I traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow. There were very few people on the train - only three travelers in my car, including myself. Despite the solitary nature of the journey, it was quite enjoyable and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading while enjoying fantastic scenery. If, in addition, you have no qualms about surviving on instant noodles for a week, consider yourself prime Trans-Siberian material.
Unless you can speak Russian or Chinese, your best bet is to purchase tickets through a travel agency.
I purchased my tickets through a British company called Real Russia. This worked out rather nicely as I was able to pick up the tickets from their office in Beijing before departure. However, the ticket was quite overpriced at around $1,300. When I picked up the ticket I realized that Real Russia hadn’t purchased the tickets directly from Russian Railways - they had actually purchased it through a Chinese travel agency.
What To Bring
In addition to your typical luggage items, I recommend that you bring the following along for the journey.
Tea and/or Coffee
Onboard each car of the train is a hot-water dispenser known as a samovar.
What better way to use this than for making the world’s best hot drinks? Make sure to bring along a tea pot or French Press.
I took a tea pot and Pu’erh tea which I had purchased in San Francisco. This was great, as I was able to make around 8 cups of tea per day. By the time I got to Moscow, I was so tired of tea that I purchased some coffee immediately after getting off the train.
Make sure to bring water with you! The only place on the train that provides drinking water (excluding the samovar) is the dining car.
Although the train has a dining car, I decided to bring my own food along.
In Beijing, I purchased enough instant noodles to last the entire trip, all for about $15. This wonderful food consists of a brick of noodles (like Ramen noodles), a packet of spices, a tube of concentrated oil, and occasionally a packet of dehydrated herbs, vegetables, and tofu. You pour all of this into the included plastic bowl, add some boiling water from the samovar, stir it up with the included plastic spoon, and enjoy. It’s incredibly unhealthy and spicy, but it’s well-suited to the Trans-Siberian journey.
In Erenhot, the Chinese border town, I was able to add some diversity to my diet. While they were changing the bogies on the trains to standard gauge, I popped into the small grocery store at the train station and bought some oranges, grapes, and bread. Thanks to this wise decision I didn’t die of scurvy in the middle of Siberia.
It’s absolutely essential that you bring along some books for the ride. This is a perfect opportunity to knock some items off the list of books you’ve always wanted to read but never quite had the time.
The first book I read was Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson. I picked it up at my favorite used bookstore in Chicago because Gibson wrote one of my favorite books, Neuromancer. Typically, Gibson writes science fiction novels, set in the future. Pattern Recognition is also a science fiction novel, but the interesting thing is that it is set in the present. Gibson makes the present seem like the future, but at the same time stays in bounds of what is currently possible. This quote, also by Gibson, accurately describes the sense I got from reading Pattern Recognition: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”
After Pattern Recognition, I read The Republic, by Plato. I feared that it would be very difficult to read due to its being translated from 2,400 year old Greek, but I was pleasantly surprised. The translator did a marvelous job of creating a readable English version of The Republic, and the footnotes concerning potential ambiguities were an informative touch. The book itself is brilliant - at times it is educational, at times it is humorous. Throughout the text, the character of Socrates demonstrates his remarkable wit and intelligence. When posed with the question, “What is justice?”, Socrates goes on to describe the ideal society, the ideal ruler of this society, how to educate such a ruler, the problems with the existing societies of his day, and the nature of reality. The whole time he asks questions, making it seem as though the person he is talking to is the one developing the argument. Overall, The Republic was an extremely enjoyable and elucidating read, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.
The first day, I met some people in the dining car who were headed for Mongolia. One of them was a journalist who had a passion for traditional wrestling. He was traveling to Mongolia to take part in some wrestling tournaments and, hopefully, live to tell the tale.
We passed the Chinese border control in the middle of the night. The border guard took my passport, leaving me to wonder if I would ever see it again.
The bogies on the train were then changed to accomodate the Russian gauge tracks in Mongolia and Russia. This process took a couple of hours. At this point I was quite concerned about the fate of my passport, but eventually the guard returned with my passport in hand. An hour or two later, after I had fallen asleep, the same procedure was repeated at the Mongolian border control.
Mongolia was an interesting place to travel through. It’s the 19th largest country in the world, but very sparsely populated. I think around 45% of the population lives in the capital, Ulan Bator.
For the most part, the landscape consisted of vast, green, rolling hills dotted with yurts and livestock.
The gradual appearance of wooden houses, fences, and a road alerted me that we were approaching Ulan Bator.
In fact, the center of Ulan Bator does have some modern buildings, but the outskirts are rather shabby.
I don’t see why you would live in a little wooden house in the outskirts of Ulan Bator when you could instead live in a yurt with a vast tract of land. I guess that most of the land in Mongolia is unsuitable for farming. It looks like a great place to rule an empire on horseback, though.
Russia was more beautiful than expected. I was expecting to see tons of barren ground in Siberia, but for the most part there were trees and vegetation. Granted, we did pass by several cities which had clearly seen better days, but these were balanced out by some idyllic cottages and houses along the route.
We passed by Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world. For the most part, it was just a massive grey void on the horizon.
Still, pretty cool to pass by it.
At one point, the tracks followed the path of a really beautiful river.
There were many small, painted cottages along the banks.
Later I learned that it is called the Sylva River.
Right before crossing the Russian border, some Mongolian couple wanted to stash their stuff in my room. They tried to persuade me by offering me a piece of cloth, but I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk of deportation.
I arrived in Moscow safely, albeit with a strong urge for real food and coffee.