A Week on the Trans-Manchurian Railway

Sharing is Caring!

We started the Ultimate Train Challenge on September 1st; and after 17 days of traipsing through Europe from Lisbon, Michael (www.gosewrite.com), Jeannie (www.nomadicchick.com), and I reunite in Moscow for the second leg of our trip: boarding the week-long Trans-Manchurian railway from Moscow straight through to Beijing.

Although this train is regularly referred to as the Trans-Siberian, the actual route we are taking (around the top of Mongolia and through Manchuria) is more accurately referred to as the Trans-Manchurian. It is 8,986km (5,623 miles), and involves 145 hours and 37 minutes of straight train travel.

Give or take.

Here is my account of the trip.

The Trans-Manchurian railway is 8,986km (5,623 miles), and involves 145 hours and 37 minutes of straight train travel. Here is my account of the trip. #FullTimeTravel #TravelPlanning #TravelTips #TravelWebsites #TrainTravel #Moscow #Beijing #Manchuria #TransManchurian #TransSiberian #Siberia #China #RealRussia #ManchurianAdventures
Pin it for later!

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

The Trans Manchurian Railway: DAY 1 (Saturday)

We board the train at 11:30pm, and start rolling just before midnight.

We have two conductors on our car – one is a kind looking woman, the other is a very drunk man who interrupts an obvious video we’re shooting to flirt with Jeannie and I. Initially it’s funny and even a little charming, but it shortly devolves into being creepy.

Trans-Manchurian train

We find our cabin; it’s small but comfortable. The three of us play tetris to settle in and find appropriate spots for our bags.

“Beer?” the conductor says as he staggers into our doorway. We happen to just have finished our inaugural Trans-Manchurian-beer, so he can see that we’ve been drinking. We try to clarify his question. “Beer?” is his eloquent reply.

We don’t know if he’s telling us we’re not allowed to drink, or asking us for a beer, or – as we eventually deduce – he has beer (and vodka) and wants to drink with us. We politely decline as we make for our beds, and we go to sleep that night hoping that this drunken episode isn’t a habit. We’ve already discovered the Russian propensity for alcohol is no rumour.

I opt for the top bunk, figuring if I want to sleep in I won’t disturb anybody. In the middle of the night, I perform an act of acrobatics trying to get out of bed in the dark to pee.

DAY 2 (Sunday)

railway station

We are passing by little communities of wooden houses; they look increasingly derelict yet charming, with uniquely-shaped roofs and a uniformity throughout each community.

As we venture further from Moscow, the paved roads turn into dirt roads, and eventually no roads at all (seemingly). Is it possible these are self-sustaining communities out here? I try to imagine how they would survive in winter.

We eat dinner at the restaurant car; I have a thoroughly mediocre and overpriced bowl of borscht ($6) (which is really chicken soup), and Jeannie loses her shirt on a thin piece of salmon and some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers ($10). Michael sticks to beer, citing his stash of instant noodles as satisfactory for now.

We vow never to eat there again, and Michael chuckles. “You say that now, but trust me – before the week is out, I’ll bet you try it again.”

DAY 3 (Monday)

day three autumn foliage in russia

My bed is good, but hard. I wake up stiff after a (thankfully) long night of sleep. I wonder how I’ll feel about it by the end of the week.

We awake to even more pronounced autumn colours, and I’m surprised at how warm it is when we step off the train to stretch our legs and find some food at the (approximate) twice-daily 20 minute station stops.

There are numerous towns and signs of civilization along these tracks, yet many look abandoned and derelict. Only a string of laundry or a satellite dish or the occasional person walking along the tracks indicates to me these places are actually lived in.

Our food situation isn’t good. Yesterday at one of the stops, there were babushkas all over the place selling prepared foods (meat patties and potatoes, stuffed rolls, hard-boiled eggs, etc). But I wasn’t hungry at the time, and figured this would be available at every stop. Besides which – the food didn’t look all that appetizing.

Now, three stops later with little more than potato chips, preserved meat, and beer on offer, the babushkas’ food would have been downright delicious. The instant noodles we brought on-board aren’t appetizing or satisfying, and we’re all getting hungry for some good food. For now we have no choice but to settle for mediocre food.

At the last stop of the day we score a “bounty” of cheese and crackers (our best meal yet), and we enjoy it with Yvan from London (a fellow we met yesterday). We all enjoy this meal together in our cabin, washed down with a few beers.

We seem to be developing a routine of sorts; during the day we each spread out through the largely-empty car, working, reading, snapping photos, and napping. After the late afternoon/evening stop, we enjoy beers, music, and camaraderie at night.

DAY 4 (Tuesday)

golden trees as seen from the Trans Manchurian train

Almost unbelievably, the autumn colours are even more beautiful, highlighted by lots of blue skies and sunshine. The same towns which, two days ago, appeared dreary and desolate in the drizzly weather, now pop out charmingly; full of character when bathed in sunshine and surrounded by the golden landscape.

autumn colours

We are thankful for a decent food stop at 10am; none of the babushkas we were hoping for are around, but the little stalls on the platform have fresh fruit and veggies, and some prepared foods that are a little more homemade-looking than the pre-packaged crap (instant noodles, crackers, sausage) we’ve been relegated to.

And we score an awesome food stop at 3pm (which couldn’t have come sooner, despite our moderate morning stop). A lineup of women are laying goods down on cloth panels just outside the train doors. Perogies, dumplings, roasted chicken, salads, hard-boiled eggs, fresh bread, beer, drinks, and some packaged foods are available.

The train conductors look on bemusedly as we fawn over what you might think was our first chance at food in weeks, given our level of enthusiasm.

food stop at a Russian train station

We feast with Yvan back in our cabin. We ask him how his attempt at reading War And Peace is coming along. “It’s a light read, really,” he replies. “You know those costume drama movies? Yeah. Just like that. It’s just very, very long.”

I guess the Trans-Manchurian warps perceptions on many levels.

DAY 5 (Wednesday)

train tracks

“Train Time” (which remains on Moscow time) is wreaking havoc with our schedules. The actual time is three hours ahead of Moscow time. So the sun is rising around 3am (Moscow time), and we’re finding ourselves tired by 7pm (Moscow time) when it has been long dark and it feels like bed time.

In an effort to reduce “jet lag” (train-lag?) in a few days when we disembark in Beijing (at 5:30am no less), we’re trying to adhere to the actual time zones we’re going through. But we still have to be cognizant of “train time” to understand when our next station stop is.

This straddling two different time zones is actually quite difficult and very disorienting.

So last night we went to bed before 7pm (Moscow time, 10pm actual time), and despite feeling tired, I tossed and turned for many hours. I don’t know if it was something I ate (I felt like I was in a broken fevered delusional sleep with vivid half-dreams), the change in time, or the bed. But it was not one of my better nights of sleep.

The upper bunk bed is also taking a toll. It’s narrow at the best of times. The bar that keeps me from falling off in the event of a hard break (I like this bar; it’ my friend) prevents me from spreading a knee or arm beyond the perimeter of the bed; something a lower bunk would allow. I am perpetually waking with pins & needles in my arms because there isn’t really anywhere for them to go, so they’re awkwardly positioned above my head against the wall or under my body.

So good sleep eludes me.

some of the best scenery of the trip

“I’m sorry,” are Yvan’s greeting words to me at the 10am station break. “You’ve been noticed by a Russian in my car, and over a few drinks (on him), I kind of agreed to facilitate an introduction. He doesn’t speak any English.” I feign a smile, truly lost for words. I assume he’s not serious; at least I hope so.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Yvan approaches me and Jeannie on the platform with my suitor in tow, again starting with “I’m sorry.” He makes an introduction, and we all stand there awkwardly before Yvan says “There. It’s done,” and walks away.

My suitor starts in with some rapid-fire Russian, to which Jeannie and I reply with rapid-fire English. Neither of us really understand what the other is saying, but somehow we deduce that he’s Russian, and that we’re Canadian. A good time is had by all.

Jeannie and I get back on the train, assuming that’s the end of the episode.

But minutes later once the train is moving, my suitor appears in our doorway as we’re fixing breakfast. “Vodka?” he says. What? It’s 10am! Really?!

We decline his offer, pointing to our wrists (where watches should be) and saying “later”. (Thankfully he doesn’t return “later”).

I feel bad for eschewing this offer to ultimately be social, but I’m tired, it’s hard work to communicate with somebody whose only English words are about alcohol, and I feel uncomfortable about how the whole introduction transpired; I somehow feel “sold” by Yvan, and I’m a little miffed about it.

Lake Bakal


Where is Siberia? I muse as I look out the window. It doesn’t look nearly as desolate as I’d imagined Siberia to look. Is there a line that delineates Siberia – this vast harsh land for outcasts? Is Siberia geographical, or psychological?

We cross the border into China tomorrow morning, and we’ve been on the train since Saturday night. Surely in all this time across Russia, we’ve touched upon this renowned land.

DAY 6 (Thursday)

The sleeping situation is worsening. Jeannie agreed to trade bunks with me after I complained that the top bunk is just a little too small (she is much shorter than I). I settle in for what (I hope) is a good night, but ends up being my worst yet. Similar to my long trip on the Indian Pacific in Australia, I’m finding that sleeping in moving beds long-term is not very restful.

I awake in the middle of the night to the overwhelming smell of fart. And the heat is on in the cabin, full blast. I don’t think the fart’s origin is me, but I don’t rule out the possibility of this being a mixed brew between the three of us; the smell is so vile and thick that I struggle for breath. I sense that it has been lingering in the cabin for quite some time.

I somehow recover, only to be regaled with Michael’s renowned snoring. I don’t know if it’s worse tonight, or if sleeping on the bottom bunk has different acoustic properties; either way I lay awake in mild fits of claustrophobic frustration for much of the night, eventually getting up at 4:15am (actual time; 7:15am train time). Whatever time.

This morning the scenery is more like the Siberia I had imagined; largely-empty fields of brown grass. It’s a slightly-hilly grass desert, dotted with the occasional settlement or town that seems to pop out of nowhere.


I can tell we’re getting closer to China, as the people have a more asian look at each subsequent station stop. Our last stop before the Russian/Chinese border has an almost-equal mix of ethnicities

We stop at the Russian border early in the day (7:30am Moscow time, 11:30am Beijing time – you pick one to go with), and are told through sign-language by our conductors that the stop is for three hours. We ask (again, with crude signing) if we can get off and back on the train, and are given the characteristic nods and “da”s we’re now used to.

So once our passports are in the hands of the Russian authorities, we go off to find some food and “discover” this Russian border town.

It looks like a place that was designed with great intentions, but stopped halfway through construction. Partly finished buildings sit with no windows and rebar sticking out where the roof should be, and streets are half-paved with no rhyme or reason to their jagged edges.

Russian/Chinese border

So it doesn’t take long for us to pick up some groceries and make back for the train. Problem is, we’re not allowed back on, and the station is being renovated and reeks of turpentine. We sit on the platform for four hours and watch the train roll off and back on over and over again as they change the gauge of the wheels to accommodate the Chinese tracks.

border pics

We are finally allowed back on to the train, and after our cabin is searched and passports returned, we still wait for hours. Although the stop is supposed to be three hours, we roll off the platform eight hours and 24 minutes after our morning stop.

We haven’t even cleared Chinese customs yet.

It’s now dark and we roll forward a kilometre or so, revealing a totally different (Chinese) cityscape full of tall buildings with animated LED decorations. It’s a stark contrast and we’re astonished at not having noticed these buildings from the drab Russian frontier.

Although the Chinese customs process also takes hours, we are greeted by lots of smiling and cordial officials, rather than the dour-looking Russians we had become accustomed to. I am surprised to initially feel quite welcome in China, very happy to be out of Russia.

DAY 7 (Friday)

Thankfully I sleep better than the last few nights and awake with a touch of sentimental remorse that it’s our last day on the train. As much as I’m eager to expand my horizons beyond the small cabin we’ve been living in for the past week, I’ve also loved the journey overall.

I’m stoked for a shower. A week of using baby wipes in mediocre cramped bathrooms to keep fresh has made me yearn for a nice long hot shower. Funnily enough it has skewed my priorities.

“Hey Jeannie!” I exclaim in the morning. “You know what we get to do tomorrow?”

“Um…see The Great Wall of China?”

“No! Well, yes, but we also get to shower!”

first Chinese station stop

Our first station stop (and the only one of any length today) is the capital of Manchuria and a large looking city. It’s a bustle of activity; great for observing and photographing. Unfortunately the majority of my time is spent trying – unsuccessfully – to exchange my many Russian Roubles for Chinese Yuan. Last night at the Chinese border there was a kiosk, but after being kept off the train for four hours earlier in the day, I didn’t want to risk a repeat performance of train-exile, since the break was to extend well beyond midnight when I’d like to be tucked in bed.

Not taking the chance to exchange money however turns out to be a mistake, since I have nothing but Roubles and no way to pay for food on the station platforms or in the (now Chinese) restaurant car. I’m thankful that this is the last day on the train, as my ration of uninspiring instant noodles will barely last me the day.

Ah well…this will make me appreciate the abundance of flavourful (and spicy! God I miss spicy) Chinese food I’ll enjoy tomorrow and for the rest of the following week.

vendor in China

“Why ARE you keeping those eggs, Nora?” asks Michael, reminding me of a mistake I made yesterday and simultaneously giving me hope. I had purchased half a dozen eggs in a plastic bag at the Russian border; eggs which I had assumed were hard-boiled, as were all the other eggs in bags that I’d purchased along the way. (Of course, on trying to “peel” my egg, I realized – the hard way – that it was still raw).

“I dunno. Maybe I’ll donate them to the restaurant car,” I said, before I realized the brilliance of this idea.

And so is hatched (bad pun intended) a plan to walk into the restaurant car with a bag of eggs, hand them to the server, and see what happens.

I wander into the restaurant car desperate for a good meal, and with the hopes that they’ll either accept my Russian Roubles or my eggs in trade for a meal. The Roubles are no good, and they’re not sure what to make of my eggs. Yvan has agreed to spot me some Chinese Yuan, so we go ahead and order from the menu (of course, not having any idea what we are actually ordering; such is the fun of foreign-language menus with no pictures).

I hand the eggs to the server; I have no use for them, and I sign that they are a gift for him. The car is filled with Chinese people, many of whom I think work on this part of the train (which was only added at the border). They eye this transaction with curiosity, then each one of them fondles this plastic bag of five eggs.

Before I know it, the eggs have been prepared (scrambled with some aromatics and garnish – free of charge) and are brought to our table. An unexpected – and pleasant – surprise.

Chinese railway station

I go to bed early, after my first warm meal since the horrible “borscht” I had almost a week ago. Although I do love trains, I’m excited to get off early in the morning with visions of a shower, a good (stationary) bed, and some excellent Chinese food rolling constantly through my mind. If I could have those three things and stay on the trains, I’d be a happy camper.

DAY 8 (Saturday)

Trans-Manchurian finale

After a week – almost 150 hours – on the Trans-Manchurian, we get off the train at 5:30am, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but excited.

I’m looking forward to re-visiting China; a place that was the scene for my first-ever overseas trip…18 years ago.

But that’s another story, you’ll have to read about in a future post. As momentous an occasion it is for us to have completed the longest section of railway in the world, we’re still only part way to our final destination of Saigon in 30 days. The train must go on.

Such is life on the Ultimate Train Challenge.

Want to see the Trans-Manchurian (Trans-Siberian) journey in action? Check out my video diary of the experience:

Many thanks to Real Russia for arranging for our Trans-Manchurian railway tickets and giving us invaluable information and assistance along the way. Stay tuned for an amusing video diary post of my Trans-Manchurian adventures!

Here's what the Trans-Siberian Railway is like in this day-by-day breakdown! #traintravel #TransSiberian #TransManchurian #travelbytrain #TheProfessionalHobo #Moscow #Beijing
Please share this on Pinterest!

Sharing is Caring!

Get the Inside Scoop
Receive a FREE 2-week e-course on Financially Sustainable Travel 
Featured Image

21 thoughts on “A Week on the Trans-Manchurian Railway”

  1. LOL Nora – you KNOW you’re a hard-core traveler when “Great Wall of China” equates to “hot shower”. 😉

    Great rundown of your train trip – especially love the serendipity of the “eggs” affair.

  2. You’re a great writer, concise, intriguing and a detailed picture painter..good sign…you’re a good looker too…Yummy…I’d say…..
    Seriuosly I’ll be reading every inch of your blog…Cheers
    Vancouver, BC

  3. I found this very interesting because I had thought a week long trip on a train would be great fun! Now I’m not so sure a week long trip without breaks would be for me!

  4. Did I or didn’t I in an earlier blog, mention that the train food will be worse than the train ride? But amazingly I was surprised it took you a full two days to realize this as fact…

    One more tidbit of travel, young lady, is next time you’re in the top bunk, and it’s dark, when you need to pee, instead of acrobatics, maybe you should’ve brought an empty jug to fill…

  5. @Dyanne – Shower vs Great Wall….the never-ending debate…. 🙂

    @Baron’s – Thanks! Some really interesting posts and videos to come (not that I’m biased….)!

    @Keith – Yes, well, desperate times call for desperate measures when it comes to train food. As for peeing in a bottle in a small constantly-jostling train cabin with two other people….doubt I’ll ever be that desperate!

    @Debbie – Most people who do the Trans-Manchurian tend to get off at one or two stops to break up the journey. Although we met a bunch of people who went the whole way through…it is a bit of an endurance test. Remember though – I had a 17-day train-filled lead-up to the Trans-Manchurian too, so my exhaustion is worth taking into perspective.

    @Nancy – I haven’t seen fall colours like that myself in years. Very special.

    @Henry – It was! 🙂

  6. I never said bottle, I said jug… and a funnel helps too I guess… and if it’s dark and everyone else is asleep, then who is to know… unless you blog about it, which i think BARON would find somehow entertaining…

  7. Lora,

    Siberia starts as soon as you pass Ural mountains (Ufa or Perm cities, depends on the exact route of the train). About 1300 km from Moscow.

    You spent about 3 days on the train going through Siberia.

    Manchuria is much-much smaller ;))

  8. I’ve really been enjoying your account of your trip and appreciate how you paint the picture with words as well as the photos you include. Thanks for letting me travel vicariously though I’m not sure I would want to do such an intensive train trip. Lack of sleep and hard, cramped, moving beds are not my friend. You are an inspiration.

  9. @Alex – Thanks for the tip! 🙂

    @Sandy – The Trans-Siberian on its own might not have been so difficult; but the train challenge in its entirety has left me feeling pretty tired. I’m currently recovering in Saigon!

    • Hi Ayan,
      I’m generally an adrenaline junkie myself(!), but this is a different kind of adrenaline doing something like the Trans-Siberian (and the Ultimate Train Challenge itself). It’s the thrill and adrenaline of travel, new things, and finding your way in foreign lands and cultures. Whereas a skydive lasts a few minutes, travel adventures can last up to a lifetime!

  10. 150 hours….amazing.

    So much helpful info in this post for me. Just started the beginning stages of planning my Trans-Siberian.

    Wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in the spring or the fall but seeing your photos of the fall colors has convinced me – fall it is!

    Thanks for the helpful post!

    • Hi Stefan,
      YES! The fall is glorious. I’m sure the spring offers quite a show, but if I had it to do over again, I’d do it in September again. Enjoy your ride!

  11. Loved every bit of this! I am planning a trip with a friend of mine for this fall doing the reverse of what you did and starting in Beijing and ending in Moscow. Really just nervous for the lack of showers! There was no option to stay at the stops longer, perhaps overnight? That’s a bummer. Anyway, loved this! Thanks!

    • Hi Abby,
      Yes! You can totally get off the train and spend a few nights on land along the way!
      The most popular stop on this route for people to disembark for a few days is at Lake Baikal (the deepest and most ancient lake on earth).
      The only reason we didn’t make any stops is because we were on a tight schedule with the Ultimate Train Challenge; traveling from Lisbon to Saigon in just 30 days.
      Enjoy your trip!

  12. Hi Nora just read your travelogue, very interesting and full of reality. I wanted to go for this adventure but it seems that it is not good for me. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

    • Hi Mujahid,
      Yes, this journey isn’t for everybody! But you also don’t have to do the entire thing in one go, as we did. Most people get off the train for a few days at various stops to break up the journey and see something along the way. (And shower, and eat, etc!)

  13. Your your description of the trip on the Trans-Siberian train was wonderful we are thinking about doing this but we understand that there are better accommodations than a four bunk rooms thank you so much for your information if you get off the train how often does another one come along and do you have to wait several days thanks thanks so much for your wonderful information about the trip my email

    • Hi Anne,
      I definitely recommend getting off the train to enjoy some of the destinations along the way! Usually another train comes along in a few days, but it depends on the route and the time of year. Seat61.com is a good place to start any research about train trips around the world.

Comments are closed.