Stepping off the train in Moscow, we officially ended our journey on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, (although we’ll have plenty more time on trains, from here to St. Petersburg and onto Helsinki). What started in daydreams — staring at maps and imagining what lay in the vast expanse between Beijing and Moscow — is now a fond memory following 20 days of travel and rest stops along the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

We greatly enjoyed the experience, despite some long stretches on the train at times, but the sights seen and people we met along the way made it worth the time and high ticket costs — plus it sure beats traveling by plane. After our experience crossing Mongolia and Russia, here are some recommendations we’d like to share with anyone planning the same trip:

Trans Mongolian RailwayTravel East to West:

To each their own, but we liked how things got a little easier the closer we got to Europe — especially after a month of traveling by train in China. Temperatures and humidity steadily became milder, service on board the train improved, food in Russia was more filling after all those noodles in China, and the colorful, clean city of Moscow was a nice reward at the end of it all.

For those doing just the Trans-Mongolian as a vacation, you may enjoy the reverse journey and it might fit your budget/itinerary better. For us, traveling east to west was very enjoyable.

Trans Mongolian RailwayRide First Class at Least Once:

When booking your tickets for the Trans-Mongolian, be sure to book first class for at least one of the legs: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The whole trip is expensive, first class even more so, but we ended up with two legs in first class since they were the only tickets available when we reserved. By the time we got through China we had forgotten which legs were in which class, so you can imagine our surprise when we boarded the train in Beijing to find a luxurious, private berth waiting for us for the long ride north.

Like something out of a classic James Bond film, we lived between wood-paneled walls with meals included, air conditioning, plush seats and beds that were oh-so clean, (I’ll reemphasize just how nice that was after a month of traveling by train in China). The extra cost was well worth it for the comfort we traveled in from Beijing to Mongolia.

Take note though: when we boarded our first-class carriage from Yekaterinburg and Vladimir in Russia, while it was still comfortable and quiet, it was nothing compared to the luxury we’d experienced on the first leg. Even if you go second class the rest of the way, go first class out of Beijing!

Trans Mongolian RailwayPlan Plenty of Time in Mongolia:

Our biggest mistake so far on this journey was only having a short, four-day stop in Mongolia. What an amazing country it is, with so many opportunities for exploration and adventure if you have the time and can afford it. Unfortunately we had neither.

While we did get to see the wonders of the Naadam Festival in the capital Ulaanbaatar, it was still difficult to watch hostel mates pack up and take off for the Gobi Desert or to the far west for weeks on end, (the cost of hostel and food in Ulaanbaatar is very low but the tours themselves can be very expensive). Before Britnee and I had even left Mongolia, we were already planning our return visit.

Hushir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Travel, Backpacking, Russia, Trans Mongolian Railway, Irkutsk, Epiphany Cathedral, Church, Beach, Shaman Rock,Stop in Irkutsk for Olkhon Island:

It may seem like a bit of a pain to take the 6–8 hour bus ride on bumpy roads out to this island on Lake Baikal, but after our experience we would highly recommend it. It made the stop in Irkutsk worth it and we were well rested and rejuvenated after relaxing on beaches while eating good, homemade Russian food for three days straight. Be warned though, you might enjoy your time on Olkhon Island so much that it will make returning to the train much more difficult!

Yekaterinburg, Vladimir, Russia, Travel in Russia, Trans Siberian, Trans Mongolian Railway, Trans Siberian Railway, Stops along the Trans Siberian, where to stop on the trans siberian, travel, backpacking, travel photography, Golden Ring, Eastern Orthodox Churches,Stop in Yekaterinburg then push through to Moscow:

We met numerous people on the train who were riding it for 80 hours straight, which seemed more like torture than any sort of holiday. Our longest leg was 56 hours between Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg and that was bad enough. So if you have the time, we’d highly recommend at least two rest stops in Russia before hitting Moscow. That would be Irkutsk — for Olkhon Island — and then Yekaterinburg. 

On our trip, we added a stop in Vladimir just before Moscow. Vladimir is part of the Golden Ring and home to some beautiful churches that we spent a day exploring. But to tell the truth, at that point we were just eager to get off the train and into Moscow — which was just a couple of hours farther.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Mongolia-Russia border!Register in Russia Within Seven Days:

We heard mixed reports about registering our visas from the people we met on the train and websites we read upon arriving in Russia. Some said we were fine to travel through Russia without registering if we didn’t stay in one place for more than seven days and that we just had to keep a copy of our itinerary, tickets and hostel receipts with us at all times. Others told us later that we definitely should have registered in Russia within seven working days of arriving, no matter what our travel plans.

When we finally took action in Moscow, asking our first hostel to register us, they said it would cost us 2,000 Rubles each (you can register at your hotel/hostel or local police station). We knew it might require a fee, but certainly not that much. So, we decided to look elsewhere and our second hostel host did it for free (we had moved hostels after growing tired of the BS at our first)! While we got lucky, other travelers we talked to ended up paying fees, but nothing close to 2,000 Rubles!

P.S. You can be stopped at any time by police who can inspect your visas and ask for registration — you’ve been warned. 😉

Trans Mongolian RailwayFood on the Train is Okay:

*Disclaimer: Britnee and I, when hungry and tired, are easily pleased. So if you’re used to caviar and champagne on your travels, your opinion may vary… drastically. 

I heard horror stories about the food on the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian as far back as last year before we left. However, in our experience, it turned out okay. Maybe I was just happy to no longer be eating Chinese cup noodles, but even the semi-warm goulash and cold peas tasted good. This was one of the three meals served to us on our 56-hour leg, which we had checked for when reserving our tickets and cost extra. If anything, it was worth it for the chocolate and instant coffee that came afterward.

Trans Mongolian Railway

We ate in the restaurant car on our first leg out of China and the food was satisfactory, but nothing special (also included in our ticket price). The one time we actually spent money in the restaurant car was with the company of friends in Russia and, while it turned out to be expensive, the food and Russian champagne tasted great.

There is always plenty of food for sale at the many stops the train will make along the way and while the prices are still inflated, it’s still far cheaper than buying anything on board. Vendors will offer plenty of instant noodles, instant potatoes, chips, candy and drinks, but there will also be nice pastries, sandwiches and homemade sweets available here and there. We heard reports of amazing smoked fish being sold on the platform at Omsk, but when we arrived mid morning there was none to be found. :(

With all that available, you don’t have to buy a ton of food and drinks at the grocery store and then lug them, along with your heavy luggage, all the way to the station. And don’t be the idiot — like this idiot — who buys all carbonated water on accident on the hottest leg of the journey.

Trans Mongolian RailwayDon’t Think About Using the Bathroom For Too Long:

If you have the urge to use the bathroom, don’t sit and think about it for too long. Many of the trains still have toilets that flush directly onto the track and, if you’re approaching a station, they’ll lock the restrooms for as long as you’re stopped. And you never know how long you’ll be in station and how much they’ll charge for the use of the toilets there.

Trans MongolianMugs and Coffee:

There are fancy mugs available to borrow on the Russian trains and instant coffee was available. I can’t same the say for the Chinese train. No coffee make Mark crazy, (see above).

*Update: I ended up buying a lightweight camping mug in Finland after our Trans-Mongolian journey, just so that I’d never be without again. Also, if it would have been possible, I wish I’d bought one of the beautiful Russian crystal mugs as a souvenir! I’m sure they sell them, I just had no place to pack one. 

Trans Mongolian RailwayBook the Faster Train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk:

If you’re breaking up your journey, there are a variety of different trains to choose from out of each city. We’d advise that you try and find the faster train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, as the one we rode was incredibly slow, made a ton of stops and our carriage was very hot. Also, if you need them, bring allergy meds for this leg of the journey, as we were all suffering.

Trans Mongolian RailwayPlan Ahead:

Don’t ruin your trip by overstaying your visa or arriving by train too soon. With each border crossing, we watched others worry themselves sick or be removed from the train by immigration officials when the dates on their visas didn’t line up. This seemed all the more unpleasant when it was at 3 a.m. and they were surrounded by Chinese soldiers in some remote border town.

You will be slapped with a fine and may spend time in jail until that fine is paid, then you’ll have to sort out how to continue on your journey if, by that point, you haven’t been deported. Plan ahead and enjoy the ride!

7 Responses

  1. Rio

    Hi,
    Really loving your blog and all the info you’re sharing. Sounds like a hell of a trip!!
    We are taking the Trans-Sib from Moscow to Beijing shortly. In order to avoid any issues with expired visas in case of delays or whatever, we have applied for a slightly longer period than we are actually going to stay in the country.
    I understand that you get in trouble when overstaying your visa. But are you saying it’s just as much of a problem to leave early???
    Best regards,
    Rio

    • Mark Johnston

      No, you won’t have any problems leaving early. You can leave whenever you choose. Just don’t arrive early or leave late! Good luck with your trip!

      • Rio

        Thanks Mark. That’s a relief :)