Trans-Siberian Railway: The Journey
It took us roughly 21 days to make the trip through Beijing and Ulaanbaatar; Listvyanka, Ekaterinberg, and Irkutsk; to Moscow and St. Petersburg. It's something like 6,000 miles and takes roughly 125 hours on the train. And train travel is the way to go. It takes a while, but the experience of being able to see the country that you're passing through, while meeting people who are also trapped in the same small space for hours and hours upon end — people from all over the world — is amazing.
I shot images from the train that are displayed below, but my favorite part is this video. It's a collection of the best segments from the ride, sourced from the dozens I filmed as we moved across the tracks. This is the first time I've really made any video, and there are a lot of things I wish I would have known before filming it (not the least of which is the beauty of filming horizontally rather than vertically), but I do think it captures a lot of what we saw:
And now for a bit more information: The Trans-Siberian/Mongolian route isn't a single train, but a series of different national lines functioning independently of one another. Each line you take may only depart once a week (like the one from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar), so the route becomes quite set out, with travelers all gathering together for the infrequent departures. It's kind of an established flight plan — you get off in a city and have two or three days until your next train.
This means that you'll encounter the same groups of people over and over again, as they're on the same schedule as you. You build a little family as you move along, losing or gaining people here and there based on which stops they elect to take. The first step we took upon arriving in each train, after settling our things, would be to patrol the train cars, looking for friends. People keep the doors to their compartments open during the day, to socialize and to try and achieve a little bit of airflow, so you can visit them whenever you're bored of your own place.
Our little family started out in China, where we were in an empty train car with one other passenger — a sixty-something year old Australian chef traveling solo through China to Mongolia. As we moved into Russia, we met our main crew. There was a rowdy college-aged group from the U.K., who remained insular at first but gradually started to share their music and their booze with the rest of the group, teaching us their card games. Skipping a middle step, they at one point took the train for three days and had to wash their hair in the less-than-sanitary train bathrooms, clustering together and giggling at the hardship.
There were four other brits that joined us for the majority of our trip. A couple from London, and an older gentleman with his even older father from somewhere far from the city, with a distinctive accent. We spent hours and hours with them in the dining cars, drinking terrible wines and Polish beer while playing cards under the supervision of the clearly-displeased Russian car attendants.
We also had the entertaining Finish brothers for the early part of our Russian trip, who were always the first out at each stop, in their search for local liquor and snacks. The younger one was always tearing his clothes in some sort of adventure — every time his roommates joined him in their little cubby, he was sewing shut rips in his clothes. These two provided us with our most heart-raising adventure, convincing half of the group to leave the train station in Ulan Ude to try and find the largest Lenin statue in the world, during a 40-minute stop.
First we were walking, and then we were jogging, and then running along the streets to an unknown location which turned out to be much farther than expected. As the group started to run, you could see people peeling off one by one, turning around, until only the two Fins remained. The rest of us hustled back to the train, because you do not want to leave everything you own in your compartment to be stranded in the middle of Siberia. In the end, the Fins did find and take a picture with the statue, with enough time to stop at a store and grab some beers on the way back.
And finally, here are the top 10 to know before embarking on your own Siberian train trip:
At the Mongolian border, you will stop for about 6 hours. If your'e coming from Beijing it'll be at midnight, during which the authorities will confiscate your passport and kick you off of the train. They'll stamp the passports and change the wheels to accommodate the different gauges between the two countries, and then you'll be on your way.
The food in the dining carts is expensive and often barely edible. Your primary form of nourishment will come from desiccated noodle soups and powdered mashed potatoes, which you fill up with the hot water heaters omnipresent at the end of every train car. So make sure you bring a lot of snacks. In all likelihood you won't recognize any of the brands or be able to read what is in them, so it's an amazing time to experiment with expanding your palette. In my experience, seafood-flavored crunchy things are a great bet. If there's a picture of a crab on the front of that bag of chips, go for it.
There are different classes of train cars, and you'll meet different kinds of people depending on where you stay. The best bet is to choose second class, where there are four births per cabin — most often people travel in twos, so you'll be paired with strangers. If you get lucky, you'll share a compartment with or stay next to a larger Russian woman wearing way too few clothes, watching a portable TV with cartoons with her kids. Or a pensive Russian dad who spends all of his time outside of his compartment leaning on the window in the train hallway, watching the scenery go by.
There is so much smoking in the cars! This is not America, you can smoke wherever you want. Be ready for it.
The toilets are in tiny compartments at the end of each train, and they get smellier and wetter the longer you ride. To flush the toilet, the hole opens up in the bottom of the car and drops whatever is in them, onto the tracks. So probably don't ever walk along those tracks.
Baby wipes are your friends. The bathrooms are not acceptable washing stations, and when you're on a train in the same little compartment with other people for 52 hours straight, you're going to want to try and prevent as much smelliness as you can.
As previously mentioned, the largest Lenin status in the world is at the Ulan Ude stop. It is not as close to the tracks as advertised, so if you don't have much time, you will need to run to get there and back in time to catch the train.
Because there are different companies that run the different trains, you will experience them in a variety of design styles. From the faux-wooden clad richness of China and Mongolia, to the industrial 80s white and Teal of Russia, the best is probably the Russian dining car, which draped in lime green pleather and bright pink curtains, looks like it came straight out of Zenon: Girl of the 21st century.
Bring cards and a book and a flask. There's only so long you can stare out a window, even when the view is ridiculously beautiful, and having a drink and cards on hand is a good way to make friends.
The train runs on Moscow time, so you have to compensate for what time your ticket says you will be departing, and what time the train actually leaves the station. This might be the most important thing to pay attention to on the road.