So, we finally made it across the whole of Russia by the Trans-Siberian Rail! If it wasn’t clear already, its now clearer than ever that Russia is indeed huge. It’s taken us 21 days, 5 stops, 6,175 train miles (9937km) and 160 train hours, but we made it!
Tallinn –🚍-> St Petersburg –🚆-> Moscow –🚆-> Yekaterinburg –🚆-> Irkutsk –🚆-> Vladivostok
Tallinn to St Petersburg: (Passport) Check, Check and Check Again
We started our journey in Tallin, Estonia. There, we enjoyed some great contrasting architecture and really cool design shops. We had a short dance with dropping temperatures and then mistakenly deemed ourselves ‘ready for Russia’.
After a couple of days of sightseeing, we hopped on a bus across the border. The bus had screens on the back of every seat, an onboard coffee machine and a working toilet – luxury! (We travelled with Eco Lines for £17 each.) Then, came the passport checks… There was a check on the bus, then off the bus, then on the bus again, then off the bus again, then on the bus once more, just to be sure. Don’t put your passport away too soon!
How to get a Russian Visa
Most passport holders need to get a visa before entering the country. If you purchase your own visa (rather than going through an agency) you will need to go to the embassy in person to apply, and again to pick up your visa. Depending on how much you pay, you can receive your visa as early as the next working day.
1. Get a letter of invitation
We bought ours from East West Link – make sure to read their full instructions online.
2. Prove you have the money to travel
You need to prove that you have £100 for each day you will be in Russia. For example, if your trip is 10 days, you will need to show that you have £1000. To prove this, print out a recent bank statement that shows you have the correct amount of money, take it to your bank and have them notarise it (stamp it).
3. Prove that you have travel insurance
Purchase travel insurance and print it.
4. Have a passport valid for at least 6 months
5. Get passport photos
6. Go to the Russian embassy’s visa office
We didn’t need an appointment for the office in London, but it may be different elsewhere.
*Written September 2016
St Petersburg to Moscow: Do not miss it!
Technically, St Petersburg isn’t on the Trans-Siberian Rail route. The route officially starts from Moscow. However, it definitely should not be missed on that technicality. St Petersburg was not only my favourite place in Russia, but one of my favourite places in the world! The architecture is incredible, the history is interesting, the food is delicious and the nightlife is great. We were fortunate enough to have a Russian friend look after us here, so I must admit that all my knowledge and tips will be directly from her*.
After a few days in St Petersburg, we hopped on our first sleeper train to Moscow. This was a short 8.5 hours, so we literally got on, slept, got off. It was as easy as it sounds, even in 3rd class, but you may or may not find a drunk Russian man asleep at the end of your bed in the middle of the night…
– The only Russian food you really need to try is Borscht, a homey Russian soup with cabbage and beef.
When eating said Borscht, make sure you have it with bread and vodka. Then, you absolutely must (according to Luba’s father) smell the bread before each shot of vodka. There will be no exceptions here.
– Once you’ve tried Borscht, you must try St Petersburg’s amazing array of international food. Our favourite had to be Georgian cuisine – try the dumplings!
– Walk! St Petersburg has so much to see just by walking. We were lucky to have Luba to explain the history behind the buildings and monuments. Even if you’re not a history buff, I’d recommend taking a tour at some point because the history here is really interesting.
– Take a boat trip. A ride along the canals is another great way to see the city. You’ll get head phones with a description of what you’re seeing, but not all boats have English translation so make sure to check!
– Go out on the town! There’s plenty of nice restaurants, bars and clubs, all open until the early hours. However, sometime after 2am lots of the bridges across the river are raised. This means that what was a short walk or drive home is now a long walk or drive home!
Moscow to Yekaterinburg: Crossing the Europe-Asia Border
We arrived in Moscow to another local friend – got to love those international friendships! – so I must admit we were pampered again*. We had been impressed with how big and spacious everything was in St Petersburg but Moscow was even bigger. Taller buildings, wider streets, larger cathedrals. Once again, walking is a good way to see the city as every building seems to be an ornate masterpiece. However, Moscow is much bigger than St Petersburg, so it’s also worth travelling by metro if you don’t want to walk your feet to shreds.
After two days in Moscow, we took our first ‘official’ Trans-Siberian Rail to Yekaterinburg. It was only 24 hours so we braved third class again and escaped without a drunk man falling asleep at the end of my bed. Our new roomie did insist on wearing his underwear for most of the journey and the door fell off of our carriage, though. But, we got there in the end!
– Moscow is a weekend city. If you’re going to go out on the town, wait until the weekend.
– Look out for the ‘gallery metro’. Apparently, this is an entire train carriage filled with art. If you’re lucky enough to see it, people will barge past you to hop onboard, no matter which direction they’re travelling. Unfortunately, we never saw this spectacle, but I suppose that’s just how rare it is.
– Take the pink line around the city. It’s a one hour trip all the way around central Moscow.
– Try the sweet cheese pancakes. Don’t question it, just try them!
Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk:
Yekaterinburg was a little more like the Russia you see in the movies. It was extremely cold, the locals were wearing actual Russian hats and there didn’t seem to be a word of English in sight. A taxi ride away from the city centre was the border between Europe and Asia. The main attraction here, though, seemed to be museums of all kinds and a number of beautiful cathedrals. In general, our time in Yekaterinburg was spent mentally preparing for our next killer train journey…
We boarded with anticipation of our 55 hours ahead. We’d booked second class tickets but we had no idea what that really meant. As it turned out, second class was pretty lovely! The cabins were small but private and comfortable to sit up on both the bottom and top bunks. Despite our worries, this journey was basically an extended sleepover, the only difference being that we were moving and that a loud snoring stranger joined us for the last night…
Trans-Siberian Rail Tips and Information
– Buy your train tickets on the official website rather than going through an agency – it’s much cheaper. We booked in advance because it meant we didn’t have to search for wifi to book tickets along the way.
– There are seven different time zones in Russia. Yup, seven. Check out my boyfriend’s dad’s blog, Bill Blogs, for a visual view of this.
– ALL OF THE TRANS-SIBERIAN TRAINS RUN ON MOSCOW TIME. I really cannot stress this enough. This means that if you’re getting a train from Vladivostock at 06:00, you will actually get on the train at 13:00, as Vladivostok is 7 hours ahead of Moscow time.
– There is no shame in wearing pyjamas for the entire duration of the journey (apparently) or stripping off your trousers as soon as you board the train (apparently).
– There are not many plug points on the train. Not the end of the world, but definitely worth charging everything you need before you board and bringing along a portable charger.
– There may well be a national problem of snoring… We did not have one single journey that wasn’t accompanied by what sounded like sleep-choking. You have been warned!
– Almost no one speaks English. The rumours are true, so you’ll need to learn a couple of Russian words to get by. However, the few people that did speak English were absolute life savers. Don’t underestimate the opportunity to chat with a local in English!
– Third class is fine for short trips but second class is worth the extra money for trips longer than 24 hours.
– Russia is cold! If you bring anything, bring thermals and a hat.
– Train classes are as follows: 3rd Class – entire carriage of beds, a bit overcrowded (depending on the time of year) but not unbearable. 2nd Class – a cabin with four beds, small but comfortable. 1st Class – a cabin with two beds, near enough to being a hotel room.
Irkutsk to Vladivostok: The Last Leg
We had thought Yekaterinburg was quintessentially Russian but Irkutsk was even more so. There was wooden cabins, people wearing full ski suits for a walk to the shops, huskies and even a little bit of snow. We stayed in a cabin ourselves with a wood burning fire (and two Russian tourists who knew how to use said fire).
There are some great hikes here for dedicated trekkers, but there are plenty of short routes too. We enjoyed a couple of nice walks to view points and through woods. The biggest selling point here, through, is Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world! It is truly massive and to the untrained eye just looks like the sea front. Take a boat ride here and you’ll get to see a bit more of this impressive sight.
Now, here’s the bad news… we then had to take a 69 hour train journey to Vladivostok.
How to get from Irkutsk to Listvyanka
It may seem impossible but it’s actually much easier than it seems. We took a tram into the centre and then a mini-bus to Listyvanka which costed about 130p each (£2).
1. Get off the Trans-Siberian Rail at Irkutsk 2.
There are two train stations in Irkutsk. If you’re heading east on the Trans-Siberian Rail, get off at the second Irkutsk stop. (And, if you’re heading west, obviously get off at the first Irkutsk stop!)
2. Take the tram into the city centre.
You can get a taxi but they often overcharge you. (A taxi would have costed 500p for three of us, whereas the tram costed less than 10p each.)
There is a tram station outside of Irkutsk 2 station. It might not be too obvious, so keep a look out for a crowd of people who seem to be lingering near the tram tracks.
Jump on any tram that is heading to your right. From what we gathered, 99% of the trams head into the centre and terminate at the spot to get a bus. However, if you want to be safe, take the number 2 tram (this is the one that we took).
The tram will terminate at the city centre market. On either side of the market is a car park with mini-busses heading to various locations. The bus to Listyvanka can be found in the car park to the right of the market.
Ask the drivers who is heading to Listyvanka (by which I mean, just repeat that name with a worried look on your face). There doesn’t seem to be an official timetable, busses just go when they’re full. However, we never had to wait more than 20 minutes until the bus left.
3. Walk to your accommodation.
The mini-bus makes lots of stops along the way. Keep an eye on where your accommodation is on maps.me and give a wave to the driver when you want to get off. Though, most accommodation will be at the last stop anyway!
A final farewell!
After a gruelling 69 hour journey, we made it to Vladivostok, and the last stop of the Trans-Siberian rail. Next stop, Japan!