Trans-Mongolian Railway: Everything You Need to Know
Travelling on the worlds longest railway has always been something I wanted to do. Until recently I thought it was something that would have to wait until retirement. Who honestly has the time to spend 7 days on a train, let alone the extra time to get off and see the sights along the way? When I started planning this 6 month trip I remember looking at the world map and thinking “from which city should we fly to Europe?”. Then it struck me - we didn’t have to fly. Coming from Australia I guess we feel as if we always have to fly to get to Europe. After a little more Googling I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to travel from Asia to Europe via the trans-siberian railway.
How did we plan it?
Planning an itinerary for the Trans-Mongolian (or Trans-Siberian) was easy. First things first you need to get visas for China, Mongolia, and Russia (depending on your nationality and which route you take) - this bit can be tedious. In order to get the Russian visa approved we needed to have a detailed itinerary of our trip through Russia, including hotel details, dates, etc. For this reason we decided to pre-book our rail itinerary with a travel agency. RealRussia.co.uk was the company we used, and they were great. It ends up being a little more expensive, but totally worth it. They have a very handy trip planner on their website which we used to make our itinerary. The first step is to choose which route to take - the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian, or Trans-Mongolian. We opted for the Trans-Mongolian route from East to West, which is arguably the most interesting. Then you can choose where you want to stop, and for how many nights. Please note you can only book within 3 months of travel.
The opportunity to visit Mongolia and venture into the Gobi dessert was the main reason we decided to choose the Trans-Mongolian route.
To travel the railway non-stop it would take 6-7 days, depending on the route. We gave ourselves 3 weeks to cover Beijing to Moscow, including 3 stopovers to break up the journey, and to see some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world along the way. Our Itinerary (not including time on the train) was as follows:
- Beijing, China (5 days)
- Ulan Bator, Mongolia (4 days)
- Irkutsk, Russia (2 days)
- Yekaterinburg, Russia (2 days)
- Moscow, Russia (3 days)
Click right to view photos of the train.
The train also stops many times along the way, often for 20-50 minutes at a time. This gives you the opportunity to walk around and buy some local foods and enjoy the fresh, Siberian air as you stretch your legs. Just make sure you use the toilet half an hour before you stop as they lock up all of the restrooms.
What is the cost?
The cost can vary a lot depending on how you like to travel. There are 3 class options for booking the journey: 1st class which gives you the luxury of a private cabin (2 birth), 2nd class, which is always a 4 birth cabin, or 3rd class which is essentially an open carriage with no walls and 3 beds stacked up to the roof. Travelling as a couple means that if you don’t go first class, you can expect to share your cabin with strangers. 2nd class is literally half the price of first class, and also offers you the opportunity to meet new friends. To be honest, 3rd class is probably a bit much, we only saw locals travelling 3rd class.
On our first legs from Beijing to Ulan Bator (48 hours) we had the luxury of travelling with our 2 best friends, so 2nd class travel was a good option. We had a 4 birth cabin to ourselves.
Our 2nd leg from UB to Irkutsk (36 hours) we decided to stay in 2nd class, where we shared our cabin with a nice Mongolian girl. This was fine, but of course we had to be conscious of how much noise we made etc. We were hoping to get bunked in with some crazy Russians with lots of Vodka and caviar, alas it didn’t happen this time around.
Our longest leg from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (48 hours) we opted for a private first class cabin. These cabins have only 2 beds so you have some privacy. These carriages also have a shower which is great.
Our final leg to Moscow (28 hours) we again opted for 2nd class. We shared with a very quiet Russian lady who spoke absolutely no English.
Total train ticket cost for 2 people: $2,900 AUD.
What about food?
All trains have a restaurant cart, however the food is over priced. Two of our legs included a complimentary meal, which wasn’t bad. All carriages also have a supply of boiling water, which people use to make instant noodles, coffee, etc. Before each journey we stocked up on water, noodles, coffee, bread or wraps and vegetables, and as well plenty of chocolate and lollies (great for sharing!). If we ever ran out of anything the train stops frequently enough for us to jump out and grab some supplies.
There is no wifi on board, which I was actually glad to hear. It was refreshing to have so much time where we were forced to relax. We had good books, a deck of cards, a couple of Netflix movies downloaded, and of course got busy writing some blog posts. We also met some really friendly people on almost all our legs which helped to pass the time.
What were the highlights?
Travelling by train for such a long distance really gives you a new appreciation for the sheer size of Russia. We travelled in mid-september which afforded us the opportunity to see all the colours of autumn in the trees for miles and miles though Siberia. It would also be amazing to travel in Winter with the heavy snow and -50 degrees temperature, however it may not be as conducive to sight seeing. Apart from the fantastic experience on the train journey itself, the stops along the way and at either end are what really makes the trip an unforgettable one:
BEIJING was a pleasant surprise. I was imaging a huge city with too many people and lots of pollution, however it turned out to be our favourite city in China. Our highlights included:
- Temple of Heaven
- Tiennamen Square
- Eating Peking Duck
- Black sesame kitchen
- Overnight camping trip to the Great Wall of China. Even though we had poor weather, trekking up to a remote part of the Great Wall was incredible. We had a camp fire in one of the barracks on the wall and our guides cooked us an amazing meal - definitely one not to miss.
ULAN-BATOR and the GOBI DESERT in Mongolia was one of the most unique experiences we have had on this trip. Mongolia is still so untouched by tourism so everything you see and do is so authentic. Highlights included:
- Riding camels in the sand dunes
- Staying in traditional Ger accommodation
- Riding horses through the Yol Valley
- Looking for dinosaur fossils
IRKTUSK in Siberia is a small, but character-filled town that serves as the base for travelling to Lake Baikal, the biggest fresh water lake in the world. We were lucky enough to make friends with a couple who lived in Irkutsk and they showed us some of their favourite places. Highlights included:
- Hiking to the look out at Lake Baikal
- The Bainya experience: our local friends took us to the Bainya (Sauna) on the lake. We enjoyed 10 minutes of extreme heat in the sauna, followed by 10 seconds swimming in near freezing water in lake Baikal, with beer and Omul (local fish) served in between the 3 rounds in the Bainya. This was an incredible experience and gave us great insight to local life.
- Fish markets at Listvyanka and eating smoked Omul (endemic fish to Lake Baikal)
YEKATERINBURG was intended as a rest stop between irkutsk and Moscow. We figured 3 straight days on the train would be too much for us. Turns out Yekaterinburg is a pretty cool city, with some interesting sites:
- Visit the official geographic boundary between Europe and Asia
- Eat traditional beef stroganoff
MOSCOW is completely different to the rest of Russia. It’s grand, ritzy, and attractive. We spent 3 nights enjoying our first “European-style” city in a long time. There is heaps to see in Moscow, with our highlights being:
- Red Square & GUM centre (try traditional Russian icecream)
- The Kremlin
- St. Basils Cathedral
Where to from Moscow?
We finished our Russian journey with a 3 hour train ride to St. Petersburg. This old capital of Russia is equally as impressive at Moscow and well worth a visit. From here there is easy access to the rest of Europe, especially Scandinavia and eastern Europe. We decided to spend 3 nights in Prague, then Germany and Italy.
Thank you for reading our post. We hope this will be useful to those of you planning on doing a similar trip. please leave your feedback in the comments below. We would love to know if anyone did it differently to us!
B & D