Traveler Postcard – Katie on the Trans-Siberian Railway
At BootsnAll, we aim to give you all the resources you need to book the right trip for you – whether that be an epic round the world adventure, a backpacking trip to see the best of Southeast Asia, a week losing yourself in the museums of Europe’s capital cities, or a relaxing weekend trip to a beach nearby. From big trips to small, nearby and faraway, we want to inspire you to get out and see the world. And we know that sometimes the best inspiration comes from reading about the trips of people just like you.
That’s why we’re launching a new series, Traveler Postcards, in which we profile a real trip – highlighting the best of a destination as seen by a particular person on a particular trip. They’ll share what they did, what they liked and disliked, and how much they spent, giving you a personal perspective and real tips to plan your trip.
Traveler Name: Katie Aune of Katie Going Global
Destination: The Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, Russia, with a stop in Ulan Ude
Dates: November 9-14, 2011 (5 nights/6days)
The Trans-Siberian is the final phase of 3 months in Russia, which itself is part of a year-long trip through all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union. I have always been fascinated with Russian history, studied Russian & Soviet politics in college and took 3 years of Russian language. I particularly wanted to take the Trans-Siberian and visit several towns along the way to get a feel for Russia outside of the main cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
This trip is perfect for an independent traveler who wants to see more of Russia than just Moscow and St. Petersburg and wants to do it a bit unconventionally. It is a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of Russian life outside of the big cities and a great way to interact with the locals – and learn a little Russian along the way! With three different classes of compartments, the journey can be made to suit any budget and you can either splurge in the restaurant car or keep it cheap by bringing your own stash of food.
What was the biggest surprise of the trip?
The bathrooms (and actually the train as a whole) were kept surprisingly clean. They had a weird odor to them, but were always spotlessly clean – and usually well-stocked with toilet paper!
What was the best experience on your trip?
I shared my compartment most of the way from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude with a Russian woman who was wonderful about helping me practice my Russian – she was patient with my mistakes and explained things I didn’t understand at first. We managed to have a wonderful conversation and shared pictures of our families. My favorite moment was when she asked if I was married (I’m not) and then suggested that I might meet my husband on the train!
Did anything about the trip disappoint you? Were there any “must do” activities or attractions that you found overrated?
My biggest disappointment was not having more time to spend in the city of Ulan Ude, which was my first stop after Vladivostok. I booked all of my tickets ahead of time and when I left Ulan Ude after just a day and a half, I found myself wishing I had a couple more days.
What was your best meal of the trip?
Definitely the curry cooked up by an English guy at my hostel in Ulan Ude – it was great to have a real meal after 3 days on the train and he brought his own spices with him, so it was perfect.
What is one experience you would tell other travelers not to miss in this destination?
Stopping in Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal is probably the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian, but in addition to that, I would encourage people to allot a couple days for Ulan Ude. It is the capital of Buryatia and has a strong Buddhist and Mongol influence.
What item, hotel, or experience is worth a splurge?
I splurged on an English-speaking guide to take me to the datsan in Ivolga, outside of Ulan Ude – it is the center of Buddhism in Russia and the experience was fascinating. Definitely worth the $50. It was also the best cultural experience of the trip.
What do you wish you had known before visiting?
To bring my own tea/coffee mug for the train!
What was the weather like when you were there? Would you recommend visiting at a different time for optimal weather?
Cold! Vladivostok was actually mild, but Ulan Ude and Irkutsk have been in the -10 to -15 C range. I would guess fall is probably an ideal time to go – not too hot, but not too cold and the scenery would be gorgeous with the leaves changing colors.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to deal with in getting there or being there?
Obtaining my Russian visa wasn’t necessarily difficult, but it was expensive.
What was the most challenging aspect of the trip or of visiting this particular destination?How easy or difficult was it to travel independently in the destination (in terms of getting around, cost, safety, language and culture shock)?
It definitely wasn’t easy, but for someone used to traveling independently and getting by when they don’t speak the local language, it wouldn’t be too difficult. I met two guys in Ulan Ude who didn’t know a word of Russian and they were doing just fine. That being said, I think I found it much easier knowing enough Russian to converse with bus drivers, train attendants, etc. – the vast majority of people I encountered did not speak any English. With respect to cost, you can save money by traveling on the train platskartny (open, 6-person compartments) instead of kupe (closed, 4-person compartments) and by bringing your own food. Hostels average about $20 a night and there are a few to choose from in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk, but only one in Vladivostok. As far as safety goes, I never felt unsafe.
Would you recommend this destination to other independent travelers? Why or why not?
Yes. Riding the train and seeing the far east of Russia provides a completely different perspective the one you get in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It also provides a great opportunity to interact closely with the locals, as you will likely be spending a lot of time with them in very close quarters!
How much did you spend?
Accommodation: $20 per night (not including nights on train) X 2 nights (1 in Vladivostok, 1 in Ulan Ude) = $40
Transport within the country: $175.93 for train from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk and local transport within Vladivostok & Ulan Ude. I got discounted tickets through Real Russia – the normal cost would be about $30 more.
Tours and activities: $55 – hiring a guide and visiting a museum in Ulan Ude
Food and drink: $12 per day X 6 days = $72