The names “Siberia” and “Trans-Siberian” have always evoked a creepily respectful image related to freezing, remote lands with almost no dwellers and vegetation.
A place for true, committed travellers wishing to explore the most secret and forgotten parts of Russia; a place for people yearning to curiously experience the austere Soviet compartments in the longest railway ever, 9288 endless Kilometres from Moscow to the far-off Vladivostok (coverable in roughly 6 days without stops in between).
Although this was not in our original plan and a bit outside the traditional Silk Road, we had to nonetheless take this detour after being denied the Chinese Visa in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia). We joyfully undertook this new stretch in our route as a benevolent sign of serendipity, hoping to find new atmosphere after all the –Stan countries. And indeed we happily felt the undeniable appeal of the awe-inspiring Siberian myth.
We had previously arranged a 10 days Russian transit visa (click here to check the required documents) in UB to calmly be able to stop in some relevant stations and stretch out our legs.
The theoretical, non-stop crossing time from Ulan Ude to Vladivostok is around 2 days and a half. Thus you have a few additional days to visit the main spots along the route
Surely, the best and sometimes only way to travel this section is the famous train with one century history (the line was completed in 1916). The Ulan Ude-Vladivostok segment rolls over 3648 Km into the Russian “wild east”, with Mongolia and China only few steps away.
We wish now to offer a list of our best shots and moments followed by some challenges in this epic journey.
♦ Our stretches ♦
Day 1: Ulan Ude – Chita
Done by night train in around 12 hours.
In Chita we got off the train to visit the city and especially the beautiful Decembrist Museum.
Day 2&3: Chita – Blagoveshchensk
Done by a 38 hours night train (2 nights spent in the train).
In Blagoveshchensk we jumped off the train to wander among the wonderful Tsarist-Era Buildings (nearby pl Pobedy).
From the pleasurable riverside you can easily discern the Chinese flags on the other side.
Day 4: Blagoveshchensk – Birobidzhan
Fulfilled again by a 12 hours night train arriving in the early morning.
In the quiet Birobizdhan we hunt for the last Jewish symbols of ‘Stalin’s Zion’. We only managed to spot them at the train station and near the agreeable farmers market.
Day 4-5 & 6: Birobidzhan – Khabarovsk
Concluded by marshrutka (small minivan) in 3 hours.
We finally succeeded in spending a night outside a train in Khabarovsk, where we unsuccessfully tried to apply for the Chinese Visa (again denied).
Khabarovsk is quite a charming city at the Chinese border with a few “mild” attractions (which you can honestly see in one full day), such as the extended City Park on the riverfront; Komsomolskaya square; the attached Muravyova-Amurskogo with its eye-catching, turn-of-the-20thcentury architecture (mainly visible in the Far Eastern State Research Library, Tsentralny Gastronom and the House of Pioneers); the Archeology and Far Eastern Art Museum; the Dormition Cathedral and the majestic Lenina square.
Day 7 & 8: Khabarovsk – Vladivostok
Completed by a final 13 hours night train. Vladivostok is indeed the last and best stop of the entire section.
The “Russian San Francisco” is a modern, boundless city with a foggy identity between off-limits naval base during the Soviet times and new economic pole of the Far East. Worth mentioning its imposing bridges connecting the expanded peninsulas and the opposite wild islands (above all Russky Island).
In the city we had a gratifying stroll around the harbour, the S-56 submarine, the panoramic statue of Saints Cyril and Methodius (inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet) and the Primorsky Picture Gallery.
Day 9: Vladivostok – Japan, another chapter!
♦ Pain points in the route (and some solutions) ♦
1. Train tickets fairly expensive for a backpacker:
Although we always bought 3rd (platskart) or 4th class (obshchiy) tickets, we found the fares sometimes a bit burdensome, especially considering the train speed (around 40-45 Km / hour), space (confined) and facilities (basic).
You can consult the prices directly on the official website. Normally, the cheapest seat is near the toilet (lower one)
Slower, regional trains offer better rates. Absolutely stay clear of agencies like Central Ticket Office in Pl Sovetov, Ulan Ude. They charge you 200 Rubles extra for the service.
Solution: there is always a 3rd or 4th class and a night train by which you can save in accommodation.
2. Misleading ticket purchase system:
After some issues with the online platform (we could not complete the payment), we turned to the classic counter at the station.
However we never found any English speaker on the other side. Secondly, even when drawing on a paper the required seats and related price (found on Internet), we were always saddled with unwanted services (i.e. insurance for 100 Rubles) or more expensive seats
Solution: if you can, then, book always online and convert your ticket at the station using the machines. If you see the symbol “ER” near the train number, that means E-registration service is available in the train. In that case, you only have to keep your confirmation email (digital or paper) and show it to the inspector.
3. Sleeping issues:
If you are a light sleeper, you will probably face some inconvenience in 3rd and 4th class (especially if you pick the seats near the bathroom). No dividers, fresh drafts, lights on and frequent noise are the major obstacles to your sweet dreams.
Of course look at the positive side of it: you are saving accommodation costs!
Solution: difficult to complain if you choose to buy cheap tickets. For your best avoid bathroom neighbourhoods, lower and corridor seats. Apart from that, blindfold and ear plugs will possibly do the trick!
4. Views are not that great:
Since most of the time you travel by night, you are constantly surrounded by the impenetrable gloom. During the day, honestly, we were not astonished either. The tedious sequence of misty pine forests will soon divert your gaze from the window : )
Solution: travel during the day when you can.
5. Towns and cities along the way are not so impressive either:
All the recommended sights along the route deserve only little of your time. Apart from the interesting Ulan Ude and Vladivostok, the other “middle” cities are quite deprived of resounding attractions. You can pretty much visit them in few hours, as a stretching exercise for your numb body.
Solution: nothing you can do here : ). However, if you catch night trains, you can generally stop at a place in the morning, visit it during the day and follow on with the evening train (usually available).
But at last the good things…
We successfully completed the whole route in about one week. Trains were almost always on perfect time! And this is our ending stage at Vladivostok train station:
Despite the usual communication problems, we managed to at least exchange a cheerful word or smile with many local passengers in the train. We ended up knowing a bit more about the job activities of the stiff provodnitsa (female carriage attendant on a train), not always so grumpy : ). We solemnly enjoyed the warming tea moments and the tranquil strolls in remote and relaxing cities. We even caught sight of China (just for a while : ) !
So, the final big question: would we recommend this trip? The answer is maybe no !
At least “no” for what you find between Ulan Ude and Vladivostok. But perhaps “yes” for the lively Ulan Ude, the dynamic Vladivostok and the view of the traditional wooden houses, even in the main cities. Or any of the countless Lenin statues to vaguely feel the communist atmosphere. Or for the frugal train experience. Or even the sense of achievement after completing the entire journey. Or just if you are stuck in Mongolia like us and you need a Chinese Visa and you don’t want to travel by plane, etc…
We know that there are millions of articles about the Trans-Siberian, but we would love to get your frank point of view on the pros and cons of the trip along one of the most famous train line in the world …
Thanks a lot for your feedback !!!