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The Trans-Siberia Railway: Moscow to Beijing
April 28, 2009 23:11

Crossing a dizzying ten time zones and two continents, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. Built during the Tsarist era of Russia, between 1891 and 1916, the railway connects Russia to the Far-East, and has become iconic as the ultimate train journey, with one of the best views in the world from your train window.

An Historic Journey

The ‘Trans-Siberia Railway’ is actually the name for three different routes – the original route connects St Petersburg to port Vladivostok. For a true change of scenery, the route from Moscow to Beijing has become popular in recent years, and in the 1920s the Soviets added a third route to China’s capital via Mongolia, offering the chance to experience the desolate plains and rugged mountains of one of Asia’s least visited countries.

Travel on a Budget

From the grand palaces and vast plains of Russia, to the exotic delights of the Orient, you can follow in the footsteps of great expeditions and explorers on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Many tour companies offer Trans-Siberia ‘Experiences’, which include flights to Moscow, and tickets that allow stop-offs in Russia on the way. These companies have a an itinerary worked out, and sort out visas, accommodation and connecting tickets, so can be the easiest option, but if you’re traveling on a budget, it’s easy to make the journey independently and cheaply.

Accommodation is included on board in the cozy carriages, so if you take a direct train, the only beds you need to pay for are for a few nights at either end of the route. There are plenty of cheap hotels and apartments in Moscow, so it’s easy to experience one of Russia’s most up-and-coming cities, before hopping off in Beijing at the end of the route, for a bargain break in the ‘Forbidden City’.

Which Route?

There are two direct trains a week between Moscow & Beijing; trains 3 and 4 via Mongolia and trains 19 and 20 via Manchuria.

The Moscow-Beijing via Mongolia requires 3 visas, departs every Tuesday night, and takes 6 days to cross 4,735 miles of land. On your travels you’ll pass the snowy plains of Siberia, head across Mongolia and the Gobi desert, before entering China. This route promises the most diverse array of scenery, and tickets cost around 410 one-way, in a second–class compartment (sharing with three others).

The Beijing via Manchuria route departs on Friday nights, and also takes six days to cover 5,623 miles. The prices and carriages are similar, so the route you choose depends on whether you want to see Mongolia or not. As it is virtually impossible to obtain independent western flights to Mongolia, the first train route is probably the best choice.

What Will You See?

On the Moscow-Beijing Route via Mongolia, the first three days of the journey are spent crossing Siberia, the vast stretch of land connecting Europe and Asia. You’ll go past the cities of Perm and Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals Mountain Range, before reaching Siberian towns such as Omsk and Krasnoyarsk, on the banks of the Yenisey River. One of the top sights from the train window is Lake Baikal, the deepest fresh water lake in the world.

By day five, snow-capped mountains and sparse plains give way to Mongolia’s dramatic and varying landscapes. The view changes from grassy steppes to Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, and then the desolate Gobi Desert, with sightings of the occasional camels and ‘yurts’- camps of Mongolian nomads.

On the final day, the train reaches the Chinese frontier, and crosses the mountains before approaching Beijing.

When to Go

The railway runs year round, so pick your dates according to what kind of scenery you want to see. May to September is peak season, with the warmest weather and the busiest carriages, but Siberia in winter is a fairytale sight, and the trains are well-equipped to cope with the bitterly cold weather.

Buying Tickets

The cheapest and safest option for buying tickets is to book online or with a travel agent before you travel– popular trains can sell out well in advance. Many online companies allow you to book train tickets online here, and they can also help with arranging your Visas before you travel. By booking online you can also arrange pre-paid meals on board.

Stopping Off

The trains stop at stations in the major towns for around half an hour, giving you enough time to get off and stretch your legs, take a few photos or pick up souvenirs and snacks from the platform vendors. If you want to really explore the towns, you’ll have to arrange stop-offs in advance – the Russian train system only allows planned stops as seats are so limited and tickets only work on fixed dates. Luckily there’s enough varied scenery and interesting company on the Moscow-Beijing train to keep you occupied.

If you really want to stop off on the way, there are lots of internal trains between Moscow, Ulan Bator and Beijing, but these are infrequent and only run several times a week, so it’s best to organize a hostel to stay over in your chosen city.


All travelers to Russia, China and Mongolia need separate Visas for each country in order to enter, although US, Singaporean, Malaysian and some other nationalities don’t need a visa for Mongolia. It’s best to organise Visas a few months before travelling to allow them to be processed, especially if you are booking independently. You can visit the embassies in person to apply, but it’s often easier to arrange online. For Chinese and Russian Visas, check out the embassy websites, and check the Mongolian Embassy website to see if you need to apply.

Life On Board

The Trans-Siberia trains conjure up the romance of an old-fashioned train ride – with small cabins, restaurant cars and interesting passengers – and there’s usually a good mix of Russians and Westerners on board. The long journey often means you end up mingling with your fellow travelers, and if you can’t speak Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, it’s not a problem – most of the staff speak English.

The restaurant car attached changes with each country, so you start off with Russian food, change to Mongolian and end up with a car serving excellent Chinese Dishes. The food is inexpensive, with simple Russian dishes like cooked breakfasts and schnitzel and potatoes for dinner. You can also buy beer, champagne and Russian Vodka – perfect for toasting you arrival in each country!

The Classic Trans Siberian tour starts and ends in St Petersburg. The Classic Trans Siberian is an Adventure tour that takes 19 days taking you through St Petersburg, China and other destinations in China.


The Russia Expedition - Winter Trans-Siberian Adventure tour starts in Moscow and ends in Vladivostok. The Russia Expedition - Winter Trans-Siberian Adventure is an Expedition tour that takes 15 days taking you from Moscow to Vladivostok and through other destinations in Europe.


Lauren Smith

Tags: Russian Railways     

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