The Trans-Siberian Railway is an epic rail journey that, depending on which route you take, could span up to 9289km, 2 continents and 3 countries – taking up to a week if you travel non-stop.
But how on Earth do you survive
A WEEK ON A TRAIN?!?
I made this epic journey last year, on my own – and I survived. You can too!
I won’t lie – I did go a bit crazy at times, but it was an amazing experience. I chose the Trans-Mongolian route, travelling from Moscow, Russia – through Siberia, into Mongolia and then China – ending in Beijing.
It was incredible!
I actually made a much longer trip – Belfast, Northern Ireland to Sydney, Australia. Albeit not ENTIRELY overland – mostly! Belfast to Hanoi, Vietnam totally overland (ok, 1 boat too) … Then took a few quick flights to different places in South East Asia and then home to Sydney.
If you’d like to know more about the amazing adventure, read the previous blog posts available on my site.
But now, without further ado – my top tips for surviving the Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian Railway:
1 – Books
Every traveller should have books to keep them entertained – especially on the Trans-Siberian! Entertainment, relaxing – reading is something you can do alone in bed, in a busy cafe or – on a long train trip. I admit, when I’m at home I hardly ever read – I read emails, the internet, work related stuff… But books? No!
While travelling, however – I do. I’m relaxed, the information goes into my brain more easily – and most importantly… I have time!
Time is something you’ll have plenty of while you slowly wind your way from Europe into Asia on the Trans-Siberian Railway… Watching the scenery and culture slowly change out the window, while you relax with a good book.
I recommend 2 books (ok, if you’re a fast reader, many books!) … I mean a novel (or 10), but also a guide book. Ok, so you may not be the biggest fan of guide books – but I highly recommend having a Trans-Siberian one… Even if you don’t use it to work out what to do in the places you stop in, get one that explains where you are along the way. I used The Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas – it has a kilometre by kilometre guide to the whole line. And yes, if you look out the window you will see markers along the tracks telling you what kilometre you’re at.
2 – Battery Pack
Want to use your phone/ipad/kindle/camera while you’re on the Trans-Siberian Railway? You’ll need to keep it charged!
Sure, the carriage had 1 power socket… For everyone! And it was not reliable.
I had a battery pack (two actually… Just to be sure) – I could use it to charge anything via USB. Great purchase! Sure, there wasn’t WiFi on the train – but it was good to send an occasional text as we passed through a town with reception, listen to music, and type my blog on my iPad.
3 – Instant noodles & Mystery bread
Instant noodles – bring a lot of them! Get used to them! They will be your reliable food source while aboard the Trans-Siberian! Anything that you just add hot water to – instant noodles, coffee sachets (3 in one are good… coffee, milk and sugar), soups… Things like this.
There is an endless supply of hot drinking water in each carriage – make use of it! My breakfast consisted of instant noodles and a coffee made from a sachet.
Sure, there is a restaurant car… But don’t expect a fancy fried English breakfast, a good cappuccino or anything like that. Yes, some of the more lunch/dinner food items were ok – but I mainly used the restaurant car for cold beer and a change of scenery from my bunk.
When the train stops at a station, there is an opportunity to get off and buy things from people on the platform – always check how long the train will stop for and don’t venture far as the leaving time it prone to change.
Some of the food is great – I was so excited when I found a lady selling roast chicken and vegetables! OMG! Veg! I’ve never craved it more in my life.
Now I come to mystery bread – this is a name I made up myself for a bread roll type thing with some sort of stuffing inside. Different ones have different stuff inside – hence the mystery! (probably less of a mystery if you speak Russian and can ask) – sometimes meaty, sometimes more veggy… But never was I entirely sure what it was… Even after eating! It became a highlight of my day waiting to see if I could guess what was in my mystery bread!!
4 – Wet Wipes
Expect a nice bathroom, complete with shower on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Think again!
Bring your own wet wipes, toilet paper, hand sanitiser… Things like this, if you want to feel some sort of clean. Although, expect that by day 3 you probably will have given up on such things!
Toilet paper is a no brainer – never travel without toilet paper in your pack! Especially in places like Siberia, Mongolia and China.
Wet wipes – these are your shower! Feeling smelly? Sweaty? Dirty? Then go to the toilet room and rub yourself all over with wet wipes. Sure, it’s not a hot, relaxing shower in a 5 star hotel – but it will make you feel better.
Also note, there are 2 toilets on each carriage – one at each end. One is a squat toilet and one has a western style seat – both empty onto the tracks below. Both will be locked shortly before arriving at a station until after you’ve left, for sanitary reasons – this is not a popular thing at a long delay at a border crossing when all the passengers have been drinking vodka all day!!
Which brings me to…
5 – Trans-Siberian Vodka
Vodka! Do not be caught in Russia or Mongolia without it!
Bring vodka! Don’t like vodka at home? That’s ok – think of it as a different drink! Drink the local vodka – Siberian vodka in Siberia or Chinggis Vodka in Mongolia (Chinggis being how Mongolians say Genghis… As in Genghis Khan)
Share your vodka with new friends – they might not speak English, but they speak vodka! Do not turn down an offer of vodka!
A man I met in the restaurant car who was quite jolly after drinking a large amount of vodka told me that you know the vodka is working when you’re not stumbling around while walking on the train any more (since the train is bumping around, sober people stumble around like they’re drunk)
6 – Befriend the Cabin Attendant aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway
Your cabin lady probably won’t speak much English, and may or may not be friendly – but be nice to her! Try to be friends! The lady I had during the day shift was lovely, friendly and helpful – the night shift was a bitch!
I say you should befriend her because she:
- Sells snacks and water – if she doesn’t want to serve you, she wont
- Will tell you how long the stop at a station is – if you get this wrong, you’ll be stuck somewhere random, with no luggage, ticket or passport as it left with the train (I always had my passport with me… just in case)
- Has the toilet key, and may or may not sneak you in if it’s an emergency at an extended stop
- Holds your tickets while on the train, and lets you know when your station is approaching
- It’s just plain polite – she is attending to your cabin, cleaning etc – it’s a tough job!
Like I said, the day shift lady I had was great – she’d practise saying “10 minutes” or “20 minutes” in English before a stop, so she could tell me how much food shopping time I had. She came back after her shift to make sure I got off at the right station (she clearly knew the night shift lady was a bitch and wouldn’t help!) and other little friendly things.
7 – Break up the Journey along the Trans-Siberian route
You do not have to go the whole way Moscow – Beijing or Vladivostok in one long trip. The train stops regularly – get off and explore the places you go through!
I did 3 nights straight on the train from Moscow to Irkutsk then also stopped in Ulan Ude (both in Siberia), then stopped at Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and travelled Mongolia for 2 weeks before going on to Beijing.
Oh, but don’t think you can buy a ticket Moscow – Beijing, then decide you like the look of a place and just jump off and jump back on the next train that passes through. Each leg will be ticketed separately.
There are 2 ways to do this. If you’re totally free – time and dates don’t matter to you and you’re up for an adventure… Then you can buy each leg as you go along. While this is usually my preferred method of travelling, I did not do that for my Trans-Siberian trip. Russian & Chinese visa rules make it hard to travel so freely – they like to see all your bookings in advance. Also, the trains do fill up and it can be hard to just show up and get the next train. And most importantly… I had a strict deadline to arrive back in Australia – couldn’t miss my mum’s wedding!
I booked all mine in advance – I believe you can do it direct, but not speaking Russian it can be difficult and getting your physical tickets can also be difficult if you don’t have a Russian address. The easiest (but admittedly not the cheapest) way is through an agent. I used Real Russia which was recommended on Seat61 – and I recommend too!
The online booking system was easy – select the route you want, and which places to stop at – it gives you a selection of dates to pick and they go off and organise the tickets! Some of the physical tickets they send to you in advance, and some you collect along the way in Moscow / Ulaanbaatar etc. The most difficult part of the whole process was actually locating their office to collect the tickets.
They’re very helpful, available by phone and email – and do other things to do with Russian travel. I also organised my Belarusian, Russian, Mongolian & Chinese visas through them.
8 – Go to the Trans-Siberian Railway Dining Car
Ok, this doesn’t sound all that exciting – and it isn’t really! BUT it’s a change of scenery! Getting cabin fever? Leave the cabin!
I’d go to the restaurant car, get a cold beer and occasionally something to eat (all by pointing and body language as no English was spoken), watch the other people interacting, watch the scenery go by and read my book.
Cold beer is a luxury – there is no fridge in your cabin. If you brought beer, you’ll be drinking it warm. The restaurant car will be more expensive (but still so much cheaper than home!), but it will be cold.
While on this topic, I suddenly remembered something shocking – I COULD FIND NO ALCOHOL FOR SALE AT THE STATIONS WE STOPPED AT!!!!
This surprised me! No beer! Not even vodka – which is practically their religion. If you do run out, you can always get beer and vodka in the restaurant car… I don’t think you’re technically meant to take it back to your cabin, but depending on who is in charge at the time you probably can.
9 – Socialising aboard the Trans-Siberian
Being quite introverted myself, I don’t always live by this advice – but I should more often. And vodka does help! Not just with getting the courage to interact with strangers – but it’s also an ice breaker.
Nobody I met on the 3 or 4 days from Moscow to Irkutsk spoke conversational English. Two women on my carriage were German, and could do pleasantries… But no conversation. Most other people were locals and didn’t speak English – there was a teenage boy who spoke ok English. His mother really wanted to learn all about me, but he was much more interested in his iPod than translating so for his mother and the crazy Western guy (though I became popular when his iPod battery died and I had my battery pack!!)
But a mutual language is not necessarily needed for social interaction. Sharing food (and vodka!), photos from home, trying to act things out, Google translate, phrase books – all these help. And have a sense of humour! Everybody will laugh and have a good time.
The longest conversation I had was with a guy from Azerbaijan – by Google translate on his phone! He’d type something, translate it to English and give the phone to me… Then I’d reply by typing in English and it would translate. Slow and basic, but a hell of a lot of fun.
10 – Relax, Enjoy the View and the Trans-Siberian Experience
Our whole lives these days are busy, stressful, connected, online… Use this time to disconnect! Relax, read, write, rest, sleep, watch the beautiful world go by.
- Have you been on the Trans-Siberian or other long distance train?
- What tips would you give?
- What was your favourite/least favourite part of the experience?
- Do you have any questions I’ve not answered?
Let me know in the comments section below!
Originally published on 8 Aug 2015, this post was re-edited on 28 July 2016