Drafting your Trans-Siberian itinerary, deciding on the stops along the way, evaluating the time needed in each stop, and finally understanding the financial impact each deviation from the standard route can have on your budget, is a lengthy and extremely time-consuming process.
Food For Thought
To make this hard task somewhat easier, I would like you to focus on the below areas:
- The days that you can afford for this trip
- Your personal endurance in a demanding itinerary, as well as various out of comfort conditions
- Your budget
- If you are a group of friends, you will need to align the above-mentioned (3) point among yourselves
I will start by sharing with you my personal itinerary, my thoughts, experiences, all those things I missed out, the time I had planned vs the time I actually needed, and of course my personal recommendations. While reading, you should try to seek answers to the four “Food For Thought” points I have just mentioned.
I. The Route
The initial idea was to travel as a group of 3. We mutually agreed on considering two different travel plans:
- Plan A: Following the classic Trans-Siberian Route from Moscow to Vladivostok From Vladivostok, we would connect by flight to China. Both Eastbound and Westbound scenarios discussed.
- Plan B: Following the touristic Trans-Mongolian Route. Both Eastbound and Westbound scenarios discussed.
I was in favor of Plan A, but the two Italian ladies supported Plan B. In a full democratic atmosphere we decided to go for the Trans-Mongolian route, traveling Eastbound.
II. The Timeline
The two Italian ladies could only afford 3 weeks of vacation, so we had to find a way to split those 3 weeks between 3 different countries. We decided on 10 days for Russia, 5-7 days for Mongolia, and the remaining time for China.
III. The Stops
The time limitation did not allow us to consider any other stops than just Lake Baikal for Russia, Ulan Bator and the the surrounding area for Mongolia, and Beijing for China.
We decided to stay 2,5 days around Lake Baikal, from there take the Circum Baikal train (a picturesque 5-hours ride along Baikal Lake), and then split the rest of our time between Listvyanka and Irkutsk.
Contrary to most other travelers, we opted to invest more time in Mongolia. More specifically, we targeted at organizing a private 5-6 day tour around Central Mongolia before departing for China.
In China, we could only afford 3 days for Beijing before our flights back home.
IV. The Count of Days
- Days 1-3: St. Petersburg
- Days 3-5: Moscow
- Days 6-9: En route to Lake Baikal (train)
- Days 10-12: Lake Baikal
- Day 12: Lake Baikal – Ulan Ude (train)
- Day 13: Ulan Ude – Ulan Bator (bus)
- Days 14-20: Mongolia
- Day 20: Ulan Bator – Border with China (train)
- Day 21: Mongolian Border – Beijing (bus)
V. Transportation Costs
- Moscow – Slyudyanka (070Ч Train): 120€
- Slyudyanka – Port Baikal (Circum Baikal / “Matanya” Train): 2€
- Port Baikal – Listvyanka (Ferry Boat): 1€
- Listvyana – Irkutsk (Minivan): 2€
- Irkutsk – Slyudyanka (Minivan): 3€
- Slyudyanka – Ulan Ude (No 208*H Train): 15€
- Ulan Ude – Ulan Bator (Bus): 32€
- Ulan Bator – Zamiin Uud (276 Train): 27€
- Erlian – Beijing (Bus): 30€
Mistakes Made And Lessons Learnt
For me the biggest mistake travelers make is trying to squeeze 3 countries in one trip.
Traveling is more than just increasing the count of countries you have checked in at. It is about having the time to really explore and better understand the country, the culture, and its people.
I fully understand that the Trans-Mongolian route is the most interesting and exciting one, but what if you cannot really see much of Russia, Mongolia, and China in such a short time And what if this over-stressed itinerary makes your trip way too expensive for no reason?
For example, did you know that the Chinese Visa will cost you at least 128€? And that the train from Ulan Bator to Beijing will cost you another 185€ at the very minimum? Does such an expense really worth it for just 2-3 days in China? I let you decide on that…
So, unless you can afford at least one month for the entire Trans-Mongolian route, I fee you should start considering the classic Trans-Siberian route instead. Let’s don’t forget… The name of the Trans-Siberian route itself says it all. Crossing Siberia from the one side to the other! Why not just focus on that?
What Would I Do Differently
If I were to redo the same travel itinerary from scratch, and with only 3 weeks on my agenda, I would opt to head to Vladivostok instead. Additionally, I would consider one more stop either in Yekaterinburg or in Novosibirsk, and another 2-3 extra days in Lake Baikal for visiting Olkhon Island. From Vladivostok, I would take a flight to Beijing and spend 5 full days there.
Moreover, I think I would rather follow a westbound route, starting my journey from Beijing, flying in Vladivostok, and from there boarding the Trans-Siberian train direction Moscow.
In this way, not only would I save time due to the most favorable time difference when traveling from east to west, but I would also benefit from the Free Transit Visa for China!
Important Note: In order to be eligible for a 24-hour, 72-hour, or 144-hour transit visa, you must be clearly transiting through China while flying from one international destination to another. Having booked two separate flights, the one from Europe to Beijing and the second one from Beijing to Vladivostok, you can easily be granted with such a free visa! Hurray!
Unfortunately, the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian trains are arriving / departing in Beijing from a different train station than the one that has been designated for issuing free transit visas. Therefore, entering or exiting China by train does not make you eligible for such a free visa.
You can find more info on the rather complicating Free Transit Visa Scheme for China, here.