The Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) is a 5-star voyage that does not typically register in every traveler’s bucket list but arguably should be on top of them. When the right destinations are selected through conscientious planning, the TSR has the potential to be the most unforgettable trip in your repertoire of travels. The Great Wall, Mongolia, Lake Baikal, and Moscow/St.Petersburg are all 5-star destinations in their own right. Coupling these sites with the opportunity to interact with locals from three culturally different countries while breezing through various spectacular terrain quickly transforms this expedition into the ultimate trip of a lifetime.
The TSR itinerary we took was the westward journey from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia and Lake Baikal.
The TSR is the holy grail of all rail adventures. Considered by many as the Everest of train journeys, it is enormously epic in scale and massively replete with indelible sceneries. Stretching 2 continents, 3 incredible countries, and 7 time zones, we clocked in almost 150 hours from opposite ends. It is truly monumental in scope in every conceivable way. Planning it independently is daunting as it is overwhelming, but it is possible and rewards the determined planner generously. Hope the steps that follow will help guide you in charting out your own customized TSR itinerary.
1. Decide on your travel dates. This is the backbone of TSR planning and one of the most crucial steps. It is imperative that you allot sufficient time to enjoy the train ride and explore the places along the way. There are several variables to mindfully consider.
- Summer or Winter (Fall or Spring). Many a TSR traveller venture out here either during the summer months (which boasts longer days and pleasant climates) or the winter months (which provides countless opportunities to witness surreal landscapes).
- Length of stay in each country. How long you plan to stay in each country depends on the sites you want to tick off from your bucket list. Unmissable destinations include Beijing, Mongolia, Lake Baikal, and Moscow and/or St. Petersburg. Multi-day stops in any of these areas will provide the necessary respite to break the trip into manageable segments. You also have the option to solely do the TSR from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok in Russia, but I would only recommend that to repeat offenders, not the first-time visitor.
- Point of Departure. There are 3 possible jumping off points: Beijing, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. You can technically commence your journey at any point, but in order to obtain a relatively more fulfilling experience, it is desirable to start off from any of the three cities above in order to traverse the entire length of the TSR.
2. Book your air tickets using miles 11 months out. Once you have selected your dates, it is recommended to book your tickets using miles 10-11 months before the trip. If you do not have miles, it is suggested to utilize the multi-city booking feature from a travel website such as Kayak, Expedia, or Orbitz. If purchasing a paid ticket, it is recommended to book about 6 months before your trip.
3. Use Google Sheets to chart out your itinerary. Google sheets is an outstanding tool in organizing any type of itinerary. It is not only recommended for this trip, it is deemed extremely necessary. Plot down your dates, including potential train connections as your itinerary will be heavily dependent on rail schedules. Trains from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar only run 2x/week (3x/week during high season). There are more options and daily frequencies between Mongolia and Russia and points between Russia.
- Real Russia is an indispensable online travel website that specializes in booking tickets for TSR. Their staff is consistently responsive and their prices are reasonable. They will be able to assist in booking the tickets between Mongolia and Russia as well as intra-Russia legs. The site also has a search box that provides up-to-date train schedules. They can also provide you with an invitation – one of the requirements in obtaining a Russian Visa.
- Seat61 is an invaluable website in planning the TSR. The website is a repository of extensive and well-detailed reviews of various trains and itineraries in the TSR.
- CITS is a Chinese travel agency that specializes in booking TSR tickets. They are responsive to inquiries and will be able to book your ticket from China to Mongolia and vice versa.
4. Decide on which trains to book and stick to that schedule. There are several ways on how to do this but the most streamlined process is to contact Real Russia and CITS. Once you have the train schedules figured out, reserve the tickets so you can focus on the next steps. Here are some suggestions when ticketing:
- Book a first class seat between Irtursk-Moscow (76 hours)
- Take the fast train between Irtursk-Moscow. This train is called the Rossiya (showers available at cost).
- Choose an overnight train between Ulaanbaatar to Irtursk. You will wake up with the view of Lake Baikal and arrive in Irtursk early in the morning for sight-seeing.
- Book a first class seat between Beijing – Ulaanbaatar and ensuring that the train is Chinese-owned as showers are available in their first class cabins.
- Trains departing from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is infrequent year-round. Train K3 departs every Wednesday and Train K23 departs every Tuesday but varies every year. There is an extra one K3 train that runs during the peak summer months of June to September (usually either on a Monday or a Saturday. Email CITS to inquire about train schedule as soon as you have determined when you will be in Beijing. It is critical that you earmark at least 3 days in Beijing for sight-seeing before your train departs for Ulaanbaatar.
5. Book Accommodations. Once you have determined where you will be on each day, use a hotel booking website such as booking.com to secure your lodging. Make sure that you book refundable rooms just in case unexpected changes need to be made as you approach your trip.
6. Apply for Visas. The Chinese Embassy would require copies of air tickets, hotel bookings, and a completed Chinese tourist visa application form in order to get approved for a tourist visa that is good for 10 years. Russia will require an invitation (Real Russia can provide this for free if purchasing train tickets from them or at cost) and a completed application before granting applicants a tourist visa that is valid for 3 years.
ILS-USA is the company enlisted by the Russian Embassy to process visa applications. They have offices in San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, New York, and Houston. Appointments can be reserved online and is strongly recommended to avoid long wait times.
7. Fill out the missing pieces by determining day-to-day itineraries. The itinerary we created was for 22 nights which included 4 nights in Beijing, 7 nights in Mongolia, 4 nights in Lake Baikal, and 2 nights in Moscow. There were also a total of 5 nights spent on the train.
- Naadam Olympics in Mongolia takes place every July. For 2017, it will be on July 11th and 12th. If you can work your schedule around being in Mongolia during these dates, it will be an event that will be forever etched in your memory. Once you have finalized your hotel booking in Ulaanbaatar, contact concierge immediately to reserve tickets for the Naadam opening ceremony and events (horse race, archery, wrestling, and anklebone shooting). Get your cameras ready!
Have you taken the TSR before? What other tips would you recommend future travelers?