Difference between revisions of "Trans-Siberian Railway"
Revision as of 09:38, 18 June 2010
The Trans-Siberian Railway (Russian: Транссиби́рская магистраль trahns-see-BEER-skuh-yuh mah-gee-STRAHL’ or Трансси́б trahns-SEEB), or Transsib is the name given to the three rail routes that traverse Siberia from Moscow.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. It was built between 1891 and 1916 to connect Moscow with the Far-East city of Vladivostok. En route it passes through the cities of Perm, Yekaterinburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Chita and Khabarovsk.
Packing the following items is recommended for any lengthy journey on the Trans-Siberian railway
Moscow can be reached by train from anywhere in Europe. Fares from London (one-way) start at around £200. Eurolines operate the European coach system, and fares from London start from around £60. Aeroflot is the principal airline operating into and out of Moscow.
Ferries run throughout the year between Vladivostok and Fushiki, Japan. The trip takes about two days. Arrangements can be made through Business Intour Service, who have offices in Tokyo and Vladivostok.
Beijing is served by numerous international airlines. It can also be reached by train from as far south as Lhasa (Tibet) or Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), but there are no rail connections to Thailand, Myanmar or India.
Most travelers will need visas for all three countries.
China and Mongolia are fairly straightforward. The best way to obtain a visa is through your own embassy or consulate or in Hong Kong. Visas for British citizens cost £30. However, Mongolian visas can easily be obtained from the Mongolian consulate in Irkutsk (Russia), and Chinese visas in Ulaanbaatar(Note: For the moment it is not recommended to apply for Chinese visas in Mongolia, due to tightened regulations.) Americans (90 days) and Israelis (30 days) do not need Mongolian visas.
Russia is more problematic. Invitations are generally required, and they must be registered in the country within 72 hours of arrival. However, Russian transit visas issued in Beijing or Harbin last 10 days and require no invitation. This would be enough time to make the trip with no stops along the way and spend a couple of days in Moscow. The Beijing consulate is open from 9:00 to 11:00 but remember that many Chinese nationals are also trying to acquire visas with you, so show up early. The cost varies for each nationality, but Americans can expect to pay $250 for same-day service or $150 for the five-day service. Upon arrival in Moscow you have four nights valid on your transit visa, which allows for one or two nights in Moscow, an overnight train and one or two nights in St. Petersburg respectively, but you must be across the border before midnight on the final day of your visa. There are many exits from St. Petersburg, including buses to Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Kiev and various other places in Europe, but be wary that nearly all nationalities need a transit visa (or tourist visa) for Belarus (see here if unsure) so be sure to be prepared with a visa if your plans take you through Belarus. It is generally assumed that border police stationed at bus routes that exit the country are less likely to make a fuss versus the police on trains. A Russian transit visa cannot be extended under any circumstances. If you arrive from Beijing you can register your visa after arriving in Moscow. If you have a 10 day Transit Visa and do not stay in one place (i.e. go to Saint Petersburg) you do not have to register your visa, though it is recommended that you register your visa, if possible, within three days of entry into Russia. Unfortunately, if you encounter police officers they might not have the same opinion and you could be faced with a "fine." Have your ticket ready as proof that you've been unable to register sooner and keep all receipts from hotels and/or hostels from places where you haven't registered. Israelis do not need Russian visas (90 days).
The Russian train system is different from European systems. The train tickets are bought for fixed dates and all the stops must be planned in advance. If you have a ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok and step off the train in Irkutsk, you can’t use your ticket for a next train going to Vladivostok. If your stop is not planned in advance and not revealed in your tickets, your ticket will be canceled and you’ll get stuck in Irkutsk. It’s somewhat similar to a plane going from New York to Moscow with a connection in Amsterdam – if you decide to go out in Amsterdam and lose your flight you can’t use your ticket for a next flight to Moscow.
The rules state that a passenger is actually allowed to make one stop on his journey (for no additional charge), but this requires a little paperwork while on the train and will be difficult to arrange with the attendant without knowledge of Russian.
There are three ways of buying tickets for the trip. You can purchase them from a travel agent in your own country (or online), a travel agent in the country from which you will start the journey or turn up and buy tickets yourself. The first option is the safest but the most expensive, the last the cheapest but riskiest. Popular trains can be sold out well in advance, particularly in peak season.
Normally it is possible to buy the tickets in any Russian station, not necessarily one on the route of the train. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have a common ticketing network, so it is possible to buy a ticket for a Russian train in those two countries (eg. Brest), and it will probably be even cheaper than in Moscow. The difference occurs for several reasons, including whether additional insurance is present or not. All tickets include a small mandatory insurance, but cashiers will try to sell you additional insurance (150-200 RUB) by default. Selling it by default is prohibited and you always have the option to opt-in or opt-out: just say bez strakhovkee (без страховки, without the insurance) or so strakhovkoy (со страховкой, with the insurance). The ticket itself is issued on two layers of orange paper, insurance (if included) is a pink/green paper of the same size.
In some stations there are still special windows for selling tickets only for foreigners, although the price of tickets should now be the same for foreigners and local people.
Tickets are normally individual, with name and passport number written on them, so you may need to show passports for all travelers when you pay (although usually a passport photocopy is enough.) Also, if you plan to buy tickets on more than one occasion, it may be useful to keep handy a piece of paper with the travelers names written in the Cyrillic alphabet instead of transcribing them each time.
In Beijing you must buy tickets in person from a hotel travel agency nearby Beijing's main train station.
Tickets can be purchased online, but you have to receive a paper ticket at the station anyway. You cannot board a train with just a printed copy of your order confirmation.
Arrive to your station of departure at least 30 minutes in advance (queues may be long!) and go to the same cash desks where you would normally buy tickets. Hand over your passport and order confirmation (or just the order number). The cashier will issue you a paper ticket for no additional fee.
Besides this, railway stations in Moscow have self check-in counters where you have to enter your order number and surname, and the ticket will be printed automatically.
Buying tickets at the official Russian Railways website at http://ticket.rzd.ru is a bit cheaper than at the stations because there will be no processing fee. You can also select the railway car and your seat/place. However, not all foreign credit cards are accepted. Tickets to international trains cannot be purchased online (trains to Belarus and Ukraine are not considered international for this purpose).
http://ufs-online.ru (Russian language only) is another popular website that will accept all credit cards after a verification process. However, a service fee of 150-250 RUB is charged for each ticket.
Station numbers are used internally in the Russian railway computer system, but they are usually printed on the tickets as well. Knowing them may help when making the reservation in smaller stations (you could bring this page and use it for pointing), or when buying the tickets abroad.
Stations are listed in order from west to east
List of major stations listed in order from west to east
Fares are widely variable, but difficult to predict exactly. Fares for Russian trains are subject to seasonal changes, with mark-up for high season being up to 40%. The prices also change with the quality of the trains. Low numbered trains (001, 008, etc) are more expensive and more comfortable. High numbered trains (032, 133, etc) are less expensive and less comfortable. Rough ideas would be:
Reports show that the government has raised prices recently. Prices will be cheaper if you deal directly with them instead of resale agents, but that rules out English help and visa sponsorship, so be confident in your Russian if you deal directly with the government agency.
The Trans-Siberian trains have varied schedules - some trains are daily while some go on even dates, some on odd dates and some trains depart only on a couple of days during a week. There are also passing-by trains (проходящие поезда), which are actually legs of longer train itineraries. E.g. a Ekaterinburg-Irkutsk leg of a Moscow-Vladivostok train. In this case not only schedule, but also availability is affected - such tickets become available for sale 72 hours before departure.
All trains in Russia run in Moscow time. Departure and arrival times given in the timetables or on the tickets are always Moscow time (except stations outside Russia). There are 10 times zones in Russia.
Russian Railways has all Russian train schedules, as well as some of the international trains departing from Russian destinations (e.g. Moscow - Beijing train). Only actual availability is shown, which is released 45 days prior to departure for all Russian trains except for the passing-by ones and 30 days for most international trains. You will need to use alternate spellings for some destinations. Beijing is called Pekin, Moscow is Moskva, Saint Petersburg is Sankt-Peterburg, Yekaterinburg is Ekaterinburg or Sverdlovsk (old name of the city), Ulan Ude is Ulan-ude, Ulaanbaatar is Ulan-Bator, and Khabarovsk is Habarovsk.
Other good options for doing your own planning includes the Deutsche Bahn travelplanner . It's available in many languages including English, French and Spanish, and it has less transliteration issues that the Russian websites, but on the flip-side it only includes the limited firmeny "fast" trains. Another good option is the 'Poezda railway table' (search Google) one of few online scheduling tools in English that doesn't try to sell you tickets, and it has a nice simple interface to boot.
Coming from Beijing or Harbin, the last stop in China is Manzhouli. The food being sold there is quite expensive, but many Russians stock up on provisions (i.e. spirits and beer). Be aware that you can take a maximum of five beers (Harbin Beer, 0.3l) per person into Russia or you will have to pay a penalty (read: bakshish) to the customs. Get rid of all your Chinese Yuan here as they become virtually worthless once abroad, unless you want to take them as a souvenir. There are a couple of black market money changers in front of the station that change RMB to Roubles at rip-off rates. To get Roubles you have plenty of time on the Russian side of the border (Zhabaikalsk). Walk to the ATM located at the bank in town. Allow 30 minutes to go and come back. The train stops for several hours while the carriages are being changed, so you can do some shopping at the local food markets (bread, cheese, etc.).
Coming from Beijing via Mongolia into Russia there are still the same rip-off exchange touts, but most if not all platform vendors in Mongolia and Russia take US Dollars or Euros. However, they only take bills (or notes), so know the exchange rate and buy a lot if you are using a five Euro note. Always ask the attendant how much time is available before you rush off into a station to find a Bankomat (ATM) because the train will not wait for you. If you are not spending time in Mongolia, don't worry about acquiring Mongolian tögrög. They are worthless virtually everywhere else, and the export of tögrög is technically forbidden. Therefore, spend Dollars or Euro, but get Roubles ASAP because Russian vendors are more likely to fabricate exchange rates than Mongolian or Chinese platform vendors. Dont forget to buy a lot of vodka while in Russia!
On the Moscow- Vladivostok route) the train stops for 20-30 minutes every 3-4 hours. Everybody can get out of the train, and there are always people on the platform that offer a variety of fresh food (eggs, fish, cheese, bread, fruits, meat or cheese in a cake ...) and often some drinks for passengers. Prices are low; only Russian Roubles are accepted. A highlight is the smoked fish (Omul) being sold on the shore of Lake Baikal (Station: Slyudyanka - quick stop, so be ready). Some of the larger stations will have food marts with snacks and alcohol.
Many of the trains have dining cars (with extremely overpriced food and drinks), although if you do not speak any Russian, ordering the food will be an experience, to say the least. Food and drinks are also sold in kiosks at the platforms, but normally twice as expensive. To get a reasonable price, wait for a station with a 20-30 minutes stop, and just exit the train station, there is usually a plenty of kiosks or small shops just outside, offering a wider choice.
Since there is a samovar (hot water dispenser) in every carriage, your best bet is to have a stack of dried noodle soups and Nescafe ready. Just bring your own cup. The carriage attendants (Provodnitsa, Provodnik if male) will often have cold drinks, snacks and even freeze-dried meals available for sale at slightly inflated prices.
In every train car there is a pot with boiling water available for making hot drinks (bring your own tea, but the water is free). Carriage attendants also sell tea and coffee, and it's usually possible to buy soft drinks, beer and vodka in the restaurant carriage to bring back to your carriage.
It's worth having a basic phrasebook as attendants are unlikely to speak English and the drinks provided won't come with milk or sugar unless you specifically ask for them.
All tickets for long journey trains are for sleeping places. Trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg have seating places. Most trains in Russia have 3 classes of cabins to choose from;
Note that sometimes there is no shower in the train. Even in the 1st class on K19 (Trans-Manchurian). You can have an Asian-style hot shower though, if you bring along 2 jars. Fill one up at the hot water dispenser, go to the washroom and mix the water you get there in the second one.
The journey on the Moscow-Vladivostok route seems to be very safe, especially if you travel in groups of four (or multiples); then you will get a separate four-bed cabin (Of cource, this only applies to kupe seats). Every train car has one or two staff (provodniks/provodnitsas) that check tickets, do cleaning, take care of boiling water, etc.
Cabins can be locked from the inside with two locks. One can be opened from outside with a special key, the other cannot be opened from outside, and when locked allows the door to open no more than 5 cm (2 inches).