Every time I tell someone I travelled by train from Russia to Nepal, eyes pop and jaws drop. I find myself repeating what an amazing experience travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway is and everyone should experience it once. Many people have heard about the Trans Mongolian Railway and although it appeals to many travellers, there are still so many questions and myths surrounding this epic train journey across the continent. Here are the answers to the 21 most frequently asked questions about travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway.
1. How long will you be on the train?
This is the number one question I get asked all the time. It is hard to give a straight answer because I stopped along the way for a couple of times. From Moscow to Irkutsk was 5 days on the train and from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator was 2 days. Again 2 days for Ulan Bator to Beijing. If you travel continuously from Moscow to Beijing, you’ll be on the train for roughly 7 days. With a 2 day stop at Lake Baikal and 7 day stop in Mongolia, it took me 15 days.
Read more: Epic train journeys of the world
2. What do you do on the train?
What can’t you do on a train? You can work, you can blog, and you can take pictures. I played a lot of card games, took naps, looked outside the window and amazed myself at how the landscape changes. It was remarkable to see a landscape so different from our own. The further we travelled east, the more the fall colours came apparent. I talked with the 2 Ukrainian ladies who travelled home to Vladivostok and laughed at the magic tricks a little Russian boy did to all people in the carriage. Although the days seemed to be endless and all the same, I didn’t feel bored or wasting time. Travelling for that long on the train is all about the experience rather than the things to do.
3. Will you get bored when you travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
Yes and no. I’m not going to lie. Days and days on end on a train can get quite boring. But I never thought: this is so boring, someone get me out of here! There is nothing wrong with being bored a bit. You find new games to play with your new friends. You wander around to see if you see anything interesting in the other carriages. Or you look out of the window and discover little details in the landscape. All in all, yes it can get boring but there is nothing wrong with just being, sitting on a train and let a continent pass you by.
4. Can you get off the train?
Yes you can! That is actually the fun part of crossing a continent by train! You can stretch your legs for a bit when the train stops for a few minutes at remote train stations or you can plan a multiple day stop. I got off the train at Lake Baikal (Irkutsk) for 2 days and got off the train for a week in Mongolia. Famous stops are also Yekaterinburg, Omsk and Tomsk.
5. Where does the Trans Mongolian Railway end?
Your Trans Mongolian Railway adventure will end where you want it to end! No seriously, the original route goes from Moscow to Beijing. Or from Beijing to Moscow. But if you want to stop in Ulan Bator and continue by plane or camel, this is all possible.
Read more: 9 Experiences in Mongolia
6. Is the Trans Mongolian Railway the same as the Trans Siberian Railway?
The Trans Mongolian Railway is not just a different fancy name for the Trans Siberian Railway. Although many people use the phrase Trans Siberian Railway for all trains travelling in Russia, there is a difference. The Train Siberian Railway starts in Moscow and crosses Lake Baikal to continue to Vladivostok. You will not leave Russia if you travel this route.
The Trans Mongolian Railway runs on the same railway track but goes south after Lake Baikal. It crosses Mongolia and will reach China to finish in Beijing.
7. Do you have to start the Trans Mongolian Railway in Moscow?
You do not need to start in Moscow. If you want, you can travel from Beijing to Moscow. Or even from a place on the way. For example, if you travelled from elsewhere to Yekaterinburg, and want to continue your travels by train, you can travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway. There are no set rules here, whatever you can imagine, I’m sure it is possible! Just be flexible.
8. How do you buy tickets for the Trans Mongolian Railway?
I bought my train tickets via a local train ticket seller. I told them when I wanted to go, which class and where I wanted to stop. They earned a commission on my tickets, but I didn’t mind that.
Or you can also show up at the ticket office in Moscow. They start sales for tickets 60 days ahead. But you run the risk of your preferred class or dates already being sold out. Also, you have to be aware of the time restraint for your visa.
9. Is there 1 train or are there more?
There is more than 1 train. Each train has its own number and depending on the route you’ll take, you might switch trains. I started in Moscow on the #2 train, the Rossia. This is the authentic original train to Vladivostok. In Mongolia, we switched trains and went on the #4 to Beijing. If you take the train East-West, the numbers will be different. If you’re a true train fanatic, you can check the schedule to see which train number runs on your route.
10. Is the Trans Mongolian Railway like a hop-on hop off system?
It is definitely not! You do not buy 1 ticket and then hop off at free will. If you want to stop along the route, you need to carefully plan this and buy different tickets for the separate sections. For example, I began my journey in Moscow and stopped in Irkutsk at Lake Baikal and at Ulan Bator.
I had train tickets for Moscow-Irkutsk, Irkutsk-Ulan Bator and Ulan Bator-Beijing. You need to time and plan this accurate, because the train doesn’t stop at each place and doesn’t run every day. If you want to get off in Ulan Bator, you have 3 days to explore, before the next train comes again. So an afternoon of exploring is not possible.
11. Where will you sleep?
You will sleep on the train. Each coupe has 4 beds (2×2). During the day, you can sit on the lower beds but during the night (or during nap time, whichever comes first); everyone will go to their own bed. Bed linen is provided and I found the beds quite comfortable. I had a little shelf to put my glasses and phone on and the beds were wide enough to sleep.
12. Can you only travel the Trans Mongolian Railway in summer?
No, this is not necessary! Actually, the Trans Siberian Railway and the Trans Mongolian Railway were created to connect the outskirts of Russia with the main cities; rain or shine! During the harsh winters in Siberian, this was the only way to travel in Siberia and even nowadays, the route is just as busy in winter as in summer.
I recommend traveling on the Trans Mongolian Railway during spring or autumn. It is not too hot and not too cold and you can see the landscape and nature change while you transverse the continent.
13. Do you need a visa to travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
Yes you do. Russia, Mongolia and China all require visas for most nationalities. Check with your local embassy if you’d need one and what the requirements are. For these 3 countries, I used a visa application service. They were well worth their money, because I did not have the time to travel to each embassy on my own and wait for the visa application to be done. Prepare for some big visa stickers in your passport when you want to travel the Trans Mongolian Railway!
Read more: Visa on arrival in Iran
14. Why did you choose for the Trans Mongolian Railway and not the Trans Siberian Railway?
Although the Trans Siberian Railway is much more famous than the Trans Mongolian Railway, in my opinion, the route via Mongolia has much more to offer. When will you ever get the chance to experience a country like Mongolia? Also, the final destination of Beijing is much more appealing than the roughed outpost of Vladivostok. I’d like to prove myself wrong someday, when I do get to travel on the Trans Siberian Railway, but if you only plan on doing this train journey once, I definitely recommend the route via Mongolia and China.
15. Will you be jetlagged after travelling the Trans Mongolian Railway?
Although you cross the continent and will travel from Europe to the far east of Asia, you will not be jet lagged. The train follows Moscow time but nature doesn’t. Soon, you’ll find yourself following the rhythm of the train. You’ll sleep when you’re tired and you’ll eat when you’re hungry. Because the train passes the time zones quite slowly, you’ll not notice the huge time difference once you reach your final destination.
You can fly from Moscow to Beijing in 7,5 hours but the train will take more than 7 days! This will kick jetlag right in the butt!
16. What will you eat on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
Whatever you’ll bring to start with! I took a whole batch of instant noodles and instant soup, snacks and crackers with me. I had dinner at the dining carriage a couple of times. They serve mash potatoes, meat and vegetables. They also had borsch and vodka of course! The ladies in my coupe brought a whole spread of home cooked meals, which they shared with me on our first night on the train.
17. Is it safe to travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway as a female traveller?
Of course it is! How else would woman in Russia travel? Well I do understand the concern. I travelled with a male friend, but I met numerous ladies travelling on the Trans Mongolian Railway. In our coupe were 2 Ukrainian ladies going home to Vladivostok and we met 2 Danish girls on the train from Ulan Bator. The provodnik or provodnika knows who is in their carriage and who shouldn’t be there. Just keep your valuables safe and don’t forget to get back on the train when it stops for a short moment.
Read more: Solo but not single female traveller
18. Can you buy anything on the train?
Yes you can. Always take some local currency with you. You cannot pay by debit or credit card, but Rubles, Tigrit and Yen are always accepted. You can buy food and drinks in the restaurant wagon and there are always local people popping up to sell their goods at every stop. Products can become scarcer when the train is longer into its journey, so make sure to stock up on instant noodles, soups and snacks.
19. How much will it cost to travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
If you would buy your train tickets now, roughly estimate the following budget (per person in 2nd class in a 4-person berth)
Moscow to Beijing, without any stops: €575 or $655
Moscow to Beijing, including stops in Irkutsk and Ulan Bator: € 605 or $690
As you can see, it only costs a little bit more to include a few stops on the way. You do need to arrange for your transfers and stays, but the cost for the train tickets is almost the same.
20. Do you need to book a tour or can you travel independently?
You do not need to book a tour but can buy tickets for the Trans Mongolian Railway independently. You can do this at the train station, via the website or an agency. If you want carefree travel with everything arranged, there is nothing wrong with booking a tour. They can help you get your visa, help you get an invitation letter to Russia and suggest the best places to stop and stay, all catered to your needs.
Read more: My experiences in Beijing
21. Can you travel solo on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
You can definitely travel solo on the Trans Mongolian Railway. You do not need to book a whole compartment, but you can opt for 1 berth. Depending on the class, you will get a bed in a 6 or 4 person compartment. It is a great way to make friends with locals and other travelers.
Would you like to travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway?
Do you dream of this epic train journey that will bring you from Moscow to Asia? I hope my 21 questions about travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway have helped you decide or at least give a little insight into this amazing adventure by train. Do you have more questions? Don’t hesitate to ask them in the comment section below.