The Trans-Siberian is often mistaken as a single railway line and the sole railway backbone in Russia, whereas in actual fact, there are parallel mainlines to it, and the Trans-Siberian itself is made up of many mainlines. It does, however, serve some of the the world’s longest continuous train journeys.
When I was contemplating and budgeting for whether to take the journey from London to Singapore or the Eastern and Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok, the 40-day journey from London with my twists and turns in Europe was around S$1000 cheaper than the luxurious 3-day journey.
Hence my trip “From London to Singapore in 40 Days” from April to June 2016.
I got on train number 4 (K4次) operated by China Railways from Moscow Yaroslavsky to Beijing for the full journey, spanning 7 days and 6 nights. Though the first day wasn’t really a full day, just 15 minutes since the train departs at 11.45pm. This is actually the shortest and cheapest journey from Moscow to Beijing, taking the Trans-Siberian and then branching off on the Trans-Mongolian. It also allows you to travel through Mongolia, putting more stamps in your passport.
Impressive on the outside, the train is for actual transport rather than tourism on the inside. Don’t expect creature comforts, including a shower, for 7 days. Unless, of course, you are willing to pay around 2.5 times more for the Luxury Soft Sleeper.
A S$1000+ ticket for 7 days will get you a berth on Hard Sleeper. It isn’t “hard” actually, and sleeps even the tallest western travellers on the train comfortably. It’s only hard when you compare it to the Luxury Soft Sleeper, but that gets you pure isolation for 7 days, so I’m still very happy to have used the Hard Sleeper.
The classes on the Chinese K3 and K4 do not follow Russian classifications, so Spalny, Kupé or Platskartny will not make sense if you ask any staff on board, even the RZD crew attached in Russia.
Despite it being an actual train for actual travels, most passengers on board the K4 are tourists. You will meet like-minded travellers from different countries…
… and possibly a Mongolian superhero.
I shared a 4-berth Hard Sleeper compartment with a Swiss who was travelling to Mongolia as a prize and an English who was heading to Beijing. In the next compartment, there were two ladies backpacking one round around the world, who got off at Ulan-Bator. Most of the passengers headed straight from Moscow to Irkutsk (for Lake Baikal), Ulan-Bator or Beijing, and not hopping on and off each day – it’s perfectly normal to do that, according to the conductors on board.
Do you like birch trees? Because the journey between Moscow and Irkutsk is filled with them.
The food on the Russian restaurant car was affordable and tasted great, despite some translation errors (or maybe it was on purpose?) on the menu.
There is hot water available on the train.
Pack some tea and instant noodles for the trip – it’s part of the experience. In fact, most local Russians never patronise the restaurant car. I was even scolded in a friendly way by some Russian guys in my hostel in Moscow that I needed to pack more noodles and not waste my money on the Russian train company.
If you don’t get your supplies in time though, you can always restock at a station kiosk in Russia. It’s more expensive than the local supermarket, but it is way cheaper than the same items in the restaurant car. The Russian guys at the hostel might be actually giving me life advice instead of kidding around.
Along the way, you might get your window broken. Or maybe it’s just my luck.
The Trans-Siberian runs along the perimeter of Lake Baikal, the largest, deepest and one of the clearest freshwater lakes in the world, containing around 20% of the world’s fresh water, for 5 hours. Even so, it’s just a fraction of the entire circumference of the lake.
Be careful of your head though, a passing train can send a blast of wind through the window without warning, especially if you’re somewhere at the back of the train.
The next day, in Mongolia, the nothingness along the journey is actually the attraction.
But of course, locals riding horses and camels grazing complete the journey experience.
Remember to stuff your window sills to prevent a sandstorm in the compartment.
On the Mongolian restaurant car, the quality and taste was even better than the Russian car, but it was much more expensive than the Russian car.
It rained during my journey through the desert, so the sand wasn’t flying into the train. But think about it – it rained in the desert.
With the rain and the extra wind, it got really cold in the coach, so the conductor fired up the heater – literally.
Don’t stick your hands in there.
You cross into China under this huge arch.
Immigration for Russia was strict and unfriendly. Immigration for Mongolia was strict and slightly unfriendly on the Russian border, but was fine on the Chinese border. Immigration for China was much simpler than the previous three checks on the Trans-Mongolian.
In Erlian, the border station of China and Mongolia on the Chinese side, the coaches get shunted into a yard to change the bogies from Russian gauge to standard gauge. The toilets on the train get locked here to prevent a mess of other forms of liquid on the yard’s floor.
You get jacked up while they change the bogies.
After which, you can head to the minimart at the station which is specially opened late for the train. You’ll probably want to find the toilet first after that three-hour wait for immigration and bogie change.
In China, one of the first trains I saw was one that was hauling tanks and other military vehicles. Is this normal?
On the Chinese restaurant car, food was free but you wouldn’t miss anything brilliant even if you decided to skip the meals.
I wasn’t told there would be numerous gorges and tunnels in the journey through China.
The end of the Trans-Mongolian journey is near, after 6 nights and 7595km.
Getting off my hostel on wheels for the final time in Beijing.
The moment I walked out of the exit, I was greeted with 2 middle-aged women grabbing each other and trying to pull each others’ hair out, with both of their husbands trying to pull them apart and each family behind them shouting and cursing at each other.
Indeed, I am now in China.
Was the trip on the Trans-Mongolian worth it?
Absolutely. It’s like watching a movie, a little boring at the beginning but once everyone warms up to each other, it feels homely, so to speak. The scenery also changes every minute, so you don’t have to get out of the train to get to a sightseeing destination – see everything from the train.
Why didn’t you stop over? Are you nuts?
First of all, it’s fairly common to take the journey straight from Moscow to Beijing, from my chats with the conductors. Sightseeing can also be done straight from the train. Many have asked me to stop over at Lake Baikal to see the lake, but guess what? The Trans-Siberian trains do it for you for 5 whole hours.
For showers though, pack wet tissues and powder. Generally, the cold and low humidity weather won’t make you sweat much, and the windows do open if you didn’t like the smell in your compartment. Not that it was a problem though, my compartment’s windows were never opened from Moscow to Beijing. I did, however, just use a cup I didn’t need anymore for a cold water shower on the fourth and fifth days.
And mind you, the two conductors in my coach have been doing the Trans-Mongolian Beijing – Moscow and Beijing – Ulan Bator monthly rotational schedule for eight years.
Wasn’t it boring?
I brought along a notebook and some pens to pre-write some blog posts for this site, and downloaded games into my phone before the journey, just in case, but I barely had time to unpack the notebook and pen from my bag.
If you wanted to snap a photo, you had to be fast. Chatting with your compartment mates and catching up on sleep also took up most of the time on the Trans-Mongolian. Not forgetting the walk to the restaurant car and waiting for the food to be served. You could also learn (and fail at) a new language taught to you by Captain Mongolia.
So, no, it wasn’t boring at all. But then again, I love trains, so I may not be the best neutral party to ask for this question.
How much did it cost?
I paid £517.41, booked through an online travel agent and mailed to a friend’s UK address. POSB counted it as S$1045.95 for this, at the time of my purchase.
But, the actual cost of tickets are totally negligible. Average prices and methods of bookings can be found here, but the actual fare and the agent’s fare may not be the same. Tickets are available for booking 60 days before departure for agents and 45 days before departure for the general public, so the agents, knowing the demand for Trans-Siberian trains, can buy up all the tickets in the train with guests pre-booking their place on the train months ahead. Demand and supply. You have to look for your actual fare at the time of your own booking for the train of your choice. It’s impossible to give you an exact number.
Will you want to do it again?
Definitely, if given the opportunity of time and money, but probably on a different line. Having been on numerous train trips in Malaysia and Thailand already, no two train journeys are ever the same, and it will be a different adventure should I get on the Trans-Siberian again. And there are so many trains running on the Trans-Siberian line.
And I suggest you do to.
I was skeptical about how great the Trans-Siberian could really be at first, and I was genuinely impressed. It was not the most luxurious train journeys in the world, but it is certainly one of the greatest in terms of sceneries and experiences. With the amount of time you get to yourself on the train, you get to catch up on sleep and just allow yourself to relax, since there’s nothing much to do on the train too.
Read about my Trans-Siberian journey experiences here:
- Day 19: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 1)
- Day 20: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 2)
- Day 21: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 3)
- Day 22: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 4)
- Day 23: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 5)
- Day 24: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 6)
- Day 25: China Railway from Moscow to Beijing (Trans-Siberian Day 7)
Read about my journey From London to Singapore in 40 Days here.