The Transsiberian Railway – Part I: Getting Started

“Best of all, he would tell me of the great train that ran across half the world… He held me enthralled then, and today, a lifetime later, the spell still holds. He told me of the train’s history, its beginnings… how a Tzar had said, “Let the Railway be built!” And it was… For me, nothing was ever the same again. I had fallen in love with the Traveler’s Travels. Gradually, I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there.

– Lesley Blanch, Journey into the Mind’s Eye

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There is something inexplicably fascinating about Russia. There is something about the mode of life, with the long dark nights of winter and the dormant aspect of nature with its wide expanse of fields and thick coverages of dazzling snow. There is something about the sheer vastness of the country, with 11 separate time zones nearly touching Japan in the east and bordering on Finland and Azerbaijan in the west. Something about the terrain, the groups of trees, the delicate reeds, frozen rivers and ice-covered lakes. The contrivances of man in his struggle with the climate, the Cyrillic alphabet with all its backwards and upside-down letters.

And there is something alluring about Mongolia. The raised plains, the vast plateaus covered in dusty tumbleweeds. The dark skinned, smiling faces of the nomadic people, following their herds of sheep in search of water across the arid landscape. Riding miniature horses, listening to the calls of the falcons… And the infinite majesty of the dunes of the Gobi desert.

There is something about this journey that has held me enthralled for years.


I finally decided to make it a reality. It began with a phone call to my cousin.

My cousin’s journey on this railway began with a ferry from Japan in 1996. It is he who had me falling in love with the Traveler’s Travels, long before I was old enough to embark on the journey on my own. And though the times have changed, the route remains the same as it did the moment the railway was completed.

How to Get Started:

1. Choose a route – There are several. They are all considered Transsiberian trips, but they are broken into the Trans-siberian, Trans-mongolian, and Trans-manchurian. This site gives a good idea of the options.

2. Choose a direction – You can head west to east (a popular route is east from Moscow – Beijing), or east to west if you’d rather end up in Europe. I chose east-west, because I’m already in Asia.

3. Arrange your visas – This will depend on what route you’ve chosen – In my case, I needed all three: Russia, Mongolia, and China. In all cases, a fee is involved. It varies by country, and by your country of residence too. Use the websites to ascertain exactly how much each will cost you.

  • Russia: Tour companies from your home country will be your best bet to arrange this. I used Monkey Shrine because my cousin used them and they have a great track record. You can use whoever you like, but make sure they have the ability to apply for your visa directly with the Russian hosting company (this Russian company must have the legal authorization to invite foreign tourists to Russia). The reference number and stamp of approval that this company provides is fundamental to the granting of your application. Trust me when I say the Russian visa is not something you want to do all on your own. You will tear your hair out, and you will have no money left when you’re done. Here’s a good site to get you started, including all the info on which documents you’re going to need – The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada. This is the trickiest visa to arrange, so give yourself some time to do it. Note that the Russian Federation only accepts money orders: no cash, no personal cheques.
  • Mongolia: Arranging your Mongolian visa is as simple as dropping your passport off at the nearest Mongolian consulate (the one in Vancouver is in a law office on West Hastings Street, totally random), paying the visa fee, and picking it up again. You’ll need to give them a set of documents and a completed application form too, but it’s relatively painless. Here is a list of all the Mongolian Consulates in Canada.
  • China: Relatively straightforward as well, but if you’re in Vancouver, be prepared to wait in a long line for this one. The Chinese Embassy on West Broadway is jam-packed from the moment it opens until the moment it closes. In order to drop off your documents, you need a number. The numbers are given on a first-come-first serve basis, which usually results in a lineup down the sidewalk before the consulate even opens in the morning. Be prepared to spend half a day here, just waiting in line (Oh! And don’t bring your coffee in here either, they have a guy on patrol whose sole purpose is to walk around and get mad at anyone drinking coffee or using their phone). Once you drop off your documents, the consulate will keep your passport for a couple of weeks (depending on the length of your processing – it takes less time for an express visa – it also costs a lot more). This is the cheapest visa of the bunch (for Canadians at least). The website of the Chinese consulate in Canada is down at the moment, but here’s one outlining the documents for Americans (it’s more intensive than the Canadian application; more expensive too): Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the USA.

4. Pack for the weather, the food, and the boredom – You’re going to be on a train for a very, very long time. I don’t care who you are, nothing can prepare you well for this. Do what you can and bring lots of books, crossword puzzles, or a companion. There will be limited food choices on the train. You might want to bring some delicious things from home to change-up your daily routine of instant mashed potatoes. Oh, and depending on the time of year, the weather can be extreme. Pack accordingly! Don’t forget your camera. And don’t bring anything too valuable. The train is full of smugglers. ;)

5. Increase your alcohol tolerance – The train is full of vodka. It finds its way out of every nook and cranny, and you will have no choice but to drink it. The best thing you can do for yourself now is to drink lots of vodka in increasing amounts over the next few weeks. This will save your life on the train.

6. Print off copies of all your important documents, visas, etc. – Give one set to your mom (or someone equally trustworthy), and pack one set with you, separate from your carry-on.

7. Get yourself there! – That’s it! You’ve prepared well and you’re ready to go! Get yourself to your point of departure. Congratulations, and good luck!

In the next little while I will be documenting my journey from Beijing, northward and westward, through unfamiliar places and mysterious landscapes. Check my blog for links to my Transsiberian Railway Series… it’s a long road, and a fair number of posts will start to appear here. I hope you have an equally amazing time if you decide to go too! The decision to make this journey was, for me, one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

“I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends.”

-Ma Jian, Red Dust