You may have heard of the Trans Siberian Express, but are really thinking of the Trans Monogolian. The world famous Moscow, Russia to Beijing, China train travels 4,735 miles, passes through Mongolia and takes 6 days to get to the final destination. The former travels from one length of Russia to the other; whereas, arguably, the Trans-Mongolian is the more interesting route – I took this one, and here are some of tips of surviving one of the longest train journeys in the world:
1. Pack up before leaving Moscow
So you’ve experienced the vast metropolis that is Moscow and you should have already had a taste of Russian culture. Dig it or not, things are fast going to become more and more Russian.
The train leaves from Yaroslavski station every Tuesday night, there is a supermarket nearby to the station – no matter how long or short you’re staying on the train; stock up with food, snacks, water, alcohol (if you wish), toilet paper and self cleaning products such as a roll on deodorant and wet wipes. If you are not one of the lucky ones who can afford a 1st class sleeper, then you’re gonna be waiting a while before you can shower.
2. Getting to grips with the Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet
Do not fear if you see the final destination is ‘Peking’, before or whilst you on the train. Russians still call Beijing by this name and it looks like this in the Cyrillic alphabet: Пекин.
But you don’t need to take a master-class in Russian to go on the Trans-Mongolian, there is a timetable on the train showing the stations and the times you will arrive at these stations is printed both in Russian and English. For courtesy reasons Russian for thank you is ‘spa-ci-ba‘ and ‘pah-tral-sta’ for please, (both spelt phonetically!)
3. Levelling your expectations of comfort and style
Particular tourist websites showcase comfy, wiped-clean shots of the train and its compartments – don’t believe them. Speaking from sole experience of traveling on the Chinese train it can be a bit rustic, not modernised and gets dirtier throughout the journey. Don’t let this put you off, it is all part of the wonderous Trans-Mongolian experience!
My radio music player thing didn’t work, and I don’t think anyone else’s did, the toilet is less than desirable but that’s why I told you to bring extra toilet paper! You want luxury? You’ll have to pay double for the 1st class sleepers. Can’t afford it? Enjoy it for what it is and the way things run in another part of the world.
4. DO talk to strangers!
It is a worry to many passengers who they may end up sharing their sleeping compartments with. It’s not clear whether the Trans-Monolgian tries to put all tourists and locals separately or not.
In my experience, my whole carriage was full of tourists, not just from England but from all over the World. You’re very likely to find other tourists on the train who are doing exactly the same journey as you – talk to them, make friends and drink a beer together! I met some fascinating people on my journey, including: a couple from a town near me I’d never met, a guy who had climbed Everest, another guy who had met Kate Bush and four old men who had been friends since childhood and holiday on train journeys such as this – this was their 2nd time on the Trans-Mongolian! It certainly passes the time meeting and talking to new people, plus who knows, you could make some friends for life.
5. Telling the time and letting go of the idea of time
Time on the Trans-Mongolian can get bloody confusing. You’re passing through three very different countries with around 10 different time zones. Instead of baffling passengers into working out the time each time it changes, some genius thought of keeping it to Moscow time – all the way through to Beijing.
Sounds a great idea at first, but then it’s unshakably bewildering thinking it’s 3am, but outside looks like 8am, and you mobile says it’s 11pm. My advice: forget time exists, or just go by if the sun is up or down.
Six long, hard, smelly days on the train seems a long time because it is a long time. There will be moments when you’ll be itching to do something different other than chatting to new found friends and staring out of the window at the scenary. Try to take things such as a book, a board game, a set of cards and anything else that does not require electricity.
There are power points on the train, but from my experience they were particularly fussy on which adaptor they liked or not – take a few, or a charging pack.
8. Running out of supplies
There is a restaurant cart attached to the train throughout your journey, I’ve intentionally failed to mention this because it’s unreasonably expensive (around £10 each meal.) If you’re on holiday and can afford a meal on the train then good for you, whack it into your budget. If however, like me, this was the start of a gap year backpacking trip around Asia then think noodles. There is a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage, but, noodles can get old pretty god damn fast.
A lot of stations the train stops at allow you to get off and stretch your legs for 15-20 minutes. Do this and see what offerings the little old Russian ladies have to sell on the platform – a lot of it looks pretty grim for fussy eaters, I’m afraid to say, but there is usually bread, tinned fish, a spattering of meat and more noodles. Beer is available on the platforms too – but also from the cheeky guards for a higher price, when the restaurant cart is closed.
1st class contains 2 beds and a shower (lucky ‘expletives’…) 2nd Class contains 4 beds and no shower – great if you’re traveling in a foursome, not if you’re sharing with people you’ve never met and things can get a bit tight. You still have your own private space of course, in a makeshift bed thinner than the usual single.
Claiming the top bunks is the best thought-out plan – you have the freedom to sleep and get up whenever you want, bottom bunkers are not so blessed (their bed doubles up as seating.) Ear plugs are hard to find in Russia, so take some with you before you set off!
10. To make, or not to make, any stops?
Of course you can split up your journey and see different cities and towns on the way. I didn’t, and did regret it somewhat, but am still proud to make the whole journey through start to finish – which is a different experience in itself.
The popular stops seem to be:
– Irkutsk, where the World’s largest Freshwater lake lies (which you can see at sunset even if you stay on the train.)
– Ulan Bator, Mongolia, the stop I most regret not taking. From the people I’ve met who made the stop and traveled out into outer Mongolia have always filled me with a pang of jealousy. Looks and sounds amazing.
Despite taking a long time writing this post, I can still put aside whatever I’ve said above and truly say this was one of the most amazing experiences in all of my travels. All photos included, that are all my own, are filled with blissful nostalgia to a journey I wish I could take over and over again. Enjoy every minute, you might not do it again.