Getting ready for the renowned Trans-Siberian Railway journey can be quite daunting. But once that last visa is in your passport, once you’ve stocked up and bought all your thermoses and slippers and winter hats, then what? What’s it like to be on that train for six days straight?
Luckily, we’re here to tell you exactly what to expect.
Assuming you opt for 2nd class – or, as the Chinese call them, ‘hard sleeper’ berths, you can expect a sealed compartment of four berths. The lower berths have a small table between them, complete with thermos, and are perfect for gathering with your mates and drinking or playing cards.
Despite being called ‘hard sleepers’, the bunks are actually fairly comfortable. Each comes with a pillow, heavy-duty blanket, undersheet and pillowslip. The blanket will, if anything, probably be overkill; each compartment has a radiator, and it can get pretty sweltering.
Each berth also has storage under the lower berths and a compartment up top, so you should have more than enough space to stow everyone’s luggage. There are also small net pouches next to each bunk where you can stash wallets, passports etc. Note: do not leave your belongings unattended in these; whilst you’re sleeping next to them is probably fine, but not if you’re off to the dining cart!
Top tip: if you prefer not to mingle with strangers, get at least four people together to ensure your own private compartment for the duration of the trip!
Aside from your compartment, you will probably spend a fair amount of time in the corridor linking different compartments and carriages for two reasons: power outlets and stunning views.
All carriages have power outlets, but unfortunately they are not located in the compartments, but in the corridors. There tend to be 3-4 outlets per carriage, so if your carriage is busy you may have to fight for them. A quick way to win friends and keep everyone happy is to have a multi-USB travel adapter; that way you can allow several people to charge from one outlet at once.
The bank of windows along the carriage also makes for some fantastic photography opportunities, particularly in Siberia, at Lake Baikal and in the Mongolian Steppes.
There are two more items of note in the corridor: the train schedule and the water boiler. The former is invaluable for checking when and where you’ll be stopping (and for how long) and the latter is great for hot drinks and instant noodles.
There are two really big stops on the Trans-Siberian: Mongolian border control and Russian border control. One of these is sorta better than the other.
When you hit the Chinese border town of Erlian, north-west of Beijing and around 12 hours into your journey, you’ll have the opportunity to jump off the train. Absolutely do this. The alternative is to sit and twiddle your thumbs on a locked train (with no toilet access) for the next three or so hours. If you go into the station, however, you’ll be able to go through the non-existent security and out onto the streets, where you can stock up on any last-minute drinks/snacks before heading into Mongolia. During this time, the train will switch a few carriages out, namely the engine and the dining carriage. This is fantastic news, as we will detail in a below section.
Russian border control is not as unrestricted, alas – you will need to remain on the train and cannot get off and explore. It’s much faster, however, and it happens pretty late, so you can just go back to sleep once they’ve checked your bags and passports. Sniffer dogs will be brought round, but they stick to the corridors (unless you’re carrying smack; do not carry smack) and are in and out in a jiffy.
As for other stops: pay attention to the schedule and get ready to jump off. Knock ten minutes off the duration of the stop for the purposes of making sure you get back on in time (if you’re late, the train is leaving without you), assign purchasing roles to everyone (booze, fruit, meat etc.) and get what you need as quickly as you can. At some stops you’ll have a bit of time to take some pictures and explore a bit, but don’t go too far. The longest stop is never more than 45 minutes (outside of borders) so you realistically have half an hour. Other stops may only be 15 minutes and you’ll basically be restricted to the platform.
In Russia, it’s ironically easier to get stuff at smaller stops than in bigger cities. The likes of Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg either have security in place that makes it difficult to get to the streets, or else there’s not really much in the way of shops in the station. Stock up when you can; don’t bank on the next stop having what you want.
The dining carriages
Your journey will feature three dining carriages: Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian. Respectively, they are terrible, amazing and adequate.
As you might expect, the dining carriages will be switched at each border, meaning you’ll only need to put up with the godawful Chinese one for twelve or so hours. This carriage features set meals only, and the set meals consist of lank vegetables, processed meatballs and some dishwater-esque soup. The only good news is that you tend to get a lunch/dinner voucher in Beijing, so it’s not costing you anything. The service is also typical of the lower-end Chinese dining experience, ie. shit. Expect scowls, slow service and a general hatred of the world entire. If you can get the server’s attention (easier said than done), a local beer can be had for 5-10 RMB, or a Heineken for 15 RMB.
The Mongolian carriage is, on the other hand, absolutely fantastic. The menu features a range of Mongolian and Russian dishes, the décor is exactly what you’d expect a Dothraki banquet hall to look like, and the service is pretty damn good. Chilled local beer is available from fridges at one end of the carriage. Expect to pay around 100 RMB for a meal with a drink.
The Russian dining cart is decent; no more, no less. There’s a wide selection of salads, soups, and hot/cold dishes available, and it also sports a selection of chilled beers. Service is friendly and prompt, and a few token words of Russian go a long way here. Similar to the Mongolian carriage, a meal here will set you back around 100 RMB.
Note that, with the exception of the Chinese carriage and its lunch/dinner vouchers, the food tends to be on the expensive side. Don’t plan to eat every meal here and make the most of your stops to stock up on food and drink.
Unless you’re in first class (“deluxe soft sleeper”) berths, you won’t be showering for six days. Full stop. Even if you are in first class, the showers are bare-bones and don’t have hot water. Stock up on wet wipes and prepare for a smelly six days.
The toilets are not fantastic, but you’re on a train so it’s to be expected. The toilet bowls are cast-metal beasts that deposit your leavings directly onto the track; this means they are locked by your conductor when in-station, so leave yourself time to go before you hit a stop. This is especially important at the Russian border.
Smokers rejoice: between Chinese carriages, smoking is permitted throughout the entire trip. This will not be the case on Russian carriages once they’ve been added, so stick to the Chinese ones. Non-smokers beware: Chinese conductors may decide to smoke quite freely in their compartments, which may or may not bother you.
And there we have it: a guide to surviving the Trans-Siberian. Keep an open mind, a packet of wet wipes and a strong desire to make the most of your brief stops, and you’ll be through to Moscow with some fantastic memories and a powerful urge to shower.