10 Steps | Planning the Trans Siberian Journey

Trans Siberian Railway, the Journey of a lifetime, the longest train journey in the world. Even with the Internet and all the available information, it is not like planning for any other trip. There are so many puzzle pieces. Because I don't have a month off to do whatever I want and buy train tickets on the go, I have to have all the details laid out and prebooked. Through 3 months of planning, I've collected a lot of information. I thought I'd share this for anyone else who is planning to go on this journey. Hopefully it will help you in some way or another.

Photos from Pinterest, from left to right, the Trans Siberian Train, Frozen Lake Baikal, and Moscow.

Here are the basics of the trip I'm taking:

Duration: 2 Weeks
When: March 18 - April 2, 2016
Start: Moscow 
Stops: Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing
End: Hong Kong
Total tracks covered: 10,265km
Cost : $22,000 HKD
I started planning 3 months in advance, and this is the order in which I did my booking:
  • Book train tickets (45 days in advance)
  • Get visas (3 weeks to spare)
  • Book hotels (2 weeks to trip)
  • Book flight (2 weeks to trip)
  • Book tours (2-1 week to trip)
  • Buy gear - thick jackets/backpack etc

1. When to go?
High season is between June - August when the temperatures are warmer and there are more tours offered. Mongolia can be really hot during this time though.

I'll be going end of March during Easter break. It will be anywhere between -15 to 5 C within Russia and Mongolia. Beijing will be slightly warmer. 

Lake Baikal in Irkutsk is still frozen in March. Winter season is good if you want to enjoy the snow and go dog sledding! 

2. How many vacation days do you need?
The bare minimum would be 7 days, since the Moscow to Beijing train will take 5 days, and you'll also need to get to and from those cities to wherever you're living. 

Moscow to Vladivostok will take 7 days.  

If you are stopping in cities along the way, I would recommend at least 2 weeks. In my case, I have 2 weeks of vacation booked, and I'll be flying to Moscow, starting the train journey from there and stopping at Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, and ending in Hong Kong. I'm stopping 1-2 days in each city. 

3. Where to go? 
First you'll need to think about whether you're going from East to West or West to East. Next, are you flying to your starting point and then training back? Or you're training first and then flying home? 

I personally prefer to fly first, because after many long days on the train, I don't think I'll enjoy another 12 hours sitting on a plane. So I will be flying to Moscow and starting the journey from there, but I will train the entire journey back to Hong Kong. 

If you are going all the way to Vladivostok, you can also take a ferry to go to Korea or Japan and continue the journey. If you have tons of time, you can continue from Hong Kong, through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and end up in Singapore. However, during that length of journey, some of the parts will need to be completed by busses since there are no trains. 

There's also so many cities you can stop by! I didn't even know where to start when I first started planning. One book that really helped me was the Lonely Planet's Trans Siberian Railway guide. It introduced most of the cities along the way and also recommended places to go based on what types of activities you enjoy. Flipping through the book, I quickly got an idea on the places to best stop. Below the map, I'll summarize in one sentence on why I'm stopping at the cities I've picked.


Kazan: Capital of Tartarstan, lots of beautiful Mosques.
(Y)ekaterinburg: This is where you can visit the border of Europe and Asia
Tomsk: a beautiful University town with unique wooden architecture
Irkutsk: where the word's largest fresh lake - Lake Baikal sits.
Ulaanbatar: Capital of Mongolia, close to many National parks, very rich culture.
Beijing: Capital of China, to see the Great Wall

4. Visas
To be safe, I would leave 3 weeks at least to obtain your visas. The embassies or consulates will keep your passport during that time so you cannot apply for different visas simultaneously. 

Russian visa: 7 - 9 working days
  • Visa not required if you hold a Hong Kong passport, up to 14 days stay
  • Almost everyone requires a visa, unless you hold a diplomat passport.
  • What you need: Official Invitation letter*, completed online application formprinted, copies of your Passport and HKID, one passport size photo
  • Fee:around $500 (differs depending on country, cash upon application)
  • Russian Consulate in HK: Rm. 2106-2123, 21/F, Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong.
  • Hours: 9am - 12pm (visa application), 2:30pm - 5:00pm (passport pick up)

*Official invitation letter can be obtained from the Hotel(s) you're staying from. Another easier way is to just get it from a travel agency with a small fee to save the hassle (especially if you are staying at a hostel or a place from airbnb, that will make things pretty complicated). I got mine from RealRussia.co.uk for free since I booked all my train tickets from them. It's usually £15

Mongolian visa: 3-4 working days 
  • No visa needed (30-90days) if you hold a passport from: USA, Macao, Canada, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong (14 days), Singapore (14 days)
  • What you need: booking proof of transportation and hotel, copy of passport and HKID, one passport sized photo, fill in an application in person at their office
  • Fee: HK $604, bank transfer to Bank of China. You can just go to any Bank of China branch, pay them cash and get a receipt to avoid any cross bank transfer fees if you don't have a Bank of China bank account. 
  • Mongolian Consulate in Hong Kong: Unit 1203, 12/F, Tower 2, Lippo Centre
    89 Queensway Road, Admiralty, Hong Kong
  • Hours: 9:30am - 12pm (visa application), 3-4pm (passport pick up)

China visa: 4 working days 
  • You can apply for: Single Entry, Double Entry, Multiple Entry
  • What you will need: completed application form A and B, one passport size photo, HKID
  • Fee: $620 (single entry), $930 (double entry), $1,240 (multiple entry for 6 months) all of these are paid in cash upon application. If you've never applied before you may only be granted a single entry visa. 
  • China's Foreign Ministary in HK:  7/F, Lower Block, China Resources Building. No.26 Harbor Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
  • Hours: 9am-12pm (visa application), 2pm - 5pm (passport pick up)
  • You can also apply through CTS (China Travel Services), which is cheaper. Their single entry is USD60 ($450 HK) https://www.ctshk.com/english/useful/chinaDelivery.htm 
5. The train schedule & getting tickets
  • You can only book up to 45 days in advance
  • All trains in Russia run on Moscow time 
  • Some cities have multiple train stations (eg. Moscow, Tomsk)
  • Be careful with connection times (explained below)
  • Trains only leave Ulaanbaatar on Thursdays and Sundays
Getting train tickets in advance outside of Russia can be pretty tricky. I couldn't find any travel agencies that would book them in Hong Kong (I guess it's probably easier if you are in Europe). I ended up completing all of my booking with realrussia.co.uk 

One thing to note is that you can only purchase train tickets as far as up to 45 days in advance. However the train schedules are usually out early, and you can look them up on the realrussia website. It didn't change at all when it came to booking my tickets so I'd say it's fairly accurate. The prices and availability might've changed slightly. There's also different classes: Soft, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Soft only appears when you get to the Trans Mongolian or when you're going into China. Train compartments also come in single gender only (meaning you can book compartments where it's all female, pretty good for safety). 

When booking on the realrussia website you can choose to display the train schedule in local time, however when you actually get the tickets or when you are taking the train, keep in mind that it all runs on Moscow time. To keep track of which time zone it is and the time difference, I used worldtimebuddy. Remember there's daylight savings in Russia, too! 

How do you read your train ticket, which is all in Russian?

How to identify which platform your train arrives at? 

Starting from the left:
Train number, train type, Departure City - Arrival City, Departure Time, Platform

How do you know which train station you are departing from? In Moscow there are many train stations. Depending on which is your destination city, you will be departing from different stations. After you book your train ticket on Real Russia, you can always go to their customer and ask them if you aren't sure. In your ticket confirmation you should also see the train station specified. Tomsk also has 2 train stations, but if you are going form the Trans Siberian route, you'll most likely stop at Tomsk 1 station. 

Be careful with connection times: Be sure when you arrive and when your connection train leaves. When going to Tomsk, you have to get off the main Trans Siberian track and transfer at Taiga (or Tayga) station. From (Y)ekaterinburg to Taiga, the train takes over a day, and I almost mistakenly booked a train that departs Taiga before my train from Yekaterinburg even arrived. Double check and triple check your train schedule! 

You can get your tickets in many forms: e-registration (pick up at Moscow or any train station along the way), e-ticket (only available for certain parts of the journey), paper ticket (pick up at real russia's Moscow and Ulaanbatar offices), paper ticket mailed to you (costs £40)

6. Safety concerns 
I've traveled extensively around Asia/the US, and a little bit in Europe. For the most part Asia is really safe, and the places that I've been that I've felt the most uneasy about was Paris and Cape Town. But I really don't know what to expect for Russia and Mongolia. I will update my actual experience after I'm back in April, but to be prepared I've gathered some tips from online that I'll be using during the trip: 
  • All of my train tickets are 2nd class, single gender compartments 
  • I booked most of my hotels across or near the train station to shorten the amount of time I need to walk or take public transport as some of my trains are departing past midnight. 
  • I also saved all of the consulate addresses and numbers in most of the cities I'm visiting as well as an emergency number I can dial.
  • I've set up a separate checking and a limited withdraw amount for the ATM card to be extra safe. 
  • I went online to some backpacker forums to find travel buddies in all the cities I'm visiting so I have companion.
  • I bought a number bike lock just in case for securing my backpack while aboard the train and in hotels.   
  • I got a pacsafe money pouch that can be hidden under my clothes. It guards against software that downloads people's ID and Credit Card information when in close proximity.  
  • All of my zippers on my bags are double zippers and will be secured together by hooks so it cannot be easily zipped opened.
  • Grab the hotel business card upon check in
  • Snap a picture of the cab license plate before getting in 
  •  Don't use ATMs on the street or in the Metro. Use the ones from Hotel lobbies or inside banks
  • Don't look at the phone or map in the middle of the street. Jump into a nearby shop or cafe quickly. 
  • And finally, check in online or with Friends and Family to update your location and safety on a daily basis.  

7. Getting a sim card at the airport 
3G/LTE data plan costs about 600 rubles per month. You can buy a sim-card at at the Domodedovo Airport in Moscow from these brands: Euroset (1st floor, black on yellow logo), Svyaznoy (2nd floor, color logo) or MegaFon (2nd floor, green logo). Micro-SIM and Nano-SIM are available.

You should get connection is most major cities, but while on the Trans Siberian, passing by small towns, connectivity won't be great
8. What to pack 
Depending on which season you're going, you will be packing for different temperatures. For summer it should be easy, you can travel light with t-shirts, shorts/jeans and flip flops. You can also bring some snacks or buy them at the train stations or from the platform. Other than that, also pack the usual toiletry items like your toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, travel size body wash/shampoo etc. A backpack would be ideal since it'll be a pain to wheel around a luggage, on and off trains. A luggage is also much easier to snatch away.  Since the train hallways are dark at night, if you are on overnight trains, it's a good idea to bring a flashlight. 

About electronics, there aren't many outlets on the train for you to charge your phone/tablet/or laptop, and everyone will be wanting to charge their stuff. Instead of fighting for an outlet or potentially running out of battery, I'm bringing 2 external emergency battery packs that will last a while. When I run out then I can just charge them at the hotel while I'm exploring each city. 

Winter time will be a bit tricky though when it comes to packing clothes. The trains are pretty well heated, so I'll be bringing some thin long sleeve layers and some slippers to wear while on the train. When in the cities, it will be around -15 ~ 0C, so I'll be wearing the Uniqlo extra warm heat tech layers under and then either marino wool or cashmere sweater, on top of that will be a either a Uniqlo ultra light down  jacket ($90 US) or a down vest, and then finally a double zip Columbia jacket that is Gortex and Omni-Heat (Around $350 US). And for my bottoms, I also have a Columbia bottom that is Gortex + Omni-Heat ($180 USD).

I would highly recommend the double zip Columbia (or North Face) jackets. In fact the two different brands actually zip together. I initially bought my Gortex Columbia jacket for Rinjani in Indonesia since it's waterproof and good for the rain forest. But because you can change the inner layer, you can use it for many different occasions and the quality of it will allow it to last many years, and many trips around the world! 

Underneath my Gortex Columbia jacket hat, I will be wearing a extra warm knit hat as well.

For gloves, I bought these leather gloves with very warm inner lining that is suitable for -15 ~ 0C temperatures. These were pretty pricey, almost $90 USD, but since I will be outdoors a lot and also going dog sledding, better to get extra protection then to get frostbit fingers and be sorry.

I also got a pair of Gortex hiking boots with warm inner lining. I bought this for my trip to Rinjani in Indonesia. These were about $90 USD, but I got something where I'll be able to use in different environments. 

Lastly, I got an Osprey backpack that's 40L and for womens ($200 US). I'm packing as light as I can, and a lot of the things will be used along the way and disposed (like tissue, paper plates, travel size toiletries)

I know, it sounds like a lot to invest in. But all of these items are high quality and durable. They will be able to last many trips in different environments, and is worth the investment if you will be going on more backpacking trips.

9. Tours you can book in each city 
  • Kazan: Hop on Hop off bus, this is only available during the summer season from May till August. 
  • Yekaterinburg: Taxi to the Europe and Asia border (click here for website) it takes around 3 hours, and mine was just a taxi ride with a female driver that speaks some English, costs 1200 rub.
  • Tomsk: use their Tram system, it's a pretty safe University city with lots of students
  • Irkutsk: Dog sledding, Circum baikal railway
       For summer time, you can take the Circum Baikal Railway train (http://www.baikalex.com/) 
       For winter time, you can still take a walk around the Circum Baikal tracks, but you can also go for the dog-sledding tours
  • Ulaanbaator: walkable within the city (walking tours are overpriced at around $70-$80 USD), booked a one day tour to Terelj National Park. This tour includes a visit to the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Monument, Lunch with local family at the Terelj national park, visiting the turtle rock, Ariyabal meditation temple, and one hour of horse riding.  
  • Beijing: navigating within the city is really easy by using the subway. If you would like to go to the great wall, you will either need to take busses (2-3hrs one way) or an express train. You'll need to take the S2 train from Beijing North (北京北) train station, which is the same as the Metro Station Xizhimen on Line 2/Line 13.

10. Breakdown of my costs
  • Flight to Moscow from Hong Kong: HK $4,700 (Qatar Airways transferring in Doha, 12hr+5hr flight.)
  • Train tickets from Moscow to Hong Kong: HK $6,000 (All 2nd class with one journey in 1st class)
  • Hotel costs: $5,000 (Hotels I've booked are between HK$500 - $1,000 per night)
  • Other spending (Food/Tours/other transport etc): HK $5,000
  • Not included: the gear for this trip, like jackets, backpack, gloves. This varies depending on season and I already had some of the items.  
If you don't have this much budget, you can also opt for 3rd class train rides or book hostels or use Airbnb. Just be cautious when staying at a friend's apartment or a hostel. You'll need formal invitation letters in Russian to obtain your visa. You'll also need to register your visa within 7 days of arriving in Russia if you are staying in Russia for 7 days or longer. The military or police regularly checks tourists within train stations other public places. If you did not register your passport/visa you might face some questioning, fines, deportation (very unlikely) and ban from re-entering Russia for 5 years. You'll need your hotel or hostel to register your visa. For restricted cities such as Irkutsk, Kazan, or cities not one these lists there are special process (such as going to the local post office with the landlord of the property). You see where I'm getting at, it is complicated but at the same time very important you complete the registration. You can read more on Real Russia's website by clicking here

I know there's a lot of information here. But there's probably a lot of other information that I haven't covered. This information is from doing homework for around 3 months' time.  And I'll be honest, even though I've traveled extensively and alone before as well, I've never been so scared and anxious about a trip. The best I can do is to take extra security measures and to do a lot of homework in advance!

Let me know if you have any questions about something that I haven't covered. I hope this has been helpful for you, happy planning.

Read the Trans Siberian series here (vlogs included), please click on the links below:

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