Sunning yourself in the Algarve or lazing around on a beach in Croatia is all very well, but don’t you ever fancy going on a holiday that will just stun everyone back home into going: “Wow!”?
Taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway would definitely do that.
A ribbon of spectacular scenery, culture and history that connects East to West, the Trans-Siberian Railway spans more than a third of the world, traces 5,777 miles from Asia to Europe and speeds through no fewer than seven time zones.
Epic is something of an understatement – a fact Joanna Lumley discovered while filming a new three-part series for ITV.
Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure sees the Ab Fab actress travel from Hong Kong to Moscow via Mongolia, taking what she calls “one of the most exciting journeys you can make on land”.
However, with those kinds of distances and that many countries involved, the scale of the trip can understandably seem a bit daunting. So here’s our beginner’s guide to planning a Trans-Siberian excursion:
The main routes: times and destinations
There are three main routes on the Trans-Siberian Railway to choose from.
1. Trans-Russian route
Starting in Moscow and ending in ‘the San Francisco of Russia’, Vladivostok, you can do this journey – travelling non-stop – in seven days. Highlights include the Amur and Khabarovsk regions, as well as one of the world’s 10 longest rivers, the Amur itself.
2. Trans-Mongolian route
This is the only route to take if you want to explore Mongolia and, non-stop, takes just six days from hopping on at Moscow and jumping back off in Beijing. Explore Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator, and witness the majesty of the Gobi Desert.
3. Trans-Manchurian route
The Trans-Manchurian route also starts and stops in Moscow and Beijing but can be done in seven days (non-stop). It gives you the chance to visit Harbin in China and be thoroughly impressed by the Ural Mountains.
How much does it cost?
On average – according to realrussia.co.uk – costs look like this:
Trans-Russian route: £230-£585
Trans-Mongolian route: £490-£785
Trans-Manchurian route: £545-£850
However, these prices do of course vary depending on the route you choose, what stops you make along the way and whether or not you make a return journey.
Booking an all-inclusive tour is also simpler, but can be far more expensive than organising your train travel independently.
And don’t forget to add on the costs of flights and visas. British nationals need to apply for visas before travelling to Russia and mainland China, but only need one for Mongolia if planning to stay in the country for more than 30 days.
Got to the FCO website for more information on applying.
What are the cabins like?
When choosing the type of train to travel on, ask yourself: how comfy and private an experience do you want? There are luxurious, velvet-seated, gold-plated trains you can handpick (if you have the cash to do so), as well as the sleek Tran-Siberian Express.
But standard trains on the Trans-Russian route usually offer three fairly basic cabin styles: 1st class (2-berth), 2nd class (4-berth) and 3rd class (open plan dorm carriages, mostly suited to backpackers).
Meanwhile, the Trans-Mongolian route provides 1st class deluxe (2 beds, armchair and washroom), 1st class (4-berth with almost identical amenities to the deluxe) and 2nd class (4-berth) rooms.
Finally, the Trans-Manchurian route just offers 1st (2-berth) and 2nd class (4-berth) bunks.
Of course, it is still a train: so space is limited, with cabins furnished with simplicity and functionality in mind (the dining carts are a bit more exciting, though!). But really, it’s all about the view.
What about the food?
If you have booked a specific tour, you can opt to have food included at an additional cost. However, most trains do have a bar and dining cart offering hot (often expensive) meals, and run a snacks trolley service.
You are generally allowed to take your own food and drink on board, too (which is apparently standard practice among Russians). And don’t forget to take your own tea bags – you can’t beat a taste of home.
How to book
For journey planners and to book reputable tours as well as trains, visit the easy-to-use realrussia.co.uk – handily it’s all in English! Or call 020 7100 7370.
Alternatively, check out Trans Siberian (0845 521 2910), run by Russia Experience who organise numerous package tours.
May to September is the peak time for travellers, but the railway runs all year round.
The second episode of Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure airs on Sunday at 9pm on ITV.