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Trans Mongolian Railway FAQ

Here's a few questions people have been asking since I got back about planning their own Trans Mongolian/Siberian trip:

Do I need to book a ticket on the Trans Mongolian?
If you're going directly with no hopping off, it's possible to book a ticket all the way from Beijing to Moscow, which will be almost a bum-numbing week of sitting on the train. It's better to hop-off and see things for a couple of days. This may mean that you get stuck in a town a day longer (which happened to us in Datong), but once you're on the Trans Siberian mailine (from Irkutsk to Moscow) trains are fairly regular.

Is a tour the only way to do it?
Booking a tour can be a good way to get it all sorted for you, but it's not necessary. We booked each leg as we went. This meant hopping off the train and buying the next ticket as soon as we got there.
Once you're in Russia, the train runs on Moscow time so you'll need to be careful not to muddle Moscow Time and Local Time. There's a good timetable at the excellent Man from Seat 61.

How did you eat?
Forget the dining car. It's usually expensive and the food is pretty sub-standard. Once you get to Russia there are 20 and 30 minute stops (check the timetable before you hop off if you don't want to be stranded on a platform) which allow you to do some hunter gathering.
Platform stalls and kiosks usually sell noodle cups, beer, water and snacks, but the best ones include roasted chicken, vodka, pre-prepared meals, books, CDs and DVDs. Bigger stops will even have mini-supermarkets.
In China and Mongolia stops are briefer and you should pack a few snacks to tide you over.

What should I pack?
It's going to be cold no matter when you go, but the train itself is super-heated. This means you'll need cold-weather clothes for outdoors (I wore man-tights for the first time in my life, but also gloves and woollen hats) and a lighter set of clothes for the 30 degree temperatures in your carriage. Some Russians got on the train and changed into shorts or tracksuits to feel comfortable for most of the trip.
You'll get bedding in most classes but you may also need a towel and a pocket knife will be handy for making your own meals. We also took water bottles which mean less trips back and forth to the samovar. The phrasebook was invaluable and many of our 'conversations' consisted of pointing at words in the book with chatty Russians and Mongolians.

How did you shower?
The grim answer is that when we were on the train, we didn't. The longest spell we had was 57 hours on the train and that was surprisingly okay (though possibly not for the people who shared the cabin with us). Mostly we used the bathrooms and our travel towels to have what the Germans refer to as a "cat's wash". In the deluxe cabin (in China only) we had a share shower which was serviceable enough.

Where the hell did you go?
China: Beijing to Datong to
Mongolia: Ulaan Bataar to
Russia: Irkutsk to Lake Baikal to Tomsk (via Taiga) to Moscow (via Novosibirsk and Kazan) to St Petersburg to
Finland: Helsinki (with a sidetrip in Espoo)


View Our Trans Mongolian Route in a larger map

But that's not the TRUE Trans Mongolian?
No, the true Trans Mongolian runs as far as Moscow and we went a little further (to Helsinki). The stops in Datong and Tomsk were a little offbeat as well.

What are the bits that can't be missed?
Lake Baikal is great and in the summer it's completley different again. Ulaan Batar is a different world, but getting out into the countryside a little gave us a better insight into the country. Yunguang Caves were spectacular, but might only be for Buddha fans especially as it can mean a longer stop in China. Moscow was great, but lengthening the trip to St Petersburg put the capital in perspective.

Any regrets?
Would have like to have gotten to Yekaterinburg and spent longer in Mongolia, but there's always next time.

Comments

  1. i went on the trans-mongolian railway when i was 14, and i had the blast of my life. mongolia was awesome...seriously if you have the opportunity, grab a friend or two and GO!!!

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  2. I did the transmongolian train last year, as the last leg of an epic 2 years of backpacking and it was the best adventure I have ever had. St Petersburg was great, Moscow was great, Lake Baikal, spend some time there and go for a walk along the lake at sunset, it was just beautiful. Ullann Baatar was great, soryr but its a rpettty ugly city to look at but the people are so so friendly, after coming from Russia, it was a welcomed change. I also agree to go out into the country side abit, stay in a ger, and go horse riding for a Mongolian experience, and then coming into Beijing on the train just amazing.

    I did it with Vodkatrain who were great for backpackers, we didn't have a guide on the train only in the cities, which was for the best really.

    The best experience I have ever had, adn I highly recommend the whole jounrey to anyone, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, crossing from the west coast of europe to the east coast of Asia, by train, a great feeling, also you realise that its not hte worst thing in the world to eat pot noodles and not shower for a week.

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  3. I'm drooling with envy, that sounds amazing and is now on my list.

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  4. We were on trans-mongolia in this years January and it was one of the best experiences in life. :)
    I think one more thing to take along for the trip is good entertaiment and of course pictures of your own country. Also good, firm dishes are required, because train is shaking and hot water can be easily spilt. And the water is HOT HOT HOT so it is totally save to drink. So buy a big bottle of water in the station and after you have drank it, fill it with hot (gloves on) and then cool it down so you'll have FREE drinking water. :) Many people buyed little bottles of water in the stations, I think it was pretty stupid concidering the trash etc.
    If you want to drink, concider buying ENOUGH beer or vodka in the stations (or in cities) because conductors don't always have enough bottles.(and they have nice prices...)
    We enjoyed the trip so much, we'll definetly doing it again sometime!
    And it's not even that expensive as people think. Only 300 euros (compare to flights)

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  5. When I took TransMongolian from Baikal to Ulanbataar, I got off at each stop, ran to front of train, waived my ticket at conductor (so he knew I had one) and made hitchhiking sign to try and come up. At each stop they nodded 'nyet'. Then, at one stop, they changed crew, and the new crew waived me up. I had to duck every time a train came in opposite direction so no one would see me in caboose. The conductor would not let me take his picture, but he took mine (drumroll please)...while I was driving! Yup. I got to drive the TransMongolian (and toot the horn too)! A definite highlight of my 14month RTW.

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  6. Wow - some great stories here including driving the train itself.
    I agree with Eve Birgitta that it's pretty stupid to buy water and waste bottles when you can just fill up your own re-useable bottle.
    Good to hear so many people found it doable and cheap.

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  7. Thanks so much for sharing so useful informations!!

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  8. Wow, reading all about everyones adventures makes me look forward to mine even more.

    My brother and I leave on Friday (in two days!!) to fly to Russia and hop on the train. We won't be hopping off anywhere but that's mostly due to time contraints.

    It may be the most expensive trip we ever took 10 thousand$)it's also a trip of a lifetime and we can't wait!

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  9. @Mia, wow that sounds like a pricey trip, but it will probably include everything you need and save you time looking for places to stay and getting decent meals. Even if you don't hop off anywhere you can hop off and have a quick look around at the longer stops - just don't miss the train.
    Have a great trip!

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  10. It sounds like it is a very nice trip!

    A friend and I are thinking of going from Beijing to Moscow with a stop in Ulaan Bataar and Lake Baikal.

    How much were the tickets?

    Was it easy to book each leg at the train station?

    How far in advance did you have to book each leg?

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  11. Dara, it was usually easy to book at train stations though I imagine there would be a few language barriers. We didn't book any legs in advance and this meant that we had to spend longer in some towns than we would have liked (usually a day or so) which isn't a problem ifyou allow enough time.
    As for how much it costs - I didn't add up all the tickets but it's certainly cheaper to buy as you go rather than go with a booking agency ahead of time (if you don't mind a little inconveniencing).
    Your trip is similar to the one we did so flip back through the old posts for more details. UB is great and I'd think about stopping for a few days with some time to get into the countryside. Lake Baikal is great but you'll need to hop off the train tehn catch a local bus there.
    Have a great trip!

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  12. Well this looks interesting. I'm planning my trip on the Trans Mongolian, Moscow-Beijing. A lot of the sites I've read are saying that it's advisable to buy tickets in advance because they sell out so fast. You're saying the opposite. The cheapest I can find tickets for (I have a very tight budget) is £533, which I can probably just about manage.

    By my understanding, the trains only run on a Tuesday, which is worrying me due to the strict Russian visa. It would mean if I missed a train, I'd overstay my Visa since the next train wouldn't arrive for 7 days.

    Did anyone else have trouble like this, or am I just worrying too much?

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  13. Coupla questions:

    Is it better to do Moscow to Beijing or Beijing to Moscow?
    A few people mention stopping here and there (particularly in UB and travelling into the country). Is this possible on a tour or only if you do it all yourself?
    Is it hard to arrange short tours etc when you are there?
    Thanks

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  14. Great guide! Planning on doing this journey next year, and Im so excited! Looking forward to drinking vodka with the Russians and the local food!

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