Friday, June 29, 2018

Trans Siberian Railway Journey. Updated Itinerary.



It's been several months since I started planning this trip and since then I've learned a lot about the Trans Siberian Railway and several of the towns and cities that it passes through. As a result, what I thought would be our final itinerary back in February turned out to be the second of many iterations.  Planning this train ride has proven to be much more challenging than I had expected but I think it will be worth all the time and effort that went into putting the overall trip together.

Here is our final itinerary and it is final because the train tickets have been purchased and accommodations booked!  If the train journey itself was not enough, we will be renting a car and driving around the Golden Ring, the region nearby Moscow that is filled is comprised of ancient towns which played a significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The towns have been called "open-air museums" and feature unique monuments of Russian architecture of the 12th–18th centuries, including kremlins, monasteries, cathedrals, and churches. These towns are among the most picturesque in Russia and prominently feature Russia's onion domes.


More about the Golden Ring in another post.  This one focuses on the train journey of our trip.  A most epic train journey!

If there is one piece of advice that I have for anyone who is considering doing the Trans Siberian train journey, it's to invest in this book - the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas (Trailblazer). It is packed with very good information and I found it to be more useful than pretty much any other resource.

The other resource I relied heavily on is my favorite train travel website which I simply refer to as seat61.com.  The author has quite an extensive section on planning a trip on the Trans Siberian.

The third resource which was invaluable not only for information but for assistance in actually buying the tickets is Real Russia.  The site provides up-to-date information on train schedules.  If you are planning to do the trip as we are where you are stopping in towns along the way, the one thing to keep in mind is that not all trains run on all days.   That is an important fact to keep in mind because not all trains are the same in terms of comfort and amenities each offers.

But before you do anything, you need a bit of education starting with learning a wee bit about Russian trains.   Here's a very basic primer on Russian Trans Siberian trains of which there are three main types.

Firmenny (фирменный) trains are privately owned and operated trains that offer high quality service at a higher price.  The train numbers for Firmenny trains start with a zero followed by 2 numbers and one letter.  For example, the famed Rossiya train that travels from Moscow to Vladivostok is number 001M.  On the reverse route, the Rossiya is numbered 002M.  Firmenny trains typically have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class compartments and have a dining or restaurant car.

Fast/Skory (скорый) trains which are the majority of long distance trains on the Russian rail network. These are usually numbered from 1 – 160.   In general, they have good quality services, though they are not quite as modern as Firmenny trains. They have a few more stops than a Firmenny train and so the journey may take a little longer. This is reflected in their price being somewhat cheaper than a Firmenny train.  Skory trains have 2nd and 3rd class carriages, but usually lack a 1st class carriage.

Passenger (пассажирский) trains are both long and short distance trains but they make very frequent stops which makes the journey a longer one.  The trains are number from 300 and up. There are no 1st class carriages on the passenger trains, only 2nd and 3rd.  Because passenger trains offer the lowest fares, they are popular with locals;  you might meet some interesting people on the train.

In the world of Russian trains....

Splany vagon are the 1st class carriages.  Each carriage is comprised of 9 separate compartments and each compartment has 2 bunks and a table.  There are two toilets - one at either end of the carriage.  Without a doubt, these are the most modern and comfortable carriages and they carry the appropriate price tag.  If you want to go all out, go first class on a Firmenny train!  I think a 1st class Russian train will remind me of the overnight train that Pat and I took from Baku, Azerbaijan to Tbilisi, Georgia.  I was perfectly comfortable though I know that it was not quite the same experience for Pat.
Image from VisitRussia

Kupe are the 2nd class carriages.Like the first class carriage, each kupe carriage is comprised of 9 separate compartments.  Each compartment has four bunks - two upper and two lower with a single table between the two lower bunks.  There is also a toilet at each end of the carriage.  For safety or just travel preference, you can purchase tickets for a female only or a male only compartment.  You also pay more for the lower bunks as few people, especially older or less mobile folks, want to have to climb up and down to their bunk....not to mention that it's impossible to sit fully upright on a upper bunk.   For me, the kupe carriages are just like the soft sleeper carriages on Chinese trains.  I am perfectly comfortable in one.

Image from VisitRussia

Platzkart are the 3rd class carriages.  There are no compartments in 3rd class which means the entire carriage is open and there are no closed compartments or even curtains for any privacy.  Instead, there are 54 bunks with 4 bunks (2 upper and 2 lower) on one side and 2 bunks on the other and an aisle between them.  There is just the one toilet at either end of the carriage.  For that reason alone, I would not choose to travel in 3rd class.


For the Russia legs of trip, we will be traveling on both Firmenny and passenger trains and in all 3 classes.  Because of the complicated train schedule, it's a challenge to actually get on a specific category and class of train so we made some comprises.  We did decide that for the long distance journeys of which we have 3, we would only go first class but for one leg (from Kazan to St. Petersburg), that was not possible because there are no trains with 1st class carriages running on the day we want to travel so we are going 2nd class, female only compartment.  For the one leg that is just a short 8 hour (yes, 8 hours would be a short ride), we are going 3rd class mainly because we both think it will be an interesting and hopefully, fun way to meet some locals and fellow travelers.

Regardless of class, each Russian carriage has a (male) provodnik or more usually a (female) provodnitsa who cleans, maintains the samovar (which provides hot water) and puts out steps at stations.  They are renowned for their taciturnity but even with that, ass a rule of thumb, be sure to leave them a small tip for their services.  I think that at least on one of our rides, we should order coffee from the provodnitsa.....just for the experience of doing so.

Several of our Russia train rides will also come with a meal.  From what I have read, food quality is generally adequate though menus are limited - typically ham and fried eggs for breakfast, schnitzel and potatoes for lunch or dinner, with soups and salads for starters. Beer, Russian champagne, vodka, chocolate and snacks are sold at the bar.  I also read that quality deteriorates as the train progresses along in its journey.  I wonder if they ever run out of food.  In any case, we will be boarding prepared to cook some meals.  Also, I've not looked at which of our trains will be making station stops but wherever possible and when needed, we can just buy food from the platform vendors.  I have read to stay away from cold meats and salads.

Our train journey actually begins in Beijing where we will board the K23 for the overnight journey to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia.  For that trip, we will be riding in the deluxe soft sleeper which is essentially equivalent to the Russian 1st class carriage.

Here's our Trans Siberian train itinerary, minus the actual dates so you can't tell, from reading the table which are the overnight rides but the distances will be the clue.  Also included in the itinerary is the train ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow on the highspeed "Sapsan" train.



Knowing fully that I would be paying a substantial markup, I decided to purchase the tickets through an agent rather than doing it ourselves.  For one thing, most of the online purchase sites are only in Russian and not always easy to use and I was not about to go the just show up at the ticket counter and buy the ticket route - much too risky for us.  After checking out a few travel agency websites, I went with Real Russia, a reputable UK based agency to get our train tickets.  Our agent, Alla, has been extremely responsive since my initial contact with her and she's also been very thorough in her service delivery - no mistakes so far on schedule or trains.

Before reaching out to Real Russia, I had already done the preliminary research to see which trains we wanted to ride on.  I the left it up to Alla to suggest trains and with the exception of two, her suggested train itinerary matched what I had come up with.  In reality, you can just leave it in their hands to come up with the trains but I felt better having done the research beforehand so I knew exactly what we were getting....at least I think I know. 😁

Another thing to keep in mind is that for the Russian trains, tickets can only be issued a certain period before departure date.  I think it's 90 days for domestic trains and 60 days for international trains.  At this point, I have fully paid for our entire journey and so it's now just a matter of waiting for Real Russia to make the purchases.  With the exception of the Ulaan Baatar to Ulan Ude leg, all the other tickets are e-tickets.  We have to pick up our paper tickets when we are in Ulaan Baatar.

For the China to Mongolia leg, I am purchasing those tickets separately.  I did some price checking and settled on making the purchase through Travel China Guide as they offered more reasonable prices.  In general, the price of the ticket is not cheap - around $340 per person including delivery fee for the courier to bring the tickets to your hotel or private residence in Beijing.

With the basic logistics of the trip pretty much worked out, I can now focus on the activities.  That's the fun part of trip planning though I have to admit, I have enjoyed the challenge of putting together our train journey.  I just hope everything works out smoothly!  🙏