Having travelled on the Trans Siberian for 6 weeks through China, Mongolia and Russia, we learnt some valuable lessons on how to travel by train. We hope we can enhance your own experience with our tips and tricks.
Tips for what you need on the Trans-Siberian trains:
All trains in all three countries have hot water available in each carriage. In the Russian trains the water is heated by a wood or coal fire, so it doesn’t stop when you are waiting at a station. This is great for having coffee, tea, oats or noodles at any time. Midnight snack anyone?
Essential crockery in plastic form
Use a takeaway travel mug that has a lid (unless you like wearing your hot coffee or tea on your lap).
All three countries stock 3 in 1 coffee sachets for cheap (mainly Nescafe, can be too sweet for some) in their supermarkets or convenience stores, granted they aren’t the tastiest but they are convenient, cheap and easy to carry as opposed to a jar of coffee and a bottle of soy milk.
A plastic bowl with lid. We used Sistema Klip it Oat bowls. Not only are we supporting an NZ business but these things are great (we may be a little NZ biased, so what?!). No need for a microwave, just put your oats or noodles in, pour boiling water over, klip the lid on and wait about 5 minutes. Don’t forget cutlery, though, otherwise, things get real interesting.
Water bottles are kind of essential. There is no supply of cold water on the trains, so we purchased big 5 litre bottles to then fill our smaller bottles. Make sure the water bottle you get has a large opening. Nothing like a bumpity ride and pouring water! We ended up with a free lap bath more than once.
Boredom eating is a serious disorder and can either be staved off by water or eating. We opted for water, apart from when chocolate was involved. Also, a good way to stay hydrated and not have a boredom coffee overdose. Be careful with your consumption, though, they lock the toilets!
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To not look a fool and be yelled at
Slippers or some form of light slip on shoe is recommended. We didn’t use these as it is a common Kiwi thing to just go barefoot (except to go to the toilet, we aren’t that uncivilised). However our Beijing hotel (so fancy sounding, but really… not) provided little slippers, so we stole them. If you do go barefoot prepare for everyone on the train to stare and point at your feet and question your sanity. One Chinese man was pointing to my feet, shaking his head and saying something with a lot of passion in Chinese. I think he was saying “You crazy fool with no shoes! What are you doing, you strange girl, don’t you know there is shit all over the floor!”, but we will never know…
Duct tape, this is a common travel companion for any traveller, Trans-Siberian or not.
It is especially good on the trains as most of the wall sockets are very loose and your phone/laptop charger plug falls out. We used duct tape to tape the charger to the wall to stay in the socket. Desperate times call for duct tape. You don’t need to take a whole roll, wind some around a few pens to keep packing space down.
Power bank. These are kind of essential if your form of entertainment is on your phone. Most trains do not even have power outlets and especially not in 3rd class. And if they do, 90% of them won’t actually work or are in very odd places (above a door! Who thought that was a good place!). Or you forgot the tip above and don’t have any duct tape. A charged powerbank makes for an entertainment filled journey.
But where does all this so called entertainment come from?
Books. Personally, I use Kindle on my phone. I can’t be arsed to carry around books, too heavy. Also, I read far too quick, so I would need too many books.
I know this can be an expense, as you keep buying books. However, seeing as I have had Kindle a while, my Library has so many books. I am working my way through re-reading them. Also, having signed up to Bookbub I get daily alert to free or cheap books in the genres I read. Also works for other reader apps.
Movies and TV. Download a long TV series, or a few. I watched the BBC War and Peace (when in Russia!) and Jacob watched all of Netflix Daredevil.
Seriously, the time flies when you are engrossed in a good book, TV series, long playlist, or movie.
Food, glorious food
Food and snacks. As sometimes you are genuinely hungry and not just bored, take food with you. The food sold on the train is overpriced (Russia and Mongolia), not even hot and suspiciously questionable (China) and sometimes non-existent (Russia, Mongolia and China). See below for some great cheap options.
Potential food list:
- The ever popular pot noodles (or packet if you have a bowl). These are very common in China and Mongolia and are easy to make, it is just hot water after all. Although not delicious or very healthy, you can’t expect the Trans-Siberian to be a culinary experience.
- Instant oats. Look for ones that say around 3 minute cooking time. Add them to your bowl with lid, add hot water, wait 10 minutes and TaDa! You have yourself a cheap and filling breakfast. Add a banana for some actual flavour. Bananas are easily accessible in all 3 countries.
Oats are sometimes hard to find in China. They are mostly Australian oats (look for a kangaroo on packaging) but all in Chinese, just wing it and hope you have the right thing. Russia, oats are easy to find.
- The usual snacks: chips, biscuits, crackers etc. The abundance of baked goodies in Russia will have you wanting to try them all (like I did).
- Bread and items to make a sandwich. You will get sick of noodles for every meal, so take enough to make a tasty sandwich for lunch or dinner. Find a Western type bakery to pick up actual bread, instead of their packaged soft cardboard in supermarkets.
- Water. As I said earlier, take large bottles of water with you. They are expensive on the train and when sold at the stations.
Ear plugs or headphones you can sleep with. Trust us, 3rd class becomes a symphony of snores and you inadvertently become the conductor as you can’t bloody sleep! I had a sleep/calm playlist that I play the whole night, Jacob opted for earplugs.
On the same note: an eye mask. The lights all turn off at 10 or 11pm, but with the train stopping throughout the night at the lit up stations, different people getting on and off and using their torch app it is hard to obtain darkness as well as silence.
A printout or screen shot on your phone of your original train booking in English.
Mongolian tickets are in German (Why?!), Russian and Chinese.
Russian tickets are only in Russian and Chinese tickets only in Chinese.
The one common thing that they all have is that they use English numbers. Hurrah! At least if you have the train number you can find the correct platform on the departures list. The tickets can be hard to read, but you mainly need to find time and train number.
When nature calls
Bring toilet roll! The toilets always run out and is often not refilled. However, there is actually no toilet roll on Chinese trains, as is the same with all their public toilets. The Chinese trains have squat toilets too. So if you haven’t mastered the art of squatting in a moving vehicle then try and find the disabled toilets. These are your normal sit down loos (although the Chinese still squat on them, so wipe the seat).
We discovered that having a smaller bag that is not part of your larger luggage, or is easily removed (your day pack perhaps) makes life easier. Once your large luggage is stored, its a bitch to get back out but also to tight a space to unpack to find that blasted toothbrush!
Luggage is packed either above the top bed, under the bottom seat/bed or in 2nd class, above the door.
In said small bag could be a change of clothes, toothbrush and tooth paste, deodorant, food and anything else you require for the next 24 hours. The Russian trains provide you with a hand towel in your sheets package (yes, you make your own bed), so you can dry your hands or wash your face.
At larger stations, the train tends to stop anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. You can get off for a short walk around and see what locals are selling out of their trolleys. The mainly sell food and drinks. In border towns they know you are crossing countries and therefore currencies, they will take what ever currency you have. Be warned, though, if they see that you have a 100 yuan note, that will magically become the price of the item you asked about. Take lower notes or coins out with you and feel free to haggle. They are trying to make a living, so I didn’t mind paying the equivalent to $4 NZD for a small bottle of water.
This is also a good way to get rid of old currency you no longer need. Foreign exchange offices outside of Mongolia will not take the Mongolian currency, as the value is just too low. Spend or exchange it all in Mongolia.
We hope (well actually, we know) you will thoroughly enjoy your Trans-Siberian Train trip. If you have any of your own tips or tricks, or even questions, let us know in the comments below. See our Russia Resources post for tips for travelling to Russia.
We also have Youtube videos dedicated to each city we visited to help determine which ones you want to stop over in.
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