Trans-Siberian & Trans-Mongolian Express: Everything You Need To Know
Travelling on the longest railway in the world is on a lot of people's bucket lists. There's something spectacular about crossing the worlds largest country, seven time zones and various landscapes, all by train. After returning from another trip, as always, I was eager to plan my next. I was looking for something amazing. Something that would challenge me and take me to places that were really off the beaten track. Somewhere that would make peoples jaw drop when I told them what I was doing over summer. The Trans-Siberian checked all these boxes.
After a lot of research, I decided to take the Trans-Mongolian Express route. This would mean Taking the Trans-Siberian to about three quarters of the way through Russia, then diverging down into Mongolia from a Russian city called Ulan-Ude. After Mongolia, I would then carry on the trip down to China and spend three weeks traveling around there, but thats a story for another day!
The thought alone of planning the trip was overwhelming and I didn’t really know where to start. I would need numerous train tickets as well as getting three visas for each of these countries. Reviews that I had read online and in newspapers had all mentioned this company called Real Russia. They specialised in Trans-Siberian tours and tickets, as well as helping out with Visa’s. After looking into them I took a leap and booked my tickets and visa through them. They made such a complex process so much easier and I genuainly wouldn’t have been able to do the trip without them. You can read my whole Real Russia review here.
Trying to fit such a full trip into two short months was hard and I decided to spend three weeks travelling in Russia. The trains route only begins in Moscow so if you want to see St. Petersburg (a must!), you will have to get the over night sleeper between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Now is a good time to point out that the route runs both West to East, and East to West. Either way you will probably have to fly back from one of the two cities.
The train makes hundreds of stops along the way and I highly recommend stopping off a few times to experience the true Russia. I did meet one hard core man on one of the trains that was going the whole hog none stop. Thats eight days, day and night, non-stop through Russia. he told me he had done the route before when he was younger and made stops then. This time he was back and wanted the bragging rights to say he’d done the entire trip non-stop. I’d decided to do St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Ulan-Ude as my route. My itinerary was as follows:
Day 1: Arrive from Helsinki by bus into St. Petersburg
Day 2: St. Petersberg
Day 3: St. Petersberg
Day 4: St. Petersburg
Day 5: St. Petersburg to Moscow overnight sleeper
Day 6: Moscow
Day 7: Moscow
Day 8: Moscow
Day 9: Moscow
Day 10: Moscow to Yekaterinburg (1.5 days)
Day 11: Yekaterinburg
Day 12: Yekaterinburg to Ulan-Ude (3 days)
Day 13: Day on train
Day 14 : Day on train
Day 15: Arrive in Ulan-Ude
Day 16: Ulan-Ude
Day 17: Ulan-Ude
Day 18: Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar (18 hours)
Day 19: Arrive in Ulaanbaatar
Day 20: Ulaanbaatar
Day 21: Ulaanbaatar
Then three weeks Travelling around China by train…
On the Trans-Siberian express, there are three classes. Each train consists of around 30 carriages, with first class at the front, second in the middle and third at the back. For my trip, I was travelling in third class from Moscow to Ulan-Ude and then second class from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar. Third class is significantly cheeper than the other two classes due to it being open. The carriage holds approximately 50 people in each one. Two on the top, two on the bottom, and another two on the opposite wall. Space is very cramped and in summer it can get very hot.
When you come on board, you’ll need to place your luggage either under the bed if you’re on the bottom, or over the bed if you’re on top. You can keep a small bag with you but as I said, space is very cramped and the locals get annoyed if you’re messy and leave your stuff all over the place. There were two plug sockets on the carriage, one at either end. There were also two toilets, which were basic to say the least.
Unless you’re getting on the train at the departing stations Moscow or Vladivostock, its more than likely that someone else has slept in the space that you are and seen as the train only gets cleaned at the beginning and end of the entire journey, the cleanliness of the train can deteriorate rather quickly. You get clean sheets in a sealed package at the beginning of your leg on the train and are required to make your own bed, more on this later.
On the Trans-Mongolian express, I went in second class. This was only because there isn’t actually a third class on the train. The difference from what I had experience on the first parts of my journey was amazing. I stepped on board and felt like I’d won the lottery. Each carriage this time has individual rooms, each sleeping four people. Much like the St. Petersburg to Moscow sleeper…
The cabin was much cleaner, had air conditioning and even a TV! The toilets were also very different. There was now a male and female toilet, unlike the one unisex one on the Trans-Siberian. The toilet was a lot more 21st century and actually appeared to have had a clean in the past eight days which was nice.
On both trains I didn’t experience first class although from what I head from other, you get your own individual cabin with its own toilet. A nice touch but much more pricey than the other two.
Passing the time
Time seemed to pass pretty quickly on the trains. I think this was mainly due to me splitting up the trip into much smaller bites. On the first leg, for which I was on the train for 1.5 days, I happily passed away sleeping. After over two weeks of city hopping I was more than ready to catch up on some sleep and just chill out doing nothing for a while. The three day leg didn’t pass quite as quickly. By day three I was ready to get off and stretch my legs for a couple of days. Before you board the train I recommend you either download a few films to watch or bring a good book with you and ensure all electricals are fully charged. If I were you I’d invest in (at least) one portable charger as trying to use one of the two charing points on board is harder than getting into North Korea…
Being on the train, especially in third class, is a great opportunity to meet locals and get to know more about the true Russia. On the Moscow to Yekaterinburg leg I met a young lad called Pacha and his grandmother and got so friendly with them we actually ended up meeting up again in Ulan-Ude after leaving each other in Yekaterinburg. This was something that I just didn’t get in second class. Yes, the living conditions were much better, but surely half the fun of travelling is to meet new people and experience different cultures, right?
Theres pretty much only one thing you need to know when it comes to food on the Trans-Siberian, It’s that pot noodles/potatoes will become your best friend.
There is a restaurant on the train that sells hot meals but they're not great and for what you get, very expensive.
Instead you should do a small shop before you board the train. Heres one I did before I got onto the three day leg:
In each carriage is hot water which you can use to make these instant noodles and instant mash potato (both better than they sound, promise!) You can also ask when you board for one of the special Trans-Siberian mugs, which are pretty cool, to make hot drinks in.
The train makes about 20 stops per day with most of them being no longer than two or three minutes. However, each day there will be around three major stops, where the train remains at the platform for 45-60 minutes each time. This gives you time to get off and stretch your legs as well as stock up on supplies such as chocolate, tea, water, ice-cream and yep you guessed it, more instant noodles!!! At all the stations you find these tiny huts with old Russian women selling supplies.
A minor part of the trip but worth mentioning none the less. All the trains, and stations, operate on Moscow time. This makes it very confusing when you arrive at a station, and look up at the departure boards not only to see them written in a completely different language, but that they’re in a different time zone. This isn’t too bad when you’re only +1 or +2 hours, but when you’re +7 hours it makes a very confusing situation.
Getting On and Off the Train
If you’re in a major city, the train will normally arrive around 30-45 minutes before the departure time on your ticket. To board you will need your passport and ticket. When you get on the conductor will take your ticket off you give it back to you once you’re leaving the train. Each carriage has their own conductor that also lives and sleeps on the train with you. They’re your first port of call if you have any queries about anything and if you’re on the train for a few days you’ll become quite friendly and familiar with them.
When leaving the train, the conductor will give you a 20 minute warning to prepare yourself for getting off so theres no need to panic thinking you’ll miss your stop.
As I mentioned earlier, I decided to stop off at Yekaterinburg and Ulan-Ude in Russia before disembarking in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Before I boarded, I spent three days in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. These stops are generally the most common ones but if I had my time again, I'd love to stop off at Irkutsk and at Lake Baikal as these looked stunning when I was passing through.
One thing that was pretty unreal the first couple of times, were these quick fuel stops the train makes. The stops seemed to occur at random times during the trip with no real pattern to them. We'd just stop in the middle of a huge field with nothing but train track around us for miles. Everyone would get off to stretch their legs and grab another ice-cream from the locals, who the train coming through daily was their only source of income. Children would be running all over the train tracks while officials restocked the train. These quick stops, however insignificant, are one the things I remember most fondly about my trip. There was something so peaceful being in the absolute middle of nowhere seeing people with so little being so happy and content.
St. Petersburg was probably my favourite city in Russia and I can't recommend visiting it enough during your stay, despite the Trans-Siberian not stopping off there. Moscow was amazing but didn't seem to offer much more than Red Square. It was also a lot more expensive than the other cities I visited which wasn't ideal as I was on a very limited budget during my visit. I had originally wanted to visit Yekaterinburg to see the Church Of All Saints - built upon the ground where the final Tsar was killed.
I have to say, the church was disappointing but I stumbled across a small coffee shop on my way back to my hostel one night and ended up staying for eight hours. I met three students who I ended up having some really insightful and interesting conversations with - I hope to remain in contact with them for many years to come.
We exchanged Instagram details and they even gave me a signed Russian book in order to try and improve my patchy (to say the least) Russian language skills. It was this, and many other similar encounters that made my trip to Russia so memorable. The final stop for me was in Ulan-Ude. I ended up meeting up again with Pacha and his grandmother as this was where they were staying for the summer. I had met these two on the first leg of my trip from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. His grandmother had helped me to make my bed on my first night as she could clearly see that I had no idea what I was doing. From then on we hit it off - having numerous conversations over GoogleTranslate and an ice-cream.
Having a local to guide me around in this quaint town was invaluable. Read my one day itinerary here to find out where they took me!