Trans-Siberian St. Petersburg - Vladivostok. A personal experience
Replies: 15 - Last Post: Feb 10, 2013 12:41 PM Last Post By: het_emmetje
Nov 19, 2012 3:05 PM
Last August I traveled across Russia with the Trans-Siberian, 27 days from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Thought it may be helpful to share my experiences (same way I benefited from previous posts here before going).
Please ask if you have any question.
1. The route:
St. Petersburg (2 days) - then Sapsan (high speed) train (4 hours) to:
Moscow (2 days) - then suburban train (4 hours to):
Vladimir-Sudzal (1.5 days) - then long-distance train (even if only 3 hours) to
Niznhy Novogorod (1.5 days) - then night train (8 hours) to:
Kazan (1 day) - then long distance train (50 hours) to:
Kasnoyarsk (2.5 days) - then night train to (12 hours) to:
Irkutsk (2 days) - then hydrofoil (6 hours) to
Olkhon Island (4 days) - then hydrofoil (2 hours) to Ust-barguzin, and bus (6 hours) to
Ulan-Ude (2 days) - then night (10 hours) train to
Chita (1 day) - then long distance train (48 hours) to:
Kahabarovsk (1 day) - and finally night train (12 hours):
Vladivostok (2 days), and back to Moscow in a 9-hour flight.
2. My personal highlights (in chronological order)
- The Hermitage at St. Petersburg, particularly the extraordinary Byzantine icons (in one room only, as the whole collection seemed to be in restoration) and French Impressionist collection
- The Red Square in Moscow.
- Sudzal, multiple small churches, none particularly impressive, but all of them making the village very pleasant to visit
- The rivers Oka and Volga at Nizhny Novogorod. Lucky if you happen to catch a clear sunset from the Kremnlin or, even better, from the hill in front of the bridge over the Oka
- The boat from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island. The cliffs and beaches of the Southwestern coast of the Baikal Lake, seen from the water. Forests on the shore start to clear out as you sail to the North. I was told that further North, towards the Northern shore, landscape becomes even wilder.
- Sunsets at Khuzir (in Olkhon Island). A world-class landscape.
- The arrival to Vladivostok, though this is probably more related to the feeling of having got there than to the city's attractiveness. If you feel fed up of so many days on the train, go visit the WW2 submarine and realize how luxurious the Trans-Siberian carriages are.
- Along the route, singing Masses in small churches. Standing-up women replying to bearded priests with very deep voices.
3. Where I wouldn't spent so much time again:
- Kazan: interesting history, but hardly worth the stop-over. Felt like a new rich city.
- Krasnoyarsk: nice cafes and restaurants, but almost anything else to offer (the Stolby nature reserve was unimpressive, boats to the Divnogorsk dam were not running)
- Aginskoe Datsan: being one of the two only Buddhist Monasteries in Stalinist Russia didn't justify the long way from Chita. The steppe around the village was more interesting than the rather small and uninteresting Datsan
4. What I learnt:
- On the train, you better speak Russian or have interesting books to read. No other option, besides beer and vodka. Landscape is entertaining but monotonous.
- Vladimir and Sudzal can be visited from Moscow by suburban train (departing from Kursky Vodzal). It far cheaper than any long distance train (320 rubles, and half of the passengers travel without ticket anyway), and only a bit longer (3-4 hours). From Vladimir train station, buses depart to Sudzal at least every hour (30 minutes drive)
- The boat is an alternative to consider from Irkutsk to Olkhon. Much more expensive than the minibus transfers (Boat: 3,000 rubles; buses: 700 rubles), but you will get to see hundreds of kilometers of the Baikal shore from the water. It departs at least twice a week from Irkutsk. Be aware that it is not a boat for tourists, but an hydrofoil. If you want to see the landscape, you will have to stand up on a small deck.
- You can buy your train tickets the day before you travel. Even in August, I never had any availability problem. (Though I wasn't taking any of the direct trains Moscow - Vladivostok, but shorter rides in other long distance trains.)
- If you are taller than 1,80, you won't fit all long into the berth.
5. What I wish I had known:
- Some train stations do have automatic machines where train tickets can be bought with credit card. These machines have an English user interface, very useful for non-Russian speakers. I found these machines in: Vladimir, Krasnoirarsk, Irkutsk and Chitta train stations. There wasn't any in Ulan-Ude (August 2012). These machines allow booking of tickets for all kinds of trains, no matter where are they departing from. You just need the name of the departure and destiny in Cyrillic, and your passport number. So: the painful ticket booking experience at train stations for non-Russian speakers can be avoided.
- If these machines are not available at the train station, my personal experience on how to make the painful ticket booking experience at train stations less painful:
2. Write all these details in a piece of paper (have the departure and destiny's names in Cyrillic, you can copy those from your guidebook). You can also not write the class, and pronounce the words "platskart" or "kupe" when you get to be in from of the ticket window.
3. Line in front of the ticket windows (10-20 minutes was my average waiting time). Be prepared for the woman at the other side of the glass to disappear for 10 minutes just as you made it in front of her - it could be her break time. (Usually, they have their break times written by the window)
4. Once you meet the woman who is going to sell you the tickets, say "Zdrastice", give her the piece of paper and hope she will understand. If not, or if she asks something you cannot understand, just give up. Go back to the starting point and try again in another window (20 more minutes...)
- Prepared food containers at the train station stalls are all very similar. Be aware of not mistaking the noodles for the mash potatoes
6. Final (and arguable) remarks
- Accommodation along the route is ridicously expensive, and quality of the hotels is very poor given the prices. Only exception I found, the SibtourGuide Hostel in Krasnoyarsk. A pity that the city isn't so worth it
- On the hospitality of the Russian train passengers (and on sharing food). Nothing to object, since I am far less hospitalary than the average Russian I met. But, contrary to what people used to tell, I have never been offered any food by compartment fellow travelers during the trip (have been on 8 different trains, mostly in second class, and I have never been the first the one to eat in my compartment). Of course, it could also have been my natural introversion.
- Queuing seems to be a national sport in Russia (long lines to buy metro tickets, in the cloakrooms, not to mention train stations...). Special price to the luggage store room in Khavarobsk train station: two consecutive very slow lines if you want to leave the bag there.
- On the kindness of the Russian people. I have had two different experiences. I would say the base case was finding correct but not too open people (i.e. anyone behind a window at the train station, museum, ticket office, hotel or cloakroom). However, there were also cases where I was (unexpectedly) greatly helped by very warm and helpful people, who just happened to walk around (helping me for 20 minutes at the Vladimir train station ticket machine, hosting me at Ust-Barguzin or making me in on a fully booked bus to Ulan-Ude). Also to mention, I don't think I was cheated more than 2/3 times in a month. Much less than I have been in other travels. I think people were generally very honest.
- Alcohol is really an issue (for the country, not for the traveler). Too many people drinking in parks, too many people having their o.5 liter beer already at 9 am in the morning. A bit sad.
Nov 19, 2012 3:13 PM
1Fantastic report, particularly the detail about ticket machines. Thanks!
Did you find enough to do in Ulan-Ude for two days? Or was it more of a rest stop? I'm trying to decide whether to stay there one night or two.
What did you do about food onboard? Just the containers from stalls?
Nov 20, 2012 7:47 AM
2I spent two days at Ulan-Ude, but only slept one night there. Visited Ivolginsky Datsan, the History Musem, walked around downtown. Didn't seem as there was much else to visit (though there are certainly more Datsans in the outskirts, and more museums), but the city was quite pleasant anyway.
As for the food onboard, noodels and mash potatios were the typical main course. Biscuits and other food bought at the train stops (trains tend to stop for 15 minutes every 4-5 hours) made the rest.
Nov 24, 2012 10:37 AM
3can you share any experiences about Vladivostok itself?
1. Safe for foreigners? 2. Places to peer at within the city 3. Nature trips around the city
Nov 25, 2012 11:21 PM
Thanks for the report.
Was it difficult to get tickets for hydrofoil from Irkutsk to Olkhon? Have you booked them in advance or just bought before departure? I'm planning a journey to Lake Baikal area next summer and this seems to be one of the trickier parts. The last thing I would want is to arrive at Irkutsk and then realise the hydrofoil is fully booked and you have to search for some different means of transport to what is a rather remote place.
Nov 27, 2012 12:03 PM
you can always wait. On the hydrofoil, on trains, on buses, always. If you are worried they will fill up, book a ticket when you arrive or the day before you levave.
no big deal. As the poster explains it almost no place to see the lake and it is very expensive. The bus is a good alternative if the hydrofoil is sold out (but since it is forbiddingly expensive it almost never is).
make sure that you don't try to fit too much into the same trip:
1) Almost everything worthwhile in Siberia is from Tomsk (make sure you include Tomsk in your plans - it is arguably the most interesting town in Siberia) and eastbound.
2) Most likely the Baikal region will be the highlight of your Siberia trip - allow at least a week in the region
3) St Petersburg/Moscow, the lower Volga region and the Golder circle is part of a different trip to European Russia or a "two cities trip" to St Petersburg and Moscow with an excurtion to one of the golden Circle towns. Siberia is so big that you need the full 30 days of your visa there
4) You probably would appreiciate to get off the train every 12-36 hours. In addition to be a handy place to get off the train a few hours and have a beer and a kebab at one of the outdoors kafes along the Yenisey. the BAM and may be a ferry along the Yenisey to the Arctic are good reasons to get off the train in Krasnoyarsk.
5) Check out the possibility of taking the BAM instead of the Transiberian mainline further east before you decide what to do.
6) Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk has surprisingly little to offer travelers. That it is the biggest cities in their regions does not change that.
7) The Western BAM and the Sludyanka-Port Baikal leg at the old transiberian line is arguably the main exceptions to the rule that the terrain the train travels though is average to rather uninspiring
8) traveling in Siberia you can easily travel for a week or two without meeting anyone speeking anything else than Russian.
9) 1000 rubles a night on average is a senible simple hotel accomodation budget for one person
10) the phrase "odin bilet v kupe / platskartnom sevodnya / zaftra vecherom v Irkutsk / Krasnoyarsk / Ulan Ude / Vladivostok / Tomsk / Novosibirsk... might come handy" (One ticket in 2nd / 3rd class this evening / tomorrow evening to ..)
Nov 27, 2012 3:30 PM
1. Safe for foreigners? I guess so, since it was full of Chinese. I didn' feel unsafe at all.
2. My eating was quite basic while there. Cannot comment on any place in particular
3. Nature trips around the city. The closest thing to that I did was a half-day trip to Rusky Island. Ferries depart from Vladivostok harbor 4-5 times a day (very cheap), and get to the island in ~60 minutes. From there, you can take a bus further inland. At the last bus stop, I started walking along a wide unpaved road, with the aim of getting to some WWII guns installed in the east cape of the island. When I got there they had just closed the museum. I saw nothing but a forest and lots of trucks driving along the road.
On the ferry to Olkhon, I bought the tickets the same morning the boat was departing. Got there 1 hour before departure, and still had to wait 15 minutes unitl the ticket office opened. As jaoto said, getting to Olkhon from Irkustk is not a big deal.
Edited by: lsar
Dec 2, 2012 11:37 PM
7Thank you for your replies, Isar and jaoto.
"make sure that you don't try to fit too much into the same trip: "
The problem is that I will probably have only three weeks so I will have to compromise here and there. Tomsk is an interesting suggestion and I will make research on that but it is off the main line so I may skip it this time. The same goes with BAM: it is tempting but as of now I just couldn't find a way to fit it into my itinerary (mainly because of seemingly poor connections between Northern and Southern Baikal areas.
As of now I have a 22 days itinerary that gives me 3 days in Moscow, 2 days in Kazan, 1 day in Yekaterinburg, 6 days in Lake Baikal area, 3 days in St Petersburg and plenty of time on board of the train. However this itinerary is based on schedules from 2012 and a lot depends on possibility to find some cheap flights to save time. I've seen some great prices for Moscow - Vladivostok route that would allow to include Russian Far East into the trip and go the whole length of Trans-siberian.
The language thankfully is not an issue: I speak Russian fairly well.
Dec 3, 2012 8:56 AM
don't worry about what is on and what is "off the main line". There are regular trains eastwards from/to Tomsk. To the west a mashrutka to Novosibirsk (about 4 hours) is probably most convenient.
Same thing with the BAM. From Krasnoyarsk there are trains both BAM trains and "main line" trains. The only difference is what is written on your ticket.
Partly true. It is limited connections between the BAM and the Transiberian mainline, but the Baikal region is probably the most convenient place to cross - you have several opportunities - hydrofoil accross Lake Baikal, hydrofoil along the Angara, bus and train. One oppotunity is to have a look at the table at page 572 (refering to the 2006 edition) in the Lonely Planet guide, that lists what is best where in the region (the differents parts of the lake are rather different). Another point is that you can take the BAM all the way to Komsomolsk na Amure or cross over to "the mainline" at Tynda. The landscape that you can see from the window is nicer at the BAM (the nicest part is west of Severobaikalsk). Also keep in mind that Severobaikalsk is situated at the bank of Lake Baikal (Ulan Ude and Irkutsk is not).
My point exactly. You indicate to use alomost 1 week in St Petersburg and Moscow. I would save St Petersburg to the next trip to European Russia. I regret that I did not see the consentration camp Perm 36 (can be done as daytrip from Perm) when I passed though the Urals.
Dec 6, 2012 4:46 AM
9I still don't get how to quote other people's posts properly, but well, let it be as it is. Actually your posts gave me quite a bit food for thought.
"don't worry about what is on and what is "off the main line". There are regular trains eastwards from/to Tomsk. To the west a mashrutka to Novosibirsk (about 4 hours) is probably most convenient."
Again, the problem here is time. If something is off the main line you need not only to get there and back again but also find good connections and don't waste too much time waiting for your connecting train. I have made a rather detailed itinerary based on last years schedule where everything fits (just) together, but it seems to be falling apart already as Man in Seat 61 reported today that direct service from Irkutsk to St Petersburg will not be going next summer.
The biggest challenge is not to find a mean of transportation for any given route but fit all the trains, buses, hydrofoils and attractions in between into one jigsaw puzzle.
"My point exactly. You indicate to use alomost 1 week in St Petersburg and Moscow. I would save St Petersburg to the next trip to European Russia. I regret that I did not see the consentration camp Perm 36 (can be done as daytrip from Perm) when I passed though the Urals."
Frankly I would rather skip Kazan and Yekaterinburg if I'd find that some places in Siberia are more worthy to visit. St Petersburg is too big to skip for me and then it fits on the way back home just perfectly (or at least it would have done this year; I will have to wait to next years schedule before making some final decisions anyway).
Dec 6, 2012 2:59 PM
This is where I think you have misunderstood. You don't loose time. You don't travel there and back. The difference is that you most likely travel by a minibus instead of a train between Tomsk and Novosibirsk and take a, say, Krasnoyarsk-Tomsk train instead of a Krasnoyarsk-Novosibirsk train. You can choose 100% from preference, both ways can be done on your schedule.
This does not mean much difference to your trip, Every hour there are several trains to St Petersburg from Moscow.
Most people agree that the Baikal region is the highlight of their Siberia trip. It might be a good idea to start out with reading up on the Baikal region and decide what things and how many things that looks interesting there. Based upon that you get an idea how much time you need to spend there. Based upon what places and what kind of places you like the most, you can decide if Irkutsk (south west), Ulan Ude (south east) or Severobaikalsk (north) is your best base. Ulan Ude or Irkutsk means the transiberian, Severobaikalsk means the BAM. Severobaikalsk can always be combined with Irkutsk and Irkutsk can always be combined with Ulan Ude, but Ulan Ude and Severobaikalsk is an unconvenient combo.
Tobolsk has a a Kremlin. It also has a nice collection of Siberian wooden houses and is situated somewhere enroute you probably will enjoy to get off the train for a few hours if you travel non stop from Moscow. Tomsk is arguably the nicest town in Siberia (that said, it is the nature, not the towns that is the reason to see Siberia).
If you don't want to see anywhere west of Tomsk anyway, you can always fly St Petersburg/Moscow - Novosibirsk to save time. It is obviously no need to take the train both ways, by flying one direction you save at a week.
Not really. There are plenty of trains every day to most of the destinations you (and I) mention (the BAM has trains in one direction one day and in the other the next). Unless you are very price or comfort sensitive you can almost always get a ticket the same day or the next day if you are willing to go for platskartny instead of kupe, kupe instead of platskartny and can live with that a firmenny train that is a bit more expensive. To be on the safe side, book a ticket the day you arrive or the day before you leave.
Dec 10, 2012 10:52 AM
11"This does not mean much difference to your trip, Every hour there are several trains to St Petersburg from Moscow."
I'm sorry but it doesn't really help to have trains from Moscow when you are travelling from Irkutsk and Moscow is not quite on the way from Irkutsk to St Petersburg.
"Most people agree that the Baikal region is the highlight of their Siberia trip. It might be a good idea to start out with reading up on the Baikal region and decide what things and how many things that looks interesting there."
Two days on Olkhon island, two days to get there and back, a day for Circum Baikal Railway, a day for Irkutsk. Should do just fine.
"If you don't want to see anywhere west of Tomsk anyway, you can always fly St Petersburg/Moscow - Novosibirsk to save time. It is obviously no need to take the train both ways, by flying one direction you save at a week."
Frankly you save only three days (if flying Irkutsk to St Petersburg), spend more money and cannot afterwards brag about getting to Lake Baikal and back without getting off the ground. That said flying some portion is not out of the question but it will depend on the price of the tickets.
"Not really. There are plenty of trains every day to most of the destinations you (and I) mention (the BAM has trains in one direction one day and in the other the next)."
Trains are not the problem (although not all go everyday). The problem is that for example hydrofoil from Severobaikalsk to Olkhon Island go only twice a week and you need to time things well if you don't want to get stuck in Severobaikalsk for three days (I don't).
Jan 27, 2013 4:53 PM
12really appreciated your report - I'll be travelling independantly from Ulan Ude westwards in June without a precise itinery and now have a much better idea of how I want to use my alloted time. I'll plan one stop ahead at a time so I can make sure there is some transport in and out then use any time left at the end in Moscow and St Pertersburg - as someone said, they can always be seen as part of a later European trip.
I need to apply for my Invitation letter soon - please can you confirm that I can nominate 5 cities and 5 hotels where it would be reasonalbe for me to stay along the way but in reality it wont matter if I in fact stay in other places and additional cities?
Please can you also confirm whether I just have to register once, within 7 days of entering the country, or whether I have to register every time I spend a night somewhere (other than the train) even though I will only be spending one to three nights in any one place?
any advice much appreciated
Feb 1, 2013 8:22 PM
Yes it is. Moscow is the most obvious place to change trains to St Petersburg on the way from Irkutsk.
That hydrofoil is the most expensive way available to get from Irkutsk to Severobaikalsk or back. You can go by train or by a river hydrofoil from Irkutsk to Bratsk and then by train from Bratsk to Severobaikalsk instead.
Feb 10, 2013 12:38 PM
14About the registration: you are supposed to register yourself only when you stay more than 7 working days in the same place. That means you are rather unlikely to ever need registration if you are travelling. That being said, you must be able to prove that at every passport control, and that means keeping carefully your plane and train tickets to show that you never were somewhere more than 7 working days.
About the invitation: my personal experience is that it doesn't matter at all what cities you write on the invitation and on the visa application form. Just write something credible (like Moscow - St Petersburg) and you'll be fine.
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