When do I need to book?
The trans-Siberian operates all year round however for overseas travellers there is a definite peak season when train tickets and preferred hotel rooms can become scarce. We recommend booking as far in advance as possible especially if you are travelling in the northern summer; early May to the end of September. Outside of this busy period we still recommend booking at least 3 months in advance to allow plenty of time to obtain the visas.
How much time do I need for this trip?
The train journey Beijing to Moscow or Vladivostok to Moscow is a weeks’ worth of travel – without stopping, so in theory you can do this trip in a week but we really don’t recommend it. The joy of this adventure is stopping off and exploring all the wonderful and diverse cities along the way. Even a two week trip is quite fast, there is so much to see. For public train travel we recommend between three and four weeks duration as the ideal length of journey. This will give you enough time to enjoy the highlight experiences and sights for a range of stopover cities along the way. If you are limited to two weeks in duration then we would suggest you consider one of the private trains Tsars Gold or Golden Eagle that we also represent at Flower Travel. Please ask us for details, we will be happy to assist.
How do I get the visas and what do they cost?
Australian passport holders require a visa for China, Mongolia and Russia. The Russian visa is date specific so it is vital that you apply for the correct dates of travel (we normally add a day or two onto your visa ‘just in case’). You will need a valid passport (with minimum 6 months validity from your return date to Australia) You will also need three double pages clear of stamps in your passport for the required visas. As part of your package we supply letters of invitation for all three countries. You need to allow 6-8 weeks for processing during which time you will be without your passport. Russian visas are issued in Sydney (or Canberra if you are an ACT resident), Mongolian visas in Canberra and Chinese visas in your state capital city (excluding SA, NT, TAS which are usually handled in Canberra). For New Zealanders the Russian and Chinese visas can be obtained from the respective consulates in Wellington. Mongolian visas can be obtained via the honorary Consulate of Mongolia in Auckland. If you have any other international travel planned prior to your Trans-Siberian trip please speak to us and we can work out a timeline as some of these visas cannot be obtained too far in advance. Please refer to ‘Countdown to Your Trip’ for price guidelines. We can either give you instructions to handle the processing yourself or you take our ‘done for you’ visa service at an additional fee.
What is visa registration in Russia? How is it done?
Registration is the process by which Russian authorities are notified of your arrival and locations in Russia. You need to register if you are staying more than 7 business days in Russia. As you travel from one city to another, you should register in each location. If you stay in a hotel, then the hotel is responsible for the registration at check-in. It doesn’t matter if in your letter of invitation you included a particular hotel and then you stayed in a different one, since any hotel has the obligation to make the registration. The hotel will take a copy of your passport photo page and issue a foreign citizen arrival notification form. Registration is free of charge at hotels that form part of prepaid package with us. They usually give you a part of this form when you check out and this is useful for the next hotel if you keep these slips with your passport. Please hold onto your train tickets as proof of nights on board the train. These tickets are equivalent to the registration for hotel nights. The Russian police are not authorised to request proof of registration on the streets; it is the inviting company in Russia that is the point of contact for authorities in case of any problem. If you have your own arrangements in Russia as part of your itinerary it is your responsibility to ensure registration of the visa.
What about flights?
We can provide advice and recommendations for your flight options in conjunction with your trip. For actual flight bookings we recommend that you book directly with the airline themselves, not third-party websites.
What is the best time of year to do this trip?
The summer months from June to the end of August are generally considered the best and are certainly the busiest months. However Spring and Autumn (Northern Hemisphere) are probably our favourite seasons to visit Russia (although Mongolia can be cold). China tends to be best in September and October although do try and avoid the week long National Day holiday during the 1st week of October.
If you don’t mind the cold then we believe that travel on the trans-Siberian in winter, especially December, January and February, is a great time to take this journey.
How fit do I need to be do this trip?
A good level of fitness is essential for you to undertake a semi-independent Trans-Siberian rail journey. You need to be able to carry your own luggage on/off trains (with quite high steps to board the trains), through stations and in/out of hotels and guesthouses. Distances of around 3-500m are common and there are stairs everywhere in Russia. Many of the railway stations on this journey do not have escalators and several of our favourite boutique hotels do not have elevators. If you have any concerns please do not hesitate to speak with us.
Do I need vaccinations?
No vaccinations are mandatory for these destinations but you would be well advised to take informed advice on this from specialist travel health centres. Particular concerns are Cholera, Typhoid, Hepatitis B, Tetanus and Diphtheria. Travel in forested areas brings the risk of exposure to tick-borne encephalitis and other tick-borne diseases. Ticks are very common in rural areas from spring to autumn.
What about travel insurance?
Comprehensive travel insurance (including medical and repatriation cover) is strongly recommended as per Australian government guidelines. And in fact details of your insurance coverage is required for your Russian visa application.
How should I carry money on the trans-Siberian?
As a general rule taking cash out from an ATM with a credit or debit card is more convenient than changing money but it is important to have both options available to you. So we recommend a combination of cash and card as the best policy when travelling the Trans Mongolian/Siberian route. US Dollars or Euros are the only currencies worth having; Australian and New Zealand dollars cash notes are not accepted for exchange in Mongolia or Russia. It is important that the notes are clean and relatively new and larger denominations such as US$50 and US$100 notes are preferred. Cash can be exchanged for local currency in banks and some hotels, and ATMs are convenient for cash advances and widely available in hotels, stations and in city streets. It is difficult to get Mongolian Tugrik outside of Mongolia and once you leave Mongolia impossible to change back. Chinese Renminbi and Russian Rubles can be purchased in Australia or on arrival. Many ATMs in Russia will dispense a maximum of 5000 Rubles which is around AU$100 value ; plenty of money for a day in Siberia, but doesn’t go that far in Moscow/St Petersburg. Credit cards are widely accepted for purchases and in restaurants but always (politely) decline if they offer you a conversion to Australian dollars at point of payment – this is always more expensive for you.
Don’t change money with anyone on the street no matter what special deal they offer you.
Is tipping necessary and how much?
Tipping is expected in China and Mongolia but it is not compulsory. There is less of an expectation in Russia but in general tipping is a greatly appreciated income boost for local guides and drivers whose work is seasonal. Our guides are often very good and exceptionally knowledgeable, if you feel the service warrants a tip a rough guide as to how much to give would be the equivalent of US $10 to the guide and US $5 the driver – per person / per day. More or less is up to you. In restaurants and cafes a tip of around 5-10% is recommended although many (especially in Russia) already include a service fee.
What type of luggage is best for this trip? What should I pack?
You will be required to carry your own luggage on or off the trains and through the stations (up to 10-15 minutes including several flights of stairs and uneven surfaces). We recommend using a small/medium sized bag with wheels, a single rucksack or a soft duffle bag as your main luggage for this journey – these fit more easily into the limited luggage space on the trains. We also recommend that you carry a small daypack for personal items used during the day (camera, water, snacks etc.) and a hidden money belt for valuables. We supply a comprehensive packing list with your final documents…or ask us for a copy in advance.
Phone and internet, is wifi available?
There is no wifi available on board the trains. Free wifi is widely available in hotels, restaurants and some stations along the route. Please note that Google (including Gmail) and Facebook are not accessible in China. Internet security can be an issue like anywhere, and we advise against using Internet Banking facilities whilst travelling. You can purchase a local sims fairly inexpensively and Russia, Mongolia and China nowadays have reliable mobile networks for data and making calls, but coverage will still be intermittent during train journeys. Many mobile plans in Australia have a fixed per day international roaming charge, so please speak to your mobile phone provider to see what is best for you.
Border crossings and toilet access?
Borders are an integral part of the journey – patience, a sense of humour, and a positive outlook will ensure you enjoy this experience. Border crossings take a long time due to customs and immigration searching trains – often full of traders – bogey wheel changes (an intriguing sight at the China/Mongolia border), and train schedules. During border crossings the toilets are generally locked for the duration. There is a toilet in the station however you may not be permitted off the train for a period of time (up to 3 hours). It is useful to hang onto some small denominations of local currency to pay the attendant when using the station toilets.
2 or 4 berth, what are the trains like?
Overnight accommodation on board the trains is in 2 or 4 berth sleeping compartments. 2 berth compartments are referred to as 1st class and 4 berth are referred to as 2nd class however there is minimal difference in the standard, just the number of beds. 4 berth compartments have 2 comfortable bunks with basic mattresses, a small table under the window, personal reading lamps and clean linen. Power outlets are located in the corridor only. 2 berth compartments are very similar, but have twin beds and a power outlet inside the cabin. There is a variety of rolling stock along the routes and the standard of train compartments is dependent on available wagons and the enthusiasm of the attendants (conductors). There are usually no shower facilities on any of the trains we use, however it is possible to have a strip wash in the bathrooms. Occasionally long distance Russian trains have a pay-to-use shower located in the special services wagon. The cost is around R150. No towel or soap is provided and thongs/jandals would be very wise! Train carriages usually have 9 compartments, and a separate living quarters for attendants (2 per carriage). At the end of each carriage are toilets equipped with sinks and cold water. The toilets are of the western sit down variety. Each carriage also has a samovar (urn) which provides boiling water for drinks or (if you must!) instant noodles.
How much should I budget for meals?
This journey covers a diverse range of cuisine. You will enjoy regional Chinese meals, nomadic cooking in Mongolia, hearty meals in Siberia and a world of options once you reach Moscow/St Petersburg. You should budget around US$20 per day in China for everyday meals. If you are willing to eat like a local in Ulaanbaatar also budget around US$20 per day. To eat at the more up market restaurants you will need US$35+ per day. Meals in Siberia are less expensive. Once you reach Moscow and St Petersburg prices are on a par with the most expensive cities of Europe, and although there are some cheap eating options a restaurant meal will cost between US$20 and US$35.
What food options are available on the trains?
On board the trains, there will be limited and relatively overpriced meals on offer. Chinese and Mongolian trains serve standard local fare, including rice, vegetables, chicken and mutton. Russian trains serve hearty meals, usually including soup, salad and meat mains. On some of the shorter journeys a dining car may not be available. Many people prefer to prepare picnics in their compartment – often sharing local delicacies with fellow travelers western and locals. At stops along the way there are small kiosks on the train platforms to purchase drinks and snacks (during summer only). Large markets and bazaars have a wide range of fruit, vegetables, bread, meats and other foods. Vegetarians need to come prepared to have to self-cater a little more. A vegan diet will create some challenges en route but these are not insurmountable.
What to drink?
Traditional Russian tea is served strong and black and can be taken with a spoonful of sweet jam. Green tea is dominant in China. Mongolian tea is a mixture of milk, black tea and salt! Tap water is generally not safe to drink. Bottled water is readily available – although sparkling water is more common in Russia. UHT milk is widely available in small/medium sized cartons. Wine is available for those with a sweet tooth. Beer is widely available, and often cheaper than water. Vodka is the National drink and taken in shots. Remember to always eat when drinking vodka! That’s the way Russians do it.
How do I arrange to see a performance at the Bolshoi theatre?
Booking theatre tickets in advance: to avoid disappointment we recommend that you book any theatre performances that you wish to attend in Moscow or St Petersburg in advance. Please consider carefully which performances you are going to want attend and make sure that the dates correspond to your trip. In particular we recommend you see what’s playing at the Bolshoi (Moscow) and Mariinsky (St Petersburg), as it may be difficult to get tickets when you are there. The most useful sites to check in English are www.mariinsky.ru and www.bolshoi.ru and tickets should be purchased from these sites. We do not recommend you try to buy tickets from third party sites. Please note that both theatres have a summer vacation period during August and the start of September each year.
What about private trains in Russia?
Using the public train system for this journey is not for all travellers and some may prefer a more comfortable style especially with the opportunity to have private bathroom facilities. We represent two private train options – the 5* Golden Eagle Luxury Train which operates mainly from Vladivostok to Moscow and vice versa and the 4* Tsars Gold train which focuses on Beijing to Moscow and v.v.