For many travellers, taking the Trans-Siberian Express train across Russia is a lifelong dream. I recently took the train between Moscow and Vladivostok. Below are some tips on planning such a trip.
Planning your trip
The best resource for long distance train travel like this is the website Seat 61. It has a page on the Trans-Siberian which is detailed and accurate. We used this to plan our trip. We also took a couple of guidebooks. The Lonely Planet was okay for basic information but we far preferred the Trailblazer Guide, which as well as containing more practical information also had a useful mile by mile guide for points of interest. If you’re on a train for seven days looking at millions and millions of trees, this guide turns out to be more interesting than it sounds! I also read Colin Thubron’s book In Siberia, which gives a lot of colour and information to enrich the trip, although it is only loosely a Trans-Siberian travelogue.
There are multiple Trans-Siberian routes: as well as the classic one across Russia, there are two which go between Beijing and Moscow, one passing through Mongolia while the other does not. There’s also one between Moscow and North Korea. You’ll want to decide which route to take, and Seat 61 and guidebooks go into detail about the pros and cons of different routes, which largely depends on what you are looking for. One of the things which I appreciated about this trip compared to other long distance train journeys I have taken before was that the train trip didn’t involve any border crossings, so there were no nights getting woken up in the middle of the night and having to sit around at a border checkpoint for hours.
From Hong Kong, having decided your route, you will also need to decide which way around to do the trip. For example, starting in Moscow has the advantage that you’ll end in Asia so hopefully won’t have jet lag at the end of the trip.
Flying between Hong Kong and Moscow is fairly straightforward either directly with Aeroflot or on one of the many indirect services, ideally with an airline which offers reasonably priced one way tickets: Korean Air, Turkish, Qatar and the like. Getting back from the other end depends what your appetite for further travel is. If you take the route ending in Beijing, for example, it’s a simple flight or you could simply take the overnight train to Hung Hom, in which case you’d have the satisfaction of having travelled between Hong Kong and Moscow only by train. Alternatively you could take one of the fast trains between Beijing and Shenzhen, which take around eight hours. Ending (or starting) in Vladivostok you have fewer options. There are occasional direct flights between there and Hong Kong and indirect ones through Korea and the mainland. We took a ferry from Vladivostok to Sakainimato in Japan, which took two days. The ferry was pretty basic and fully priced, so personally I wouldn’t recommend this to others. If you do, however, you can extend your stay in Japan, or fly to Hong Kong from the nearby Okayama airport, which is served by Hong Kong Airlines.
Booking your trip
We tried to book our tickets directly with Russian Railways but they were all sold out as soon as they were released so we ended up using an agent who we had used on a previous trip based on Seat 61 recommendations (they have a link) – Real Russia. Using an agency basically adds a price premium but effectively there’s no choice. Real Russia were fine although it took quite a bit of communication to get what we wanted.
If making the trip again I’d be tempted first to check out one of the Hong Kong travel agencies specialising in Russia, like CIS Tours, 21/F, Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Road, Wanchai.
See our post on getting a Russian visa in Hong Kong.
The itinerary is very open – depending on your interests and available time, you can take the whole journey in one, or stop off en route. We decided to break the journey into two parts – first we went from Moscow to Irkutsk, leaving Moscow just after midnight on Monday night and arriving in Irkutsk on Friday evening, too late for happy hour but certainly early enough for a night on the town. We then left Irkutsk on the Saturday evening and arrived in Vladivostok on Tuesday evening.
We picked Irkutsk as a large sized break roughly half way and indeed it is in an interesting town. However, one thing which I would recommend is to do some research on possible stops at this stage, for example by reading the guidebook in advance. This sounds obvious but we did not do it and of course, sometimes we would draw into a town or city and think how interesting it looked and whether we should have had a stop there – Yekaterinburg and Tyumen being two examples.
The trains arrived on the dot – even if there was a slight delay on the way, it was soon made up for example by shortening station stops. So the timetables are an accurate tool to use when planning different possible itineraries. Be aware that Russian railways use Moscow time, in the timetables as well as for example on the clocks at station. The further you get from Moscow the more confusing this can be – in Vladivostok, for example, the time zone is seven hours ahead of Moscow. So when I say we arrived in Vladivostok in the evening, it was half past one on the timetable (and station clocks) but half past eight in actuality. So when looking at possible itineraries, make sure that as well as using the Moscow time from the timetables you are also looking at the local time, especially if you are thinking of making a stop.