10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

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 plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

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

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

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

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir 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

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

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

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from 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?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

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’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.

Chapter Two: Irkutsk – Beijing (Including Magnificent Mongolia where it snows glitter from the sky)

* Please excuse any funky formatting and lack of pictures. It appears that WordPress is also on the ‘hit list’ of banned sites in China. However the app (with very limited functionality) appears to be working on my phone, but only with basic text. We are still managing to put pictures up via Instagram which should be linked to our Facebook / Twitter page – we will not be stopped!! Enjoy the next installment and sorry if it looks funky we can’t check it! N&D

After our amazing journey from Moscow (which Dean wrote about in his previous blog), we jumped off the train in Irkutsk and immediately reached for another layer! We had a few nights here to see the sights as well as get out to Lake Baikal. The city was apparently experiencing some unseasonably ‘warm’ weather which meant the ice and snow melted by day, and froze at night! Not falling over was the name of the game – one that I seemed to do better at than Dean! The main square was gearing up for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics next year, and had winter sports themed ice sculptures everywhere which I was very taken by!! The architecture in the city was great and we stumbled across these tourist walking route boards and read everyone with great enthusiasm!

We headed out to Lake Baikal and it was beautiful. We were there in a bit of an in-between season – summer activities had finished and winter ones were yet to start, so we just spent time walking around in the beautiful snow taking in the stunning views. It really was a tranquil, attractive place.

From there we jumped on the train again and tracked the edge of the Lake to Ulan Ude. Most people on the Trans-Siberian train do this leg of the journey at night, but Dean had read how pretty it was, and so had sought out a local train so we could do it during daylight hours. The water from the Lake was almost lapping at the train lines, so it was a beautiful few hours.

I think one of the highlights of the train journey came for Dean in Ulan Ude. Here there is a giant 7m high ‘bust’ (head) of Lenin. We were prepared to be either over or underwhelmed, but thankfully he was very impressive and we were so glad we had stopped. Russians think it is testament to the greatness of the man that the pigeons don’t poo on him…. the cynics say it is all down to the bird spikes sunk into the top of his head out of view that keep them at bay 😉 Throughout Russia and Mongolia we saw many many ‘Christmas’ trees – however for the local people these are put up to celebrate New Year and not our festive season. I appreciated them though for Christmas as well! As well as trees and lights, in Ulan Ude we were again treated to some ice carvings – quite the thing here. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was here that we felt the coldest but it was well worth it.

What came next was magnificent Mongolia – not only a trip highlight but also a huge country highlight for both of us which is really saying something! Such a special special place it is hard to put into words our time here. Due to visa restrictions and there only being one train a week between Ulaanbaator (UB) and Beijing, we were limited to one week here, and what a week it was. At over six times the size of the UK but with a population of approximately three million (and over half of them live in UB) it certainly lived up to its reputation for being remote in parts.

We had a couple of days in UB where we explored from one side of the city to the other – literally when it turned out there were two bus number 7’s!!! We met a lovely couple of local guys who pointed us in the right direction. The following morning we headed out to the Gandan Khild Monastery and had our first experience of the monks chanting – so relaxing. Keen to see as much as possible we then arranged to have a driver and guide from the Hostel for a few days to take us out to the countryside. We piled into our old Russian Combi van and spluttered our way out to the Hustai National Park, where we went out to spot some of the Przewalski wild horses. Originally native to Mongolia, they became extinct several years ago, but 15 creatures were reintroduced from ones held previously in zoos around the world, and it has been very successful as there are now over 300 in the wild. We trekked up hill to see them and they were stunning. It was here that I turned round to face the sun, and with the backdrop of a clear blue sky, the sun was catching the snow particles that were being blown into the air and it really did look like it was raining glitter – beautiful.

We drove on and veering off the road onto a barely marked track on the edge of the Semi Gobi sand dunes the adventure really began. We kept driving and driving in land, before eventually a couple of Gers came into view. These belonged to Bor and Yandag – a nomadic couple, who lived off the land and moved twice a year from their winter site to their summer and vice versa. This would be our base for a couple of days and we both agreed it was the most authentic family homestay we had experienced – it was just awesome. We were welcomed into the Ger and given hot milky tea (the thing to drink in Mongolia). Soon after we went out horse trekking to see the sunset and it was the most at ease I have felt on a horse for a long time. Mongolian horses have smaller legs – so maybe it was just that I didn’t have as far to fall that gave me some sort of comfort!!! Dean on the other hand was not so keen, as he puts it “horses are dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle,” a quote he stole from a movie! That night Dean took some amazing night photos and we had flash backs to our nights ‘bush Camping’ on our Oasis Overland – only this time it was a bit nippy at night!! We wiled away the hours in the evening playing ‘Ankles’ with Yandag who seemed to have a genuine desire to not let her guests win any game! She had such a beautiful smile despite living such a simple yet hard life. Ankles was a game I quickly grew to love… however it has to be seen to be understood and my new found ‘set’ will soon be winging their way home to join the rest of the traveller tat!! ‘Ankles’ are various games of chance played with sheep ankle bones. Each side of the bone represents a different animal and the general idea is to throw certain matching combinations.

The following day we headed out to Kharkhorin City to visit a Monastery. After a day’s touring, we arrived back at camp and this time headed off on the back of Camels Lawrence of errrr Arabia style! They were huge woolly two-humped beasts and they quickly became Dean’s favourites! Unfortunately by this stage my stomach had taken a turn for the worst, so I was treated to several late night treks to the ‘facilities’. These ‘facilities’ were located 30 meters away from the Ger, and we were reminded of the golden rule of loos abroad – don’t look down!! Seeing Orion’s Belt shining so brightly in the night sky will always remind me of this special place. Staying with this family far far exceeded our expectations. There were no big tour groups there… just us. And them. Communicating in the only way we could. Words can’t describe it – we were very privileged to have been there.

We headed on back towards and past UB and went out to more of a tourist guesthouse Ger stay in Terelj National Park. The landscape changed completely and we were greeted with the rugged sights of the harsh mountain landscapes. There were a couple of puppies and I utterly fell in love with one of them – he kept shivering in the cold and so I was helping out by picking him up (although we later learnt that Pedro was indeed a Pedra!!). He would have come with us if he could…. We headed out to visit another monastery here (no we are not bored of them yet!) and then the jewel in the Crown came for Dean – a visit to the massive Chingiss Khaan Statue. Completed three years ago at a cost of 4.1millions Dollars, this 41m high stainless steel statue is immense and matches the feeling towards the great man. Most excitingly for Dean, for a small price you could go up his tail(!) and pop out on the top of his head! From there you could see the never-ending Mongolian skyline that we had become so accustomed to and loved so much. 360 degree of pure sky – we were on top of the World.

And so it was time to head back to UB after not only one of the best weeks of our trip so far, but one of my all-time best travel weeks. For us, the World is too big to keep going back to the same place and there are few places that we visit that we vow to come back to, but Mongolia is one of them. There is so much to see and do and the people are so beautiful that it is hard not to be touched by the place. We didn’t freeze, instead we found it to be quite mild… maybe we have just become accustomed to – double figures. What’s -10 degrees between friends?

I remember very vividly Anastasia, the receptionist at our St Petersburg hotel looking out of the window at the grey weather and saying very passionately and forcefully (over and over and over), “why would you want to take the train now, I mean why – look at it its grey it murky its dirty? Why would you do it now, why?” Dean could see me cringing thinking “it’s time to be quiet now…” but we have our answer. For me and for us (yes we are getting on super well despite the jokes from some people before we went that we might not!!!) this could not have been a more perfect time to come. Yes the odd thing has been closed, and yes the hours of daylight are shorter and it been cold, however we have been treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery, much of which has been covered in beautiful white winter wonderland snow. Who could ask for more? A perfect scene has greeted us and we have loved every second. Winter in Siberia and Mongolia is amazing. As one of Dean’s good friends said, if you come prepared you will love it and we did.

So our last journey on the Trans Mongolian route took 30 hours and took us between UB and Beijing. It was sad in many ways to be completing this journey and both of us are still slightly in disbelief about how far we have come! Rather than two Chinese or Mongolian cabin buddies, we were faced with one very nice Chilean guy and an Italian who showed little interest in anything other than sleeping and looking at my chest – oblivious to the fact that Dean was here and I was scowling at him in disgust!! Fortunately the views out of the window as we crossed the Gobi Desert more than made up for our lack of ‘local’ companions and with mixed emotions we pulled into Beijing raring to go with the next stage of our adventure.

– Natalie

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean