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Travelers Impressions (Trans - Eurasian Trains)

by Anton Malensek
2010 Sept trip from Beijing to St. Petersburg with stops in Irkutsk & Moscow

" travel to Siberia was wonderful, just can't get over. Irkutsk is very nice stay, really the Siberian Paris. Train ride Irkutsk to Moscow more than nice, excellent service, clean, safe. Food was including is fine. In cabin we were 4 persons friendly sharing helpful. My Russian is very poor but we have some nice conversation. There are electric plugs to shave, charge cameras, ect. Moscow subway on time safe but very busy. One of the best in the word."

by Ray Spears & David Oppenheim
2009 July - August Trip to China, Mongolia, Lake Baikal, Tuva and Moscow

"...we've just arrived in Moscow on the fabulous train 025 from Novosibirsk. Blue crushed velvet upholstery and etched mirrors "Siberiac"! The food is good, too. Other than my American email host just this minute having lost ALL my email since August 9, things are well." Read more about Ray and Dave's trip here

by Bill Cain For the Monitor newspaper
2007 January - February Trip to Russia and China
All Aboard. The Trans-Siberian Railway affords beautiful views, varied cuisine and a chance to make new friends.

Opens at noon" was the message that came through in broken English from the Russian dining car attendant. That meant no breakfast. Fortunately, I had come prepared with plenty of snacks. Life on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and its two major branches - the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian lines - can be inconvenient now and then, especially by those expecting western standards. But the experience of riding the rails in this part of the world is well worth an occasional frustration.

There are train rides and then there's the Trans-Siberian Railway - the world's longest rail system and considered by many to be the pre-eminent journey of its kind. Sure, you can purchase a trip from one of many tour operators that offer private tours with luxurious dining and sleeping cars on the same par as the famed Orient Express. But the more authentic way to experience the Trans-Siberian is to take local trains on your own, where chance encounters with everyday people in these distant lands is always a possibility.

The route I recently chose encompassed all three of the aforementioned major branches, beginning in Beijing, China; traveling north through Mongolia; stopping in Irkutsk, Siberia for four nights; and then continuing south back into Manchuria, China. The two legs required two overnights each, and a total of three border crossings - just enough to get the flavor of rail travel in this otherwise overlooked part of the world.

  • Seating and facilities

    Although there's only one dining car to accommodate 10 to 15 passenger carriages, seating is never a problem. The food is not necessarily bad, but most riders choose to bring their own on board and, for long journeys, supplement it by making purchases from local hawkers at various stops. At every border crossing, the dining car is changed to one whose cuisine matches that of the country being entered. The Chinese dining car serves large quantities of rice, but unless you have the foresight to bring your own silverware, only chopsticks are available. Trips to the dining car can be a chilly experience during the winter, as passage between cars requires short bursts of exposures to outside temperatures at least as cold as -18 degrees Fahrenheit, as recorded on my January trip.

    Private two-passenger compartments are slightly cramped but otherwise comfortable and offer about 50 square feet of space, with just enough room for a small table and two window seats that convert to narrow, rock-hard beds at night. Temperature control in the compartments, especially when it's below zero outside, is mostly uncontrollable and can fluctuate wildly. On the first night I had to sleep fully clothed to keep warm, but during the second I was sweltering in my skivvies.

    Those expecting private bath facilities are out of luck and would be better suited taking a group tour. Showers are nonexistent on local trains, but each passenger carriage is equipped with two toilet rooms, one at each end of the car, which are shared by up to 18 passengers plus two provodniks, or carriage attendants. Once in a while, a wait is required, but more important, trips to the lavatory must be timed to not coincide with station stops, when the doors are locked by the provodniks. This makes sense when you realize there is no modern plumbing or even chemical toilets on these trains, and that flushes are a direct shot to the tracks below.

    The duties of the provodniks are keeping the carriages as clean as possible, catering to their passengers' needs as best they can and providing a constant supply of boiling hot water - essential for the food do-it-yourselfers - from the samovar at one end of each car. Just remember to bring your own plates, utensils and cups.

  • At the border

    Perhaps the most nerve-wracking and time-consuming experience aboard this polar express is the border crossings. It's no exaggeration that the crossing from Siberian Russia into Manchurian China takes 11 hours. This is partly because of the bureaucratic immigration formalities with the accompanying forms and red tape, and partly because of train mechanics.

    At the exiting country's station, stern-looking border guards decked out in military garb demand passports, which are taken and returned hours later, as well as forms. One particular form was in Chinese on one side and Russian on the other, with nary an English word to be found. Compartments are occasionally searched for contraband, and passengers have to vacate, regardless of the time of day or night. Then the whole process is repeated again a short ways down the tracks at the entering country's station.

    During the Sino-Soviet dispute in the 1960s, the Chinese government decided to thumb its nose at tradition and adopt some of its own rail specifications, regardless of the standards established by the Russians decades ago. This included narrower train tracks. Consequently, carriage wheels now need to be changed every time a train passes between China and Russia, requiring hours of labor. If you choose to remain in your compartment, during these "bogie changing" events, you're subjected to 5-6 hours of violent shaking and shuddering.

    Time spent on the train affords opportunities to meet your fellow carriage mates if language barriers can be overcome, or you can simply watch the ever-changing countryside between small villages and larger industrial cities from the comfort of one's compartment picture window. At night, the constant clickity-clack and gentle swaying of the carriage is enough to induce a reasonable night's sleep.

    It's sometimes said that the journey is more important than the destination, and if the inconveniences can be tolerated that adage rings true when traveling locally on the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian Railways.

    by Sybil Pretious
    2007 July Solo Travel, Beijing - St. Petersburg - Moscow - Irkutsk - Shanghai

    "...This is just to let you know I've arrived safely back in Suzhou and to thank you for your meticulous organization of my trip. I thoroughly enjoyed myself even though there were a few stressful times - changing planes at Moscow for Irkutsk when the plane from St Petersburg had arrived late!! Next time I will not arrange so many things in so short a time! I arrived at the hotel Angara in Irkutsk at 12.30pm and was picked up for a 6 hour tour at 1pm! Consequently when I got in that evening I was very tired and just glamced at the time on my train ticket. When I went down in the morning to book the taxi to the station the receptionist said that the ticket time was Moscow time and that the train would leave 7pm. Of course when I got to the station it had left 7am! That was an interesting experience trying to find out what I should do. I ended up standing in the middle of the station shouting, "Does anybody speak English!!" A kind young lady helped me but then they said I could go on another train and I paid for that ticket, having been refunded some of the money for the missed train trip. At the hotel I discovered that the train they had booked me on would exceed my visa time. Back to the station to cancel!! Then I contacted Evgenia (Sokol Rep) and she waved her magic wand and booked me into a hotel on Lake Baikal and I spent a lovely relaxing last two days in Russia. I like to travel alone but it was good to have her there to smooth my exit from Russia. Till the next time..... Sybil

    by James Brennan and Miguel Silva
    2007 June Trans - Siberia - Mongolia rail travel

    "....As for the train #362 (Irkutsk - Ulaanbaatar), the train itself is OK, though all tourists and no restaurant car. It arrived at the Russia-Mongolia border on time (it is a very slow train), but once there we waited three hours for Russian immigration to do anything. When they finally started, after marching to the train in a military-like procession, it took over three hours for fewer than 72 people; they took the ceiling panels off in each cabin searching for contraband, and finally returned our passports. All the while, the air conditioning is off, there is no where to buy food or water, and while they had our passports we had to stay on the train and toilets are closed. When people were sticking their heads out of the windows - to get air - the main immigration official threatened to close the windows if it did not stop. It was in the high 30s Celsius. The provodnistas (car attendants) were very sympathetic, and tried to help us as much as they could. The Western Europeans on the train (Germans and Dutch) were about the rebel and the ones who spoke Russian started yelling at the immigration official when she returned our passports. It left everyone with a very negative attitude toward the whole trip and Russia in particular. I understand governments being strict on admittance to a country; after all, you are asking permission to enter and it is their right to say no. What none of us could understand was that we were trying to leave, and believe me, everyone wanted to. I might add, the Mongolian procedures took less than an hour, but after all the time with the Russian officials we only had 20 minutes at the first Mongolian station to change money (there are money changers there, and their rates are much better than on the Russian side) and buy water. We did arrive to Ulan Baatar on time; the delays seem to be built into the schedule. From what I heard in Ulan Bataar, the Moscow-Ulaanbaatar train #6 gets processed much faster by the Russian immigration officials. In fact, it arrived at Naushki border point while immigration still had our passports, and they were right on the train beginning the procedures before finishing with us. In any case, I'm glad I did it by train, but that was easily the worst day of the whole trip. We had heard in Irkutsk that it was an unpleasant journey but it surpassed our expectations. Best Regards, James"

    by Dr. Andrew L.A. Johnson
    2006 Summer Solo Travel, Trans-Siberia-Mongolia Rail

    ..."As I think you know (from my text message from Siberia!) I needed a visa to get into Mongolia. One of the guards on the train assured me that I would be able to get one at the border and so it proved. It was actually cheaper than if I had obtained one in England but I would have preferred not to have this additional hassle. It seems to be only Americans that are exempt! Charging my digital camera battery on the train was no problem but it proved impossible to charge my phone (and others had problems charging a laptop battery). I guess this must be something to do with the voltage - not something you can fix but maybe worth advising clients. The Ulaanbaatar - Beijing train seemed to make quite a detour on a branch line so that we got a superb view of the Great Wall. This wasn't mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide (an old version perhaps) and you might wish to include it in your publicity..."

    by David Warburton
    2005 Summer Group Trip to Mongolia and Russia

    "...border crossing (from Mongolia to Russia) took 4 hours into Russia and 11 hours out again. Customs and immigration officers were thorough but quite young and very polite. No evidence of currency scams..."

    by Mr. & Mrs. Leo and Claudine Granbichler
    2005 May, Classic Trans-Siberian Rail Journey with stops in Moscow - Yekaterinburg - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Listvyanka village - Ulan Ude - Vladivostok

    "...If you have some spare time during the long winter evenings, and if you are interested, you can have a look at the diaporamas (slide show) I made from our wonderful travel. It was not easy to take beautiful pics from the train... I even had to clean the windows!

    by Gail Stasky
    2005 Summer Solo Travel, Trans-Siberian Rail Journey

    "...some suggestions for inclusion in your "Information and Tips" are to bring disposable bath mats and a mug for train travel."

    by Charles Hottelet and Muriel Mohy
    2004 January Trans - Siberia - Manchuria Rail Journey

    "....I have to say that your Orientation guide is a lot better than some expensive travel the Vostock train between Irkutsk and Beijing (not through Mongolia but through Mandchouria), there was no electrical outlet but the provdnitsa (conductor) was able to recharge my camera battery when I asked it. She filled all the papers for the customs and "protected" us from the Russians and Chinese customs officers. At every stops around the Baikal lake, it was possible to buy smoked fish. Once passed trhough the Chinese border, the Russian restaurant car is changed by a Chinese one with Chinese food wich is better quality and less expensive than in the russian car but they open wen they want to... "

    by Herb Kavet
    2004 July Solo Travel, Trans - Mongolian Express (train #004)

    "....Although I had a few anxious moments at the hotel eventually my reservation was found, ticket delivered exactly on time and the trip was a delight. I was amazed to have not only a first class compartment on the train to myself but the entire railcar as well. It was very plush..."

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