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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 g…

Sleeping for Gold

When we get to Moscow, we’re a bit dazed after almost three days on the train. Getting a hotel seems complicated – the first place we had a reservation at has never received anything about us and prices seem to have tripled. We go for the backup reservation – Hotel Izmaylovo.

It’s not every night that you can lay your head where Olympic champions once dossed down, but this massive hotel is a former Olympic village. With more than 8000 rooms across four different buildings, it remains one of Europe’s largest hotels despite being built way back in 1979. It’s so large that we’re not sure which of the massive four buildings to head for. Are we in Delta or Vega?

We opt for Delta, partly because these are the easiest characters to work out in Cyrillic. Behind the check-in desk they’ve never heard of our reservation either. It must be a Russian hospitality custom. They talk us through the rooms and we ask what the difference is between standard and business.
“Better furniture,” the check-in gir…

Farewelling Siberia

From Tomsk it’s an bum-numbing 50 plus hours to Moscow. It’s difficult to work out exactly how long this trip will take us because the train runs on Moscow time and Tomsk is a couple of hours ahead. As we travel along we go through three timezones.

We’re prepared though with plenty of supplies for in-carriage picnics. The dining car sounds like a good idea for a change of scenery but on the first night of the trip we get stung for over a thousand roubles including separate extra charges for tomato and cucumber slices. So we opt for self-catering mostly.
It’s really easy to hop out at stations and do some hunter-gathering. There are stalls, carts and hawkers selling beer, roast chicken and even pre-cooked meals at a cart optimistically labelling itself pectopah (restaurant). There’s plenty of time as stops last up to 30 minutes – even longer if the provodnitsa (carriage attendant) has to finish their cigarette.
The provodnitsa can make or break your trip. Mostly they’re overblown characte…

Tomsk is not just a womble

To get to Tomsk we have to make a connection that means 6 hours in the middle of the night in Taiga, an unimpressive industrial town. After some phrasebook fumbling and dodging a couple of Russians passed out from the national drink, we find the resting rooms. Above the station they’re like a mini-hotel where it’s possible to crash for a couple of hours if you don’t mind the whistles and toots of trains coming and going. Many of the trains out of here are bearing minerals and logs from Siberia and if you can’t sleep it’s easy to count trains. We’re out in about five minutes.

The matron of the resting rooms wakes us an hour before our train is due to depart. We’re in the notorious platskart, an open sleeper that has bunks crammed into every possible space – up to three lining each wall. There’s always someone walking by and security is nonexistent. It’s a short hop of a couple of hours so we grab a couple more hours sleep and keep our bags close by. Temperature-wise it’s actually more …

Mushing to Moscow

Irkutsk is the jumping off point for Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest and weirdest lake. Water gushed into the space between two tectonic plates and created a huge crescent-shaped water that runs over 600km. It’s apparently more than a fifth of the world’s fresh unfrozen water. The tectonic plates are slowing moving away from each other and may one day split so that this could be the world’s fifth sea. Isolated within these depths is a unique ecosystem that serves as a sanctuary for freshwater seals, the nerpa, and the omul fish.

You get omul thrust at you as you get off the train at Slyuyanka, but the nerpa are hiding out under the ice. The frozen water lives up to its Pearl of Siberia nickname. As we walk along the lakefront there’s a curl of ice jutting out where the ice has shifted. Because spring sun is coming in you can hear the ice tingling and cracking around the curl. It’s still possible to walk out on the ice though as it’s more than a metre deep. Locals drive their cars out …

Among the Smugglers

When we board at UB, a Mongolian man strikes up a conversation with me. He quickly establishes himself as the Mayor of the carriage – chatting to the Buryat girl who shares our carriage and trading jokes with conductors. His knowledge of a couple of languages puts him at the centre of most conversations.Do you know Forex?” he asks me and I mumble something about foreign exchange. He brightens and bombards me with questions that would make an actuary queasy. No, I don’t know how to explain hedge funds. Yes, Barack Obama does seem to be spending a lot of money at the moment. No, I don’t know about the prophecies of Nostradamus and how they’ll affect the markets.Soon several ladies start wandering the carriage with huge bundles of jeans, t-shirts and handbags. At first I think they’re just selling them and a few pairs are exchanged for money, so a simple ‘nyet’ seems to suffice. But one of the conductors comes to plead their case – would I do them a favour of carrying two blankets across…

Galloping Gourmets

After the long train trip we go for a big meal. In the carnivalesque cuisine of Mongolia, meat is cheaper and hence more plentiful than vegetables. But it’s cooking based in the scarcity of the steppes so all parts of the sheep are eaten including the testicles. The first dish I order is mutton porridge, a glutinously thick stew with suspicious globs of meat in it. It reminds me of a hearty Scotch broth, minus any of those annoying veggies.
As the Mongols were nomads they needed meat in any form including their national animal, so the horse is eaten. Which brings me to the main – skip ahead if you’re a Black Beauty fan. The Cowboy dish has three hefty horse ribs with potatoes on the side and a doughy dumpling pancake over the top. Perhaps this pancake is for modesty or to grandly unveil the meat beneath.And what does Mr Ed taste like? A nutty meat that could even be another cut of mutton. It’s definitely no racehorse as there’s fat lining the bone, though another piece is rangy like go…

Erlian Border Crossing

China already seems to be behind us as we pull into Erlian. Already we’ve seen the landscape growing drier and stations have lost their grim institutional look. Actually crossing the border is a formality. Customs officials snatch up our passports and give us no idea of when we’ll see them again. We begin the long slow wait for the gauges to change. Mongolia is temptingly close but really it’s the distance between two gauges. And how long does it take to cross that distance? At least two hours as our bogie is lifted onto a new set of wheels. Swapping bogies makes trainspotters giggly, but it’s fairly dull for anyone else.
The guidebook chirpily tells you that once you get your passport back you should explore this “lively” border town. In fact it’s a plain train station that does duty free. To be fair I did ignore the instructions about getting your passport back and hopped off for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. I’m about to leave the terminal when I notice there’s now a guard on…

All aboard, Beijing

We’re not going to catch the train out of Beijing. Our first leg of the Trans-Mongolian and the cab doesn’t seem to be going fast enough to get us to Beijing West Train Station. It’s about ten minutes before departure and I’m trying to communicate with my scraps of Mandarin that we need to go faster with frantic pointing ahead and looking flustered. The cab driver takes this has a critique of his music and switches from the hip hop station to some fluffy Canto-pop. Actually the determined rhymes and driving beats of Eminem suited the mood better.
This trip has been a dream for me ever since I studied Russian history at university. The Trans-Mongolian is an offshoot of the longer Trans-Siberian Railway that runs from European St Petersburg to Vladisvostock on the Sea of Japan. It’s a journey of more than 9,000km as cultures slowly change and borders blur. Our route (if we make the train) begins in Beijing then stops in Datong before wriggling north up through the steppes to Mongolia. We…