Route options for a Trans-Siberian journey
You basically need to think about which of the three main routes to do, what to tack on at either end in Europe & Asia, and where in Russia to break the journey.
Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian, or Trans-Manchurian?
If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian trip (read about mine), the main decision is whether to do the full Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostok, or take either of the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian branches down to Beijing.
Obviously, if Mongolia is a priority then you want the Trans-Mongolian. However, if Manchuria is a priority, rather than the Trans-Manchurian I’d suggest you consider taking the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing, then visiting Manchuria from there – the new high speed lines from Beijing to Shenyang & Harbin make it easy to visit Manchuria from Beijing, so you might as well include both Mongolia and Manchuria on your route. If you’re just weighing up Trans-Mongolian vs Trans-Manchurian as the best route to Beijing, again I would definitely recommend Mongolia. Manchuria is certainly worth visiting, but I don’t think Harbin, Shenyang, Dalian etc are nearly as interesting as Mongolia; and again, you can always visit Manchuria easily from Beijing once you’re in China.
If Vladivostok is the priority then naturally you’ll be looking at the main Trans-Siberian route, but you could also do the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing, or Trans-Manchurian to perhaps Harbin, then from there travel through Manchuria to Vladivostok… on the other hand, if you’re not fussed about Mongolia but want to visit Vladivostok first and then China, it’s straightforward enough to take the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok and then travel on to Manchuria from there. Buses connect Vladivostok with the Chinese border town of Hunchun (taking 5 hours), and Hunchun is directly connected by high speed rail to Jilin and points beyond (e.g. Harbin, Shenyang, and Dalian, and all the way to Beijing with connections from there to the rest of China. See my China page for more on travel in China, and check chinatrainguide for timetables).
Where to start (or end) your trip in Europe
The railway officially starts from Moscow, but that doesn’t mean you have to fly to (or out of) Moscow. As in our case, you could start from St Petersburg or Helsinki, and I’d strongly recommend including Petersburg if you have time – the new Sapsan bullet trains have reduced the Petersburg – Moscow time to just 4 hours or so, so it’s easy enough to do. You could also start from Tallinn or Riga, which still have direct trains to Russia, and in fact you can actually start from basically anywhere in Europe, routing through Berlin, Warsaw, and Belarus (careful with the Belarus visa), or from further south and routing through Ukraine (check the security situation first); I’ll refer you to Seat61 for in-depth details on those routes.
Continuing to (or starting from) Japan
If you’re aiming to ultimately continue on to Japan, there are a number of options. You can do as I did i.e. travel to Beijing, then travel around China, and then on to Japan by sea; for this you can either go direct from Shanghai to Osaka with Shanghai Ferry (48 hours, weekly sailings), or go by ferry from China to Korea and on to Japan from there – see my comprehensive pages on China – Korea ferries and Korea – Japan ferries (also check out my Russia, Japan, Korea, and China pages).
You could also aim to reach Japan from Russia, skipping China – the two options here are from Vladivostok to western Japan’s Sakaiminato with DBS ferry,
or the appealingly remote route through Russia’s Sakhalin island to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. For the first route through Vladivostok, DBS Ferry sails once a week and calls in at Donghae (on South Korea’s east coast) en route – you could take this ferry all the way through to Japan, or disembark at Donghae and travel through Korea to Japan. (This Japanese regional tourism website has a good page about DBS Ferry, more useful than the official homepage!)
For the latter route to Hokkaido, note that there is no ferry service any more as of 2019 so the route is no longer viable. The old Sakhalin – Hokkaido ferry was discontinued in 2015; in 2016 a new catamaran operation had a successful trial service followed by a full summer of operations in 2017 – I wrote in 2017 that ‘this is now slated to be an ongoing annual service, but be aware that planning on this route carries a slight risk as I suspect it could also wind up being discontinued at some point’ and it was indeed discontinued in 2019. The same company still runs a ship on the Sakhalin-Hokkaido route, but it’s a freight only operation from 2019 onwards. You can still get as far as Sakhalin overland though – the ferry from mainland Russia to Sakhalin goes from Vanino, and Vanino is in turn a long bus or train ride from Khabarovsk (the last major stop on the Trans-Siberian before Vladivostok); it’s a long way to Sakhalin, and it would absolutely suck to get all the way there only to realise there’s no ferry to Hokkaido! If you go this route, accept that you’ll have to fly from Sakhalin to Japan (flights go to Sapporo and Tokyo).
If you’re not aiming for Japan but instead are intending to travel through China to SE Asia (or elsewhere e.g. Taiwan or India), check out my pages on ferries to Taiwan, overland routes from China to SE asia, and my China overland page.
Stops en route through Russia
As well as which overall route you want to do, you also need to think about where to stop in Russia itself. If you’re only going to make one stop it really should be Irkutsk & Baikal, and if you’re going all the way through on the train and not stopping at least once then I’d join with the locals in calling you crazy! So assuming you’re stopping there, the question is where else to break the journey in between Moscow and Irkutsk (I wouldn’t fancy that without at least one stop either).
If you have a read of my Trans-Siberian trip write-up, you can see we stopped in Perm and then made a brief improvised stop in Yekaterinburg; I think Yekaterinburg is the nicer and more interesting of the two, and it’s also the best base for visiting the Ural Mountains. Its position at the start of Siberia, about a third of the way from Moscow to Irkutsk, makes it a good place for a stop, and unless you’re really interested in visiting the Gulag museum I wouldn’t bother with Perm. Between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk there lies a string of industrial Siberian cities, none of which look or sound particularly interesting – the main ones are Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk.
Thinking of what we saw of these cities from the train, I think of smokestacks and factories; obviously there’s more to them than that, but Yekaterinburg really does seem to stand out as the most interesting stop between Moscow and Irkutsk. If you are looking for a stop between Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk though, the place that sounded best was the small city of Tomsk. I say sounded because we didn’t go there and didn’t even see it as it’s not on the main Trans-Siberian line (lying along a branch line), so this advice is purely by reputation and on the recommendation of others – but it’s a university town and apparently quite a nice little place with the arts and nightlife scenes that go with a young and lively student population (something not usually associated with Siberia).
Resources and Useful Links for a Trans-Siberian Adventure
If you’re starting from / continuing to China, make sure to have your VPN set up before you get there so you can use the internet normally. See here
If you’re starting from / continuing to Japan, you might want to get the JR Pass
Don’t neglect to take out a suitable travel insurance policy; World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas. This can be a key point, as most travel insurance policies are not valid if you’ve already left your country when you purchase them (I found this out the hard way when my camera was stolen in Bangkok)
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