Detailed Guide to Travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow
Arguably the most iconic rail journey and the world, and a top item on many travellers’ bucket list, travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway is an amazing experience. For Hong Kong travellers, it often makes the most sense to travel from East to West on the railway. The journey will take you from China, across the steppe of Mongolia and then into Siberia where you’ll pass the world’s deepest lake, until you eventually cross the Ural Mountains into Europe and finish your journey in Russia’s capital city, Moscow. We’ve outlined everything you need to know about the world’s most iconic rail journey.
Trans-Siberian Railway Route Options
The first step to planning your Trans-Siberian Railway journey is to choose a route. Contrary to popular belief, the railroad known as the Trans-Siberian Railway is not actually one route anymore, but three. The Trans-Mongolian is the most popular, but from Beijing you can also easily take the Trans-Manchurian route.
Trans-Mongolian Railway Route
If you are leaving from Beijing, you have two options of routes on the Trans-Siberian railroad. The first is the Trans-Mongolian Route. On this route you’ll leave from Beijing, cross China and then travel through Mongolia and into Russia. This is, by far, the most popular route as it offers the most varied scenery and the chance for travelers to experience three different countries and cultures.
The Trans-Mongolian route takes approximately 5 days if you leave Beijing on Chinese Train 3 / 4. You must cross two international borders: from China to Mongolia at Erenhot/Zamyn-Uud and Mongolia to Russia at Sukhbaatar/Naushki. This is the shortest of the two Trans-Siberian routes that depart Beijing and it covers 7,621 kilometres.
Trans-Manchurian Railway Route
On the Trans-Manchurian Route, you’ll travel from Beijing to Moscow skipping Mongolia. You only need to cross one border – China into Russia at Manzhouli/Zabaikalsk. It takes a bit over 6 days and the Russian train 19/20 is a popular choice. This is perfect for those travelers who are doing the Trans-Siberian in winter time as it passes through Harbin and it would be convenient to stop at the world-renowned Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.
Note: if you are a traditionalist who wishes to travel the original Trans-Siberian Express Railway Route, you can hop on a plane to Vladivostok, Russia and travel East to West from there all of the way across Russia. This is the least popular route, but avoids crossing any country borders on the train and gives you what many consider the most authentic and “true” Trans-Siberian experiences. Another benefit of this route is that you don’t have to secure a Chinese or Mongolian visa.
Popular Stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow
While there are nearly endless interesting stops along the Trans-Siberian route, you’ll certainly have to narrow it down to just a few. Below you’ll find brief descriptions of some of the most popular stops:
Beijing and the Great Wall of China
Make sure to plan a few days to explore China’s capital. The grand Forbidden City complex is a highlight as is Tianamen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Although a bit more off the tourist trail than these magnificent cultural highlights, ducking into the narrow alleyways of Beijing’s numerous hutong neighborhoods is one of the best ways to experience a more intimate side of the capital.
The Great Wall of China is certainly on most people’s China Bucket List so if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll likely want to fit it into your Trans-Siberian itinerary. The easiest way to see the Wall is by taking a tour from Beijing before you embark on your train journey. The train passes close to sections of the wall but there aren’t any other stops where it’s easy to hop out and have a visit. From Beijing, there are several sections of the Great Wall which can be visited on a tour. Mutianyu remains one of the favorites, is one of the most fully restored sections, and is also the most kid-friendly
Harbin is a fairly large city, but it’s surprisingly laid-back. The city’s historic quarter is restricted to foot traffic, and here you can spend a few hours exploring the cluster of old buildings. There’s also a nice, leafy walkway along the Songhua River where it’s nice to take a stroll. However, the city really comes to life in the winter time when it is host to the world-famous Harbin Ice & Snow Festival with its frozen theme park created completely from ice and snow.
Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia sits in sharp contrast to the Mongolian steppe which you will have been gazing at from your train window for about half a day at this point in your journey. The city is a sprawling, industrial city and the coldest capital city in the world. Highlights in the city include visiting the Gandan Khiid monastery (visit early in the morning to experience the monk’s chanting), a stop by the Sukhbaatar Square with its Chinggis Khaan Statue, and a number of well-done museums.
We’d suggest spending a few days in Ulaan Baatar and getting out of the city – where you can experience the real Mongolia. Adventure tours into the Gobi desert where you can stay in a traditional ger with local herders is an amazing experience that you should consider adding to your list if you have time.
At this point in your journey, you’ve crossed into Siberian Russia and will be ready to stretch your legs after the long border crossing coming into Russia. Irkutsk is easily the most popular stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway route due to its proximity to Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. The lake is a must-see. Even though the train flanks the lakeshore for a bit, it’s nice to actually get out on the lake, or at least stick your toes in its always-frigid waters. Listvyanka is the easiest lakeside town to access from Irkutsk. You can get there in a short taxi or bus ride. A bit further out, Olkhon Island is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy nature during your Trans-Siberian railway journey. Before you hop back on the train, take a day or two to explore Irkutsk itself. The city centre is easily walkable and home to several interesting historic attractions. Highlights include the Znamensky Monastery, the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral, and several nice museums. Irkutsk is also a great place to try traditional Siberian cuisine.
Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city seems a world away from the often empty Russian countryside you’ve become used to seeing out the train window by now. The city is surprisingly cosmopolitan partly due to a recent boom in investing by European businesses. There’s a thriving restaurant scene and plenty of opportunities to explore the nearby Ural Mountains. The city was famously the location where the Romanov family was executed. Today, a beautiful cathedral, the Church Upon the Blood, sits on the location where the family was killed and it is well worth a visit. The Vysotskiy Viewing Platrform offers one of the best urban panoramic views in all of Russia and is a great place to catch the sunset. Yekaterinburg was also home to Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and you’ll find plenty of evidence of this around town including the mammoth Presidential Center.
Your journey from Beijing to Moscow is complete. You’ve traveled thousands of miles at this point and experienced sights and sounds that perhaps you never thought possible. You’ll inevitably be glad to be off the train at this point but don’t fly home too quickly. Moscow warrants at least a few days. The iconic Red Square is certainly the most popular attraction, but Moscow is also home to a vibrant cultural scene. If you are able to catch a ballet or theatre performance or visit some of the city’s amazing museums, you should take full advantage of the opportunity.
Depending on your chosen route and nationality you may need to secure as many as three different visas to make your Trans-Siberian dream a reality. These countries can have quite complicated visa requirements which may even include the requirement to apply from your home country, so planning well ahead of time is advised. UK-based Real Russia is a popular option for Russian visa support, and booking Trans-Siberian tickets and tours. Their route planner is the best we’ve seen on the web. They can also assist with acquiring Mongolian and Chinese visas should you need them.
What to Pack for your Trans-Siberian Railway Journey
Since you’ll be traveling in tight quarters while traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway, you’ll want to pack as light as possible. Small luggage makes it much easier to get on and off the train and also explore the various stops. Weather can be chilly at points, even in summer, so spend some time researching the temperatures in the various cities and plan to layer. There is a restaurant car and the option to purchase food aboard the train, but generally, food options aren’t amazing. Coffee and especially tea are easy to come by and hot water is always available. We’d suggest packing a nice supply of food including some things that are easy to prepare with hot water. However, you can step out on the platform along the way if you’d like to buy something to eat or drink – just make sure to get back on the train in time!
Trans-Siberian Railway Tickets
The easiest way to purchase tickets is through a travel agent, but it is possible to purchase your own through the official rzd.ru website and you will save a lot of money doing it this way (we saved over $1000 USD for our family). Ticket price varies greatly depending on the class and speed of train. Purchasing the tickets directly through the railway website is easiest if you know a bit of Russian, but this step-by-step guide makes it easy.
Melanie traveled the Trans-Siberian railway over the course of about a month from St. Petersburg, Russia to Irkutsk with her husband and 3.5 year old daughter in tow. Check out her blog for more tips on Trans-Siberian travel with kids.