Train 004, the Trans-Mongolia Express, leaves every Tuesday from Moscow Yaroslavskaya train station, and arrives in Beijing the following Monday.
I only had a week’s window to do the trip and had to arrive on a Monday to China to teach English, so fortunately, I just had enough time to do the route straight through, otherwise I’d’ve stopped off along the way.
I booked myself into a 2nd class four berth compartment, which I ended up sharing with two American guys from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar (capital of Mongolia) then an English couple from UB to Beijing. There was also a German girl down the corridor and a Swedish guy who both came all the way to Beijing, so I spent most of my time with those two and the Americans.
The compartments weren’t enormous, but fortunately mine was never completely full and the beds and bedding were reasonably comfortable. As soon as I got my “train-legs” and relaxed into the pace of life on the train, the time passed surprisingly quickly reading, watching movies and chatting. I also spent literally hours looking out the windows and taking pictures, fascinated like a dog in front of a washing machine.
At the end of each carriage there’s a boiler (samovar) which we could get unlimited boiling water from – I’d read up on this so I’d brought a mug and plenty of tea-bags and cuppasoups which I supplemented with pot noodles. Fortunately, to save me from scurvy and carb-overload there was usually a gaggle of enterprising Babushkas whenever we stopped for any length of time at a station, which happened three or four times a day.
These tiny old grannies (some who wore housecoats, headscarves and beards; some who wore lycra and looked like they’d been on the game) each grabbed a patch on the platforms to sell home cooked food from assorted baskets and trays. The selection included everything from big meatballs in plastic bags, goats cheese pancakes, chicken legs, apples, tomatoes and pickles to litre cans of beer, bread, dried fish, smoked fish and boiled eggs. At the opposite end of the carriage from the samovar was a sink and toilet… no showers in 2nd class, so I had to make do with wetwipes and increasingly grimy hair. Next time I will travel with dry shampoo!
The landscape of European Russia passed mostly in the dark on the night of Day 1, but what I did see wasn’t particularly gripping for me as a Brit. As we travelled further East across Siberia it became more silver birch trees than I thought actually existed: beautiful at first, but after a day or so of the same kind of landscape you can see why they sent convicts to Siberia as punishment.
Then came the slow transition from swampy and desolate (silver birch peppered) taiga into mountains and forests straight out of any fairytale you care to name. There were beautiful wooden herringbone cottages with intricately carved and brightly painted shutters and graveyards in the tree line. Further east, but still in Russia, still we skirted around Lake Baikal (deepest and oldest freshwater lake on the planet) at dawn on Day 5 which was utterly, utterly breathtaking. For the rest of the day we had vast plains with occasional scrubby bushes and rocky scree as we crossed from Russia into Mongolia. Five days of the seven are spent in Russia and I started getting some serious locomotive ennui on Day 5; I was saved by the interest of border crossings and new skies.
Days 6 and 7 take you through Mongolia and northern China.
The border crossings take hours as you have to stop to have your passport and visa checked each side of each border. The Russian/Mongolian border took about five hours and we were allowed to get off the train. Mongolia/China took about seven because they change all the wheels on the train by taking all the carriages apart, raising them up on hydraulic lifts, shunting all the old wheels out and pulling new ones through before putting the train back together. And, we had to stay onboard for the entire process… take my advice and use the bathroom before reaching the border – the toilets were locked for the whole time.
Once we were finally into Mongolia though, the hassle was worth it. Mongolia made me think of being on a gigantic train set as it was all wide and green and hilly. Around UB there was lots of heavy industry and Soviet style buildings, a bit further out there were wooden houses, cottages and yurts (round Mongolian tents) all jumbled up together, shanty town style. As most of Mongolia’s population lives in UB, once we were clear of that it was pretty empty except for the odd yurt and a guy herding horses on a motorbike.
The bit of the Gobi desert that we passed through was a flat-ish rocky/sandy expanse with tufty grass rather than sweeping dunes, but we did see some galloping camels which was exciting. The last few hours of the journey wound through innumerable tunnels in the mountains in northern China, finally getting to Beijing mid afternoon. It was the most amazing journey – practically the perfect way to get to China if you’ve got the time. I’ve seen places I’d never have gone to by myself, I met some great people and by the time I got off the train, not only was I not jetlagged but the nervous wreck of a girl who had been having nightmares about dying a slow embarrassing death at the front of a classroom, was brim full of self confidence. I was ready to take on whatever China had on offer, which turned out to be loads.
HOW TO DO IT:
Buying your ticket
- There are three main routes, and several trains to get across Russia to China (or vice-versa): Moscow to Vladivostok, Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria and Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia. The first two options could be termed the Trans-Siberian Express (although there isn’t actually a train called this) – the last is the Trans-Mongolian Express, which is what I did.
- The weekly train “004” goes from Moscow straight through to Beijing, a journey of seven days if you do it straight through. It’s a thoroughly rewarding (and usually very social) experience doing the journey, but if the idea of being on a train for a week doesn’t appeal then the most interesting places to stop off are Irkutsk, the largest city in Siberia from where you can visit the stunning Lake Baikal (the oldest and deepest freshwater lake on Earth) and Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. You can get more local trains between these cities.
- You can buy tickets in person from railway stations, usually up to 1-2 days in advance (depending on the season.) Naturally this is easier if you speak Russian, but if you have the date and time of the train you want (head to www.seat61.com for timetables and more tips about planning a Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian journey) written down in the Russian alphabet, then you’ll be OK. Bear in mind that demand exceeds supply for the weekly straight-through journeys, so if you don’t want to stop off, buy in advance online if you can.
- You can also buy online from Russian agencies – you’ll pay a bit of a mark up, but it’s convenient, secure and you’ll be sure of having your tickets before you travel. I used these guys, and fully recommend them.
- The Trans-Mongolian crosses three countries (Russia, Mongolia and China) for which most nationalities a) need visas and b) can’t buy visas on entry. Do your research in advance! It’s easy enough to download and send off the necessary forms from the visa offices in your country, but there are plenty of agencies who specialize in organizing visas for your whole trip if you’re short on time or are organizationally challenged.
- If you’re doing the journey straight through, you can get transit visas for Russia and Mongolia which are cheaper but more limiting than tourist visas.
- If you’re getting transit visas, start by applying for your visa for the country you end up in as you need proof of being allowed to travel onwards. It’s worth buying your train ticket in advance if you’re planning on doing this and sending a copy of it in with your application.
- There’s a boiling water tap at the end of each carriage, so take a mug and some teabags/instant coffee and packet soup/noodles.
- Earplugs and an eyemask are invaluable as are wetwipes and dry shampoo – there aren’t any showers in 2nd class!
- The cleanliness of the toilets depends on the guards in your carriage, but they will be Western style.
- Don’t be afraid to try the homecooked food that is sold by local old ladies on the platforms at major stations across Russia. It’s delicious, cheaper than the dining car and such a relief after one too many pots of super-noodles. You can get everything from meatballs, goat cheese pancakes and dried fish to fruit, vegetables and beer but be aware that the selection depends entirely on what the locals have made and brought along.
- Compartment doors lock from the inside for when you’re asleep but the conductors are the only ones who can lock them from the outside during the day – keep your valuables on you or hide them well if you’re worried about their security when you’re stopped at stations.
- You won’t be able to specify a female-only compartment, and you’ll need to be (or get!) comfortable with sharing a relatively small space with strangers.