So, here comes a long post. Instead of writing about each of the train journeys separately, I thought it might be more interesting to compare them in one. And not too many train-based posts for those less passionate about them ? 🙂

The routes

For those who don’t know, there are three main tourist routes starting in Moscow. The Trans-Siberian trains stay in Russia and travel all the way to Vladivostok. The Trans-Mongolian ends in Beijing via Ulaan Bator in Mongolia. The third route is the Trans-Manchurian. This avoids Mongolia and crosses from Russia into the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

We chose the latter. I wanted to see the city of Harbin in northern Manchuria, and Mischa was happy to follow luckily. It’s famous for its Ice and Snow winter festival, which, like many other places along the way, we arrived at the wrong time of year and have missed it. What we can’t miss is the architecture of the city. Described as Chinese with Russian influence, the buildings in certain areas seem very european and we have already been mistaken as Russian tourists. There’s also the famous Harbin beer, a lager but still you can’t beat 75p for a pint-sized bottle.

Having met many travellers in Russia, many asked “why aren’t you going to Mongolia, it’s the most stunning place on earth!” You notice after a while that some backpackers love to tell you the best places are the places they have been too but you haven’t. Our main reason for not going to Mongolia was the cost of more visas and the lack of time to actually apply for them. Perhaps we’ll go from Beijing by bus, apparently the border control is much quicker but this means applying for visas in Beijing, we’ll see.

How to ride the trains

Wear pyjamas and slippers at all times. Do not shower. Eat pot noodles. Drink tea using hot water from the samovar. Get scowled at by the provodnitsa for trying to use the toilet too soon before or after a station. Share beer and food with kupe buddies. Feel a little dizzy when the carriage is too hot. Try to open the windows (they never open). Never be the right temperature. Always jump off the train at a long stop for fresh non smelly air, no matter how cold it is outside. Don’t stray too far from your provodnitsa and carriage. Chat to the wrestlers from Kazakstan. Tell people your name is “Mischa”, Russians love it. Discuss marijuana once a russian has discovered Mischa’s mum is dutch. Ask if they like football to get them to leave the kupe abruptly. Feel slighlty relieved once leaving the train, yet miss it a few hours later.

Tips for travellers

Even numbered trains go west-east and odd numbered trains go east-west. Eg, we took train 20 from Ulan-Ude to Harbin, it returns as train 19 to Moscow.

The higher the train number, the older it typically is. Older also means cheaper.

The bedding, for both platzkart and kupe, comes in a plastic wrap including a hand towel, pillow case, sheet and duvet sheet. These are collected up and given to your providnitsa before you leave the train so no need to worry about whether they’re clean or not. Blankets, thin mattresses and a pillow are also supplied and the bedding is all comfortable.

Buying tickets

Following advice from the man in seat 61, we booked most of the tickets using the state Russian railway wesbite, rzd (or rather ржд), which has an English option. I say English, it’s very much a missmatch of Russian and English and a different combination of the two each time. Luckily, I could read some and was patient with Google translate on my phone, holding it up in front of the screen. Doing this, it’s really easy to book and your tickets are given in PDF format. If you get tickets with electronic registration (all the ones we had were) you can simply show the ticket to your provodntsa on you phone without printing. (We printed them just in case our phones died.) They’re more interested in seeing your passport anyway. Even the Russians use their passport for the trains as ID. One issue with the website is that I couldn’t work out how to book all the trains and then pay – I had to pay for each as I went along, this took a long time…

Crossing the border confuses the system. Ulan-Ude to Beijing is an option but not Ulan-Ude to Harbin, or anywhere else the train stops in China. RealRussia is recommended for buying train tickets yet their comission is super high, nearly 50% on trains when I was comparing the prices they gave me. Unfortunately, we had no choice and had to use them for the train across the border. This ticket was more expensive than all the other trains we took in Russia, in total. We met several other travellers who had had this problem also and reluctantly used RealRussia. We probably should have waited and booked it ourselves when in Russia, but we were worried it would sell out and the train went once a week – we had to be careful with the visas.

Sapsan 761: St Petersburg – Moscow

Class: 2nd class seat

Time: 3 hours 50 minutes

Cost: £26.48 each

Sapsan in the type of fast train that runs between St Petersburg and Moscow, many go everyday. Considering the price, there was definitely a type of person who got this train – those who could afford it. The annoucements where in both Russian and English which surprised us. The carriage even had a special area just for hanging up coats, which everyone bar us seemed to use. Sod’s law though we got the seats with no window, or rather a really small crack. The land was flat the whole way, not many big built up areas and immediately wooden houses which I thought we’d see mostly in Siberia.


Train 76: Moscow – Yekaterinburg (3rd class)

Class: 3rd class platzkart, lateral top and bottom beds

Time: 26 hours 2 minutes (one night)

Cost: £20.35 and £32.70

Platzkart is open plan sleeping, 54 people/beds to a carriage with two toilets. It’s not too bad, not as bad as some online blogs/guidebooks say. It is safe. It is not (at least our experiences) full of strange men wanting to steal your passport. It’s mostly families, couples and older people. Did not see anyone drinking vodka or beer! We went for the lateral beds (they run parallel to the tracks and so the aisles) as they’re the cheapest. It was ok, got woken up once being bumped by someone’s luggage when getting off in the night, the inside beds looked comfier though. For Mischa, he didn’t quite fit in the lateral ones… The landscape continued to be mostly flat, birch forests with wooden villages.


Train 76: Yekaterinburg – Novosibirsk

Class: 3rd class platzkart, lateral top and bottom beds

Time: 21 hours 22 minutes (one night)

Cost: £19.43 and £31.16

After the previous platzkart, we were relly looing forward to being back on the train. This time the platzkart felt so much hotter. It was also smellier. Young children on trains meant they had their potties out… Every now and then an adult with a full one came passsed us taking it to empty in the toilet. Not great when you’re eating. Again, the scenery was the same. Big country. We got a bit desperate to get off this time.


Train 78: Novosibirsk – Irkutsk

Class: 2nd class kupe, top and bottom beds

Time: 31 hours 23 minutes (two nights)

Cost: £50.49 and £64.15

A kupe compartment is for four people. Another old train so the temperature was pretty warm, but not as hot as the previous platzkart. We initally shared with Igor and Alexei who spoke a little English and shared some beer with us. More beer meant more attempts at english which was entertaining all round. They came from Barnaul, where my Russian penpal in college was from, and they left us at Krasnoyarsk which was their destination for “personal development”. I think they meant career development as they did not have jobs. A carriage to ourselves for the day! A nice comfort but then a shame not to make more friends. This is when the scenery got interesting and beyond flatness. A woman joined us at a small stop but knew no english and was either on her phone or sleeping. In the night time a seocnd woman joined. We all got off at Irkutsk at 6:09am.


Train 250: Irkutsk – Baikalsk-pass

Class: 2nd class seat

Time: 3 hours 5 minutes

Cost: £5.79 each

A short train during the day, after the first hour you hit the Angara River and then Lake Baikal in all it’s beauty. Sod’s law again – no window and we were on the right hand side of the train, the lake on the left. Luckily the windows were generally big given the trains are so big and there is standing room at either end of the carriage with windows. We also made friends with 17 year old Edward travelling the full route of the 8 hour train to Ulan-Ude to see his girlfriend. He happily took some photos for us.


Train 12: Baikalsk – Ulan-Ude

Class: 2nd class kupe, both top beds

Time: 4 hours 16 minutes

Cost: £13.42 each

I had wanted to book seats again for this train but this was the only option left. It happened to be a very modern train, including digital displays with time, temperature and whether the toilet was in use or not. There was air-con! Both this and the previous train go right along the edge of the lake, it is stunning. We later met some travellers who had gone past Lake Baikal in the night time – make sure you do not do this, even if it means changing trains. When the ice was whiter there were people fishing and playing on the ice.


Train 20: Ulan-Ude – Harbin

Class: 2nd class kupe, top and bottom beds

Time: 49 hours 22 minutes

Cost: price on ticket £172.45 each (£250.46 each with RealRussia comission of 30%)

Again a modern air-con train, the only one on the Trans-Manchurian route which goes once a week from Moscow all the way to Beijing. We joined a man who was mostly on his phone who left in the night at Chita. A couple joined us at Chita and we were nicely surprised to discover they were french and also travelling to Beijing with a brief one-night stop in Manzhouli, on the Chinese side of the border. A second surprise on waking up was the snow, all you could see was whiteness.


2 thoughts on “The Iron Road (the Trans-Manchurian)

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