The Trans-Siberian Railroad is one of the world's most well known railways and also one its grandest engineering achievement. Known to Russians at the "Trans-Sib," it is not a single train like the Orient Express but rather a set of railroad tracks. Because Russia has no trans-continental road system and it is nearly impossible to drive across the country, the Trans-Siberian Railroad is for all intents and purposes the only way, other than flying to get from Moscow to Siberia, the Far East and the Pacific. [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, June 1998]
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is not only the longest railroad in the world—passing through 9,289 kilometers of taiga, steppe and deserts—it also the busiest. Trains pass each other on the parallel tracks at a rate of once very five minutes, transporting millions of passengers as well as coal, gold, lumber, machinery and trucks. Freight trains are often stacked with timber and loaded down with coal cars and oil carriers. The rail line also links numerous cities and towns, including two "secret cities" not on Soviet maps that produced plutonium and military electronics.
Books: Trans-Siberian Handbook by Byrn Thomas (Trailbalzer Publications, 1994) Trans-Siberian Rail Guide by Robert Straus (1993, Hunter Publishing, Edison NJ); Trans-Siberian Railway—A Classic Overland Route (Lonely Planet). A number of travel writers, including Paul Theroux and Peter Fleming, have written accounts about their experiences on the Trans-Siberian.
Early History of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
The Trans-Siberian Railroad was conceived by Tsarist Minister of Finance Sergei Witte, a former railroad engineer and given the go ahead by Alexander III, who figured a railroad was the only way he could unite his vast empire. Inaugurated in May 1891 by Nicholas I in Vladivostok, and completed in 1917, the $172 million project was undertaken to gain access to foreign markets for Siberia's textile industries and mineral and metallurgical resources.
In 1892, Witte wrote, "the Trans-Siberian Railroad opens a new avenue and new horizons to world commerce; in this regard its construction takes its place in the rank of events of universal import that marks the beginning of new eras in the history of peoples and that often lead to radical changes in the economic relationships established among states."
The Trans-Siberian was built along a Cossack-guarded, 18th- century coach route—a trail though forests, snow and mud—that took from several months to a year to traverse on horseback. Exiles, soldiers, prisoners (offered given reduced sentences for their help) and Chinese laborers were hired. Construction took place at a rate of about 600 kilometers (400 miles) a year and was slowed by bandit raids, landslides, floods, poor planning and shoddy materials.
Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
In 1904, except for the section around Lake Baikal, the Trans-Siberian was completed. The greatest engineering feat of its time, it employed 70,000 workers who moved 77 million cubic feet of earth, chopped down 108,000 acres of forest and built bridges over half a dozen major rivers. To put the achievement in perspective the 1,934-mile Baikal-Amur Millennia Railroad, which parallels it, took 35 years and cost $18 billion to build.
At first the Trans-Siberian was only a single track that required constant repair. The main cargo was lumber and goods from the Orient. Before tracks circumvented Lake Baikal's shore, railroad cars were transported across the lake by ferries in the summer and by ice cutters in the spring. During the Russo-Japan War in 1904, rails were laid down on the three-foot-thick ice of Lake Baikal to bring goods east. The first train plunged through the ice and left behind a 15-mile-long hole. The Russian didn't give up: a new track was laid and men and horses were used successfully to pull the rail cars across the ice rather than heavy locomotives.
One section of the original route went through Mongolia, which at that time was Chinese territory. After a long series of negotiations, China granted Russia an easement across Mongolia to Vladivostok on track laid by the Chinese State Railway. In 1916, the entire route from Moscow to Vladivostok was opened up when a bridge was built over the Amur River. The line through Mongolia and China to Beijing was built in the 1940s and 50s.
Later History of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
The Trans-Siberian Railway opened up the Siberian frontier to settlement and exploitation the same way the American railways opened up to the American West to pioneers, cowboys and gold miners. By 1914, five million settlers, mainly peasants, had migrated from Europe to Siberia on the railroad.
Rich foreign travelers were attracted with sleeping carriages with tiled bathrooms, smoking rooms, hair salons, and sumptuous reading lounges. There was even a piano room, a dark room for photographers, a gymnasium car and a fully-functioning church with a belfry and church bells and a priests. Ordinary travelers rode in carriages that were little more than cattle cars.
In the early Soviet-era the Trans-Siberian was used to bring timber, coals, minerals and raw materials to Russia's developing industry. In World War II, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was used to transport factories out of range of the Nazi from the European part of Soviet Union to Siberia. More than 50 defense plants were rebuilt in Novosbrink alone.
Trans-Siberian Railroad Routes
The Trans-Siberian Railway is not listed on any timetable and you can’t buy a ticket for it is because the term "Trans-Siberian" is a generic term for three main lines and the many trains that run on them.
There are three main Trans-Siberian routes. 1) Trains on the main Trans-Siberian route line travel 6½-day, 9,289-kilometer from Yaroslav Station in Moscow to Vladivostok. 2) The 5½-day, 7,865-kilometer "Trans-Mongolian" route—the Moscow to Beijing route— breaks off from the main line past Irkutsk and Lake Baikal and passes through Ulan Batar, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. 3) The 6½-day, 9001-kilometer "Trans Manchurian" Route breaks off the main line at Tarskaya and travels to Beijing via Harbin in Manchuria.
The journey from Moscow to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal takes 4½ days. It is then an additional two days to Vladivostok or Beijing via the Trans-Manchurian Line, or an additional day more to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian line. For those that end up in Vladivostok there are ferries between Vladivostok and flights to Japan but they are expensive. For many years foreigners could not make the entire journey to Vladivostok because it was a closed city but that is no longer the case and foreigners can travel the entire route.
There is currently some discussion of connecting the Trans-Siberian Railroad with rail lines through North Korea and South Korea. The train lines are already in place. The missing link—a 30-kilometer section across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in North Korea and South Korea is being worked on now. The lines would have to be ungraded and adapted to accommodate the Russian trains. The Russians have offered to pay $125 million to help renovate the line and conform it to Russian gauge. The main stumbling block is the North Korea military which wants to keep South Korea isolated.
The Russians are very gung ho about the project. It could generate huge transit fees for Russia as well as North and South Korea and significantly lower transportation costs and travel times between Europe and Asia. Containers from South Korea to Europe can be carried on the Trans Siberian railroad for half the cost and half the time of carrying them by sea on cargo ships.
Trans-Siberian Trains from Europe and China
1) The Trans-Mongolian Beijing-Moscow train operates once a week, in each direction, and takes 5½ days. 2) The Ulan Bator (Mongolia)-Moscow train operates twice a week, in each direction. 3) The are daily trains between Irkutsk (Russia) and Ulan Bator and three trains a week between Ulan Bator and Beijing. 4) Trans-Manchurian Beijing-Moscow train operates once a week, in each direction, and takes 6½ days.
The route through Mongolia and China is the most popular route. People prefer to end up in China which has a lot more travel possibilities and passing through Mongolia is more exotic than going through Manchuria. You need a Mongolian visa as well as a Chinese one. The main problem with the route is that you have to endure lone waits, around 12 or so, at the Chinese-Mongolia border and the Mongolian-Russian border.It is usually cheaper to take the train from Beijing to Moscow than visa versa. The Beijing train journey usually leaves in the morning.
The main access points for the Trans-Siberian in Europe are 1) Helsinki to St. Petersburg and Moscow; and 2) Berlin or Vienna via Warsaw to Moscow. The main access points for the Trans-Siberian in Asia are 1) Beijing, or 2) Vladivostok, which can be reached by ferry or plane from Niigata, Japan.
Baikul-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM)
Baikul-Amur Mainline Railway (BAM) (north of the Trans-Siberian) breaks off from the trans-Siberian Railway at Ust-Kut, north of Lake Baikal, and extends to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast about 400 miles north of Vladivostok. The BAM traverses Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. It is 4,324 kilometers (2,687 miles) long and runs about 610 to 770 kilometers (380 to 480 miles) north of and parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway. The BAM was built as a strategic alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway, especially along the vulnerable sections close to the border with China.
The BAM is an astounding engineering feet and was much more difficult to build that the Trans-Siberian. It cuts through 5 mountain ranges and virgin forests, spans 17 rivers and large swamps and crosses vast stretches of permafrost. It traverses region where winter last for nine months of the year and temperature regularly drop below -50 degrees F. Thousands died making it.
BAM was built at a cost of around $15 billion (some say $60 billion) It was constructed with special, durable tracks since much of it lies over permafrost. Over a million trees were felled, 2,400 bridges were built, and seven long tunnels were carved through mountains. Railway builders had to deal with permafrost, avalanches, mudslides and earthquakes. The permafrost in some of the mountains created huge challenges for tunnel builders. In some places holes were drilled in the mountains and concrete was poured in to keep tunnels from collapsing.
BAM was built to harvest the great timber, coal, gold, mineral and petroleum wealth of northern Siberia. Construction began in 1930 and was abandoned in World War II when the rails were taken away and used in industry. Construction was restarted in 1974 and the first line became operational in 1989. The last tunnel opened in ???2000.
The rail lines were little used. So much money was spent on building the railway there was little left over to developed the industry it was built for. Settlements along the tracks have become ghost towns. Some are no more than foundations. There are few opportunities for passenger travel on the railway. There are few places to stop and little to see but taiga forests.
Trans-Siberian Railroad Trains and Compartments
The Rossiya is the most well-known Trans-Siberian name train. It travels all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok. It leaves both ends of its route every other day (on odd number days) and takes six days, 12 hours and 25 minutes to make the 5,770 mile, seven time-zone journey. The train often cruises at 95mph. The Rossiya cars are blue at the top and red at the bottom. Pulled by 1950s-vintage 136-ton, 4,000 horsepower locomotives, the thirteen cars carry 322 passengers and 26 conductors.
The 800 or so stations in cities, small towns and outposts along the route are serviced mostly by local trains. The long-distance trains like the Rossiya skip the vast majority of the stations and generally only stop five or six times a day. When they do stop they stop for about 10 to 20 minutes so passengers have enough time to get food). Each carriage has a schedule in Cyrillic (often in English too) that list when the train stops at each station and how long it stops. When the train leaves there are no whistles. The only clue is the attendant pulling up the steps.
The second class, four-person compartments are reasonably comfortable. There are four beds arranged bunk-bed-style in pairs against the sides of the walls. With the top beds folded up the bottoms beds are like two wide sofas placed close together, facing each other. Many trains have air conditioning but some don’t. Those that don’t have fans. If the windows open the breeze can kept you sufficiently cool. If it is hot day and the windows don’t open and there are no fans or air conditioning you could in trouble.
Each carriage has two bathrooms and a samovar-like hot water container, from hot water for tea or instant coffee is available. Each compartment has reading lights, an overhead light, a small table to eat on, and plenty of space under the bottom seats-bunks and over the door to store stuff out of the way. After boarding passengers are given clean sheets and pillows. Making sure the carriage is clean and tidy are a pair of attendants known in Russian as provodniks.
If you can afford $400 a day it is possible to charter railroad cars used by former politburo members that have only four beds in the entire car, a lounge, gourmet chefs, and servants. These are generally found only on the Chinese trains traveling on the Trans-Mongolian route.
Trans-Siberian Bogie Changes and Border Stops
The rail gauge in the former Soviet Union are is 1,520 millimeters (1.52 meters) compared to 1,435 millimeters in Europe and China. This means the railroad tracks are wider in the former Soviet Union are wider. Trains pass between Europe or China and the Soviet Union the bogies (the wheel-carrying frames at the bottom of the train) have to be changed to accommodate the different train gauges.
The Mongolian railway system uses the same wide rail track gauging as Russia. People taking the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow have endure a long bogie change at the Mongolian-Russian border. Thirteen hours out of Beijing the train arrives at Erlian on the Chinese-Mongolian border, where the bogies are changed to accommodate the train tracks in Mongolia and Russia, which are about nine centimeters wider than the tracks in China.
The bogie changing is quite interesting. Inside a large shed near the station at Erlian—with all the passengers still in the train—the carriages are separated and lifted by hydraulic jacks. Work crews of men and women with bolt guns detach the bogies, which are then collectively pushed from underneath the carriages and new bogies with wider sets of wheels are pushed in and attached by the crews.
Altogether we spent about nine hours at the Chinese-Mongolian border. The bogies for the entire train, amazingly enough, were changed in a couple of hours. Another two hours were spent doing passport checks, immigration and customs. The remaining five hours was spent sitting on a side track for heaven knows what reason. Fortunately this delay took place in the middle of the night so we could sleep through it.
Why are the Russian gauges wider than other train gauges? According to one story, the wide gauging was designed to thwart a military invasion (the idea being that narrow-gauge trains carrying troops and weapons into Russia would be stopped cold at the border). According another popular Russia story the different size gauges date back to tsarist times when the tsar heard that the English had built the first train. In response he said, "we'll have to build a bigger one."
The wide tracks did slow down the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union in World War II. They regauged the lines to Moscow. But apparently neither of stories mentioned above are true. Rather the wider gauges were chosen over narrow gauges because they were considered safer.
When you arrive in Russia by train you are often required to fill out a Customs Declaration form. It asks you details about how much money you have. Be honest and make sure you keep the form. When you leave Russia you are not allowed to take out more money than you brought in the country. If you do not have the form or there is some discrepancy or problem. your money may be confiscated at the border. Nobody likes it when that happens.
The customs declaration forms are not required if you leave by plane. But if you arrive by plane and leave by train, make sure you go through the trouble to the form when arrive at the airport and get it properly authorized so everything is in order when you leave. Many advise that the easier way to do this so through the red line at customs in the airport. The rules on these matters is very fluid and changing all the time. The form may no longer be necessary. Even so it pays to be on the safe side.
Trans-Siberian Railroad Tickets
Tickets can be purchased directly at the stations or through travel agents that specialize Trans-Siberian train travel. Purchasing tickets directly at the stations is generally not a problem as long as you are patient and know some Russian or Chinese. You generally get the train you want but it pays to book ahead as much as possible. The prices for Russians is considerably less than for foreigners, but if you are foreigner and you get caught with a Russian citizen ticket there is good chance you will be thrown off the train.
Tickets available through travel agencies are more convenient to get but more expensive: generally two to five times more expensive . They are especially useful if you want to break your journey several times and need several different tickets. The agencies can also help you work out tickets to from Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw to Moscow or Japan to Vladivostok.
If you use to a travel agency use one that has links with companies registered in Russia and can offer you visa support. Such companies are located in Russia, the UK, Europe, Australia, the United States, and China. Hong Kong is a good place to make arrangements for tickets. Making arrangements in Beijing is more difficult and expensive.
The Trans-Siberian is not cheap. In many ways it is more expensive than flying. From Moscow to Beijing travel from June to September the prices are as follows: First class compartment with two beds (US$650); First Class with four beds (US$600); Second Class with Four beds (US$525). The rest of the year: First class compartment with two beds (US$535); First Class with four beds (US$490); Second Class with Four beds (US$415).
Tickets for the Trans-Mongolian routes are hard to get because it used heavily by foreign backpackers and Chinese, Mongolian and Russian traders. The same is true to a lesser extent on the Trans-Manchurian line for the same reason. It is probably worth the extra money getting help getting a ticket through a travel agency. Getting tickets for the Moscow to Vladivostok is easier especially if you are willing to do the trip in pieces. You can probably make arrangements for yourself independently. If you do make arrangements independently give yourself lots of time and try ot make reservation as much in advance as possible.
Breaking the journey—in Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg or Ulan Bator, for example—is possible but generally you can't do it with a single ticket. because each ticket assigns you to a specific seat or berth you can only buy tickets for parts of your journey in which you don't get off. If you want to travel from Moscow to Beijing and stop in Irkutsk and Ulan Bator you need to buy three tickets one from Moscow to Irkutsk, another from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator and a third from Ulan Bator to Beijing. You can buy a ticket for each leg of the journey in the station from which you depart.
Life on the Trans-Siberian
A holiday atmosphere prevails on the trains. Russians walk around in their pajamas, play cards and watch movies in the video theater. Vodka is gulped down. Samovars brew tea. Sausages, hard boiled eggs, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and bread are gobbled down. The atmosphere is mostly lively at the beginning of the trip. As the journey progresses, the passengers get more and more irritable and drunk. Sometimes ethnic tensions appear if people from the wrong groups are mixed together in the cramped compartments.
Everyday offers pretty much the same scenery: birch forests occasionally broken up wooden cabins and vegetable gardens. Around Lake Baikal the landscape is wilder, hillier, more thickly wooded and more picturesque. In Vladivostok there is a plaque on a column that reads "here ends the Great Trans-Siberian Railroad. Distance from Moscow: 9288 km."
The morning begins with men hacking and clearing their throats into the spittoons. The day is spent dosing, gazing out the window, playing card games, reading, drinking and snacking. Dealing with the time zone changes can be a bit of hassle. Timetables and train stops are set according to Moscow time while meals and lights out are set according to local time. Keep one watch on Moscow time so you don’t miss your stops.
Joining tourists and backpackers that make the trip are soldiers on their way to remote outposts, families returning to their remote homes, ill-tempered conductors, and workers lured by big pay checks to remote mining and lumber settlements. In the 1990s and early 2000s many of the passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad were merchants with plastic sacks filled with cheap Chinese tools and pirated Reebox shoes, Turkish clothes, Polish food or other goods puchased in the cities, which they hoped to sell in for big profits in their hometowns. The merchants often endure days in third class compartments to make money considered pocket change in most countries.
The enjoyment of you trip often depends on who you share you compartment with. Six days with a hard drinking businessmen can be a strain. Sometimes the attendant will help passengers change their seats,
Toilets and Food on the Trans-Siberian
The bathrooms and toilets are locked during stops. The tap above the sink works by pushing the metal stud under the faucet upwards into the spout. To flush the toilet use the pedal on the floor next to toilet. It is possible to “shower” and wash you hair in the sink in the bathrooms. When you do ths make sure there no people are waiting as a consideration to others. I took a makeshift shower in the bathroom with tap water, a bicycle water bottle, shampoo and soap. The leftover water spilled on the track through a hole in the floor of the bathroom.
There are usually dining cars that sell meals for between $5 and $10. Several times a day the train stops long enough at a station to get something to eat. Often the selection is limited to snacks and quick meals that you can buy from carts and kiosks. There isn’t much time. It is a good idea to bring along lots of snacks and foods, especially if you not breaking your journey and you are going to be on the train for a long time. Water and beer can be purchased at the platforms.
On some train there is small charge for linen. There are electric outlets in the corridors and in the bathrooms. The electricity is not always turned on. If it isn’t turned on you can call the attendant to turn it on for you. In many compartments a bottle opener is fixed under the table. Smoking is not allowed in the compartments. It is only allowed on the areas at the end of the train,
In the Mongolian and Chinese cars you get Mongolian and Chinese specialties. The Chinese trains often have a good selection of food. The Mongolia dishes are often mutton-oriented. The service on the Russian trains is variable. Sometimes most of the dishes on the menu are available. Other times only a couple different ones are.
Be careful buying food from local people on the tracks. Some travelers have had stomach problems, especially from buying fish from babushkas around Lake Baikal.
Tips and Security on the Trans-Siberian
Things to bring on the Trans-Siberian include enough food and drink (you can replenish your supplies along the way nut often the selection is limited), ample supplies of toilet paper, comfortable footwear and clothes such as slippers, flip flops and a track suit, lots of books, a smart phone or music player and games like cards or backgammon, cup of soups, instants coffee, tea bags, gloves, extra underwear, deodorant, a sink plug, extra batteries, cough drops, flashlight, crossword puzzles and a pocket knife.
Vodka, a Russian phrase book, and pictures from home are useful in making friends. It also good to bring some things like postcards from home that you can trade. In the winter make sure you bring enough warm clothes.
Few travelers on the Trans-Siberian Railroad have been robbed, but it still pays to be careful. The compartments of the train can be locked from the inside with the extra security clip on the left. Even so a triangular standard key can be used to open the door and the clip can be lifted with a knife from the outside. You can prevent thefts by the stuffing the hole or placing tape over it. Make sure your windows are closed at the stops. Sometimes thieves reach in the window and help themselves to anything they can find inside.
Sometimes foreigners are robbed during their sleep or are robbed after drinking spiked drinks offered to them by seemingly friendly passengers. This incidents are rare. It is a good idea to keep you luggage locked and locked to something.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016