Tips and advice for Trans-Siberian train travel

If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Mongolian journey the first thing I’d recommend is to read The Man in Seat 61’s excellent article on the topic. His website is a must for any rail, bus or ferry travel research but this particularly in-depth piece will help you decide which route to take and how to go about doing it; from organising it all yourself to finding an agent to arrange it for you, and anywhere in between.

The following advice and general info is based on our experience and covers things you might want to know before getting on that first train. (Unless you want it all to be a complete surprise, which is okay too – stop reading now if that’s the case! :)

The trains

Personally I think second class (four bed compartment) is the best way to go. First class (two beds) is significantly more expensive and you’ll miss out on much of the social interaction which is half the point of taking this journey in the first place.

Third class (an open carriage with numerous bunks) is available on some trains, but while it’s cheap and sometimes recommended for single female travellers (safety in numbers) the complete lack of privacy is a bit much for me.

Speaking of safety, we found the whole experience to be very safe. Indeed I’ve read that the Trans-Siberian is sometimes considered safer than any Russian city. If you do have any problems report them immediately to the conductors on your carriage. There’s a decent chance of stolen items being recovered as the thief can’t escape the train while it’s moving, and if need be the conductors will involve the police at the next station.

Beds are allocated in advance and your place number is printed on your ticket. You can find your allocated bed by referring to the number either on the door of your compartment or on the wall near the window.

If you get a choice when booking your tickets I’d recommend a lower bed for solo travellers, or for couples/pairs to take one upper and one lower bed. The lower beds have the best storage (see below) but they’re also seats for all four compartment members during the day: if you take both of the lower beds you could be kicked out of bed if those on the top wake up early and want to sit down. (It’s unlikely because they’d probably be too polite to do that, but I wouldn’t want to feel like I was keeping them trapped up there if I wanted to sleep in.) If you share the cabin down the middle by taking one upper and one lower bed the storage space is evenly distributed and it’s easier to run on your own schedule.

As far as storage goes, most of the space in the compartment is underneath the two lower beds. Sometimes this area is even enclosed in a metal box that can’t be accessed unless the bed is lifted up. The only other storage space is above the compartment door but sometimes it’s only enough for one large travel backpack or a couple of small backpacks.

As a result of this, backpacks or small (carry on size) suitcases are the easiest to deal with. There isn’t any room in the four bed compartments for large suitcases (I’m not sure about first class) but it may be possible to store one in the conductor’s cabin (possibly for a fee).

You need to show your train ticket (and sometimes passport) before you board the train, then your ticket again shortly after the train departs. Sometimes the conductors will keep your ticket during the journey but they’ll give it back just before you disembark.

There are Russian, Mongolian and Chinese trains. The staff are from the same country as the train they work on.

The trains generally have a similar layout but there are slight differences. For example, the Rossiya (Moscow-Vladivostock) is newer and features a powerpoint in each compartment. Other trains may only have a couple of powerpoints in the corridor, if at all.

You could be mixed in with the locals or separated from them in a kind of “tourist only” carriage. We took four sleeper trains on our Trans-Mongolian route: two of them were mixed and two were segregated. You never know what you’ll get but both are great experiences in different ways!

Eastbound Trans-Mongolian trains run on Moscow time until they switch to Ulaanbaatar time in Mongolia, even though they pass through four other timezone changes before then.

The restaurant car is changed in each country to match, ie it will be a Russian restaurant car in Russia, Mongolian in Mongolia and Chinese in China.

Then there are some legs where there’s no restaurant car at all. For example, between leaving the Russian one behind and collecting the Mongolian one after crossing the border.

The restaurant car food is okay but there are cheaper ways to feed yourself (see below). Also, the restaurant does sometimes run out of food (or particular dishes, at least).

A samovar (boiling water dispenser) is available at the end of each carriage and it’s free to use. (I did see a price list which included plain boiling water on a Mongolian train but no one ever had to pay – we think maybe that was the fee if you asked the attendant to bring it to you.) It’s best to bring your own tea/coffee making supplies but if you don’t you can buy teabags from the conductors and they can also provide a glass.

There should be a timetable posted on the wall of each carriage that lists all the stops the train will make and how long they’ll last. (Note however that it might only be available in cyrillic.) Some stops are only a couple of minutes but others can be up to half an hour, enough time to hop off and stretch your legs on the platform.

There are opportunities to buy food at these extended stops: either from convenience booths on the platform or from women who sell homemade snacks such as cooked or dried fish, piroshki and dumplings for around 50-100 руб each.

Some conductors will herd you back onto the train before it moves on but others won’t so you’d better keep an eye on the time or you may find yourself watching your train (with all your luggage) chugging off into the distance without you!

There are two western style toilets in each carriage and they are cleaned during the journey, but they can get a little smelly as toilet paper can’t be disposed of in the toilet bowl, it has to go in the bin – with everyone else’s used toilet paper. (But you’ll probably be used to this if you’ve spent any time in Russia, Mongolia or China.)

There are no showers in second class carriages, only the washbasins with the toilets. If you aren’t breaking up your journey with any overnight stays in towns along the way and are desperate for a shower there’s a lengthy (3 hour) stop at Наушки (Naushki, the last Russian stop before the Mongolian border where the first round of passport checks are done). Public showers are available on the platform for 90-100 руб per person.

People may come down the corridor offering goods for sale such as knitted shawls, fur hats or gold necklaces but you don’t have to buy anything. Near the borders you’ll also get people offering money exchange but the rate is very poor. (Either way, use up or get rid of your tugriks before you leave Mongolia as no one will touch them outside the country.)

I can’t speak for the Trans-Manchurian or the straight Trans-Siberian routes but as far as the Trans-Mongolian goes, the best views are between Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The view on the longest leg (Moscow-Irkutsk) is unfortunately flat and repetitive.

If you’re alighting from the train early in the morning it would be wise to set an alarm, but the conductors will most likely to wake you one hour before your stop (whether you think you need a whole hour or not).

What to bring:

  • Enough cash for the journey, ideally any rubles and yuan in small denominations (it doesn’t matter so much for tugriks). You won’t encounter any ATMs at the short stops along the way.
  • Some food. As mentioned above there are opportunities to buy food along the way but you should bring breakfast supplies and it’s worth having a back up stash of things such as cup noodles, easy open tinned tuna, crispbread, spreads that don’t require refrigeration, nuts, fruit.
  • Camping utensils or a good spork.
  • Light and sturdy cups and tea/coffee supplies.
  • Bottled water, although you can buy more at the longer stops.
  • Toilet paper. Sometimes it’s provided, sometimes it’s not – better to be safe than sorry!
  • Cleaning wipes.
  • Earplugs.
  • Eye mask.
  • Russian phrase book. You might not need it but we only had the bare essentials in a combined Eastern Europe phrase book and we wish we’d had something more detailed for the 80 hours we spent sharing a compartment with a chatty Russian babushka.
  • Lockable luggage cable to secure bags to handles and fixtures so no one will be able to walk off with them. (We did this and it actually felt a bit unnecessary, but again, better safe than sorry.)
  • A book to read – but don’t expect the journey to be extremely productive. Even though you’ll be spending days on a train after a while you do enter a kind of twilight zone where all you may be doing is chatting, eating and napping, but it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.

Regarding foodstuffs: you don’t have to bring these with you from your home country – if anything it’s more fun to stock up at a Russian supermarket!

Regarding alcohol: apparently you’re not supposed to take any (I’ve heard you can even get thrown off the train if you’re caught) but we were advised (by a Russian) to take one litre of vodka with us, “just in case”! In the end we took half a litre, but none of the Russians we met were interested in sharing it with us. (Plenty of travellers were though!) Note that the Russian way to drink vodka is to eat a bite of pickled gherkin after each sip, so if you do decided to take some vodka bring pickles too (or olives) for authenticity.

Packing tips:

  • Pack essentials into a smaller, easier to access bag – it can be quite difficult/annoying to get into your main pack once it’s stowed away.
  • Keep your food supplies together in one bag so it’s easy to access.
  • Have flipflops or slippers handy for walking around the train and on the platforms.
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Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 3: Mongolia

The train from Irkutsk in Siberia to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, was a completely different experience to the Trans-Siberian train we rode from Moscow to Irkutsk. The first was a Russian train and the second Chinese, and it ended up being the oldest of the four long distance trains we travelled on across Russia and Mongolia.

But the biggest difference was that this time we weren’t mixed in with the locals. Each carriage was segregated according to whether the occupants were Russian, Chinese, Mongolian or “tourist”. Apparently this was done in order to reduce theft (hmmm) but that wasn’t particularly successful as an iPhone was stolen from an American couple by someone that had ducked into the carriage. (Miraculously, they got it back! There isn’t really anywhere to hide on a train and the staff took the reported theft very seriously. By the time the train had reached the next station the phone had been recovered, although the thief’s fate was never very clear…) Personally I never felt unsafe on the previous train where we’d been mixed in with locals, but after all, we did have Svetlana acting as our unofficial grandmotherly protector then.

Another glimpse of the train

Either way, it ended up being a nice contrast as we met lots of lovely people (such as Carolyn, Sam, Stuart and Casey) who we could actually communicate and swap travel stories with. We only spent a total of one full day with these guys but by the end of it it felt like we’d known each other for a lot longer.

The day ended with lengthy passport and customs checks first at the Russian and then the Mongolian border. There was about one hour in between the two checkpoints and it wasn’t 100% clear from the customs forms whether we were allowed to take any alcohol or fruit across the border. We all decided it would be best to consume any potentially questionable food and drink before we got there, just to be on the safe side. In order to accomplish this, 15 of us crammed into one single compartment and held a one hour micro party: small space, short time, many drinks, lots of food.

Cabin party

The party ended abruptly when we arrived at the Mongolian checkpoint. The uniformed woman who collected our passports and forms was serious and businesslike but we thought we caught the hint of a smile on her face before she ordered us back to our assigned compartments.

We reached Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am and were able to steal a couple of extra hours sleep at a hotel we were checked into just to shower and breakfast. We met our delightful guide and enigmatic driver in the hotel lobby at 10am to begin our sightseeing in Mongolia in earnest.

Yellow and green ger doors

We had four full days in Mongolia (7-11 October). The first two, spent out in the grand and sweeping Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, were particularly magical. We spent the night in a ger (you mustn’t call a Mongolian house a yurt!) and our days meeting enormous vultures, shaggy yaks, friendly dogs and possibly a not-so-friendly wolf; hiking mountains; visiting a Buddhist meditation centre; and eating a lot of food (soups, mutton, beef stews, dumplings and endless cups of the best ceylon tea I’ve ever tasted). We also visited a nomadic family who served us salty milk tea, thick clotted cow’s cream, dried pellets of yak’s milk yoghurt, and a bowl of fermented horse’s milk (an alcoholic beverage that tastes a bit like sour beer). The weather was perfect and the landscape like nothing we’d ever seen before. Those two days really stand out as a significant highlight of all our travels.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Back in Ulaanbaatar it took us a while to adjust to the insanely congested traffic. Our skilled driver successfully (and/or miraculously) negotiated the chaos without so much as a bump from any nearby vehicles, aided by a not insignificant amount of horn usage. Ulaanbaatar has experienced a population explosion in the last 10 years and the city  is expanding at a rapid rate but the infrastructure can’t quite keep up. The city is full of skyscrapers but the streets are dusty, the air polluted and the predominant colour is a browny grey: a stark contrast with the natural beauty of the relatively nearby  Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar included visiting a Buddhist temple and school complex, the National Museum of Mongolia, the Soviet-esque Zaisan Memorial (which also offers an excellent panoramic view of the city), a wonderful performance of Mongolian song and dance, and the impressive Sükhbaatar Square. I would have loved to have visited the Natural History Museum too but unfortunately it was closed while we were there. I’ve heard Ulaanbaatar’s Modern Art Museum is also very good.

Ulaanbaatar

As with Irkutsk I felt that Real Russia’s prearranged itinerary really helped us to get the most out of our time in Mongolia. If we’d been doing things by ourselves it would have been harder to get out to the national park (I don’t think there’s any public transport outside of the city) and I think if Ulaanbaatar was your only stopover in Mongolia the experience might not be quite as enjoyable. The city on its own might become a bit tiresome and exhausting, whereas breaking it up with some time outside felt quite inspiring and invigorating. After all, the true spirit of Mongolia is all about being out in the open and close to nature. While I highly recommend Real Russia for assistance with visas, booking trains or arranging a complete tour, if you wanted to do the Russian section independently, or are perhaps only visiting Mongolia, the local company that was contracted to look after us in Mongolia was Great Genghis. Our guide and driver were both excellent: very skilled and knowledgable. And really nice people!

Enough plugs. Our Real Russia tour would end with our final train leg: Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. From our arrival in Beijing (12 October) we were back on our own as independent travellers. But more about that and our time in China another time!

[more photos]