Venturing aboard the Trans-Mongolian is to embark on an adventure, an adventure that it is well to be prepared for. Friends who’ve travelled on the Trans-Siberian and Trans- Mongolian trains tell colourful stories about their experiences.
One couple (granted this was about twenty years ago) ran out of food and relied on the generosity of strangers and women selling boiled potatoes at stations. The dining car of their train offered basic meals on the first day, but then ran out as the staff had sold their supplies to merchants along the way.
Another friend describes how the cleanliness of the toilets depend on the staff. Students weren’t as thorough as middle-aged women. No one likes a dirty toilet, and I shuddered at what I would find.
Warnings about vodka drinking parties in the dining car abound. It’s apparently unwise to join such a party – you are unlikely to be able to compete.
Preparation for the Trans-Mongolian Journey
In preparing for my Trans-Mongolian Railway Journey, I scoured the internet for information on what to expect. This trip was to be an adventure, but I wanted to know as much as I could about what to expect.
Two or three YouTube videos, provided a useful introduction into the train in terms of accommodation, food and comfort. These insights informed my planning and the tips I gained helped me to fully immerse myself in the journey.
Tips for Travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Here’s what I learnt on my trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railway when I boarded in the month of September. A good month to go as it was neither too hot nor too cold.
Decisions to Make Before You Go
On Your Own or with a Tour Group?
Brave or well-travelled individuals arrange their own trip, book their own tickets and travel on the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian Railway independently. Doing this is easier if you plan to stay on the train all the way to your destination without any overnight stops.
If, however, you want to make the most of the experience and stop off at towns along the way, things become more complicated. Language difficulties (hardly anyone speaks English) make buying tickets and finding accommodation challenging. Of course, these days, Google Translate is a useful tool.
On my train, I met a small family from Australia, another from Germany and some Canadians who were travelling independently. The rest of the passengers were locals. There are few foreigners on the train.
Knowing my limitations, I decided to join a tour group. Decisions about accommodation and where to spend a night off the train were made for me and a tour leader and local guides at were at hand to answer questions about local culture and customs.
Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian Railway?
The Trans-Mongolian train runs from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia and back, while the Trans-Siberian train travels the almost 9300 kilometres between Moscow and Vladivostok.
If you want to experience crossing Russia from one side to the other (more or less), then the Trans-Siberian is for you. But the Trans-Mongolian Railway enables passengers a stop off in Mongolia and the thrilling experience of travelling through the Gobi Desert, as well as through a large part of Russia.
I chose the Trans-Mongolian trip for the diversity it offers. I am seriously considering a return trip on the Trans-Siberian. In winter this time.
Sleeping Compartments on the Trans-Mongolian
Travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway actually means being on three different trains (more or less – I’ll explain later). However, the sleeping arrangements are pretty much the same on each train.
There are three classes of sleeping compartments. The first-class compartment sleeps two and generally has a fresher feel than the other compartments. Second-class compartments sleep four (two on each side one above the other bunk bed style) and like the first-class compartment has a door for privacy.
Between the ‘bunk-beds’, a little table offers space for a few necessities (water, tea, book). Lifting the lower bunk reveals a space for bags and in some carriages there’s space above the door for smaller bags. It’s worth travelling light as space is at a premium.
There’s usually a pull-down ladder and handle near the door for the person in the upper bunk to climb up.
Hooks on the wall enable passengers to hang small bags of essentials in easily accessible places. There may be charge points for electronic devices, but it’s best to have a portable charger available.
There are lamps in the compartments, but when your companions are sleeping it may be impolite to use them. A headtorch is useful.
Tip: Bring a portable charger and a head torch
Together with my husband I travelled in a second-class carriage, sharing the compartment with our tour leader and a local man.
In the third-class carriage, each compartment (if you can call it that) consists of four beds (in the same orientation as the second-class compartment) facing two more beds which line the passage. There are no doors and there’s no privacy.
Tip: Etiquette requires that you push the sheet on the bottom seat out of the way before stepping on it to climb to the top bunk.
The Provodnitsa (carriage attendant) provides each passenger with a pack of clean and freshly ironed bedding including sheets, a pillow case and sometimes a small towel. You make your own bed.
If you’re on the lower bunk, it’s polite to remove your sheets to enable the person who sleeps above you to sit there during the day. If you want to sleep, they have no option but to remain in their top bunk.
Tip: Use the bag your bedding comes in as a litter bag. Tie it to the leg of the table.
Tip: Before leaving the train, remove your sheets, fold them roughly and give them to the Provodnitsa whose compartment is at the end of the carriage.
There are two toilets in every carriage, one at each end. A digital indicator in the passage indicates when the toilet is free, but it isn’t always accurate, so I always tested the door.
The first time I braved the much maligned the toilet, I couldn’t find the flush mechanism, and turned a blue lever. Water gushed onto the floor. Only then did I see the foot operated lever. Later, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to make that mistake.
The ‘furnishings’ in the toilet are old and worn, but there’s paper (I always brought my own just in case), a bar of soap and the cubicle is clean. It usually is for the rest of the journey, although I chose to use the one mostly used by my fellow female travellers and not by the men at the other end of our carriage.
Tip: Bring a toiletries bag with a handle to hang on the back of the door. If your toiletries bag doesn’t have a handle, put it in a reusable shopping bag, which can also carry your towel and toilet paper.
Note: Train toilets are locked 10 to 15 minutes before a scheduled stop, unless the train is one of the newer Russian trains and a has a septic system in which case the toilets are always open.
If there’s only one take home message on the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian Railway, it’s to travel light. Storage in the compartments is limited and lifts at stations are few and far between.
Follow local custom, and change into a set of ‘train’ clothes when you get on the train. Wear these for the trip, only changing back into your usual clothes when your journey is complete.
Some people choose to wear pyjamas as their ‘train’ clothes, Russians often wear tracksuits and others wear leggings with a loose top. I wore comfortable ‘happy pants’ and a t-shirt. Be warned that the train can get very hot and it’s not always possible to open windows.
Slip on sandals are useful to wear in the train. Not the hotel slipper kind as their soles are too thin and can get wet in the bathroom. Keep other shoes (and socks) nearby for when you get off the train to stretch your legs at the longer stops.
Getting off the train when it stops for 10 minutes or more makes a welcome change. Depending on when you travel, the outside temperature can be quite different (much colder in my case) from the train temperature.
My long puffer coat kept me warm from my neck to my knees and scrunched into a small ball when not needed.
Packing for the Train
Travel light. For ease of access, pack essentials including toiletries and spare ‘train’ clothes into one or two separate bags (a calico or reusable shopping bag works well) within your larger bag.
Remove this bag from your suitcase or backpack before storing the latter to avoid having to access your larger luggage during the trip. You can then hang the smaller bag(s) on one of the hooks provided.
Tip: There’s little space in the toilet on the train to put anything down. Take clothing, towel, toiletries and toilet paper in a soft bag which you can hang on the hook provided.
Other Useful Items
- Wet wipes or baby wipes are useful for keeping clean, although wet face washers in zip lock bags do pretty well too.
- Reading material. This train journey is long, and you may need a break from looking out at the changing scenery. I found my Kindle a useful way to carry my ‘books’.
- If like me, you like to engage with locals, you’ll find plenty of locals travelling with you. Most speak very little or no English. One way to break the ice is to give them a small souvenir from your home country. Postcards don’t take up too much space. Being Australian, I took small inexpensive koalas to give to children. My husband reckons there are plenty of clip on koalas now floating around Russia. Photographs of your family and home can also facilitate conversation.
- Cards or travel games.
Food and Water on the Trans-Mongolian
One of the reasons for travel is to experience culture and that of course includes food. Depending on your budget, there are various options in terms of what and where to eat.
Dining Cars on the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Dining Cars have improved out of sight since those days when the food used to run out. All trains have a dining car, each offering varying standards of food and layout.
Eating in a dining car is one way to taste local cuisine, although depending on your budget, can be pricey.
Especially for the first meal in the dining car, when everyone is excited and keen to experience the dining car, arrive early (10-15 min before the advertised mealtime) to ensure you get a table.
Tables seat 4 (two people opposite each other) and there are limited tables available.
If you prefer not to eat in the dining car, it is still worth visiting if only to enjoy a local beer and chat to locals while watching the scenery pass by.
Some train tickets include a meal which is brought to your compartment in a little cardboard box. In my experience, these meals are often late (breakfast came at lunchtime) and not particularly appetizing. Unless you have no other option, I would avoid them.
On a Budget?
People on a budget may choose to bring their own snacks and meals. Those eating in the dining car should also bring snacks for variety and to share with fellow passengers.
Planning what to bring is part of the fun of the journey and many passengers board the train with a bag(s) stuffed with goodies bought at a local supermarket which is fun in itself.
For main meals, instant noodles are a staple. Other favourites are instant mashed potato, instant porridge and freeze-dried meals (available from camping stores). “Cup of Soup” in various flavours with crackers or bread (for the first day at least) makes a nice change too.
Fruit, nuts and dried fruit make healthy snacks and in a supermarket in Ulan Ude (just inside Russia) I found long life yoghurt, a welcome change. Hard cheese (keeps for a day or two without refrigeration) and bread went down well too.
Buying Food From Locals
I was looking forward to buying homemade delicacies from babushkas on station platforms, and planned to supplement my meals by supporting them. Guidebooks describe this practice as one of the highlights of the train journey.
Unfortunately, the police have cracked down on this practice and it’s not as widespread as it used to be.
In Choir (Mongolia) I bought buuz (tasty steamed dumplings) as recommended in many guide books and sunflower seeds embedded in a praline (factory made but easily recognisable through the packaging).
In Barabinsk (Russia), despite the police presence I was able to buy dried fish (a local delicacy), blini filled with cottage cheese and pirozhki filled with potato and/or cabbage and carrot. Our compartment had a great picnic lunch that day.
Instead of babushkas plying their wares you’ll usually find kiosks selling packet biscuits, soft drinks and other snack foods on most platforms. Inside the larger stations, some shops also sell locally made food and snacks.
What Will I Drink?
It is not safe to drink water out of the tap in any of the countries that the Trans-Mongolian Railway passes through. You could use water purifiers, buy water (not the best choice if you’re trying to reduce the use of plastic) or stick to boiled water.
That’s where the samovar becomes your friend. There’s one in every carriage. Use the boiled water for your noodles, freeze-dried meals and porridge, for tea and coffee (I had a mixture of herbal teas for variety) and cup-of soup.
Go one step further and buy a coffee (sweetened instant coffee with powdered milk in a foil tube) or tea from the Provodnitsa. The coffee comes with a glass mug in a metal holder which can be borrowed for the rest of the trip.
Of course, the dining car offers liquid refreshment. If you like your wine, perhaps stick to beer. And if you like your beer cold, get in early as the cold beer runs out pretty quickly.
- Even if you plan to buy a hot drink and use the mug provided by the Provodnitsa, bringing your own unbreakable mug is useful.
- I wish I’d had a bowl and a small plate for cutting cheese etc
- A set of knife, fork and spoon
- A penknife or even better a multipurpose Leatherman or equivalent.
Once on the Train: The Timetable
When aboard the Trans-Mongolian train, it’s useful to know when and for how long the train will be stopping along the route. Then you can decide if there’s enough time to get off the train for a brisk walk along the platform, or to buy snacks.
The timetable posted between the windows in the middle of the carriage lists the name of each station where the train will stop, the scheduled time the train will arrive and for how long the train will be stopping.
One thing that you can rely on is that trains are punctual. They arrive and leave on time and the listed stopping time is accurate.
What is confusing though is the time itself. Until recently all timetables were set in Moscow time and with the train passing through several time zones, getting the timing for scheduled stops right was a mathematical challenge.
Today, the timetable is written according to local time and you’ll need to keep changing your watch to the local time as you enter new time zones to know how long to the next stop.
Most carriages have a digital clock near the samovar showing the local time, but it is best to check its accuracy.
Once on the Train: Scheduled Stops
One of the delights of the Trans-Mongolian Railway is stopping at various villages and towns along the way. Getting off the train for a brisk walk, to have a quick look around or to top up on snacks at a kiosk or from a babushka quickly becomes something to anticipate and break up the journey.
Scheduled stops to drop off or pick up passengers and/provision the train can be for as little as 2 minutes and as long as a couple of hours (on the border between China and Mongolia).
The Provodnitsa, (Provodnik for men) wearing full uniform, opens the door at the end of the carriage, lowers the steps and steps down . They more or less at attention at the foot of the steps for the whole time the train is stationary.
At each stop, smokers crowd round the door to get off for a quick smoke. As a general rule, it is advisable to only get off the train when the scheduled stop is for ten minutes or more and do not go too far from the carriage door.
If the stop is a long one, return to the door with at least five minutes to spare to ensure the train doesn’t leave without you. There is no signal that the train is about to leave again.
In the middle of the night the train stops at the border between China and Mongolia. This is for a passport and customs check, but also to change the wheels.
The gauge in China is different from that in Mongolia and in Russia. Instead of requiring everyone to alight and get onto a new train, mechanics replace the bogies under the carriages with bogies that fit the new gauge. A bogie is a wheeled undercarriage under the train carriage.
It’s interesting to wake up to watch the operation takes place. When I ventured out of bed to peer out the window, I discovered that our carriage was in a large hanger. Opposite us was another carriage from our train which had been lifted up with hoists or jacks.
The bogies were exchanged, the carriage lowered with the new bogies in place and then the mechanics turned to our carriage. Having seen what I wanted to see, and being locked in the carriage, I returned to bed only to hear insistent loud knocking at door of our carriage.
Then weirdly a shirtless man came into our compartment. I thought maybe he was a passenger coming into the wrong compartment.
While I watched from my upper bunk perch, he proceeded to stamp on the floor, raise the carpet and ineffectively attempt to lift a round metal plate which had been hidden by the carpet. A man wearing a hard hat standing behind him said to let him have a go. I watched from my top bunk as he raised the metal plate revealing a metal knob. Then (I quickly moved my head back for safety), he raised a long metal pole and hammered loudly on the metal knob.
That apparently did the trick, the carpet was replaced, the men exited our compartment and we went back to sleep. I later realised that the shirtless man, was our Provodnik, woken up unexpectedly when the bogie operation didn’t go quite as smoothly as it should.
Our journey through Mongolia continued. We remained in our original carriages, being rolled along on new bogies, but the Chinese dining car had been replaced by an ornate Mongolian Style dining car.
Again, the border crossing happens at night, this time at 10pm. For me, standing in the corridor waiting for the compartment to be inspected (for contraband) by customs and passports to be checked was yet another reason to sleep in ‘train clothes’ as opposed to pyjamas.
We had a few days in Ulan Ude (250km from the Russian border with Mongolia). When we boarded the train again, it was a Russian Train, one that had started in Vladivostok, in other words, the Trans-Siberian Train.
The tradition of local old women selling dumplings and other home-made goods on the station platform seems to be coming to an end.
The women (they are mostly women) are strictly monitored by the police, in one place wearing a uniform of sorts and in another standing behind a palisade fence selling goods through the fence.
On my trip (September 2019) I was only able to buy food at the following places:
Choir. The women here wore bright green pinnies. Some also wore a green hat. They all pushed their goods in shopping trolleys. Much of what they sold was factory produced, including playing cards and instant noodles. I was able to buy steaming buuz, a mutton filled dumpling.
It seemed that the women in ‘uniform’ had been approved to sell goods on the station platform.
Ilanskaya. The only place to buy goods was the from the little kiosks. The strong police presence ensured that no informal sale of goods occurred.
Barabinsk. Here for the first time I saw women and a few men trying to sell goods in spite of the obvious police presence. The police appeared to turn a blind eye, although a fellow passenger mentioned that she did see the police talking to one woman.
Sellers encouraged passengers to follow them behind the kiosks where they had stowed their bags of goods. A man carried a row of dried fish hanging off a coat hanger. Women sold plastic freezer bags of blini filled and pirozhki. We went behind the kiosk to complete our transactions.
More women called out from behind the fence showing off lovely lacey cashmere shawls, gloves, and Russian hats.
I have fond memories of negotiating my purchases of blini and dried fish, feeling pleased that I was experiencing something mentioned in guide books. But I was sorry that I’d had to travel 1000s of kms to do so, instead of finding babushkas and their wares at every station.
I wonder how long the practice will continue at Barabinsk. It too may soon be banned as has happened on other station platforms.
Danilov. Babushkas standing behind a fence, their fresh fruit overflowing from small plastic buckets and bags wouldn’t consent to photos (not even of their goods). They sold apples, berries, garlic, parsley, dried apples and pickled cucumbers all grown in their cottage gardens. Some had sausage rolls and pirozhki for sale.
Novosibirsk. Taking advantage of the long stop, I went through the station into the square for a walk and look around. Again, there weren’t many people selling goods outside of the formal stallholders, but I managed to buy a large meat and cabbage filled dumpling ‘thing’ from one of two stalls in middle of square.
Inside the station, I managed to buy yoghurt for breakfast, some fresh fruit and savoury biscuits.
Most people, staff as well as fellow travellers, do not speak English. I found Google Translate a great help with ordering food (using the camera function to translate menus) and with basic queries.
In Russia, the Cyrillic script is totally confusing, but once you’ve learnt the basics of the letters, you will quickly be able to read a few words. After persevering for a short time, I was able to read some signs including those indicating a restaurant, pharmacy, supermarket and exit and entrance.
It also helps to be able to speak a few phrases in Russian. Usually the response is a stream of Russian but that’s OK, as at least the other person knows that you are trying.
The Russian Face (or why Russian’s don’t Smile)
When Westerners meet a stranger for the first time, they usually smile in greeting. It’s a form of politeness. This is not the case in Russia. Russians only smile when there’s a reason to smile.
I didn’t quite believe the phenomenon called ‘The Russian Face’ until I experienced it for myself.
Russians, in general, cannot understand why a total stranger will smile at them. Smiling at strangers is seen as foolish or stupid or people wonder if the stranger wants something from them.
In preparation for hosting the 2018 Football World Cup, Russians working in hospitality were taught to smile when dealing with tourists. In my recent Russian experience, Russians working in hospitality were much more likely to smile back in greeting than the average “man on the street”.
And so, don’t be offended when your smile is met with a stern blank face. It’s a cultural thing. Once you’ve spent time and got to know someone, the smiles will come.
The Trans-Mongolian Experience
Taking the train from Beijing to Moscow is an adventure. The slow soothing rocking motion of the train is soporific. Looking out the passage window at the passing scenery is mesmerizing. The trees, the houses, the plains and the rivers.
A favourite pastime of mine was to stand at the window, leaning on the rail and look out. Relaxed and drinking in the view.
I watched the sun setting and the crescent moon and first stars appear. Grey clouds highlighted against a darkening sky scudding along like puffy puzzle pieces.
One day, workers on the railway line waved back to me. Later a shepherd on horseback raced across the plain, corralling his sheep.
The train snaked along curving around hills, dark smoke billowing from the engine, as fields of maize flashed by. Three frightened horses, galloped away towards the horizon. Another day, a large herd of goats turned tail and ran.
Occasional villages provided a colourful contrast to the plains and birch forests. Wooden houses with pitched roofs looked onto healthy looking vegetable and cottage gardens.
Another morning, I awoke to frost on the ground and inexplicably saw two fishermen wading waist deep in a cold river. The sun rose, shining through the heavy mist settled in the valley.
Taking a break from watching the world go by, I made myself numerous cups of herbal tea or sweet Russian coffee.
I tried to meet with fellow passengers, and gave a koala to a little boy. His father told him to say “thank you” but he just stared. Another day, he came with his father to my compartment and presented me with a wrapped cookie, saying “Thank You” in heavily accented English. He’d been practicing for a couple of days.
When we stopped at Nizhnevdinsk, Simeon (I knew his name by now) got off the train and amused himself by jumping across the tracks off a low narrow crumbling platform.
Another woman in our group came with me on a walk through to the end of the train. We passed through numerous carriages including the crowded third-class carriages where some passengers had hung sheets along the length of their bunk in a vain attempt at privacy.
Woman knitted. Others amused themselves with puzzles and card games. I noticed a wide range of food from basic noodles to salad, bread, salami and cheese.
A group of 24 Chinese language students were travelling to a Russian language school, their home for the next year. Their ultimate aim was to become tour guides.
My trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railway was an adventure, lots of fun and a wonderful experience. Your experience will differ from mine, but hopefully these notes help you to make the most of every minute on the train.
Books to Read Before and During Your Trip
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (1975) which although written about a journey taken in 1973, provides a background to the slow travel by train, the stops and passengers met along the way. Much has changed, but much has stayed the same.
Paul Theroux also wrote Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) in which he retraces some of the trip he made in 1973.
It seemed fitting to reread Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith on the way to Moscow where I hoped to see Gorky Park for myself