Travelling along the Trans Mongolian or Trans Siberian Railway is on many travellers bucket lists. Mixing with locals, drinking vodka and eating local foods. Trying to make conversation using sign language due to profuse language barriers whilst visiting some of the most remote cities and townships in Central Asia.
The full journey from St Petersburg to Beijing takes around 25 days. We did not have time on our side so were only able to experience a short section of this epic journey from Irkutsk in Siberia, Russia through to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. This short journey was two nights in duration and gave us a great taste of life on the train.
A few pointers for those who are travelling on any or part of this magnificent journey to help you on your way and to make your journey a little more comfortable.
1. Find out prior to travelling if your train has a buffet dining cart. Ours didn’t so we needed to stock up at the local supermarket to ensure we had enough food for 2 breakfasts, a lunch and 2 dinners. Shopping in a local Russian supermarket can be difficult. We purchased some cup noodles (boiling water is readily available on board), porridge which can be consumed with hot water (there are not storage facilities available for chilling items such as milk etc), fruit, nut bars, Nutella, honey, bread and it may sound odd, but some small containers of baby food. Nutritious and cheap!
2. Your tickets will be taken off you not long after your journey begins. Do not worry, they will be handed back to you before you disembark at your final destination.
3. Toilets are only available when the train is moving and outside of main towns and borders. As they just dump straight onto the tracks, be sure to use the bathrooms before you reach any borders. Some border check points will allow you to disembark for a short period of time, but others may not.
4. There are no showers. Take wet wipes with you.
5. Ear plugs and an eye mask are a must. If your sleeping patterns are affected by lights, take an eye mask. The lights flicker on and off several times throughout the night. If you can sleep through trains tooting and fellow cabin mates snoring and farting, don’t worry about ear plugs. Otherwise pack them!
6. The cabins are configured with 4 bunks. Two above, and two below. If possible when booking , try to request the bottom ones. It will save you a lot of awkward climbing over random people and the possibility of stepping on them during the night should you need to get up. Also, it is not as awkward to sit on during the day – you don’t need to worry about spilling your food on someone else’s bed. If you have the budget, I would suggest purchasing all four berths to give you extra space. It is more than cosy with four of you in there.
7. The cabins gets HOT and you cannot control the temperature. Sleep in layers. There is a small window at the very top which you can winch open a little if need be.
8. Border Crossings – Be prepared to wait! As mentioned above, you will be advised when you are approaching a border. Use the toilet at that moment. You will also be advised how long they expect the border crossing to take. To depart the Russian border, we were advised two hours. Our passports were checked eight times by many people not even in official uniforms, we had sniffer dogs come through our cabins, we had to remove everything from our cabin and open our entire luggage. This ended up taking three hours.
We then cruised for around 30 mins through no-mans land until we reached the Mongolia entry border where we then spent another three hours of the same routine. In total this one border crossing took us seven hours.
9. There is no such thing as privacy. Although all compartments have a sliding door to provide privacy when sleeping, don’t expect your privacy to be adhered to. At any moment without warning, the carriage stewards will just wrench open your door – without knocking – whether you have pants on or not. Just a word of warning!
10. Enjoy the scenery. On this journey you will pass some of the most spectacular scenery you have possibly ever seen. Take it all in and snap some photos. Keep a look out for locals living the nomadic life and see what unique wildlife you can spot.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.