I have heard from many fellow backpackers saying riding on Trans-Siberian railway is one of their dream but they are hindered or shocked by the super high cost and the long duration. Yes, they are right! If you choose to take the direct train from Beijing to Moscow (or opposite way), it costs 700-900 Euros and more than 150 hours (6 days and nights) on the train. If you really think it is the way you want to do, go ahead and I am sure you will make a lot of Russian friends and drink tonnes of Vodka on board!
However, it is NOT the ONLY WAY to experience Trans-Siberian, come on, take the trains like locals, pay the local price, make stops in between… I even meet and stay with local Couchsurfers on the way, sharing travel stories and knowledge. So, think about it, continue reading and I will show you my trip as an example.
Make sure you have a valid visa to last for the long trip, you can apply a one month visa at your Russian embassy. Only a few countries (I am the lucky one) have mutual visa free agreement, but I can only stay 14 days, which is not enough for the whole journey. Therefore I made a little trick in between so that I can have enough time to visit as many places as I can.
In June 2014, I was traveling from Beijing to St. Petersburg, my original plan was to ride the whole way from Vladivostok, but at the end I had to delay my trip because of some problem at home. Then I cut the first part and decided to enter Russia from the Chinese border Manzouli. I first took a 24-hour train from Shenzhen to Beijing, then another 30-hour from Beijing to Manzouli, staying one night in the train station. Here is the website you can check the Chinese train schedule:
From Shenzhen to Beijing RMB 254
From Beijing to Manzouli RMB 224
Crossing the border is a lot easier than I expected, but you got to have Russian rubles in your pocket, otherwise, change it in Manzouli. Then go to International Bus Terminal, pay RMB 11 and 450 rubles, the bus will take you through both Chinese and Russian immigration counters. If you have a tourist visa, thing is a lot easier. If you don’t have it like me, remember to print out a form in Russian language showing that you have visa-free visit to Russia. Most of the staff don’t know, be patient and they will let you go!
After entering Zabaikalsk, ask the driver to drop you at the train station. Buy the ticket to Chita, and here is the trick you have to know! When I arrived the station, it was 6pm, and I asked for today’s ticket to Chita, they said yes and printed out a ticket showing the train starts at 2pm the same day. Of course everything was in a mist when two people are speaking different languages. How could I get on a train which was already gone? She had no patience anymore and just push me on the train, and the train clearly showed from Zabaikalsk to Chita. Luckily there was a passenger explained me it was MOSCOW TIME showing on the ticket!! Maybe it is an essential information that I should have known beforehand, but I didn’t. So 2pm is actually 8pm local time!! Omg, I have to change all my schedule again… so bear in mind that they use Moscow time even on the website:
(I use the Russian one with Google translator)
This website is very reliable and you can really book and pay it in advance if you have a fixed plan. For me I like the flexibility so I just bought the following tickets once I arrived. If you do so, write it down in Russian from where to where you want to go, the date, the time and the class, so that you save a lot of time talking with ticket officers!
Here is my schedule and price:
Zabaikalsk to Chita 997 Rubles
Chita to Ulan-Ude 1295 Rubles
Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk 1167 Rubles
Irkutsk to Novosibirsk 2793 Rubles
Novosibirsk to Petropavlosk (in Kazakhstan) 1515 Rubles
Petropavlosk to Yekaterinburg 1244 Rubles
Yekaterinburg to Nizhny Novgorod 2098 Rubles
Nizhny Novgorod to Vladimir 500 Rubles
Vladimir to Moscow 589 Rubles
Moscow to St Petersburg 836 Rubles
So in total it is 13034 Rubles (around US$378) and took me 2 weeks to finish the journey. Mind you, if you buy tickets in the ticket office, each time no matter how many tickets you buy, they charge 100 Rubles service charge. You only pay once if you buy all tickets together! Paying online is another option, no service charge!
The small trick I made for my visa is to travel to Kazakhstan and then re-enter Russia so that I have 14 more days for my later part. The process is quite smooth, I stay a whole day in Petropavlosk to make sure the date of stamp will be the next day (maybe it is not necessary?).
I wrote a note for each ticket in Russian, state clearly:
From where to where, Date, Time, What class, how much
On the ticket, for example this one, from the top left corner:
Then you can skip to “MECTA” which is bed number 24
H- 997.7 is the cost
The next line you can see arrival time 11 June, 02:13
That’s all you have to know.
Besides, I used the luggage storage service if I want to explore the city without carrying my load, it charges according to each day (NOT 24 hours), and the time is based on Moscow time. So if you leave your backpack at 18:20 and pick it up at 06:30, you have to pay for 2 days. The cost is different from station to station, normally 100-160 Rubles per day.
Life on the train is honestly quite boring: sleep, eat and take pictures. I tried to play with little kids, but their parents were a bit protective because I didn’t speak any Russian and couldn’t communicate with them my intention…
There are only 2 charging plug at both ends of each coach, so you gotta stand there for an hour if your cell phone is out of battery. My reserved battery and solar charger saved me a lot on the train!!
Friends, don’t listen to rumors that Trans-Siberian is costly, beside train tickets I only spent on food (that I bought it from supermarket, everyday around 150 Rubles), and I slept in train stations if necessary. And in the middle of the night, I woke up and pee on the street (because Russian public toilets charge 12-18 Rubles entry fee!!).
By the way, my CS host in Novosibirsk HITCHHIKED all the way from Vladivostok to his home in Ukraine, and didn’t spend anything on transport across Siberia!! He is the champion!!
Anyway, enjoy your planning and I am sure you will love this trip!!