The idea of traveling to Russia is sweeping across more travelers' itineraries these days, and it seems they either make their major destinations St. Petersburg and Moscow, or they traverse the entire country by riding on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian railway.
On my recent Russian adventures, my group took the latter as their trip of choice, and we couldn't have been happier about that decision.
I actually would recommend a train trip of this nature to just about anyone, and here are my reasons why:
1. Russia is one big expanse of land
I thought taking the Indian Pacific across Australia was a long ride, but the Trans-Siberian has that trip doubled.
The Trans-Siberian, from Moscow to Vladivostok, lasts for around 6 days, and if you choose to go the Trans-Mongolian, you're looking at 7 days.
To get around the country and to some of the cities along the way, the train just makes it easier, and maybe even cheaper.
2. Trains are comfortable forms of transport
As opposed to bus and plane, you are easily able to walk around on trains, have a flat-bed on trains, and even be able to pop off for fresh air from time to time.
You can read books, watch movies on your laptop, listen to music, socialize, and best of all: you don't have to deal with checking bags or going through airport security. Win!
3. The train itself is an experience
You've all heard the expression that the journey is half the adventure, right? For train travel, nothing speaks truer.
On the Trans-Siberian, it's a place where you can ride in former Soviet surroundings, sleep for hours to the soft sounds of Russian conversations, or meet the locals. Every train is a new adventure story composed by the whole of the characters that occupy your carriage.
From the smell of dried fish to a lingering waft of vodka and cigarettes, Russian trains never bore the foreign tourist. Watching the scenery pass, either through white birch forests or small and rustic villages, isn't bad either.
4. Purchasing tickets can help the visa process
One of the daunting obstacles to making the Russian train experience a reality is the Russian visa process. No, it's not the cheapest visa on the market, and it doesn't help that you need to have an itinerary and letter of invitation beforehand.
But, going through a reservation company for the train tickets in advance can secure you a place on the train, and it can get you the information you need to speed along the visa process.
We went through Real Russia for our tickets (disclosure: they provided a discount), and they provided us with free letters of invitation to boot. Easy.
5. Take the road less traveled
It's true that the interest in traveling through Russia has increased, but it is still not like a simple trip to Western Europe.
By riding the rails through Russia and beyond, you take the road less traveled, and that is exciting news worth writing home about.
6. Be forced to practice your Russian
It all depends on the train you ride, and whether or not you get on and off at different destinations, but chances are high that you will encounter a few parts of the ride where you can't really communicate in English.
This issue became apparent for us when our carriage attendants didn't speak English, and also when the cook in the food carriage didn't speak English.
In these cases, you get the fun challenge of communicating in Russian! On the bright side, it's like free practice – something that would cost you several dollars per hour in a classroom environment.
7. Bypass the Soviet airplane system
I'm sure statistics are a bit better these days, but it is no lie that the Russian air transport system was riddled with bad experiences some years ago.
Though this may not be the case today, I'm still glad that we were able to go across the country overland instead of by air!
8. The journey is customizable
Many travelers think that a trip on the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian or the like must be taken in one go. The idea of 5 to 7 days just sitting on a train is not exactly everyone's version of holiday, but it doesn't have to be that way.
We used our train ticket booking service to plan a 3 week adventure from Beijing all the way up to St. Petersburg with several stops along the way (like to Olkhon Island), and in various classes of service.
Our group took a very hands-on approach to booking these tickets, but it is also possible to hire a company to plan a more luxury adventure with every step fully planned out for you.
The choice, and trip, is yours to make!