Firstly. remove your watch. A high-speed express train this is not. What else can you expect when travelling on the Trans Mongolian train?
The Trans Mongolian is the train line which links Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and then continues on to Ulaan Ude (or vice versa) where it connects with the Trans-Siberian. It is a remarkable journey – covering the wide empty plateau of the Gobi Desert with potential swift glimpses of white-tailed gazelle. Heading north after Ulaanbaatar, the rail link travels through Selenge Aimag – the name derives from the mighty Selenge River, Mongolia’s principal river. This part of the journey provides a direct contrast to the Gobi being dominated by the magnificent scenery of river basins, forest-steppe and fertile agricultural landscapes. Enjoy Mongolian buuz or khuurshuur bought directly off sellers on the platform – an alternative feast is that of salami, gherkins and the ubiquitous vodka shared by locals to international travellers. In the words of our guest Ross Briggs:
‘The train trip is quite relaxing. I spent most of my time looking out both sides at the endless Gobi views, often flat from horizon to horizon. As I have said before, I do not tire of these views and the enormity of the countryside. The weather was very good which enabled us to see a last spectacular sunset over the Gobi. The train trip was a good way to leave Mongolia, something new to experience and I would not discourage people from taking the trip.’
The Trans Mongolian itself covers 1110km in Mongolia and was built along the route travelled by the ancient tea camel caravans. It was built piecemeal between 1949-1961 as a direct result of the fluctuating political relationship between Russia and China. For those that need all the details it is mainly single track in Mongolia and double track in China.
‘The Trans-Siberian Railway is a regular railway, a means of transport vital to the people living along it. It’s not run for tourists, so you won’t find bar cars with pianos or deluxe suites with en suite showers. However, all passengers get a proper flat berth to sleep in, provided with all necessary bedding, convertible to a seat for day use. There are washrooms and toilets along the corridor, and a restaurant car for meals.’ Man In Seat 61
Top Tip – Pick your season
As the Man in Seat 61 says: ‘The Trans-Siberian Railway is a regular railway, a means of transport vital to the people living along it.’ That means there are regular departures all year round. Yes, do consider travelling on the Trans Mongolian train in the summer but consider all the other travellers doing the same. Winter offers a more unique perspective and fewer international tour groups.
Top Tip – It’s all in the train numbers
The train’s number tells you its relative speed and modernity: the lower the number, the higher the speed and price. The slower lower-quality trains have three-digit train numbers. Although these are more basic, they still provide an element of comfort. If you’re coming into Mongolia on one of the international trains then there can be delays when you cross either of the borders.
Top Tip – Food
On almost all Trans-Mongolian trains, unlimited boiling water is available free of charge from the samovar at the end of each carriage. Make sure to pack a mug and some cutlery (I love Sporks!). Coffee, tea, dried noodles and instant soups are all useful and help to provide an alternative to the rice and mutton that you will typically find in the dining carriage of a Mongolian train. Other ideas are granola bars, crackers, trail mix, peanut butter, dried meat and dried fruit. In the words of Man In Seat 61:
‘My personal favourite is water-based drinking chocolate for a relaxing night-time drink each evening…’
Top Tip – Power Sockets
There will not be as many power sockets as you would like. Not when you consider nearly everyone on your carriage will have some electronic device that will need charging at some point during the journey. If you’re travelling on the whole length from Beijing through to Moscow bring a worldwide travel adaptor. In the words of Man In Seat 61:
‘All Russian, Mongolian & Chinese trains have shaver sockets in the corridor and washrooms which can be used to recharge things with the right adaptor. Some trains have one or two similar sockets in the corridor that can be used to recharge things if you keep an eye on them. Your carriage attendant may be willing to charge items using the socket in their own compartment, for a small tip.’
Top Tip – Trans Mongolian Handbook
The views are epic. But, if you know you’ll need something to break up the window view, buy a copy of the Trans Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas which has a mile-by-mile guide to the sights you can see from the train.
Top Tip – Showers and Toilets
Each carriage has two western-style toilets – one at either end. Both with a sink. Although it depends on the carriage attendants (provodniks), the toilets are kept surprisingly clean. Not spotless. But not necessarily as bad as you can imagine. There should always be toilet paper supplied … but … bring your own.
Top Tip – Security
Firstly, get to know how many beds are in your class of carriage.
I (Jess) have travelled solo from Hong Kong through to Moscow and St Petersburg twice. Each time I travelled on a mix of second class and platskartny and although the compartments are mixed, as a solo female traveller I felt safe. If you end up in a compartment and don’t feel safe then speak to the carriage attendant and they might be able to move you. You need to use your common sense and remember to look after your possessions (putting them under the pillow doesn’t count!)
If you’re looking for information on how to book a trip on either the Trans-Mongolian then pretty much everything you could possibly need to know has been written by The Man in Seat 61. Alternatively, we can purchase tickets from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar to Beijing through a local agency run by the ever brilliant Ganbayar Davaajav – the owner of www.mongoliatraintickets.com. Due to his longterm connections with the train ticket office, his ticket prices are substantially lower than elsewhere. He can provide a ticket copy for any visa application requirements and does not need to be paid until you arrive in Mongolia – when he hands over the ticket. We receive no commission to recommend him. He just does an excellent job with excellent prices.