used by ordinary Russian people so it is full of individuals, couples and families mostly from Russia but also some Chinese and the occasional European. Take lots of dried food with you like instant noodles, pasta or rice. You literally have a tank of boiling water to cook with and that is it. You can also buy reasonably priced bread, snacks, beer and huge salted fish (!) from sellers on the platform. You don't see these everyday though so I wouldn't suggest relying on them for your meals. There was no restaurant cart that we could find either. Neither did the famous showers ever materialise, so be warned and pack wet wipes and dry hair shampoo!
If you have just two nights in Moscow then don't miss the night-time view of St Basils's Cathedral! It is a magical gingerbread chocolate box of a building. Take an evening stroll around Red Square, it will be all lit up and the space itself is just so large. There are parks, gardens and sculptures of childrens' storybook characters under illuminated fountains. It's a fun area overlooked by the vast walls of the Kremlin.
Good luck I hope you have a fantastic trip!Emily Bransom
I did the Trans-Siberian in May 2004 from Beijing to Moscow.
To purchase tickets online or in Moscow: If you have lots of money and are short on time it might be better to organise and pay for your trip fully before you leave. But if you have time and want to save money I would highly recommend buying your tickets in Russia. The process of buying the ticket is quite an experience (especially if you like queues) and will force you to practice your Russian. Even thought it may take some time it will save you quite a bit of money, as pre-arranged tickets are much dearer. If you want to stop off at different places (I would definitely recommend Irkutsk, with its wonderful fresh market and a side trip to Lake Baikal for at least one night) it is also better to buy your ticket only until your next stop, and not for the whole journey. As soon as you get off you can buy the next ongoing ticket. This again is more time-consuming but saves even more money.
Regarding the best season to go, I would recommend summer, as winters, I believe, can be extremely harsh (down to minus forty; it is going through Siberia after all) - I would leave that for your second time. I would imagine that it would be difficult to go for a swim in Lake Baikal at any other time apart from summer - it was exhilarating enough in May.
It was difficult to get a Russian visa in 2004 and I am sure that things haven't changed. You need to be invited by a Russian Citizen, but fortunately there are agencies that are willing to provide you with a letter of invitation, for a small fee of course.The authorities demand to know your exact whereabouts for you whole trip, but it is possible to avoid this by giving them an address of a hotel that the agency will provide and this will suffice. The agency also organise "homestays" which, in 2004, cost US$22 (12 of which went to the agency and ten to the family). Just search for Russian “homestays” on your favourite search engine. You will be provided with a bed in a spare room of a family who wants some extra cash. There are no youth hostels outside of Moscow, and I was unable to get myself into one in Moscow when I arrived after nine in the evening, so had to stay in a hotel (not cheap).
Moscow: You cannot miss the Red Square with St Peter's Cathedral. There are some wonderful museums with amazingly preserved relics from the Greek and Roman times, and I have heard that the Bolshoi Ballet is something wonderful.
You will be spending up to five or six days on the train, and the people you travel with will make, or break, the journey. If you are outgoing and gregarious, handy with a phrase book and enjoy drinking vodka, then I would recommend travelling alone. Despite being told by a local that "Moscow is a criminal city" I would say that I never felt threatened.
The train stops roughly every 12 hours so you can get out and stretch your legs. There are usually people waiting to sell you food and drink from their carts and there is usually enough time (approx 30 minutes) to go inside the station and buy provisions. If you like hard boiled eggs, gherkins, meat, rye bread and cheese you will be in heaven. The beer is good, and the wine is cheap. Don't forget the vodka too - it will be easy to make friends with a litre bottle.
And if you're passing through Mongolia, take the once in a life-time opportunity to see some of this wonderful country with its beautiful people. Stay for a few days in the Terelj National Park, just outside the capital and go for a horse trek into the hills. If you've got time to go further afield then do it!
Good luck and enjoy.David
It's an amazing trip but I would not recommend it for a solo female
traveller. I travelled with a female friend and it was fine. The
train was full of very drunken men and we couldn't lock the
door on our room! We caught the Trans-Siberian from the opposite
direction (Beijing to Moscow, via Mongolia) in 1999. We bought
tickets in New Zealand prior to boarding the train. Things may have
changed in the past 10 years, but we had trouble getting visas as we
wanted to stay longer than a transit visa would allow and did not
want to stay in state designated hotels. We did manage to get visas
for Russia in Shanghai, however.
We went at the end of winter which while very cold, did provide us
with some beautiful snow-covered scenery. If I went again, I would
like to go in summer. I also strongly recommend a few nights in
Mongolia. The train passes through Ulan Bataar and you can stop off
for horse riding, contortionists and throat singers.
In Moscow I loved Novodevichy cemetery and the Tretyakov gallery.
You could easily do both in two days.Rachel
I have just taken the Trans-Siberian stopping of in Ulan Bator in Mongolia before going on to Beijing. This is the Trans-Mongolian route to Beijing - there is also the Trans-Manchurian route, so you need to decide which to take.
I bought the ticket from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Warsaw and it cost me around £300, cheaper than in the UK I think. I did this through Intourist - it was hard work and very bureaucratic - not recommended.
However, when I got to Moscow the hostel I was staying in could get me tickets to Ulan Bator for far less - around £200, and I believe most hostels offer this service. I was there in April when it is relatively quiet and tickets can be had within a few days. It is said to take longer in summer months when it is busy so you are taking a risk as you may end up waiting around in Moscow for a week or so until you can go. The tickets also cost more during this season. You might be able to phone a hostel ahead of time to order the ticket though.
As for the Russian visa - yes this is tricky. You need a letter of introduction from someone in Russia. It is possible to go online and book a reservation with a Russian hotel who will send you this letter of introduction and charge for the service, but you are not obliged to stay there. I confess I got an agency to do all of this for me as I live far from London and they do all the introduction letters you need and queueing for an extra fee. Once in Russia you also have to register with the authorities if you stay anywhere for more than three days, although this is not necessary for the five plus days you spend on the Trans-Siberian. The hotel you stay at will take care of all this registration. If you try to leave Russia without having registered you can get a hard time from the authorities.
The scenery in April was basically just the same pine forests and settlements all the way to Lake Baikal where the scenery becomes glorious. It might have been more interesting in winter with snow I suppose, but really it's more like a cruise so I think it's more important who you share a cabin with for the five days.
It seems safe to travel alone on the train as each carriage has two attendants to look after you. They also tend to put foreigners together in the same carriage I noticed. And Beijing also seems quite a safe place to travel alone.Ed Barker
My wife and I travelled the same proposed route almost three years ago. Lots and lots of information is available on our blog: travelblog.org/Europe/Russia/blog-89186.html
Hope this helps! Daren
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