The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.
1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup
These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin. They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure. We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!
2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket
We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.
3. Look after your Provodnista
These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.
4. Eat in the Dining Cart
Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!
5. Keep two sets of time
The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.
6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar
Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.
7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms
Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.
8. Have a bottle of vodka with you
Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!
9. Carry Wet Wipes
While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.
10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.
Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!
Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…
If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.