My tickets were booked on, or 1-3 days before departure either in person at the station or through my hostel. Tickets are generally cheaper during the off-peak season and for 3rd class (I generally travelled ‘kupe’ – 4-berth 2nd class). I had few problems travelling during the busy summer period, though a sleeper bus was necessary for the stretch from the Chinese border to Beijing, as the direct train was booked out for a week. Prices also vary depending on train number/speed. See seat61.com for more info.
Approx total distance travelled on train [Estonia to Hong Kong]:
*Tallin [Estonia] to St Petersburg [Russia] – 14/07/07
Seat – 6 hours – Approx 217 miles
*St Petersburg to Moscow – 18/07/07
‘Kupe’ 2nd class – 1 night – Approx 375 miles
*Moscow to Irkutsk – 22/07/07
Kupe 2nd’ class – 4 nights – Approx 4,735 miles from Moscow to Beijing
*Irkutsk to Ulaanbattaar [Mongolia] – 30/07/07
‘Kupe’ 2nd class – 1 night
*Ulaanbattaar to Chinese border – 09/08/07
‘Kupe’ 2nd class – 1 night
*[Direct train fully booked, sleeper bus from border to Beijing] – 10/08/07
*Beijing to Hong Kong – 14/08/07
Hard sleeper – 1 night – Approx 1,242km
Total travel cost [excluding initial flight to Estonia of approx UK£40]:
Approx cost of train from London to St Petersburg:
Eurostar and sleeper train (change in Berlin) from around £170 to £250.
Approx hostel costs (dorm bed) per night:
Estonia & Russia – US$20pn
Mongolia & China – US$5pn
Approx total carbon footprint of equivalent flight from Tallin to Hong Kong:
1.11 tonnes of CO2 (times this by 2.7 = 3.0 tonnes, as noxious gases emitted in the upper atmosphere cause more damage) – 4875.2miles
[source: www.climatecare.org/calculators/flight and 'Heat' by George Monbiot, 2006, Penguin]
N.B. The carbon footprint of my train journey cannot be accurately calculated as the carbon cost would differ greatly depending on the age/fuel/speed of each of the trains. However, train travel can save around 90% of the emissions which would otherwise be generated by an equivalent flight
- I recommend not booking ahead or using an agency – they charge double the ticket face value and generally tickets are available a day or two in advance. You’d also be tied down to a schedule rather than going at your own pace. Most travellers will want to spend a few days in each city, or each ‘stop’, so booking the next leg of the train journey upon arrival is not a problem. (Only once, from Mongolia to China, did I find that the train was fully booked, and then we still managed to get an indirect one linking to a night bus).
- In Russia, there is actually little to see – tourist wise – beyond St Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk unless you have an interest in soviet history, in which case one could add the industrial cities of Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. Although I think a long 4-day stretch on the train is fantastic and part of the experience – visits to these centrally located cities would break up the ‘long haul’ for those who wish to!
- Stock up on food before each stretch, all carriages have a constant supply of boiling water and a restaurant. Depending on the train, you may be able to recharge a phone, but little else – it’s a matter of discretion for the almighty powerful carriage attendant (or ‘provodnitsa’)! The toilets are fine and the attendant may be able to rent out a length of hose so you can have a makeshift shower.
- There are usually 2-3 stops of around 20 minutes each day.
- Consider booking hostels ahead in Russia using the Hostelworld website. A Trailblazer guide (considered to be better than the Lonely Planet for this trip) is also handy, along with a phrasebook, as very, very few people speak any English.
- I would recommend at least 2 weeks in Russia and at least a week in Mongolia – this would give you enough time to see the highlights.
- Plan your visas a couple of months in advance as the Russian visa procedure is somewhat nightmarish. You’ll need visa application support paperwork – the most affordable place to obtain these ‘invitation’ and hotel booking documents is the RealRussia website . The Mongolian visa can, in theory, be arranged in Irkutsk (Russia), but it’s best done in advance, along with the China visa, which – for Brits – has to be in person in London.
- Keep an eye on the special section at the excellent Seat.61 website for the latest information.
- Seat.61.com – the best and most up-to-date resource for worldwide overland travel – accurate info on trans-siberian tickets, food, trains, timetables and more.
- Wikitravel – user-generated guide to the trans-siberian
- Realrussia.co.uk- one of the many online agencies selling overpriced pre-booked train tickets, but recommended for visa application support paperwork.
- Monkeyshrine – expensive australian outfit offering a tour group experience, worth a look to see how not to travel.
- Russian Embassy – in london (visa process by post, one week turnaround. official ‘invite’ and ‘hotel booking’ paperwork required for visa, available for a fee through realrussia.co.uk).
- Mongolian Embassy – in london (troublefree visa process by post – 1 week turnaround).
- Chinese Embassy – in london (visas can only be arranged in person, same/next day service available)
Download all of my Trans-siberian travel tips as a PDF.