How to survive the Trans-Mongolian Railroad

From Beijing to Moscow, the trip is about 6 and a half days. That’s a long time to be on a train—but no one recommends you stay on it the whole time. Lonely Planet has a great guide for the most popular stops on-and-off the trip. Although the most popular time to go is summer (for obvious reasons), winter has its attractions, too.

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  1. Make sure to bring your own food. Although there is a restaurant car, the menu isn’t always tasty and the food is rather expensive for a backpacker’s budget. Each car has a hot water heater, a samovar and sometimes the provodnista, car attendant, hands out packets of instant coffee and tea. For two people and three days (between Ulaan Baatar to Yekaterinburg, we packed:
    1. Four instant ramen noodles
    2. 5 liter of water
    3. 5 liter of coke
    4. orange juice
    5. snacks (Welch’s fruit snacks and Snickers)
    6. black tea
    7. sugar
    8. salt
    9. two pears and two apples
    10. bread
    11. instant oatmeal
    12. cheese
    13. lunch meat
    14. butter
    15. strawberry jam
    16. two small squeeze boxes of milk
    17. small thermos
    18. two pairs of plastic forks/spoons
    19. two Tupperware containers
    20. insulated bag for cold items _mg_2095
  2. The border crossing between Mongolia and Russia will take a minimum of four hours, but usually six to 11. This usually takes place around 10 pm – 3 am if you’re coming from UB and heading to Moscow. There’s lots of customs agents and officers checking, shining a flashlight in your car, but you don’t have to get off the train if you don’t want to. So you can stay in your pajamas. _mg_2034
  3. Winter travel is probably a pretty different experience than summer. The days get darker sooner, so it’s easier to sleep (no White Nights) but you may not see as much of the countryside. Still, the snowy birch forests and choppy water of Lake Baikal are incredible. Secondly, there won’t be as many people. Jordan and I booked two berths in a four-person compartment (known as kupe in Russian) but for the two days of our three-day leg, we were the only two in it—talk about wonderful! In summer, the train can get stuffy and feel claustrophobic, but in the winter it’s warm and cozy.
  4. If you’re not planning on a lot of stops (like us), consider filling the couple of days before the start of your train journey with nonstop movement and action. That way, your days on the train will be a relaxing time where you can sleep in, rest, and enjoy the landscape as it whizzes past. Otherwise, if you have a few restful days before the train, you can get pretty restless by your second day on the train. 20161125_202701
  5. The train has power outlets in 2nd class kupes, but not wifi. Make sure you have books, tv shows, and anything else downloaded before the trip.
  6. Each car has hot water, of course, but some also have room-temperature fresh water as well. 20161125_202650
  7. If you plan on shooting a lot of photos, consider bringing a polarizer lens to minimize glare out the train windows. _mg_1959
  8. Consider bringing your own toilet paper. The bathrooms have rough, scratchy toilet paper that sometimes runs out before the end of your journey. 20161125_202645
  9. For third class, where the car has 54 open berths in a “dorm style,” make sure to avoid bunks by the bathrooms.
  10. Third class also doesn’t have outlets by the beds, only the bathrooms and samovar at the end of the cars. It’s doable for one night, possibly two, but I really wouldn’t recommend it for longer than that (unless you’re a solo female traveler and like safety in numbers).

 

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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