I have a fond passion for train travel and have taken a few of the grand train trips including the 8 day Maharaja’s Express across the Rajasthan, the 24h Blue Train across South Africa, the Glacier Express in Switzerland and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to Lhasa. Trains are great because they let you see the landscape and take in the local culture much better than planes. It is indeed slow travelling allowing you to make stop overs along the way and visit the main sights
About the Trans-siberian
The Trans-siberian is a network of rail tracks running from Moscow to Vladivostok in Far East Russia across 7 time zones and over 9,000 kilometers. The end-to-end line was inaugurated in 1916 by Tsar Nicholas II and took almost 30 years to complete. Initially, Lake Baikal was crossed by ferries which were able to transport locomotive and carriages across the 600km lake. But later on they were replaced by the circum-Baikal tracks although the ferries were kept longer as plan B in case of derailment or rocks falling on the tracks.
The Trans-siberian played an important role during the Russia-Japan war and was blamed for Russia’s defeat because of its single track construction which didn’t allow for evacuation of injured at the same time as restocking of the front. It also played an important role during the first two years of WWII when the USSR was neutral and Japan provided rubber to Germany using the tracks.
Nowadays, the train is still used for transporting all sorts of items across Russia and as a main means of travel within Russia. Prices of the regular train journeys are very reasonable as expected for any regular train.
Aside from the main route to Vladivostok there are connections to China, Mongolia and North Korea.
When I set out to research the options, I found a wide array of travel agents ready to book me on any of these three options from the bare regular Trans-siberian train ticket to the luxurious Golden Eagle and, to my surprise, prices varied dramatically from operator to operator in the thousands of dollars for the Golden Eagle. So I resorted to contact the operator of the train directly figuring that they would be the ones to offer the most competitive rates and I was lucky to be right.
Whereas tickets on the regular train with a sleeping berth starts at less than $1,000 for the 7 days journey this price can multiply by 20 or even more for the highest end options on the Golden Eagle. There are all sorts of variants and trains making the trip and you can pretty much choose the duration and stops that you want to take. All operators and trains will offer the Trans Manchurian (ending in China) and the Trans Mongolian options (ending in Mongolia) and make the trip all-inclusive and completed with visits at key stops and of the start and end cities (Moscow, Beijing, Ulaan-Baatar, Lake Baikal) with knowledgeable guides and all meals. Read about my trip and review here!
Doing the Trans-siberian independently
You cover the length of the Trans-siberian independently by buying a regular train ticket with stop overs along the way for you to visit the main sights. This is, obviously, the most affordable way to cover the ground and also, the most adventurous one. Your days will be filled with awkward cultural misunderstandings, sign language, as nobody speaks English and serendipitous moments.
It is a very different experience than the other two and one worth considering, but it is also bound to make you miss a lot of the sights as travel from the stations to the points of interest is tough as there is limited infrastructure and communication is a real challenge.
This is a completely different trip and one which will fill pages on the traveler’s book. You can find more details on the world’s most detailed and complete train blog, The man on Seat 61, with all sorts of tips and info on how to organise it yourself. I found the Lonely Planet Trans-siberian guide to be very useful and a good way to get a feel for what to expect. For a more personal account of the experience check out the Nomadic Boys on their Trans-siberian journey. Or Noemi at Probe around the Globe, who also put together a comprehensive Guide to the Trans-Mongolian (the train trip that ends in Ulaan Bataar).
Mid-range Trans-siberian train journey
For those who want to see the main sight along the way and do not have the luxury of time or adventurous heart to embark on a Trans-siberian experience like the locals, there are mid-range companies offering train trips without the 5 figure price tag of the Golden Eagle. They compromise on the luxury of the cabins (shared bathrooms vs. ensuite bathrooms), the exclusivity of the experiences (larger groups, less exclusive experiences) and the quality and quantity of the food and beverage but offer an equally fascinating insight into Siberia and the stops along the way.
Luxury onboard the Golden Eagle Trans-siberian Express
After having had the privilege of enjoying the Maharaja’s Express I knew that what I wanted was to take the Golden Eagle and satisfy all my romantic ideas of sitting by the window, writing about my experience in this blog. And at dinner, share the table with other travelers from various backgrounds, more likely middle aged and well traveled as it always happens in these sort of trips. I would absorb the sights and the sounds, reflect on the visits and the continuous cultural immersion. There were things that surprised me about the journey and the train, and plenty of delightful moments to remember as this is a legendary journey that fits into the most incredible experiences of a lifetime.