Does passing through five time zones, 80 degrees of longitude and crossing the largest country on the planet sound like fun? Then read my guide as I tell you how to get from Beijing to Moscow by train
Beijing to Moscow is perhaps the most famous of the world’s long distance rail journeys, but there are in fact two routes from Beijing and neither carries the so called ‘Trans-Siberian Express’.
There is the six-day Trans-Manchurian (8,900 km) which first takes you through the north eastern provinces of China via Harbin, and the five-day Trans-Mongolian (7,600 km) which takes a short cut through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. Both routes converge at Ulan Ude in Russia and continue on to Moscow. The true Trans-Siberian, arguably the longest rail journey in the world (9,200 km), begins at the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok.
Several agencies can provide you with the ‘package tour’ option taking care of every arrangement, but a perfectly feasible and much cheaper alternative is to arrange it all yourself. After you have decided on your route from Beijing, the next concern is red-tape and logistics – you shouldn’t underestimate the complexities and cost of obtaining visas and the practicalities of actually getting your rail ticket.
Train tickets and visas
Tickets can, of course, be bought in person at the station but as advance booking is advised it is not really feasible if you are only visiting China for a few days before your onward travel. It is also possible to buy through the state tourist agency CITS, but I decided on a third option which is to use a specialist agent in China. Their commission was not excessive and all our communications were carried out by email (in good English). My ticket was safely delivered to my hotel in Beijing as arranged without a hitch, and much to my relief!
You will need a visa for China and Russia, of course, and also for Mongolia if you travel via that country (even if you don’t actually get off the train). The Russian visa arrangements are particularly complicated so, in the end, I used an agent based in the UK to obtain all three visas for me.
Joining the train
The scheduled departure time for my train from Beijing West Railway Station was 07:40 and it was necessary to be there an hour beforehand. Because of this early start I chose a hotel close by and as the base for a five day stay. I found the Courtyard by Marriott Beijing ideal for this reason – comfortable western standards and right next to Chongwenmen metro station, only one stop from the railway station.
The station was predictably chaotic in the early morning rush and there were various security and administration procedures to go through which, frankly, baffled me at times. However, eventually, despite all the commotion, I found my way to the Trans-Mongolian train and my allocated accommodation without difficulty.
I had decided on a Deluxe Soft Sleeper seat in a two birth cabin - two seats facing each other during the day, one of which converted into a bed for the night with another bunk bed folding down from the wall above. A toilet and shower was shared with the next cabin by a connecting door. At first it all seemed quite spacious until I was joined by the other passenger, a girl from Ulan Bator returning home to Mongolia after studying in China. Somehow she managed to fill every inch of her and my floor space with bags, suitcases and boxes of all sizes.
There was a dining car on board which I did venture to explore on the first day, but decided that I would make my own meals in the cabin. I’m sure the rice and whatever meat - the only dish of the day - was fine, but with five days ahead of me on board I just didn’t want to take the risk quite frankly. Besides a vegetarian diet is largely unheard of in these parts. Boiling water was always on tap from the samovar at the end of the carriage whenever you needed it and I happily lived on powdered soup and three-in-one coffee sachets throughout the journey. Fortunately there was also a large shop at the first border crossing station (Erlian) where I’d stocked up on other fresh provisions.
Travelling non-stop (as I did) from Beijing to Moscow, with five and a half days on a train, might seem daunting. However, the outside scenery changes so dramatically it keeps you captivated and boredom is never a problem. From the flat barren desert of Mongolia to the icy forests of Russia with isolated wooden villages, the scale of it all is quite overwhelming. You are filled with a sense of wonder as your journey takes you through five time zones, 80 degrees of longitude and crosses most of the largest country on the planet. You have a real appreciation of the distance you’re covering that air travel can never convey.
But there is so much more that you will take away from the experience than just the statistics of the trip. Crossing the border to enter Russia, for example, is something I’ll never forget. The train came to a halt under floodlights, dazzling against the black freezing winter night’s sky. After an eerie pause the silence was broken by the shouts of soldiers with dogs outside searching under the train. There were voices in the carriage corridor and a knock at my cabin door, a torch shone in my face. Customs forms in duplicate were checked, passports stamped, a thorough search of my luggage was completed – this is what border crossing should be like!
I arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavski station a mere five minutes late which was quite an achievement when you think about it, and from there I lost myself in the adjoining Moscow metro system for an hour or so en route to find my hotel – but that’s another story!
The Beijing to Moscow (train K3) leaves at 07:40 on Wednesdays and arrives in Moscow at 14:12 on the following Monday. Prices range from US$600 and US$1000 depending on the class of sleeping accommodation.
I obtained my visas (Chinese, Mongolian and Russian) through www.realrussia.co.uk