12 best stops & detours on the Trans-Siberian

12 best stops & detours on the Trans-Siberian

Russian train out of a tunnel - Trans-Siberian

Last updated : 24/11/2022

Travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway is probably one of the most iconic train journey in the world. It’s on pretty much every traveler’s bucket list and I guess if you’re reading this it is on yours too !

In the winter 2015 – 2016, I’ve spent four months solo travelling through Russia, all the way north to Murmansk and then all the way east to Vladivostok. I made almost 50 stops and spent hundreds of hours in a thirsd class platskart. Tiring journey but truly epic !

Here is a list of my top 12 favourite places between Moscow and Vladivostok, including some small detours off the railroad that I think you shouldn’t miss out while traveling on the Trans-Siberian !

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Overview

First, let’s be honest : you will get bored !

I mean, who wouldn’t if stuck in an overheated open railway coach with 50 other people and no privacy for 72 hours straight ?

Unless you find yourself some drinking buddies (which is illegal by the way) or want to do an intensive Russian lesson with the babushka on the next bunk bed, overfeeding you of biscuits & chai etc, you will obviously get bored after watching Siberia passing by for hours.

The stops are the best part of a Trans-Siberian train journey.

Book your train tickets

Thanksfully since 2018 the trains are operating on local time and not Moscow time anymore. That was a real pain honeslty, Russia has 11 time zones !

You don’t need a travel agency to plan your journey, you can buy your tickets yourself at the counter directly at any train stations or online (russian bank card needed right now) or ask a local friend to buy it for you on the official website.

From where I am writing, in France, I can’t access either the RZD website nor the App with a French IP address. I use the Russian server on Hotspot shield VPN (it has a 7 days free trial) and it works. If you can’t connect on rzd.ru or its app from your country to see the prices, try to use a VPN to locate in Russia.

On RZD, you can chose the train class, see the seats available, the travel timetable etc.

I think it’s better to have a paper version of your eticket for a few reasons :

  • When it’s freezing temperature, electronics don’t do good. Your smartphone won’t last long when it’s -30°c outside .
  • If the provodnitsa (the lady working in your coach, because most of the time it’s a woman) has your train ticket close by, she will totally remember to let you know when to get off. You do loose track of time after a while. She may not have smiled to you when boarding the train but trust me she noticed the foreigner and will come and tell you to get ready for your stop.

There’s no single “Trans-Siberian train ticket” where you can hop on and off whenever and wherever you want.

You will need to book each trip between two cities individually. The trains stop sometimes for a couple of minutes and up to an hour in large cities but you won’t really have time to explore anything, only to get some fresh air, buy some food, stretch your legs and the hop on the train again.

Top VS bottom bunk bed ? It really depends on you, but most of your time in the train will be spent either sleeping, reading, drinking chai and chit-chat with your new babushka friend. The bottom beds are expected to be for anyone from the top beds to sit and have food etc. So expect strangers to sit on your bed during day time.

I’d highly recommend not to book any beds close to the bathrooms. You don’t want to hear the door slamming all day and night long etc .

In the trains, all passengers get bed sheets, blankets, pillows, and a small hand towel.

Trans-Siberian
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Summer or winter travels ?

I’ve been travelling through Russia in every season but only been to Siberia in winter time.

Winter travels mean freezing temperatures that unless if you are from Canada or Scandinavia you’ve never experienced before.

You will be able to walk on the deepest lake in the world and see breathtaking white winter landscapes every day. It also means far less tourists, maybe even none, so it’s better to make last minute plans & bookings.

Summer has its pros too. You won’t have to get any special clothing just for this specific trip, there’s a lot more daylight, hiking and camping will be much easier and no dangerous icy streets to break your butt on !

My tips

  • Most travelers start their journeys in Moscow and go east but why not doing the opposite !
  • You will see many people escorting their relatives to their train bed for a few minutes. Don’t be surprised, it’s a russian custom to keep the bad spirits away and bring luck for the journey !
  • Book in advance during high season : In summer time, like in many countries, holiday travelers are frequent, I recommend booking your tickets in advance to actually get a seat and maybe get it a bit cheaper.
  • Download offline translation app like Google or Yandex translate, and add the Cyrilic Russian keyboard to your phone. It will make your life so much easier ! But it’d be great to learn some Russian key phrases before your travels. People do appreciate even if you mispronunce words and have a thick accent. Don’t be shy, Russians are actually super kind people !
  • Get yourself a pair of tapatchki, slippers you will see everyone wearing. As soon as people board the train they will make themsleves comfortable by changing to some “home clothes” and getting rid of their street ones. Follow their example !
  • Don’t fear the provodnitsa. I’ve seen quite a few blog posts out there and even the Lonely Planet (dumb!) claiming that they were basically rude grumpy ladies.

    These women are on duty, the trains are leaving right on time, there’s always hot water in the samovar, the place is kept clean etc. No, they probably won’t smile to you at first because that’s simply not part of Russian culture to randomly smile at strangers, and probably don’t speak english (what for? you’re the one in their country).

    But ask for anything, any help, they will be there for you and they will make sure you won’t miss your stop !

That being said, now you need a proper plan especially if you don’t have a few months ahead of you like I had. I got lucky to be able to head east & book my trains last minute but if you don’t, keep reading !

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The best stops

According to me – Obviously there are many other great stops you could make. This list is only according to my tastes, probably weird interests and own experiences. The detours off the main railroad that I mention are easy to make, and one of them is even necessary : who would go to Siberia and skip Baikal?

1 – Nizhny Novgorod

Or simply Nizhny as locals calls it, was founded in the 13th century. The largest city on the Volga became the main trading center of the Russian Empire where prices of goods like tea & fur were set up and traded.

Nizhny Novgorod was a closed Soviet city renamed Gorki (the famous writer was born there) until 1991 and produced most of the military equipment and ammunition at that time.

Nowadays you can roam around freely, enjoy the pretty historical center and the Kremlin’s 13 towers, get good coffee and food at one of the many trendy cafés on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya street, watch the sunset at the Split of the Oka and Volga rivers, walk on the pretty Rozhdestvenskaya street etc

There are so many things to see, do and eat in the vibrant city of Nizhny !

Nizhny Novgorod - Best stops on the Trans-siberian

2 – Kazan

Missing Kazan would be like missing Baikal when travelling on the Trans-Siberian. The capital of the Tatarstan Republic is named after its main ethnic group, the Tatars.

Tatars are the descendants of Turkic tribes and were part of the Ghengis Khan’s Golden Horde for three centuries until it was conquered by Ivan the terrible in the late 16th century and included into the Russian Empire. The population became known as Volga Tatars.

Nationalism and cultural pride is strong there, you will see bilingual streets sign while going around Kazan.

The Istanbul of Russia is a crossroad of civilizations and culture, the best example is probably the Kremlin, a UNESCO site where the Kul Sharif mosque is right next to a cathedral and an Orthodox church.

While in Kazan you must also try Tatar cuisine, naming for example plov and Russia-wide known sweet Chak – Chak !

There are many things to see, do and eat there and you can totally spend a few days in the city if you have time.

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3 – Bolgar

Ever heard about the other Bulgaria ? The one in Russia ?

They are actually related, some far away cousins. Under the Khan Kubrat, the Bulgar empire stretched all the way to the Black Sea.

The empire was split by its 5 sons, one successully made what the country of Bulgaria is today and another one built the city of Bolgar, south of Kazan by the Volga river. The poplation became known as the Volga Bulgarians.

In the 1st century the ruling Khan converted to Islam and built plenty of mosques & madrassas. The place became an important passage on the Silk Road and the center of Islamic civilization in Eastern Europe. It is still considered as an important Islamic place nowadays and many Tatars make a pilgrimage to Bolgar.

Well worth a little detour in my opinion !

4 – Tobolsk

Yes, I totally skipped Yekaterinburg. Unless you are interested in the death place of the Romanov family, it’s just another huge Russian city in my opinion.

Tobolsk, on the other hand is Siberia’s historical capital. The old town area is obviously the most interesting part.

Founded in the 16th century, you can discover the magnificient Kremlin surrounded by the white walls and ancient wodden houses making it looking like a typical Russian village. There are direct trains from Tiomen, no excuse not to make the detour !

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5 – Tomsk

Again I skipped an important city, Novossibirsk. Today’s Siberia’s capital is to me a pointless giant city to visit, especially if you only have a few weeks on the Trans-Siberian, don’t waste time there.

Keep going a bit further to visit Tomsk, probably one of Siberia’s most enjoyable city. It was established in the 17th century by the Cossaks and became on important town on the “Sibirski trakt” – the Siberian route, where goods travelled from China to Western Russia.

Gold mining, place of political exil and now an intelectual hubs with many universities, there’s so much to lean about Tomsk’s history. Discover its stunning wooden mansions with carved windows, beautiful commercial buildings and the historical Muslim quarter !

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6 – Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk itself is just another city, but the nature outside of it is the true gem.
After spending so much time on the train you definitely need to stretch your legs in the Stolby National Park right outside the city. Stolby litteraly means pillars in russian.

A short hike (you can even take a cable car) on well marked trails through the thick forest will lead you to thousands of years old tall pillars. Check out the official website for more informations on the park.

Kasnoyarsk National Park - Best stops on the Trans-siberian

7 – Irkutsk

Sadly Irkutsk is often seen by many foreigners as a simple gateway to Baikal. Founded in the 17th century by the Cossaks to establish Russian authority on local Buryat people, the city became a place of political exile after the Decembrist uprising in the 19th century.

Another crossroad of cultures in Russia ! You will find pretty Decembrist mansions, some turned into museums, and unusual orthodox churches with obvious Buddhist influences.

The city center is very enjoyable and walkable to spend a couple of days before heading to Baikal.

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8 – Olkhon Island

What woud be a trip to Siberia without seeing the the deepest lake in the world : Baikal lake !

Olkhon island is the most famous place to get a taste of Baikal (alright, there’s Listvianka too but it’s crap) and for good reasons. In summer time it’s reachable by ferry but in winter time you can get a marshrutka driving on government controlled ice made road to reach the island.

The center of Shamanism in Siberia offers stunning beauty, steppes and taiga, ancient legends, and is considered by Buryat people to be “a place of power” and sacred for pilgrimage.

They link their origins with Baikal, its nature and Buryat Shaminist believes are directly connected to it.

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9 – Ulan – Ude

The capital of the Buryat Republic is where Buddhist and Soviet architectures meet. Buryats are Mongol people and speak a Turkic language.

They can be divided into two groups : western Buryats who’ve kept their traditional Shamanic beliefs (like on Olkhon island), and the eastern Buryats like in Ulan – Ude who converted to Tibetan style Buddism but still believe in plenty of Shamanic things.

In Ulan – Ude you can get to know more about Buryat culture at the local museum, visit the many Datsans (Buddhist temples) in town who have been rebuilt after destruction during the Soviet times, see the biggest Lenin’s head statue in the world (not like you could miss it anyway), try Buryat food and get a feel of Central Asia in the middle of Siberia !

A fascinating place not to miss !

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10 – The Barguzin valley

I know you are thinking it’s super far off the way. But honeslty so well worth the detour. I had the chance to spend a few days around the valley. It’s unique, the people are amazing, you can chat and drink milky chai with monks … an epic experience off the beaten track for sure !

The Barguzin valley is located north of Ulan – Ude on the eastern side of Balkail. It’s meant to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan’s mother ! Covered with mountains, forest, tundra & taiga, it is a willd place!

The valley has many datsans, religious & sacred spots for locals. If you can, go and visit these places with a local Buryat to avoid any faux pas !

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11 – Birobidzhan

Ever heard about Birobidjan ? Birobidjan or Birobirdzhan AKA the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is the first Jewish “state” (had a various levels of autonomy through the years).

Established 20 years before Israel by Stalin who found a brilliant way to get rid of the Jews in Western Soviet Union ! He offered them a swampy empty piece of land in the far east part of Siberia.

The Jewish oblast is named after the two rivers the Bira and the Bidjan. The capital is also named Birobidjan and its official languages are Yiddish and Russian even though a tiny Jewish population only lives there today.

It’s right on the Trans-Siberian way to Vladivostock. Hop off the train even for a day to have a look at this curious Israel of Siberia ! The name of the train station is written in Yiddish, you will find a big menora on the town square and meet friendly old men wearing kippahs and speaking Yiddish !

Birobidjan Dans l Etat yiddish de Staline

12 – Vladivostock

“We are not far from Moscow – Moscow is far from us” told me my pretty long blond hair Russian host.

That’s it, the Trans-Siberian railway doesn’t go any futher. You have reached the Pacific Ocean after 9288 kms on a train from Moscow. But don’t just consider it as a final destination.

Vladivostok is basically Europe in the north of Asia, nice and chill athmosphere, with a great melting pot of friendly people, tasty international food, plenty of trendy bars to get drunk and have fun with new english speaking Russian friends !

Because yes, in my experiences, beside Chechnya, this is one of the place in Russia where young people aren’t afraid to speak English !

What a chance after spending days of struggling to chat with the babushkas and friendly middle age men on the train !

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Other routes

There are plenty of other train routes in Russia, including in Siberia that aren’t part of the “original” Trans-Siberian. Here are a few if you want to add some very off the beaten track train adventures to your original plans.

The BAM

The Baikal Amur Magistral is going north of Baikal through Severobaikalsk. It joins the main route in Khabarosvk to reach Vladivostok.

Why taking the BAM route : Northern Baikal has some of the best views on the lake ! I’m not the only one claiming that, locals do so too. It has pretty fishing villages and definitely no tourists.

Also, have you ever heard of a sand desert surrounded by mountains in the middle of Siberia ? It’s called the Chara Sands and is surrounded by the snow covered Kadar mountains !

The AYaM

The Amuro-Yakutskaya Magistral is accessible from Tynda on the BAM line. It’s partially complete and you can reach the town of Nizhny Bestyakh, which is right opposite Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha republic, aka the coldest inhabited city on earth !

The Arktika

Basically the Arctic train. It goes from Moscow to Murmansk above th Arctic circle through St Petersburg. Murmansk is the largest city in the world above the Arctic circle, one of the best place to see Northern lights.

If you look for epic long cold and dark winter nights lightened up by insane sky phenomenon, that might be a great train journey for you !

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Midday above the artic circle in January

Traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway is truly a magical & unique experience and I really hope this guide will help you in your planning!

Let me know in the comments what you think about it and feel free to ask any questions !

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