On 29 September 2015, Tom and I left Beijing on what was to be the first leg of our Trans-Siberian railway journey – a journey I have wanted to do since childhood.
The world-famous Trans-Siberian railway is technically made up of three different routes. The traditional Trans-Siberian route goes across Russia, from Vladivostok in the Far East, to Moscow in the West (or vice versa). The second route, known as the Trans-Manchurian route, goes from Beijing through Manchuria in the North-East of China before crossing the border into Russia.
Tom and I took the third and probably most common route – the Trans-Mongolian – which goes from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. From here we went North into Russia, to the Siberian city of Irkutsk. The journey can be done in as many or as few legs as one wants, but given visa restrictions we decided to split the journey into the following three legs:
- Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
- Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia
- Irkutsk, Russia to Moscow, Russia
This blog post summarises our experiences on the trains that we took.
Leg One: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
Train: K23, departs Tuesdays
Length: 28 hours (1 night, 0 time zones)
Class: Second-class (the lowest class available)
Cost: USD$243 / AUD$320, purchased online via China Trip Advisor
It is safe to say that when we stepped on board the train in Beijing for our first leg the journey wasn’t exactly going to be what we had in mind. The K23 train was nice, seemingly brand new in fact, with all the amenities required for a comfortable journey, including power points, and western toilets (oh how I missed western toilets!), a kettle for boiled water, luggage storage, and a lockable door for security.
Unfortunately, however, it lacked one important ingredient: atmosphere! Owing most likely to the fact that we were travelling to Mongolia outside of tourist season, the train was rather empty. So empty that not only did we have a 4-bed cabin to ourselves (hooray!), but also a whole 12-cabin carriage (boo!)! We were in carriage 3 at the front-end of the train, but after about a 15-minute walk to the other end of the train we discovered that all the other westerners on the train also had their own carriage. Oddly, all of the Chinese / Mongolians on the train appeared to have been segregated into a couple of full carriages, likely because they were getting off at earlier stops than the rest of us. At least that’s what I choose to think.
We walked the train and made ourselves known to the other westerners on board. Everyone was friendly, but no one really seemed that interested in getting their party on. We ended up spending most our time hanging out with a couple of friendly Americans down the other end of the train, who we discovered were also on their way to Mongolia for the Golden Eagle Festival.
At 9.50pm we arrived at the Chinese border town of Erlian. Here the Chinese border control got on board and took our passports. After, the train was taken to a warehouse for the famous changing of the wheels. While China uses the standard 1,435 mm sized tracks, the Mongolian tracks are a wider 1,520 mm. Therefore, so the Chinese train can make the border crossing into Mongolia, the wheel gauges on the train are replaced. Complicated much?
The whole process of changing the gauges takes a few hours to complete and is fascinating to watch from on board the train. To make the changes each carriage is raised approximately 2 metres off the ground, so high that you can even see the workers walking underneath the train!
PRO TIP: Make sure you go to the bathroom at least 30 minutes before the train reaches the Chinese border because the toilets on board are closed for the entire duration of both the Chinese and Mongolian border crossings and the changing of the wheels. If you’re anything like me and have a bladder the size of a pea then you will suffer!
Four hours later, at about 2am we finally got our passports back from the Chinese officials and we crossed the border to reach the Mongolian town of Zamiin uud. Here the Mongolian immigration officials did their thing and again our passports were goneburgers. I’m not sure entirely how long we were on this side of the border for because by this time the excitement had clearly become too much for me and I fell asleep. I estimate that we were back on the move again at about 3am, approximately 6 long (so very long) hours after they had locked the toilets.
The next morning I woke up to the beautiful (albeit repetitive) Mongolian landscape of the Gobi Desert and the sound of Tom snoring. Yay! We were in Mongolia! To find out what we got up to while we were there, check out my post on the completely amazing Golden Eagle Festival.
Leg Two: Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk
Train: 263, runs daily
Length: 35 hours (2 nights, 0 time zones)
Class: Second-class / kupe (the only class available)
Cost: USD$43 / AUD$68, purchased at the domestic ticket office at Ulaanbaatar Railway Station 2 days before departure (much cheaper than purchasing online ahead of time)
In stark contrast to the first leg of the journey, our second-leg was exactly what we had hoped for in terms of atmosphere. Although the daily 263 train we caught from UB was actually a Mongolian domestic train, it featured a single international carriage that all of the international travellers were placed on. Predictably, a lot of fun with people of various nationalities ensued. We jumped from cabin to cabin, introducing ourselves to anyone and everyone who was interested in having a yarn.
Eventually we found our way to the very last cabin on the carriage, which came equipped with 6 predictably drunk Russians that had already made a quite a dent in their vodka supplies. For the next few hours we drank vodka and had an absolute blast with the group, who turned out to be an incredibly talented group of artists.
Surprisingly, I woke up the next morning with no hangover. Apparently our carriage (and only our carriage) had been sitting at the Mongolian-Russian border for a couple of hours at this point, and would be sitting there for a couple of hours more as we waited for Mongolian immigration to start work at 9am. At about 11am we finally crossed the border into Russia, where we nervously waited for our visas to be checked. I was only nervous because I had heard all the stories of scary, corrupt officials, but it turns out there was nothing to worry about. At the risk of ruining their reputation the Russian immigration officials were highly efficient and profession at all times!
At about 3pm, when we were back on the move, I got a head start on my vodka drinking with some of the others while Tom took a nap. Although we didn’t end up having a late night, it was still a fun one. We drank vodka from a teapot and played Cards Against Humanity (well, the knock-off version ‘Crabs Against Humidity’), and every so often had a dance with the Russian barman when he cranked up the tunes.
At 7:30am the next morning we said our goodbyes to our new friends as we arrived in our first Siberian destination of Irkutsk. From here, we made our way to the beautiful Olkhon Island, where, for the first time in a long time, we spent 3 lovely nights chillaxing by the (almost freezing) but beautiful Lake Baikal. See my photo journal of this stunning island here.
Leg Three: Irkutsk to Moscow
Train: 001 Rossiya, departs every other day
Length: 76 hours (3 nights, 5 time zones)
Class: Third-class / Platskart (the cheapest available)
Cost: Approx. USD$100 / AUD$150, purchased from http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en.
After 5 nights in Irkutsk and Olkhon Island, we hopped on board the train for the final (but certainly not the shortest) leg of our journey. Despite taking the number 1 express train, this leg spanned a whopping 76 hours and 5 time zones! For the first time on our trip, however, we were riding the true Trans-Siberian route.
To simultaneously save money and gain a richer experience, we decided to ride platskart (third-class) on this journey. Even though we were only able to get bunks that faced into the aisle, rather than adjacent beds that had a much more comfortable configuration, the train’s third class was pretty good. The only thing that seemed to separate the berths in third-class from those in second-class was the lack of a cabin doors. For more than double the price, we didn’t really think this extra security / fun barrier was worth the money.
All in all the 76 hour journey was quite bearable. On the first day I wondered how I would last another two, but eventually you just settle into a rhythm. With my ear plugs and my eye mask I slept like a baby at night and during the daytime I managed to be quite productive. I caught up on writing some seriously overdue blog posts, read a book that I had been meaning to read for some time, and caught up on most of my favourite TV shows. All of this was mixed in with a lot of staring out the window looking at the passing Russian landscapes of course. It was also really refreshing not having any phone /wireless access for the entire journey. I would have hated to spend the whole time scrolling through my newsfeed and posting photos of my food on Instagram all day! (Hint: It was noodles).
For the most part we weren’t able to meet / talk to anyone else due to our lack of Russian-speaking abilities. However, we were lucky enough to make friends with the lovely Anna, who occupied a bed across from us for 8 hours and spoke fantastic English. Anna also won awesomeness points for bringing a bucket of KFC on board with her and leaving the leftovers with us, giving us a welcome break from the noodles and instant potato snacks we had been eating. Mmm fried chicken…
At the end of this leg we arrived in Moscow, an amazing city that everyone should visit, especially western travellers. Moscow was so delightfully Russian and I loved every minute of it. The buildings and architecture are stunning, the museums and galleries are interesting, and the culture of the city is also fascinating.
Total number of trains: 3
Total length of journey: 139 hours (6 nights, 5 time zones)
Total cost: USD$386 / AUD$538
Awesome lifetime experiences gained: 1+
Before going on this trip I told anyone who would listen that I would be doing the Trans-Siberian. Oddly, one of the most common responses I received was ‘why?’ In particular, many people could not get their heads around why we would spend almost 140 hours on the train when we could have flown from Beijing to Moscow for cheaper. To us this wasn’t the point. The point was the journey and not the destination, and holy crap what a journey it was! Sure at times we were a little bit bored, but for the most part the experience was amazing. We made new friends from all over the world and travelled through landscapes that have been both vast and diverse. Besides, if you’re in no hurry then why not just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride?
Have you done the Trans-Siberian or do you have any questions about the experience? Let me know in the comments section below. 🙂