Taking a train across Russia is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s at the top of many bucket lists and quite rightly so, the official route being over 9,000 km long and passing through eight different time zones.
I have romantic notions of being ferried across the continent in a glamorous sleeping compartment, just laying back and enjoying the trip. Not like my usual mammoth five month backpacking trips across several countries and endless waits at borders, bus stations and dusty roadside junctions.
First though, before even making it to Russia, I soon realised that planning a Trans-Siberia or Trans-Mongolia train journey takes as much time as it does to cover the journey itself, along with countless decisions to make.
I’m due to fly to St Petersburg in mid-February yet I’ve been planning and researching the trip for several months.
Decision One – choosing between Tran-Siberia and Trans-Mongolia
There are many routes to take across Russia – where you want to end up will determine your path. Vladistock is the end of the traditional route, which is the official Trans-Siberia train journey.
Beijing via Mongolia is the second most popular, bearing the name the Trans-Mongolia. There are a couple of trains weekly that travel the entire route.
The other alternative is to meander your way across Russia anyway you like, as long as there’s a train or bus route, making as many stops as you like. This is definitely my preferred option!
Decision Two – where to start your Trans-Siberia adventure and whether to head east or west
The official starting point is Moscow but having never seen St Petersburg this city is the natural beginning for me. It’s only four hours by train to Moscow, so I’m simply extending my train trip and seeing more of the Russian countryside.
I’m not sure it makes any difference whether you travel east or west but I’m meeting my friend Paula in Mongolia on 29th February so I decided to travel west to east, then fly back from Ulan Bator.
Decision Three – Russia in the winter or summer?
As I work every summer I knew this would have to be a winter trip. After a lot of research I decided that February is a good time. It’s before the snow starts to melt and turns to slush but temperatures are starting to warm up (somewhat!) yet Lake Baikal is still frozen.
I specifically wanted to reach Mongolia in time for the spring festivals in the first week of March. We’re aiming to go to the two day Bactrian Camel Festival in the Gobi desert as as the Golden Eagle festival just outside Ulan Bator but sadly will just miss the Khosvghol ice festival.
Decision Four – where to stop on the Trans-Mongolia route?
Ah, this is definitely one of the most difficult decisions to make. I knew I didn’t want to sit on a train for six days straight but trying to decide where to stop off is so difficult.
I’ve heard there’s some amazing hiking in Russia but sadly winter is not the time to do it.
As you can’t buy a hop on-hop off train ticket, each leg needs to be booked individually. And the advice is to book in advance to avoid being stranded.
I needed to check the train timetables carefully, as I definitely don’t want to be getting up at 1am in sub-zero temperatures to catch a train!
Decision five – include Kazakhstan in the Trans-Siberia adventure?
It didn’t cost anything extra to get a double entry visa for Russia (see below) and by doing so I’m reserving the option to also include Kazakhstan on the trip.
It’s easy enough to divert south to Nur-Sultan, the capital city, and then continue on with no backtracking to rejoin the Trans-Siberian route.
Interesting Kazakhstan fact here – the capital city was called Astana until March 2019 when a name change was unanimously agreed by parliament to honour an outgoing president who had served since the country’s independence.
Decision Six – First, second or third class compartment on the Russia trains
The Russian long distance trains offer three classes of tickets. First class, known as spalny vagons are two-berth cabins and often include a shower per carriage. The bed will also be pre-made. For this luxury prices are twice that of second class. The kupes are four-berth cabins, no shower and bed linen provided in a sealed pack.
Third class still has beds but it’s open plan, meaning less security and privacy.
I’m probably aiming to mix it up a little bit depending on the length of each trip.
Decision Seven – applying for a Russian visa and a Mongolian visa
Oh what a kerfuffle this is. Nearly all nationalities need visas for Russia, Mongolia and China, so make sure you check!
I’m not making it as far as China (having previously visited there in 2015 for a one month backpacking trip) so I just need the first two.
Russia visa applications can be made three months in advance at the London Visa Processing Centre. Unfortunately, for Mongolia, it’s a shorter time period.
Visas for Russia take twenty working days to process, while Mongolia takes five working days. Although both can be speeded up if you pay considerably more.
So, as I’m in South America for the two months prior to my Russia trip, I had to hand my passport into the Russia visa processing centre in London in November to be sure of getting my passport back in time for South America.
But it was too early to apply for the Mongolia visa so I have to apply for that one in the few days I’m back in the UK between the two different trips.
Decision Eight – packing for a Trans-Siberia train journey
And finally I’ve had to think about packing.
Usually I go to warm climates on my travels so I simply throw a few t shirts, thin cotton trousers and sandals in my bag. Have a look at how light I usually travel in my post about how to pack for a backpacking trip here.
I don’t own any cold weather gear or thermal underwear or furry boots. I do however own about ten different woolly bobble hats so at least my head will be nice and warm!