The whole reason behind our route from South-east Asia through to Central Asia and on to Europe was to take one of the most famous train lines in the world. You've probably heard of the Trans-Siberian, the longest single-service railway line in the world spanning almost 9300 kilometers and connecting Moscow with the far-east Russian town of Vladivostok. Passing through seven time zones, it's a journey that takes no less than a week to complete.
That's the traditional route and an extremely popular one. But there are also connecting services that can bring you all the way from Asia through to Europe, namely the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Moscow (via Mongolia) and the Tran-Manchurian which does the same thing except bypasses Mongolia. As Mongolia was a must on our travel wish list we decided on the Trans-Mongolian route. There are also more options if you want to travel to Beijing by train from say Vietnam or the myriad of choices for train travel in Europe.
We travelled from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), the capital of Mongolia, in one day (overnight). Then stayed in Mongolia for 12 days before continuing from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk over the border in Russia (2 nights) where we got off and spent another 5 days exploring the town and Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal – one of the most astonishing lakes you'll ever see! We then continued on to Moscow, the longest leg of our journey at 5 days, 4 nights. Overall, we spent about three and a half weeks living our train dream.
We learned so much on our journey that we decided our train adventure deserved its own Top #5 separate to our Top #5 Travel Tips for Russia (recently named one of the best blogs for November on AsiaRooms.com!).
There is quite a bit of detail here but we do hope it will help those planning to take a similar route, and if you do have any further questions at all, please don't hesitate to leave them in the comments section and we'll do our best to answer them.
So without further ado, here are our top tips for a trip on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways!
1. Booking tickets
For Russian trains, you can book your tickets directly on the Russian railways website. You'll see a lot of blog posts stating that this is a very complicated process as it's all in Russian, but we are pleased to report that the website is now fully bookable in English. This is most definitely the cheapest option! Don't feel pressured into buying Trans-Siberian packages from tour agents who will charge crazy amounts simply to do this process for you.
Things to note when booking:
– Train times. All Russian trains are listed in Moscow time, not local time (well, unless you are in Moscow or within the Moscow time zone of course). We were coming from the east of the country to Moscow so we were always ahead of Moscow time, meaning that if we mistakenly took the time on our tickets/schedule to be the actual departure time locally, we would always be early. However, if you are travelling west to east, this could be a costly mistake. So be sure to triple-check your initial departure time and when you need to be back on board at any of the scheduled stops.
– The departure/arrival station. Moscow, for example, has a number of different stations. Luckily they are not very far apart, but you should take note of which one you will be arriving at/departing from to avoid inconvenience/potentially missing your train all together.
– Be sure to check the box for sheets/linen. This is only provided if you pay for it. Luckily if you do happen to forget, you can pay for it on the train.
– Seating allocation. Not all seats/berths are equal. We'll cover that in more detail in the next point.
Booking tickets via the Russian Railways site is only applicable to train travel in Russia. If you are wanting to book tickets on the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian lines, this can be a little more complicated if not in the country of departure and you don't speak the language. Of course, there are lots of tour agencies that will book it for you at a high price. But again, there is no need to spend more than you have to here.
We went with Real Russia and highly recommend them. Of course, you are paying more for the service than if you were able to book directly at the train station yourself, but for many of us that isn't possible and Real Russia were reasonably priced and really took the hassle out of the whole process. We booked our tickets from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk with them. The booking process was hassle free and they were always quick to respond. They even arranged free local delivery of the tickets for us. So our tickets from Beijing were waiting for us when we arrived at our hostel in Beijing and our tickets from Ulaanbaatar were likewise waiting for us at our accommodation in Mongolia. They even came with a little note in English that had what time we should arrive at the station and anything else we needed to know. This is not a service that we have seen widely advertised, even by them, so be sure to ask for it. They also arranged our “Letter of Invitation” required for our Russian visa application. Again, quick and easy, and we had the letters we needed in our inbox within minutes.
While Real Russia are an excellent resource for searching train schedules for your entire journey (and they list trains in local time rather than Moscow time to avoid confusion which is handy), we would still recommend booking Russian legs of your journey via the Russian Railways website directly as this will save you some cash. In our case, we used Real Russia to get us to Russia and then once there and we worked out when we wanted to continue our journey from Irkutsk, we booked our tickets through to Moscow, as well as a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the Russian Railways website ourselves.
While we don't necessarily recommend leaving your train bookings to the last minute, there are a lot of train options in Russia as this is how local people move from one side of the country to the other. Check to see if the ticket you print can be used for boarding. The electronic ticket we had from Moscow to St. Petersburg could be used to board the train whereas the Trans-Siberian journey from Irkutsk to Moscow couldn't. However, it was very easy to exchange this electronic ticket for a ticket good for boarding at the Irkutsk train station. They had little kiosks available in English where you could print them out. If you are not sure where they are, just show your electronic ticket to station staff and they'll help you out.
2. Classes and seating
On the Trans-Siberian railway you generally have three class choices (first spalny vagon, second kupe and third platzkartny). Basically first class is a private cabin for two with better facilities, second class is a cabin for four and third class is a open style carriage with dozens of beds, think of it as the dorm of the train. The third class is arranged into four-berth open cabin spaces (i.e. no doors) and then side berths along the corridor.
We personally wanted to interact with local people so weren't interested in taking first class which is basically full of tourists and segregates you from the other passengers. Not to mention it is far more expensive for something that, in our opinion, doesn't give you all that much in return. We booked what was listed as third class ticket for the trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. As it turned out, it was nothing like third class on a Russian train. It was like a second class cabin for four people and was perfectly adequate despite it getting rather hot on board at times.
We took second class from Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) to Irkutsk (Russia) in which we shared a cabin with two other travellers (no third class is available on this route). Second class does afford privacy with a closed cabin, but it doesn't necessarily mean added comfort. We were sharing with a young Mongolian girl who was about to start studying in Russia and her father who was accompanying her to help her get set-up. I kid you not, these people brought a refrigerator, yes, a refrigerator, a microwave and a whole apartment's worth of stuff into the cabin. There wasn't a square inch to move.
We probably had the best time of all in third class from Irkutsk to Russia. We're not going to lie. There is zero room in the top bunks compared with second class. You cannot sit up so the only time you want to be up there is to sleep or to read or listen to music, but even that gets uncomfortable after a while because you really can't adjust your position.
As we booked our tickets only days before departure, we could only get two top bunks at the end of the carriage. This is what I mean about leaving things to the last minute not necessarily being the best, but we usually travel quite spontaneously and we get there in the end. If possible, get a bottom bunk or as a couple or travelling pair, getting a top and bottom bunk would be fine as the person on the top could relax on the bottom bunk during the day and only go up to sleep. Of course, we got to know the people below us and they were happy to let us sit on their beds as well as share the table for meals, but you kind of feel the need to vacate the area quickly and if they are sleeping you don't really have a choice but to go upstairs or hang out by the toilets. Keep in mind that there is no ladder to the top bunks and being hopelessly uncoordinated with virtually no upper body strength AND having to contort my body into the small space at the same time, it basically took several Russian women to push me in there the first time. From then on, I utilized the table as a step and kind of rolled in.
Many people say to avoid the side berths along the corridor as they have less privacy and people are walking right by you. If you are a solo traveller, we'd tend to agree. Basically how the side berths work is that they have an upper and lower bunk, but the lower bunks convert into two seats and a table for relaxing during the day. This is great for the person on the top bunk as they have somewhere to sit, but it means you are occupying the sleeping space of the other and you'll kind of have to negotiate when to go back up if the other person wants to sleep. If you are travelling as a pair, however, this could be a great option as you have your own table to sit at while all the open cabins have to share between four, and if you know each other there isn't that awkwardness about letting the other know when you want to sleep. You could indeed swap beds if one wanted to continue sitting while the other wanted to rest.
We would say, however, that the side berths at the end of carriage by the toilet should be avoided. Passengers are passing through all the time and every time they open the door, it hits the side of the bunks and slams shut. The area outside the toilet is also where people smoke so it gets lots of traffic for that reason and of course some of that smell does permeate the carriage when the door opens.
In addition to class and berths, different train names and numbers will have different facilities and will take differing lengths of time to get to their destination. In short, there is quite a lot to consider when booking your ticket. The site Seat 61 has a lot of detailed information on train travel on this and other routes which we recommend you read before booking.
3. Border crossings
If you are taking one of the connecting options from outside Russia, you will be completing international border crossings during your journey. This is time-consuming and can be laborious as they check visas, customs forms and inspect the cabin itself. As an example, border crossing procedures between Mongolia and Russia began at 7am and were completed at 3pm. We were given time off the train in Russia, thankfully, as toilets are closed during border crossings for the obvious reason of preventing people from illegally crossing the border. This is also a procedure that happens during any station stop, including some time before and after. This is not only to prevent fare evasion but is due to the nature of the toilets themselves, with the flushing mechanism being just a foot lever that empties the bowl onto the tracks. I shouldn't need to go into any more detail as to why the station would be the least desirable spot for that.
As a general rule, sometimes you can get off the train and other times you can't, so best to check the train stopping schedules posted in the carriage and go well ahead of scheduled stops.
During the border crossing between China and Mongolia, something special happens. The train is actually taken away from the station platform and the wheels changed. The whole process is called the “changing of the bogies” and takes a few hours. Why? The track gauges between the two countries are different so in order for the train to continue its journey, the wheels need to be changed to fit the track. The only thing is you may not be informed of this procedure when you are allowed off the train at the border in Erlian, China. In order to avoid panic when you return to the station to find your train gone with all your luggage along with your passport and ticket that they take from you when you board the train, this is a usual procedure. There is a shop at the station which is why most people are interested in getting off. If you go and come back relatively quickly, you can get back on the train before the changing of the wheels and stay on it during the whole process. If you stay off longer, the train will have already departed for this to take place and you'll find the doors out to the platform padlocked. In which case, there is a waiting area upstairs where you can relax for a couple of hours until the train comes back. Remember that if you do decide to stay on the train, you'll be on there with no toilets for the duration of the time.
4. Facilities and what to bring
– Food. You can purchase food in the restaurant car should you wish. Some of the more expensive tickets include all or some meals, but it's best to bring at least some supplies with you. There is no refrigeration but even things like yogurt can keep for a day or so and still be OK and gives you some more variety for a little while. Some stops are long enough to get to a shop and sometimes there may be a small kiosk on the platform, but be prepared to go a day or two without being able to do this. As a nice surprise, meal coupons for the restaurant car were provided between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar, even for the third class, but they have very strict time frames so be sure to visit the restaurant car on time, even a minute late will mean you'll have to pay. In fact, go early so you can get a seat, otherwise you may have to wait in line for a while as there are more passengers than seats.
– Hot water. Hot water is provided, making things like cup noodles a popular choice for meals. Cold water, however, isn't so be sure to bring some drinking water. Alternatively, you could use the hot water provided and wait until it cools. In any case, you should bring a cup/mug with you to make tea/coffee or to make packet soups etc. Tea and coffee is not provided free so be sure to bring this and any utensils you need to make/consume any beverages/meals you want to make.
– Electrical outlets. Unless you are in first class, you won't have access to your own electrical outlet. There are communal ones in corridors or by the toilets and are basically in guaranteed inconvenient positions. On our five-day leg from Irkutsk to Moscow in third class, there were only two power outlets in the space outside the toilet and both were high up. They also didn't seem to fit power cords very well in the sense that they kept falling out, meaning that the person wanting to charge their device would have to stand there with their arm extended to keep it in. There was no chance for me with my adapter and bulky MacBook power plug and is the reason for the now obvious dent in my laptop thanks to said falling plug. Apple, please make your plugs more travel friendly! We saw a couple of people able to get theirs to stay and then weave the cord through the door and rest their phone on an unoccupied bed in the carriage where they could keep a better eye on it. The whole process is a bit of an ordeal so basically be prepared to not have your devices charged all the time during your journey.
– Other useful things to bring are a pocket knife to open food packaging and also to cut up food itself, wet wipes for cleaning said pocket knife and as a makeshift shower (no shower access on board), toilet paper (sometimes there was some and other times not) and sandals to move about the carriage and toilet without having to mess around with your regular shoes every time you leave the bed.
5. Social interaction
The main reason we wanted to take third class was all the local people we'd get to meet. Over the course of five days in our third class Russian train, we shared our open cabin with two business women, some tattooed truck drivers and a magician! If you don't speak Russian though, it can be tough to communicate sometimes. Therefore, we suggest bringing along a few things to aid in communication. A deck of cards can be hours of fun and you can teach each other games by playing a few open rounds. Photos of your family, country or travels are also great ice-breakers and can be appreciated cross-culturally.
An electronic dictionary is super helpful. Remember to download a Cyrillic keyboard so your Mongolian and Russian friends can type words in it too. For long stints on the train, bear in mind your battery is likely to run out and you might not be able to charge it for long. In which case, an old-school physical dictionary or phrasebook can be super useful. You could also look up useful words and phrases online and print them out to assist during your trip.
And remember to whip out some tasty treats. Snacks that are easily shared are a great way to break down barriers and initiate conversation. Or beer? These guys were all about it!