Trans-Mongolian Express (Train 004) leaves every Tuesday from Moscow Yaroslavskaya train station, and arrives in Beijing the following Monday.
There are 3 tracks to the Trans-Siberian railway: the Trans-Siberian (which continues east to Vladivostok) the Trans-Manchurian (which goes south-east to Harbin and Beijing) and the Trans-Mongolian (south via Ulaanbataar to Beijing).
For this article, we’ll be talking about the latter, the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
I spent a week in a 2nd class four berth compartment, also known as a kupe, 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.
The compartments weren’t enormous, but fortunately mine was never completely full and the beds and bedding were reasonably comfortable.
Here are the top tips I learned while riding the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
1) Buy your ticket in advance
There are three main routes to get from Moscow to Beijing:
- Moscow to Vladivostok
- Moscow to Beijing via Manchuria
- 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.
You want to buy at least 1-2 days in advance. 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.
2) 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.
3) There’s no wifi on board
You won’t be able to get a whole lot of work done, however, if you have a cell phone you will likely be able to pickup 3G for most of the ride. When you get to bigger cities, you’ll be able to pick up on 4G signal.
We recommend downloading Netflix movies ahead of time to your phone or tablet, as well as all the reading you might want to do throughout the week.
4) You can’t really break up the trip
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.
Just know that when you buy your ticket, you buy it straight through. So while you might be able to get off for an hour or so, you can’t hop on and hop off.
5) Get Visas in Advance
The Trans-Mongolian crosses three countries: Russia, Mongolia and China. You will probably need all of these visas, and you can’t buy them 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.
6) You Might Also Need Transit Visas
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.
7) Border Crossings Take Forever
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.
8) What to Pack for the Trip
There’s a boiling water tap at the end of each carriage, so bring with you 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. In general, don’t fear them — even in first class the toilets really aren’t any different or any better.
9) Try the homecooked food the vendors sell
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.
10) Doors lock from the inside
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.
11) You won’t be able to specify a female-only compartment
You’ll need to be (or get!) comfortable with sharing a relatively small space with strangers. Make sure you adhere to the dress code of the train: pajamas at night for sure, and negliges and lingerie are no-gos. Bring slippers you can change into to be comfortable as the train rolls along.
12) Consider doing this in the shoulder season
Summers on trains are hot hot hot and winters in Moscow and Mongolia might make parts of this journey impossible or severely delayed. Consider doing this journey in Spring or Fall, when the weather should be at its best.