"To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers - in fact, to see life," said Agatha Christie. How will such a travel be if it is on the longest direct rail route on the planet with regular passenger services and that too without changing trains? How long? The 9,288 kilometres or 5,772 miles! This is the length of the main route of the Trans-Siberian Railway which spans from Moscow to Vladivostok across two continents. The week-long journey from western Russia to the Pacific port city in the Far East stretches across eight of the 11 time zones of the Russian Federation, which is the world's largest country. Yes, it is a sort of time travel when your watch can't keep pace with the time at the station where your Trans-Siberian train pulls in and adjusting the time is futile. Is this longest passenger train ride so complex? Not at all, with proper planning and tips from people who have taken the Trans-Sib, the short for Trans-Siberian.
Here we explain how to go about this epic railway journey for which many arrive in Russia from all parts of the globe. The tips will dispel any misgivings or apprehensions on the challenges involved. For instance, some confuse the term Trans-Siberian for a train. No, it refers to the route or even network with a few branch lines. Several trains run on the route and not all run from Moscow and Vladivostok and back. Several services are exclusively between any two points or cities on the long route or from Moscow or Vladivostok to any other station in a town or city in Russia. Even international trains passing through Siberia to reach China, Mongolia and even North Korea are generally called the Trans-Siberian trains.
Here we detail only the Trans-Russian Moscow-Vladivostok journey, but with brief introduction to the history and major routes of the vast Trans-Siberian railway network.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, called as 'Transsibirskaya Magistral' in Russian, came into existence at a significant point in the history of the erstwhile Russian Empire. The whole railway linking Moscow to Vladivostok laid entirely through the Russian landmass was ready by 1916, a few months before the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy by the Bolsheviks. However, the services on the line had commenced in 1904 a decade after the construction began in 1891. Prior to 1916, ferries were used to transport passengers on Lake Baikal and the whole journey took four weeks!
Whenever you hear the term Trans-Siberian Railway it denotes the initial route between Moscow and Vladivostok, i.e., the Trans-Russia route. Rail aficionados dub it the "Classic" one. Three other routes or branches of the main line are:
1. Trans-Manchurian Railway between Moscow and Beijing via Harbin. 8,986 km or 5,583 Mi.
2. Trans-Mongolian Railway between Moscow and Beijing via Ulaanbaatar. 7,621 km or 4735 Mi.
3. Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) between Taishet and Sovetskaya Gavan. 4,324 km or 2,686 Mi.
Where the paths divert
All the three major Trans-Siberian routes follow the same course for a significant part - for a little over 5,000 km or 3,100 miles - of the total distance before branching out to Mongolia or China. The trains on these three routes stick to the same path till Ulan-Ude in East Siberia about 100 km southeast of Lake Baikal.
After Ulan-Ude, the trains on the Moscow-Vladivostok Trans-Siberian route take a northerly turn before proceeding to the Far East via Chita, Skovorodino, Belogorsk and Khabarovsk before terminating at Vladivostok which is Russia's Pacific port city overlooking the Golden Horn Bay of the Sea of Japan.
The Trans-Manchurian trains go south-east from Chita to reach Harbin city in northeast China before a southerly run to terminate at Beijing. This line is convenient to North Korean nationals returning from Russia or China. They need to get down at Shenyang in China on the Trans-Manchurian line for a two-hour trip to their country's border. From Dandong, the Chinese border city, North Korea's capital Pyongyang is just 169 km away. (Foreign tourists are let into North Korea only as part of a tourist group and such tours are conducted only by travel companies with specific sanction. More on the Moscow-Pyongyang route below.)
On the other hand, the Trans-Mongolian trains turn from Ulan-Ude for a shorter but spectacular southerly course through steppes and Goby Desert in Mongolia. From Ulaanbaatar they go east to reach China’s capital Beijing.
NOTE: Between Moscow and Ulan-Ude the Trans-Siberian trains may take either the shorter Kazan route or the little longer route through Nizhny Novgorod, Kirov and Perm. Thereafter, it is a common route passing through Yekaterinburg (on the Europe-Asia border), Tyumen, Omsk, Novisibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Taishet and Irkutsk, which is the gateway to the Lake Baikal region.
The Baikal-Amur Mainline
The Baikal-Amur Mainline is the lesser-known and the youngest Trans-Siberian line which was opened in 1989. It branches off from the main route at Taishet, which is over 600 km west of Lake Baikal, ends at the Far East port town Sovetskaya Gavan.
The east-west line lies north of Lake Baikal over 600 to 700 km away from the massive waterbody, but closer at its northern end. In contrast, the Trans-Siberian Railway line to Vladivostok is on the southern shore of Lake Baikal, especially for a long stretch between Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude.
The BAM route too is scenic but interspersed with underdeveloped settlements. It passes through some of the longest tunnels in Russia and crosses 11 major rivers including the Amur River.
The Sovetskaya Gavan town, also known is Sovgavan, where the line ends is less than 1,000 km north-east of Vladivostok.
How many tourist visas you need
The three major routes – the classic Moscow-Vladivostok Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian – are popular among foreign tourists. Rail fans can complete the "Grand Slam" of epic Trans-Siberian Railway journeys only by undertaking full trips on these three lines. Avid fans even aim to complete the trip in the reverse direction too.
If you are a foreigner, only one visa – of the Russian Federation – is required to undertake the trip on the oldest, most popular and the longest Trans-Siberian Railway line. For the low-profile Baikal-Amur Mainline journey too the Russian tourist visa is needed.
Both Chinese and Russian tourist visas are needed for Trans-Manchurian Railway trip. You need three in all for the Trans-Mongolian Railway which links Moscow, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing - three Capitals. (Ulaanbaatar is the capital of the Republic of Mongolia, the landlocked country between China and Russia.)
We suggest you to take your second trip in the reverse direction in a different season, say winter.
The train to Pyongyang
Another capital, Pyongyang, too has a Trans-Siberian rail link to Moscow. A few services are run in a month in either direction by the Korean State Railway, known popularly as the State Rail, and the Russian Railways. But these are not trains as we know, but a few 'sleeping cars' or 'sleeper bogies' as they are known in India.
From Moscow the Russian sleeping cars are attached to the No. 2 Rossiya Trans-Siberian train. They are detached at Ussuriysk, about 95 km ahead of Vladivostok, and sent on a branch line (Baranovsky-Khasan) towards the North Korean border. At Tumangang railway station on the North Korean soil, the passengers alight and take the connection train to Pyongyang after a long, intense scrutiny by the soldiers of the 'hermit state'. The Friendship Bridge connecting Russia and North Korea is here.
The Korean sleeping cars departing from Moscow or Pyongyang are allowed to cross the heavily guarded border after checks. They are coupled to Russian Railways train No. 100 and delinked or joined at Ussuriysk before or after reaching the international border for onward journey. The Korean State Railway has been running this trip often with a single coach.
The Moscow-Pyongyang line is 10,267 km (6,379 Mi.) If regular train services are run on this route, it could surpass the Moscow-Vladivostok train journey for the longest passenger train route in the world! The ride takes 8 days with long hours taken for border crossing formalities and even transfer of the small Korean rake to the Russian line which has a larger gauge! The journey is completed in a little over 200 hours.
Onward to Japan?
Some Trans-Siberian travellers don't stop their tour at Vladivostok, the farthest end of the famed network. They proceed to Japan on a ferry from Vladivostok. Those intending such multi-country tours should be ready with all the required travel documents, including visas. The Marine Passenger Terminal is adjacent to the Vladivostok railway station. Your personal vehicles too are allowed on ferries. In future rail and road links over the sea and connecting the Russian mainland to Japan are likely with the paths built through Russia's Pacific island of Sakhalin and Japan's Hokkaido island. An extensive train journey from London to Tokyo would be thus possible as the Trans-Siberian Railway network couples with that of the Japan Railways. Then, you should chart a dream trip like this: London to Paris on Eurostar; then Paris to Moscow; then book a Trans-Siberian trip; and finally to Japan riding through long bridges over the Sea of Japan! Count the days!
As is widely known Moscow has direct train links to a few other European cities, though these services have been temporarily suspended as part of the Western sanctions against Russia following its 'special military operation' in Ukraine that commenced in early 2022.
The aforementioned Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian trips require altogether different articles owing to some significant intricacies arising from international trips to Communist China and the Republic of Mongolia.
Where to start? Are you ready? Plan ahead
If you intend to take the entire Trans-Siberian railway journey just go Russia! Arrive at the Russian capital Moscow or in Vladivostok which is in the eastern part of the country.
It is your choice whether to go from the west to the east or from the east to the west. You may decide on it after considering the convenient travel options to reach either of the cities. You also need to consider the easiest way to return home after completing the intercontinental trip.
For those coming from the West or Middle East it makes sense to arrive in Moscow and then take the Trans-Siberian train to Vladivostok. What about the return trip? Are you going to take the Vladivostok-Moscow train for that long east-west trip after a weeklong trip in the opposite direction?
Also, before booking the tickets decide on breaking your journey for tours of cities on the way and resuming the Trans-Siberian trip a few days later. Between Moscow and Vladivostok you may consider getting down at Yekaterinburg and Irkustk, the latter being the best place for a brief tour of the Lake Baikal region including the Listvyanka village on the shore.
If you opt for break journey, you will be in Russia for at least two weeks and this has to be factored in for your visa application, financial planning, flight tickets and hotel bookings. The travel agency will plan your itinerary and make the bookings as you give the nod. Even if are not taking the service of a travel agency, you can't avoid hotel and flight bookings and these details are required for visa application. Also remember, for a trip longer than a fortnight you need to provide the itinerary to the Russia Visa Centre in your country.
Want to try back-to-back journeys?
There are Tran-Siberian fans who take the return journey on the same route soon after they complete the trip in one direction. Of course, time and resources at your disposal are key though not many attempt back-to-back travels. If you don't mind, attempt it after a brief city tour in Moscow or Vladivostok so that you can straighten your limbs and catch enough of sunshine after being cooped up in the train for over 150 hours except for that brief saunter on the platforms.
Most tourists catch a Vladivostok-Moscow flight as they return. Just as the Trans-Sib is the longest popular train route, this flight is the world's longest domestic flight fully over one country. (We are excluding here the flights between a country and its overseas territory, say in the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean.) The 6,416 km aerial distance is covered in less than 9 hours by Aeroflot.
A test of passion
The Trans-Siberian railway journey is undertaken not on the spur of the moment. For many it is a dream that was nurtured for years or even since childhood. In other words those who venture for the longest rail trip are highly motivated. Ultimately, what matters is the passion to see the vast country with myriad landscapes, a hoary history, a rich culture and interesting people.
Before you plan for this amazing journey ask yourself will you be able to sustain the zest for the ride after a couple of days even if you are taking the Trans-Siberian trip in one direction as most people do? How will you cope if you are alone? If other passengers in your coach don't know your language or even English how will you manage? Read books or watch films on the tab to avoid monotony? But you arrived in Russia to see the Russian culture, countryside, towns, and the fascinating landscape unfolding through the windows of the Trans-Siberian train.
Is the distance to be covered forbidding? If you have crossed the heartland of India on trains you will enjoy the Trans-Siberian Railway if you have ample time and oodles of passion. True, India's longest train route – 4,237 km (2,633 Mi.) – from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari on Vivek Express needs only half the time the Trans-Siberian train requires to run its entire course. Even the world's second longest rail route – Toronto to Vancouver – at 4,466 km (2,775 Mi.) is no way near the Trans-Sib. The 4,373 km (2,717 Mi.) Shanghai-Lhasa and 4,352 km (2,704 Mi.) Sydney-Perth rail routes are just behind the aforementioned Canadian line and a over 100 km longer than the longest Indian one.
NOTE: In 2014 the Trans-Sib lost the record for the world's longest railway with the launch of the China-Europe Block Train or Yixinou which covers 13,000 km (8,111 Mi.) and passes through eight countries. (Block Train is a freight train that carries only one commodity). This freight route, which is covered in 21 days, extends from Abroñigal freight terminal in Madrid, Spain, to the Chinese trading hub of Yiwu in eastern Zhejiang Province. The Trans-Sib still remains the longest passenger railway.