The Trans-Mongolian Rail, similar to the Trans-Siberian Rail (only different by the route they take) is an absolute adventure. The scenery is epic. You’ll observe changing landscapes, cultures, languages, cross seven time-zones, in only a matter of days.
Here are twelve tips we picked up on our journey:
- The trains are either staffed and run by Mongolians’, Russian’s or Chinese, depending on who own’s the train. Because of this you may have language barriers that you hadn’t prepared for. From personal experience the carriage attendants will not speak English, nor will they be very phased that you can’t understand them.
- If you book through a tour group, such as Vodka Train / Sundowner Tours (as we did), your train tickets are purchased just as that: once-off train tickets. You will not have a tour guide on board, or a translator (although you will get city guides).
- There is not always a restaurant cart for the Mongolian and Chinese portions of your journey. The restaurant cart for the Russian journey can be tasty but very expensive. Two average meals with a side of potato and no drinks will set you back about 1200 Rubles, or $40 AUD, which adds up to a lot over 4 days. One beer will cost around 350 Rubles…$11 AUD.
- In Russia, the trains do not blow whistles/bells or announce in any other way when they are leaving the station so be aware of your timetable – which is located near the end of each carriage – and try to stay close to the train. Also, even though your attendants may not speak English it is a good idea to indicate to them you are getting off the carriage.
- If you are travelling from Mongolia into Russia, it is highly advisable to get Russian Currency (Rubles) at the main station in Ulaanbaatar. Mongolian currency is hard to change elsewhere, and it can be tricky finding an ATM during the quick station stops in Russia.
- Arm yourself with food that is nutritious and can keep for a few days. After four days of 3-in-1 coffee sachets, noodles and jam on bread, you might find yourself physically sick and craving foods that hold even mild nutritional value. Some examples of foods fit for the journey are tinned tuna, canned / packaged fruits and veg, fresh fruit and veg, cheese that doesn’t require refrigeration, and juice. Even a cup-of-soup can break up the day; It keeps you warm and is great with bread. Bear in mind that when you spend days in a small cabin, boredom can lead to hunger very quickly.
- You can purchase some necessities at the train stops. Fresh bread is usually available, as well as cold water and juice. For those who like a beverage – beer/wine is not available at all stops.
- Power points are not always guaranteed, nor reliable (our train through Russia had 54v powerpoints (instead of 110V or 240V).
- Travelling in a group of four is ideal (or with a tour group). The trains are booked in cabins of four (travelling 2nd class) or six (third class). If you can wrangle together a group of four you should be able to secure a cabin together. When the batteries run out on your laptops, phones, portable music players (bring batteries!) you have each other. This also prevents being lumped in with less-than-desirable-cabin-mates. Again, from experience, some people can really disrupt your comfort, your sleep, and even your feeling of safety (think ‘alcoholic Mongolian and his elderly mother’).
- Showers are not available on most trains. Some travellers wash themselves using a bottle that they fill with the water from the bathroom taps. The rest of us use the convenient invention known as wet-wipes.
- There is boiling water available at the end of each carriage for free. This will quickly become a big part of your diet. We recommend you get a decent travel mug or thermos for the journey.
- Believe the wives-tale that any wind draught is a bad draught. Sure let some fresh air in during stops, and to take pictures during the day, but at night ensure the windows are as tight as possible. The last thing you need on your journey is to catch a cold because freezing Russian air blew on your head all night.
The Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian trains are a great adventure. There is much to see, and you will experience cultures in completely new way. If you go with a group you will make lasting friendships, and if you go with friends you already have, you might end up with an even stronger bond. You might find yourself actually having the time to think. And you’ll realise how little time you have in your life to do that, it can be a great gift. If you have you have any questions feel free to let us know in the comments!
Eat. Seek. Travel.