Are you orientating yourself for an epic journey? Are you a train fanatic or do you get enthusiastic by the idea of a romantic, nostalgic journey over the span of a whole continent? Please consider taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway, the famous train journey across the continent of Asia. I share with you my guide on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
The Elaborate Guide on How to Travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway
In this guide I’ll tell you all the things you need to know when you’re considering to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The things we will cover are:
- different routes and names for train travel in Russia
- the pros and cons on the directions to take
- the seasons to travel in
- what to see and where to stop along the route
- what will influence the costs
- differences between 1st or 2nd class
- what options you have on how to book your travel
- how much did I actually pay?
- quick tips on visa’s
- staying healthy on the train
- and some last pointers from the top of my head.
All voiced opinions are my own and come from my own experiences. Information is nowhere near complete. So I advise you to research further, maybe pick up a guidebook on the history and culture of the Trans-Siberian Railways. This guide is for people who are orientating to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, and I hope I can help you make the decision to do it!
Why travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway ??
This TMR (=Trans-Mongolian Railway) will take you on an adventure of a lifetime and takes you from Moscow all the way to Beijing.
The train’s itinerary spans a vast 4,735 miles or 7,621 km from the capital of Russia, across sweeping tundra’s. It touches the rim of the biggest fresh water lake in the world (Lake Baikal that is) and crosses straight through Mongolia, into the green plains of China until it reaches its final destination 7 days later in Beijing.
The Trans-Mongolia Railway follows the Trans-Siberian Railway up to Ulan Ude (Mongolia) and then continues along the ancient tea route that connected China with Russia.
You will travel 4,735 miles or 7,621 km trom Moscow to Beijing. While you travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, you will pass 6 time zones, transverse taiga and tundra in Russia, glasslands, highland and desert in Mongolia and you will cross the Great Wall of China multiple times.
It’s a great way to see 3 of the biggest countries on the planet while you just sit back and enjoy the sound of the wheels on the rails.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a great way to spend your 2 week holiday, or you want to travel over land to the east, or west.
It’s also a great kick-start for your world travels, read my 5 reasons to start your big trip slow. The TMR is something to cross off of your bucket list and a true adventure.
It’s as much for couples travelling together or when you’re travelling solo. You can travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway with children or with your grandparents.
How to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway?
Ok, have I peaked your interest? Do you want to hop on a train and let the adventure unfold itself in front of your eyes? Great! Continue to read my guide on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway and I’ll walk you through all the things you need to know, before actually booking a trip on the TMR.
All aboard? Sit back, because here is my elaborate guide on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
There are different names for the famous train journey from Moscow to the East. They all have two things in common: they all start in Moscow and they all take 6 nights/ 7 days.
But the way the routes cross Siberia and arrive at their final destination are different. They go by different names. Here are the main 3 routes:
Trans-Siberia Express (red line)
This is the oldest route and the main name people refer to when travelling by train from Russia. Is connects Moscow with Vladivostok, all the way in the east of Siberia.
If you go any further east, you’ll fall of the map. It takes the train 6 nights to reach this port at the Pacific and you can add 9,259 km or 5,752 miles to your travel journal.
The famous “Rossia” or “the Russian” is train number 2 to the east and train number 1 to the west. The Trans Siberian Railway is somethimes used as the main name for all train travel around Russia. If you want to read more about the Trans-Siberian Railway, please check seat61.com
Trans-Mongolian Express (green line)
The most interesting and popular route takes you through Mongolia and ends in Beijing. It also takes 6 nights if you go direct, but Mongolia is a must stop if you’re taking this route.
For this stretch, you can add 7,621 km (4,735 mile) to your travel journal. I’ve taken this route in September 2007 and it really was a trip to remember.
My main reason to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway was that I wanted to travel to Nepal overland and travelling towards Beijing was the logic choice. I do think there is something romantically nostalgic about travelling all the way to Vladivostok or visiting Harbin in the winter, I’m happy I chose the TMR because the journey was amazing and I had such a humble time in Mongolia.
Trans Manchurian Route (blue line)
This route takes you also to China, but encircles Mongolia and doesn’t go through Ulaanbaatar. It takes the northern route to Harbin and then heads south to Beijing. This journey also takes 6 days and is 8,986km or 5,623 miles.
Ok, so you’ve decided on a route and have settled on crossing the continent by train. Great! Now you have to choose whether you travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway eastbound or westbound.
When starting in Moscow, you have a kick start to your train voyage. You can easily arrive in Moscow by airplane from America or Europe, or you head out from your home in London, Paris or any other city in Europe, because all railway routes in Europe are connected with each other.
If you plan on going backpacking in Asia like I did, it’s an obvious choice to go eastbound. Taking the train is an excellent choice for starting your backpacking adventures. Read my 5 reasons to start you big trip slow.
To travel through Russia, Mongolia or China, you’ll need a visa to enter each country. The best things is, to apply for these visa’s beforehand.
When you plan on backpacking further into China or the rest of Asia, it’s easier to apply for these visas at home, because you can only apply for them 3 months in advance. Click the link to skip right ahead to the visa section below.
Taking the route the other way round is a good possibility and although not many people take the journey westbound, it’s not hard or wrong.
When coming back from your travels in Asia, you don’t just want to hop off a plane and be home. Travelling by train, lets you slowly adjust to the idea you’re heading home.
Have you taken the westbound routes? Please let me know why you have chosen this option.
Duh! This is important for every travel you consider, but I wanted to highlight it here because it’s the footprint on how you’ll experience your TMR. The season of choice will determine what kind of experience you’ll have on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
Winter in Siberia. Is there a better way to comprehend winter in Siberia then by seeing it from your train window? Miles and miles of snow covered tundra will give a whole new meaning to the term “winter”.
No matter the temperatures or the amount of snow, these trains are built to simply plough through. With average temperatures of −25 °C (−13 °F) in January, you might want to reconsider your stops along the way. Winter is an excellent time to visit the “ice city of China” with its Harbin International Ice and Snow festival.
With average temperatures in July of +17 °C (63 °F), this seems a better period to visit, but keep in mind this is an average temperature and summers on the taiga and Mongolian plains are hot.
You have to keep this in mind when you plan a stop, because there is hardly any shade and trains are crowded. Not only is summer the high season for tourists from America and Europe, it’s also the time to travel for people from Russia and Siberia.
If you do want to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway in summer, book ahead in time to ensure your seat on the train. Mid July is usually the time for the famous Nadaam festival in Mongolia. This is the festival of the year where the men of Mongolia show off their skills in wrestling, archery and horse riding. It’s a colourful festival with a train load of history, so if you consider going to the Nadaam festival, take the train.
Spring and autumn
Arguably the best times to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Not too hot and not too cold. It’s the shoulder season, so it’s not too crowded on the train either.
You can slowly see the landscape change while on the train, it’s like stepping back or forward a few months. I’ve travelled in early September and I thought it was perfect because the nature was amazing and it was not too cold in Mongolia.
Of course, you can make the 6 night stretch from Moscow to Beijing in 1 long haul. But when miles turn into hours, hours turn into days and you’re almost a week on end on the same train, you might want to stretch your legs and get off to explore the amazing sites that are connected by the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
It’s not just important how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, but also where to stop at the TMR. The train stops at many big railway stations and it’s possible to get off and explore Russia a bit further or experience the great nature of Siberia.
The railway system is no hop on hop off system, so you need to book in advance and stick with your schedule of choice. Below are some ideas on where to stop:
The train leaves from Moscow and this is an excellent opportunity to discover the capital of Russia. You can read my do’s and don’ts in Moscow for first time travellers, to know more about Moscow.
I’ve also booked a stay in St. Petersburg as I thought it was an excellent excuse to explore this famous city. I only planned 1 day in St. Petersburg, but here’s an idea on what to do in St. Petersburg in 1 day?
The route of the TMR passes through some major Russian cities. Ekaterinburg is the place famous for the murder on the Romanovs and this is the border between Europe and Asia. Other major stops along the route are Perm, Omsk, Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk.
It you’re more of a nature enthusiastic, the stop at Irkutsk and Lake Baikal is a must. The Lake Baikal is the largest fresh water lake in the world and holds 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface water.
It’s also the world’s deepest lake, the world’s clearest lake and it’s considered the oldest lake in the world. Can you imagine? No, me neither, so you have to check it out yourself!
You can get off the train in Irkutsk and book a stay anywhere along the shores of Lake Baikal.
During the summer, you can take a tour by boat over the lake and in winter you can walk over the ice. It’s a great place for hiking and trekking or you can just stop here if you want to break the long train journey.
Although its biodiversity is very rich, I didn’t see any animals while I was at Lake Baikal, besides the hundreds and thousands of love bugs who joined me in my bedroom when the sun had set. You don’t believe me? Check the picture of my room at night. Weird?!
Stop in Mongolia when you travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway
The route is not just called Trans Mongolian-Railway, because the train is crossing Mongolia, it’s also called this way, because you just have to stop in Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar (or Ulan Bator) might be the capital of Mongolia and it has some interesting sights, but you absolutely must leave the city and experience the vast and expansive countryside.
Read my 9 things to experience in Mongolia to learn more. This is nature at its wildest and barest. There are numerous options to go hiking and trekking. You can trek by horse into the green planes in the north or take a tour into the deep heart of the Gobi desert like I did. Read more in Top 10 things to do in Mongolia in 2 weeks.
I made a 7-day tour through southern Mongolia, stayed with local nomads in a ger tent and went horseback riding. It was the highlight of my TMR.
Arrive in Beijing China
When you arrive at the final destination of your journey’s, you don’t just hop on another train or a plane and continue your travels. Beijing calls for a few days of rest and I’d recommend to decompress from all the train travel and take your time to explore the capital of China.
You can wonder around the malls, visit the Forbidden City and take a tour to see the Great Wall of China. Read about my disappointing time in Beijing and how I coped with it.
So, you have decided on your route, the direction and the places where you want to stop. You have taken some huge choices on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
Your TMR is taking shape and now you need to make some more decisions, which will effect your budget.
On the different trains, there are different types of classes like on any train. You can opt for a 1st class 2-person berths. These seats can be converted into a bed at night.
– You will have more space to move around
– You do not have to share your compartment with any others.
Of course 1st class is more expensive than the 2nd class 4-berth sleeper, where there are 2 beds above each other.
If you have the top bed, you will sit during the day on somebody else’s bed and you need to climb up and down.
I stayed in the 4-berth sleeper. Mainly because of the lower price, it also was a great way to meet fellow travellers and I shared my berth with 2 lovely Navy Seal ladies who were travelling home from the Ukraine and shared all their lovely food and snacks with me.
Facilities on the Trans Mongolian Railway
It doesn’t really matter which class you book in terms of the facilities. Each train has a restaurant car where you can have a hot meal or buy sodas. Each wagon has a “wagon host”, the provodnika or provodnik. He or she will keep an eye out for the people travelling, vacuums the corridor and is in charge of the samovar, the kettle with hot water for your soup and tea.
At the end of the corridor there is a toilet with a sink and you share this with the rest of the corridor, no matter if you’ve booked 1st or 2nd class.
Ok, so you’ve made up your mind. You’re ready to go and are getting excited to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway! Yeah! I was so excited when I made the decision, I couldn’t wait for the train tickets to arrive. There are different ways to book the journey and each vary in difficulty, but also in price.
If you speak or read Russian and can work around the Russian website, you can book the train tickets yourself. You can also show up at the Moscow ticket office and buy your tickets there, but seats on these long stretches are subject to availability and prices vary depending on season, class and which journey you want to take.
Via an agent
You don’t want to break the bank, but you don’t want to be set up for failure either. Booking your train tickets via an agent is a good idea. They know the ropes on booking train tickets in Russia, Mongolia and China, and they know everything about the routes, timetables. Plus you can go to them with any question that pops up in your head.
This is an affordable way of booking your TMR, because you will not go broke and you can trust on a reputable company if something goes wrong.
Book a package deal
Many tour agencies have pre-determined packages. They can not only arrange for your train tickets, but arrange for your flights to and from the start and end point of your journey. They offer you hotels to stay at, transport to take, excursions to have and some group tours even include a guide.
It’s self-explanatory that all these services cost more than the above 2 options but you do not have to worry about a single thing, just pay for it.
Above mentioned 3 options for booking the TMR, are mainly different because of the amount of service offered but therefor also what it will cost you. In general, the TMR doesn’t have to be that expensive. But let’s talk some numbers here.
Prices are fluctuating and depend on the season of travel, 1st class or 2nd class, if you book independent or with an agency and if so, with which agency.
The more stops and excursions you’ll include, the higher the prices will be. I will tell you the general price, but please investigate thoroughly when you want to buy your own tickets to travel the Trans Mongolian Railway.
When I wanted to book the TMR, I checked first if I could do it on my own. I soon gave up because I found it quite complicated. I had checked online for some tour companies but those prices where sky rocketing. I finally asked for 2 quotes with 2 agents for the train tickets.
Back in 2007, I paid €444 ($450). This was the price for just the train tickets:
- Moscow- Irkutsk
- Ulaanbaatar- Beijing.
The total price of my trip (back in 2007) was € 1,442 ($1,500).
- 1 night stay in St. Petersburg
- train ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow
- 2 nights stay in Moscow
- train ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk
- 1 night stay in a small town along Lake Baikal
- train ticket from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar
- 1 night in Ulaanbaatar
- 8 days/7 night Gobi Desert Southern tour, everything included
- train ticket from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing
- 4 night stay in Beijing
Double the prices for train tickets on the Trans Mongolian Railway
But that was more than 8 years ago. Time and prices have changed, nowadays, the costs of the train voucher from Moskow to Beijing via an agent will cost you around € 700/ $ 700.
So prices have almost doubled. But it still comes down to a 100$ a day for a journey of roughly 5,000 miles and a place to sleep for 6 nights. Although it did burn a huge hole in my travel savings, I think the money spent was worth every single dime. Don’t let the cost stop you from taking this epic journey.
More tips and tricks to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Great! Now that you’ve booked your tickets to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, you just need to sit back and wait for your departure date to arrive! Woot woot! There are a few things though, that you need to arrange before you can set out for your journey of a lifetime.
Russia, Mongolia and China demand a tourist visa for (most) tourists visiting their country. When you’re not on any blacklists, you shouldn’t have any problems getting the actual visas, but you need to apply for them first. Check where in your country you can apply for these visas, either an embassy or a consulate.
For the Russian visa, you need to apply for the exact dates you’re travelling and you need to know when you will leave Russia into Mongolia.
The Russian visa is valid for the exact mentioned dates and can be applied for 3 months in advance. In order for you to stay in Russia, you need an invitation from the hotel you’re staying at. This can be arranged by the hotel or via your travel agents.
The Mongolian visa is valid for 30 days and you can stay for 90 days with the Chinese visa. The Chinese authorities do want to know exactly where you will be travelling in China so you need to know beforehand what to fill out on the visa application forms.
In order to get all the 3 above mentioned visas, you need to fill out the appropriate forms, add the right amount of stamps and pay the visa fees.
Visa Application Services
You can apply for the visas yourself and travel back and forth to the different embassies, but you might want to consider to pay for a visa application service. It’s an agency that sends you all the right forms, collects your passport and delivers your passport with the visas included in it back, right to your doorstep.
Some even offer “Travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway”- package where you’ll get a discount because you have to apply for 3 visa in 1 go. I used one of those agencies and I can assure you, they are worth the money and save you the hassle of spending multiple days with bureaucratic stuff.
Your health is your most valuable possession and you need to look after it carefully. Make sure to get the right vaccines before you start your travel. For Russia, Mongolia and China, you’ll need: Hepatitis A and Typhoid, but you might want to consider Hepatitis B.
Check online what applies for your own situation 6 months in advance.
Before you travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, make sure you practise squatting above a moving toilet. The sanitary conditions are basic but every corridor in the train has 1 toilet and as the train moves, the toilet rocks back and forth, sways from the right to the left.
Once on the train make sure you also know how to get to the other carriage in case somebody is hogging your corridor’s toilet and you need to make a run for another one.
You can use the toilet sink for brushing your teeth and washing yourself. The ladies that were in my coupé even demonstrated you can apply make-up every single day and wash your hair above the sink.
Eating on the Trans Mongolian Railway
The key to success for staying healthy is, eating healthy. On the train, you can dine in the restaurant car where they serve a large array of dishes.
The further east, the lower the supplies of “western food”. You can buy sodas and vodka at the bar, but there’s a kettle of hot water, called a samovar, on every car.
You can use it to make yourself a tea or you can use it to make soup, noodles or any other instant meals.
Make sure to pack enough healthy snacks from home. Sitting on a train all day, staring into the vast wilderness of Siberia might get you craving for something to munch on.
Exercise while you travel the Trans Mongolain Railway
Although you’re not going anywhere, make sure to walk back and forth when you can, exercise is important and laying on your bed all day might make you lethargic.
Get off the train at every change you get, because you might not know when the next stop will be. Some major stops are during the night, so you might miss a few stops and have to wait to stretch your legs, so get off when you can.
Keep sane during the journey. This might sound a bit odd, but you make yourself crazy by trying to figure out what the time is. Real time or Moscow time?
You constantly find yourself trying to determine where you are, what the time difference with Moscow is and whether that includes daylight saving time or not.
The train keeps to Moscow time, so dinner in the restaurant car is served at Moscow dinner time, although it might be night where the train is at that moment. You’ll find your provodnika vacuum the corridor at 10 pm because that’s what the Moscow schedule dictates.
Are you still with me? I’ve told you it was an elaborate guide to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway!
You’ve decided you wanted to take this adventure, you’ve researched the routes and things to see on of the tracks, you’ve booked your tickets and mentally prepared for the trip of a lifetime. You know everything on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway and now the time has come, to actually get your butt on that train!
Final pointers for travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway
- take a backpack eventhough you might not be backpacking. Either way, do not take a hard shell case. There is room for your luggage under the benches and above the doorway. You might need to shove a little to fit everything in. A hard case suitcase will be drama to handle on and off the train.
- wear comfortable clothes. When you’re sitting on a train for 7 days, you do not to want to wear any shirts that creep up on your back, depriving your legs from a regular blood flow or have your pants leave a mark on your legs or tummy.
- there is no bathroom, so skip on the 7 bottles of shampoos, conditioners and what not. Take small useful items, to clean yourself up. A washcloth, some soap, deodorant and some hand sanitizer will do the trick. Don’t forget your extra toothbrush. When you’re brushing for the first time on a train that rocks back and forth, you might drop your toothbrush. Of course, it will always fall brushes down. On the floor. Where people have peed on a moving train. You do the math. True story.
- bring healthy snacks and food that you can prepare with hot water, like noodles or instant meals. You might want to pack a few extras so you can share with the people travelling with you. Food is a great way to make friends.
- Get to the train station well on time. Ok, you’re at the train station ahead of schedule but actually go to the train on time. These trains are lengthy and I was booked for car no.2, but the head of the train was number 23. That was a long, long run when the provodnikas were already rounding up their passengers and the train was signalling it was ready to leave: STRESS!!
take enough money with you. Needless to say: there are no ATM’s on the train, so you need to take your Russian Rubels with you in order to pay for your food and drinks at the restaurant or buy something from one of the vendors during some of the stops. I was running low on cash by the end of the train trip and urgently needed to restock on my Rubels when I was in Irkutsk, which resulted in one too many noodle meals, because I couldn’t pay for a diner at the restaurant car. Also make sure you ditch your Mongolian tigrits before the border, maybe even best in Ulaanbaatar, because your Mongolian cash is worthless outside the country.
Conclusions on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
So.. There you have it. All my information, trips and tricks on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway. With this elaborate guide on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway, you will make the conscious decision to have a journey of a lifetime. You can cross the TMR off of your bucket list and have a train load of memories that will last for a lifetime.
Have you travelled the TMR? What is your best advice on how to travel the Trans-Mongolian Railway? Have you dropped your toothbrush on the toilet floor like I did? Let me know.