Trans Siberian Railway: Train travel tips

Okay. Technically, my trip was on the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian Railway. In any case, from Beijing to St. Petersburg, my friend and I took 7 trains. We also took a train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki which brings our train total to 8. It’s a good thing my friend and I like trains because we spent a good amount of our trip on them. Needless to say, we got pretty good at taking trains.

We decided to take mostly night trains so that we didn’t have to worry about accommodations and so that we would arrive at our destination cities during the day time. Of course this also meant that we didn’t get as many daylight hours to look out the window at the beautiful scenery.

The Trains

Trains on the Trans Siberian Railway are split up into 3 classes: 1st class (spalny valgon), 2nd class (kupe), and 3rd class (plazkart). 1st class includes 2 berths, 2nd class has 4 berths, and 3rd class is an open car with bunks arranged in bays of 4 on one side and bays of two along the coach wall. Both 1st class and 2nd class compartments have doors that lock. All of our trains except for one train we rode in 2nd class. On one train we rode 3rd class. When we were planning our trip, as two females traveling, we were unsure how safe it would be to travel on 3rd class so we opted for 2nd class. Looking back on the trip now, I would’ve liked to have taken more 3rd class seats. While 3rd class seats are not as clean and can be pretty loud, it does allow for more interaction with locals if that’s something you’re looking for. It’s also cheaper if money is a concern. At the same time, 2nd class seats were nice because they were more private, quieter, and I felt like my belongings were more secure. And since I was traveling only with one other person, that meant that we had to share a cabin with two other people so we were still able to meet new people.

Some trains also have a dining car. Keep in mind that the dining cars are a bit overpriced but that’s to be expected. Each wagon though comes equipped with boiling water dispensers that are free for everyone to use so if you wanted to bring some ramen, tea, etc. on the train, you’ll have hot water on the ready.

All trains will have toilets on at least one end of the wagon. Bathrooms are normally locked for 15-20 minutes before and after train stations so keep that in mind. On some train routes, we passed by a lot of train stations so the bathrooms seemed more often than not locked. The trains though, keep pretty closely to the schedule which should be posted in each wagon so you can check when trains will be making stops. If you’re like me and have the smallest bladder in the world, the schedules were super helpful so I knew when I should  take bathroom breaks because in some cases, the bathroom was locked for an hour or so.

All overnight trains will have pillows and sheets for you to convert your berths into beds. In Russia you’ll also get a towel. Some seats turn into beds while other trains will also give you a mat to roll out onto your berth which you will then cover with sheets. In Russia, an attendant will come by and give you your sheets and towel individually. You’re expected to collect and give your sheets back before you reach your attendance. There’s usually an area to drop off your things near the attendant’s cabin where you can deposit your sheets and towel.

There are compartments underneath the bottom berths and above the top berths where you can store your belongings.

Our Train Route

For your information, here’s a list of all the trains we took including the class and length of the train ride.

Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
2nd class
27 hours (1 night on train)
Border crossing into Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk
2nd class
35 hours (2 nights on train)

Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk 
3rd class
18 hours (1 night on train)

Krasnoyarsk to Omsk
2nd class
20.5 hours (1 night on train)

Omsk to Perm
2nd class
18 hours (1 night on train)

Perm to Moscow
2nd class
20 hours (1 night on train)
Breakfast was included

Moscow to St. Petersburg 
2nd class
8 hours (1 night on train)
Breakfast was included

St. Petersburg to Helsinki
3.5 hours
2nd class
Border crossing into Finland

Border Crossings

During our trip, we crossed three different borders via train. From China into Mongolia. Mongolia into Russia. And Russia into Finland. Crossing a border via train is pretty straightforward. When you get to a border you have to stay in your cabin and passport control officers will come by to check your passport. It takes time and border officers are pretty strict so you just have to stay put until your passport gets checked and stamped. When crossing into a different country on a train, the train will stop in a designated train station that’s on or close to the border where you will need to go through passport control twice. Once to exit a country and then again to enter a country, so your passport will need to be checked twice from each respective country’s passport control people. Officers will board the train and move from cabin to cabin. Make sure you have your passport ready and if you’re going into Russia, make sure you have your invitation letter on hand in case the officers ask for it.

Going into Russia can seem a little intimidating. From what I recall, a bunch of police or military carrying guns boarded the train first with dogs and then searched each cabin. They asked for us to show them our luggage. After that, passport control boarded the train and checked our passports. Over all it’s a pretty easy process. Just hand your passport to the officers and make sure you’re sitting in a place where they can look at your face clearly. When officers from the border countries are finished, then the train will be on its way again. Remember it will take quite a bit of time to cross any borders so if you need to use the toilet, be sure to do so before you reach a border. The train attendants should let you know when passports will be checked. In some countries, you’ll need to fill out an entry or exit form so be sure to have those completed before reaching any borders. The train attendants will also hand those out ahead of time. When boarding the train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki and you’re a foreigner, you’ll need to go through passport control before boarding your train. There are two different entrances for this train station. One for domestic travelers and one for international travelers. Be sure you go through the right one and give yourself plenty of time because the lines can get long.

Train Travel Tips

  • Keep everything you need in a very accessible place. The first train that we took was from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar which was a total of 27 hours long. Since we were traveling by train I think we figured if we needed to get anything from our bags, we could easily access our bags. Train cabins though are quite tight. If you have any large luggage, it will probably go in the compartment under your seat or above the top berth. And with four people to a cabin with lots of luggage, the less you have to get things from your bags under or above the berths, the better. Us and our other cabin mates were not very prepared for train travel and had to get into our bags quite a bit which was quite a hassle given the tight space and the rummaging through bags. We didn’t really think ahead of what we would need for the duration of our train ride. These are the things I would suggest putting aside for easier access: toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, face wash, deodorant, etc.), food, utensils/bowls/cups, clothes to sleep in, an extra layer in case it gets cold, camera, and anything to entertain you (iPod, book/e-reader, cards, games, etc.).
  • Bring food and your own cup, cutlery, and maybe a small pot or bowl. Since we were traveling on a budget we purchased food ahead of time at grocery stores to be eaten on the train. Since we were spending a lot of time on trains, it was important to bring enough food for 1, 2, and sometimes 3 meals, as well as snacks. Since there’s boiling water available on the train we were able to eat ramen and make tea. We liked bringing bread, cheese, salami (if you can find it), ramen, tea, and canned sardines or some type of protein for train rides.
  • Ask the attendant for board games. Apparently in Russia, attendants should have some board games on hand. We didn’t try this but one of our Russian friends told us that there are board games on board trains. You just have to ask.
  • Pay attention to the timetables and schedules. All train times in Russia are on Moscow time. So be very careful when you’re looking at time tables and schedules. Your tickets should also all be in Moscow time. So know which time zone you’re in compared to Moscow. Knowing the timetables too will insure that you don’t miss an opportunity to use the bathroom. There was one time on the train where I failed to use the bathroom before they were closed. I had to hold my pee for over an hour and it was one of the most unpleasant times during my entire my trip.

I’m sure I’ll have more tips as I continue to work on this series and catch up on all the blogging I’ve been meaning to do. More tips will be added here as I think of them!

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