If you are reading this as research as to whether or not you want to take the Trans Siberian trains, the answer simply put is yes, do it. You’ve got far enough into your research to realize it is well worth it. If you are reading this in a state of wanderlust, I hope we can encourage you to fulfill this dream.
If you like to see smaller cities, see how the locals travel and travel with them, have the travel time be a part of the journey too and not just the destination, have some downtime where there is no stress or worry, or you simply just really, really like trains, then this is the best way to travel through the great expansive countries of China, Mongolia and Russia.
Your travel takes you through the largest country spanning 11 time zones, one of the least populated countries per land mass in the world where more than half the people are nomadic, and the most densely populated country with one of the earliest ancient civilizations. There are many differences between these neighboring countries from politics to terrain and they all have a long intermingled history.
Having started our train journey in China, we learnt some valuable lessons through our 6 weeks on the Trans Siberian that are worth passing on, hopefully to help enhance your own experience.
Firstly, there is quite a difference between the 3 countries on the Trans Siberian and how they run their trains. So much so, that the tracks from Mongolia to China are different gauges, so they replace the boogies (yes, that is the actual name for train wheels) at the border.
China for example is very crowded (stating the obvious) but seriously, so many people! Train travel for the Chinese is a cheap, safe and convenient way to get around their large country, as it is for you too. The third class carriages are three bunks high on opposite walls. There is little space between the walls and little space between the beds. The beds are narrow and hard, but when you are desperate enough, they provide a place to sleep. One must be short and flexible to climb into bed, if not, one must look a fool whilst trying to contort themselves into bed. As third class has about 50 beds all within an open cabin there is very little room for privacy or silence. We opted to travel 3rd class on all the trains we could as it is normally half the price of second class.
We spent our first train ride in China from Changsha to Jishou in a third class carriage for 7 hours. Thankfully our first trip was relatively short as it was definitely an experience. It did however, provide us with knowledge of what to do and what to have for the longer journeys ahead.
The train to cross the border from China to Mongolia takes about 27 hours. Trust me, you get used to it. Departing Beijing train station at 11.22 precisely, you then have until midnight until you cross the border.
The train stops at the border for the Chinese to bid you and your passport farewell. You have a few moments to get off, stretch your legs, listen to some really loud classical music blasting from the station speakers and use the ever popular squatting facilities. All this is done at about 12am. Trust me when I say this, get back on the train quickly! It will leave without you to get its boogies changed. It does come back, 4 hours later! So unless you are a night owl and want to avoid the lifting, shunting, loud noises and generally fascinating boogie change you can wait at the border station…. until 4am.
The train into Mongolia from China was a new train with modern carriages. The only option for crossing the border is second or first class. We were in second class as we aren’t fancy enough (or rich enough) for first. It seems that the border crossing trains are the most expensive along the route.
Each second class cabin had 4 beds, plenty of storage, a lockable door with a mirror on the back, a window with block out shade, universal plugs on either side of a small table between the beds. As this is a long train journey, about 27 hours, you are thankful you are in second class on better/wider bed. Just hope your cabin mates don’t snore. The dining cart is changed at the border from Chinese to Mongolian. Even though the food in the Mongolian food cart is very expensive in comparison to the Chinese, the food cart is worth a look. It is a beautifully carved wood masterpiece. The menu having no translation in English is further discouragement from eating in the food car.
All trains in all countries have hot water available in each carriage. In the Russian trains the water is heated by a wood or coal fire. This is essential to make your own meals and to have a constant supply of coffee or tea.
The train to Irkutsk from Ulaanbaatar took a mind numbing 36 hours. There is a shorter option of 28 hours, but due to the Russian Visa rules we couldn’t cross the border that quickly.
As I was booking the tickets I was questioning why it took so much longer, now I know.
The train gets shunted around and slowly loses all its carriages just before the border crossing into Russia at Shukbaatar station. From 4.40am till 11am it sits solitary at the station to await another train to link up and pull it along.
So what do you do for nearly 7 hours on a carriage with no power in the last town of Mongolia. Boredom eat, wear down your phones battery playing games and using your Kindle app and listen to the old Russian/Mongolian lady you share your cabin with have a one sided conversation with you, but only in Russian. Smile and nod…
I cannot say that this was the highlight of the Trans Siberian, although the old lady was very sweet.
With the train then departing at 11am you prepare yourself for the Russian Immigration and your second night on the train.
This particular border crossing takes quite a long time. This time seemsed to stretch on forever as the toilets are still locked from Shukbaatar station in Mongolia. 4 hours with a full bladder and some fearful Russian immigration later (although they weren’t suspicious of my jittery behavior), we were finally allowed off the train to then be yelled at in Russian from a restroom attendant. I still don’t understand what she could’ve been saying to us. After that encounter I feared that the rest of the month through Russia would go the same way. Turns out I was wrong, we didn’t meet another angry Russian within the whole month.
The Russian trains give a sense of being in a different era. The trains are rather outdated in comparison to the Chinese trains. They seem to mostly be from the Soviet era, with very little updates since then. They are simple and functional and are generally better looked after by the carriage attendants (Provodniks in Russian).
They have a different layout in third class than the Chinese trains, there are 4 beds opposite each other and another 2 beds in the “corridor” of the carriage. Still about 50 beds per carriage and still an open carriage to hear the symphony of snoring. Once again you require some agility and flexibility to get into bed. My form of entertainment was to constantly find a better way to get in and out of your top bunk bed. I think I had mastered it by the end.
All the Russian stations are huge, even the smaller Siberian cities, with many different platforms and no English, so getting there early is a must. Running for a train because you were on the wrong platform is no fun, trust me. Thank you Omsk for letting us run across your tracks.
The toilets “flush” straight onto the tracks… how lovely. This means they are closed 30 mins before, during and after a stop at a larger station, for obvious reasons. If you are oblivious to where you are on your journey, as you always are, you have no idea when the toilets will be locked and no one informs you.
Most of the trains have a timetable (in Russian) in the carriage. If you can read enough Russian to identify place names you can see how long you are at each station and therefore get off to purchase a snack.
Although not the most luxurious way to travel, (who needs luxuries anyway) it is the most practical, affordable, eye opening and most stress free way to travel through these 3 amazing countries. I would travel this way again in a heartbeat.
Providing great views and a better look at the country you are travelling though, it is a rewarding experience I would recommend to anyone.
To start booking your own Trans Siberian self guided experience, look out for our next post on how and where to book your tickets.
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