Trans-Siberian Railway Journey from Moscow to Beijing
The Trans-Siberian Railway has a certain charm and romance. There’s something about the sound of a train and the people waving from the platform that makes this form of transport alluring. Trains themselves have a grace and elegance, like a 1940s film. Trains reflected adventures, class and status in that era, however now they are linking the world, and improvements in technology allow them to travel faster than ever before. The Trans-Siberian Railway does not disappoint. The railway itself is an epic journey, covering almost 6,000 miles, across some of the most remote and isolated countries on Earth. As you glide past stunning landscapes, diverse people and intriguing sights, you’ll never want to get off. Here’s your guide on this legendary rail line, it truly is the adventure of a lifetime, unrivalled by any other form of transport.
The Trans-Siberian Railway recently celebrated its 115th birthday. The original idea for this great railway initially came as a solution to economic problems associated with Russia’s vast size. However, as the project developed, it became the focus of national pride. Alexander III’s idea was to unite the people of Russia, and enable trade between regions.
Construction officially began in February 1891. Despite worthy motivations, construction was slow. The whole project was challenged by harsh conditions. Obstacles included sparsely populated towns, decimating mountains to create tunnels, and the enormous cost of construction. Despite these challenges, up to 600 km of railway road were laid every year. The incredibly fast pace of the construction amazed the world. As soon as the Trans-Siberian was built, it began to have a significant impact on economic development, and contributed to the acceleration and growth of the circulation of goods.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway on the planet. There are actually three different journeys that you can take on these lines. The first is Moscow to Vladivostok – which is the longest and least travelled by western tourists. The second is the Moscow to Beijing via Harbin in China. The third is Moscow to Beijing, via Mongolia and is considered to be the most popular with tourists and has the most engaging landscapes.
The journey starts in Moscow, and weaves through tiny Russian towns, through to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, and finishing in Beijing. Its official title is the Trans-Mongolian – but you’re always on the Siberian railway.
The 5,000-mile journey takes six nights, and the principal attraction is the stunning Russian landscape. You’ll catch glimpses of the Ural Mountain range, and even pass the “1777 post” – the official marker separating Europe and Asia. It’s a large white obelisk, you won’t miss it, and it makes for a great photo opportunity if you’re quick! You will glide beside Lake Baikal – a 640km long lake – the oldest and largest in the world, certainly a trip highlight. You’ll then enter Mongolia, which has green rolling hills to rival Ireland and vast forests and snowy mountains. You’ll pass wide open plains, where you might catch a glimpse of traditional Mongolian nomads tending their herds. However, you cannot discount the stunning beauty and vast remoteness of the Gobi Desert as you chug through Mongolia. There really is a picture perfect photo-scape at every turn of the tracks.
One you’ve glided through the Gobi Desert, you’ll be spat out in China and the window scape will change again. You’ll go through rocky mountains and past gigantic lakes. As you enter the sprawling and teeming city of Beijing, you’ll pass through the Chinese countryside, with an array of red flags and people cultivating the rice fields.
The carriages are very comfortable, with only 4 people per carriage. The bench seats on the bottom convert to beds for two people and there are two beds that fold down above for the other two. There is space under the two bench seats to store your baggage, as well as storage compartments above the beds, attached to the ceiling of the train. A small table in the middle separates the two bench seats. Pillows and blankets are provided for you. Bring a good book with you – as mesmerising as the landscape is, you’ll want something to do that’s varied.
Each carriage/car has at least two western-style washrooms with sinks. If you’re lucky enough to grab a seat in first class, there is a shower hose in a small washroom for you to use.
The food is adequate, with a rage of Russian food offered in the restaurant car. The menu will change over Mongolia and China to suit those palates and tastes. You can always bring your own food as well. There is hot water on offer, and many western travellers simply buy some dried noodles to save some money. At every station stop, there will be vendors selling noodles, snacks, bread, beer and soft drinks. But be careful, most stops are no longer than 5 minutes, so be quick and prepared with your cash. They will leave you behind!
The Border Crossing
You will cross the border twice on your journey from Moscow to Beijing. Both are relatively easy and non-stressful; however, they are time consuming and can be frustrating.
Initially, the train will stop and any adjustments to the carriages/cars will be completed. This is easy in Mongolia; however, the Mongolia/China border has some challenges. The train tracks between Mongolia and China are different. The Chinese tracks are wider than both the Russian and Mongolian. The process of changing the tracks, means that every single carriage needs to be lifted and moved across to the newer, wider tracks. And all passengers must remain on board. This process takes about three hours, and passengers are not allowed to use the toilet in this time – make sure you go before you reach the border!
The next step in the process is visa and passport checks. This is when you will be asked to submit any paperwork that’s required to enter the country. The attendants on the train will hand out this paperwork. After that, the passengers are allowed off the train to visit the bathroom and to freshen up. This is before officials board the train to once again check passports and check luggage. A trained dog will enter and sniff around your luggage.
The border time will change from country to country, however these processes can take between 4-9 hours. The Russia border doesn’t seem to disrupt much, as it occurs in the early evening. However, the Mongolia to China border crossing occurs at about 10pm, so your sleep will be severely disrupted.
Booking a seat on this famous train can be a difficult process. Make sure that you’ve got your times and dates already sorted out, as timetables are very strict and trains are rare, only traveling once a week, leaving Moscow every Tuesday night.
Remember that trains run to Moscow time while in Russia, whatever the local time, so knowledge of the time zone you are in and a calculation are necessary when consulting the timetable.
Russian Tourist Visa
US citizens require a 3-year, multiple entry tourist visa, this applies to most countries as well. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa is not a straightforward process. Please keep in mind that you will require accommodation bookings, proof of funds, travel insurance, and you may require an interview. Visas cannot be obtained at the border, so application must be made in advance.
Mongolian Tourist Visa
If you are a US citizen, you can stay in Mongolia for a period of 90 days without a visa. Some countries allow a 30-day period, so make sure that you check with your local embassy. All other citizens, when arriving into Mongolia on a train, you must have a visa.
Chinese Tourist Visa
US citizens are eligible for a 10-year, multiple entry visa. Your passport validity must exceed 12 months. You must obtain this before you leave your home country. Please check the visa requirements for all countries, as they vary considerably.
This famous and iconic train journey is just as romantic and charming as you imagine it will be. From boarding in Moscow to disembarking in Ulaanbaatar, you will find incredibly diverse landscapes, wonderful people and engaging cultures.
Author: Michelle Hyde
Images Captured by: Ben Fehervary