General Train Resources:
International train information: Seat61.com – Again, this website does an excellent job of describing the train systems of every country that has rail systems in the world. You can find links to each country’s train company (or companies) and some excellent descriptions of various routes. Seat61.com should be your first and best resource for all your train questions.
European Train Schedules: DB Bahn, the German national rail website is the best resource to get exact times for trains all over Europe. You can’t check prices on that site outside of Germany, for the most part, but when you are planning your route, you can check out a lot of information. In addition to train departure times, travel times, and available routes, you can also see which routes have overnight trains with sleeper cabins and which trains require advance reservations.
Train Resources by Countries:
VIETNAM & CHINA
Rail Resources: Vietnam Railways System. Vietnam is very easy to navigate, it is one of the best and most interesting trains you will take on the entire journey. Hanoi to Saigon, or vice versa, takes an entire day and a half of train travel, so make sure you schedule for it. It is a truly lovely journey, a lot of it right on the coast.
Lodging: The overnight option on the train is highly recommended, but if you want to stop anywhere and spend a day or two (perhaps after you finish the UTC), we recommend using HostelWorld to check out some affordable places. Another option for more mid-range budget travelers might be to check out the Vietnam listings for Agoda.
Rail Resources: China Travel Guide is one site with China train tickets and schedules. Two more are China Trip Advisor and China Train Tickets. We have not used any of these sites before and cannot vouch for them. At the very least though, they can provide you with train schedules. You will be leaving/entering China at either Nanning or Kuning from/to Vietnam. On the other side, you will be exiting/entering China from Bejing via Mongolia, if you take the Trans-Mongolian, or Russia, if you take the Trans-Manchurian and bypass Mongolia entirely.
You can buy train tickets on the ground in China, but make sure you ask someone at the hostel or hotel you are staying in to write down what ticket you want to purchase, because not every rail station has someone that speaks English.
Lodging: There are plenty of amazing places to stop and see in China, so we’ll leave that research and those choices up to you. HostelWorld has affordable places all over China. Another option for more mid-range budget travelers might be to check out the China listings for Agoda.
Rail Resources: It is recommended that you buy your Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian rail tickets in advance (and make sure of all possible departure dates in your planning process). Either route will get you from Bejing to Moscow or vice versa. If you want to bypass Mongolia entirely, you can do so by taking the Trans-Manchurian route, instead of the Trans-Mongolian route.
There are a number of companies that sell those tickets, but in the past, we have worked successfully with Real Russia, U.K. and can say firsthand they do an excellent job. It is also possible to buy these tickets on the ground in either Moscow or Bejing (again, remember to take full instructions on what you need written out by your hostel or hotel beforehand). From our experience and from talking to friends that have done it before, the trains running from Russia to China tend to be a lot less crowded than the ones that run the other way.
Lodging: There really isn’t much time to stop on this particular route (and you need to make 100% sure there is another train you can catch if you stop a day or two). A couple places possibly worth a brief stop are Irkutsk on the shores of Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world, and Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. You should be able to find an affordable place via HostelWorld at any stop along the way (or in Moscow at the end/beginning of your route).
Additional: See also Trans-Siberian Handbook, 8th: Eighth edition of the guide to the world’s longest railway journey and also this post from my friend Katie about experiences onthe Trans-Siberian and this post about some of the Trans-Siberian logistics.
BETWEEN RUSSIA & EUROPE:
Rail Resources: To get between Europe and Moscow, you’ll need to go through one or more of the following: Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. None of them are covered on the Eurail Pass, if you have purchased one.
Should you avoid Belarus? Some people try to avoid Belarus with their new higher visa fees. Just remember that if you pay the visa fee, you can travel quickly and simply from western Europe to Moscow on a direct train through Belarus saving time and expense. Going via Ukraine is quicker these days (Ukraine no longer requires EU & US citizens to buy a visa), but will still takes a good bit of time, so make sure you check schedules closely.
Poezda is a site in Russian that has schedules in this area (use Google Translate or another translation program). Other sites for plans in that region include Ukraine Trains, Belarus Railways, and Polish Rail. And again, the Seat61 site goes into detail on each of these countries as well.
Rail Resources: The European train options are plentiful. One site to check out all train schedules in Europe is the DB Bahn site we mentioned above. Another one is Loco2, where you can not only check out schedules, but also prices through their site.
You only have 30 days to complete UTC13 and we think a Eurail pass is the easiest way.* But feel free to do your homework before deciding whether to invest in a series of point-to-point tickets in specific countries before arriving at/(or leaving from) Lisbon, Portugal.
*(Please remember – you must include Spain & Portugal when planning/ purchasing a Eurail pass. As you end or begin in [Lisbon/ Lisboa], this may affect some Saver discount fares that require bordering countries or limit the total number of countries you can traverse. Considering the number of countries you will be traversing in Europe, the Global Pass is likely your best option for a rail pass for UTC13)
*YWNR disclosure: Eurail is a sponsor of the 2013 UTC. Eurail is providing 2 no-charge railpass prizes to be awarded among eligible contestants who complete the Ultimate Train Challenge. Regardless of Eurail’s preferred status, it is the position of YWNR that Eurail offers attractive and cost-effective travel options for our participants though no individual is required to book railpasses or travel through Eurail’s agents.
Various Posts on How-To Navigate Europe:
How to Use a Eurail Pass, by Over Yonderlust
Do Eurail Passes Save You Money, by Nomadic Matt