We did the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing to St. Petersburg over two and a half weeks in June 2012. We booked the train tickets and stopover hostels and tours through Lupine Travel for 999 euros per person. According to both my research and other travelers we met on the train, their price is pretty cheap. I highly recommend them. Everything went smoothly and it was much easier than if we had attempted to book everything ourselves. And you don’t need to pay a bunch of money for a guided tour (with a guide with you on the train); that’s just silly. As long as you do your research ahead of time, everything should be simple to figure out. Also the tours we did to Terelj National Park and Lake Baikal were amazing and we might have thought them too expensive if we had booked them ourselves separately. So it was nice to feel like we were splurging!
We departed Beijing on Tuesday, June 12. It was approximately 30 hours to Ulan Bator. This was the best of all four of our train rides. The train car was the nicest, with a fan, and there were not many people on board. On our car there were only six of us (all foreigners) and Daniel and I had our own cabin, which was awesome. (Lupine Travel states that during this leg of the journey you will be in a six-berth cabin, but somehow we ended up in a four-berth cabin.) Unfortunately I was pretty sick the whole time so I just slept a lot. The scenery in northern China and southern Mongolia is interesting though, so make sure to look out the window a lot! I ate once on the Chinese dining car (fried chicken and rice) and it was OK. When the train stopped at the border, we got out and went to the store but then got back on the train quickly so we could be on board while they changed the wheels for three hours. Everyone else was stuck waiting around at the train station. There aren’t people selling things at the stops in China and Mongolia and there weren’t many long stops other than border crossings.
Our next leg of the journey was the worst. It was around 35 hours to Irkutsk but we stopped for 12 hours at the Mongolia/Russia border. It was torture! So hot on the train (no fans) and a lot of the time we couldn’t get off the train to go the bathroom. (The bathrooms are locked at stops.) Apparently other trains don’t stop for so long; we were just unlucky enough to be on the one that did. For most of our ride, we shared our cabin with a nice Mongolian woman. But right before crossing the border, another Mongolian woman got on, and she was obnoxious. She had tons of stuff she was smuggling into Russia (liquor, clothes, souvenir-type items) and she and all the other smugglers on board were trading items and hiding everything in the cabins. After we crossed into Russia and dealt with immigration and customs, all the smugglers got off. I visited the dining car once (on the Russian half of the journey) and had a very small and expensive “Greek” salad.
We stopped over in Irkutsk for four nights. Two nights were spent at Admiral Hostel and two were spent at a guesthouse on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal.
Our next train ride, from Irkutsk to Moscow, was the longest at around 83 hours. Somehow Daniel and I both had bottom bunks, which was annoying. I much prefer a top bunk so I can sleep during the day. The first night we shared our cabin with two Russian women, who were only on board for about six hours. The next morning two younger Russian men got on shared the cabin with us for a day and a half. I liked them as they were considerate and stayed on their top bunks or out in the hallway unless they wanted to use the table to eat. (I don’t like people sitting on my bed all day!) On the second day we shared the cabin with them, they broke out a bottle of whiskey and got Daniel and a New Zealander we had met, Jeff, quite drunk. Communication was attempted and we learned that they were police officers. They even let Daniel and Jeff try on their hats. A few hours after they got off, two older Russian men got on and became our cabinmates. They were kind of stinky but kept to themselves. We visited the dining car a few times on this trip, sometimes just for beer and sometimes for (pretty good but expensive) food. The last day on board was the worst. I was sick of all the food we had available, bored out of my mind, and counting down the hours until we reached Moscow. And really in need of a shower!
After three nights in Moscow, our last train ride was to St. Petersburg. This was the only train ticket not organized through Lupine Travel. Word to the wise: Buy tickets online in advance! We didn’t and had to go through quite the hassle to go to the train station the day before and figure out how to purchase them after out hostel had trouble booking online and over the phone. (And all the fast trains were already sold out!) Luckily a nice Russian in line behind us acted as our translator. (Russians are much nicer than I thought they would be!) The ride was eight hours and we shared our cabin (this time we both had top bunks) with a young Russian couple. I napped and watched TV (The Shield) the whole time. No pics as my camera broke in Moscow. 😦
- Bring entertainment: Books, cards, games, a computer loaded with TV shows/movies, a Russian phrasebook. There were outlets in the hallways so we could charge our computers (bring an adapter).
- Hot water is provided so bring cup/bowl instant noodles, instant coffee, tea, etc. Other good snacks are: sausage, cheese, bread, fruit, cucumbers, tomatoes, candy, cookies, chips, sunflower seeds, etc. Don’t forget water and maybe a powdered drink mix. Also a mug, silverware, plate, etc. Soap and a dishrag for washing your dishes is helpful (or bring disposable dishes). It’s polite to offer your food to your cabinmates but ours never accepted.
- Wear comfy clothes! If you’re going in the summer make sure they are cool because it can get a little sweaty. Bring flip flops/sandals too.
- Bring washcloths, toilet paper, and wet wipes. Sometimes the bathrooms run out of toilet paper. If you’re picky like me, you’ll use the washcloths and wet wipes to clean yourself every morning. I also changed clothes every day and used body spray, deoderant, facial toner, and facial moisturizer in an attempt to feel clean. NO SHOWERS!
- In Russia the train does stop every few hours for a decent amount of time so you can get off and buy food and drinks. Just check the time table posted in your car and remember it’s all in Moscow time. Set your watch to Moscow time! The bathrooms are locked during these stops so keep that in mind and pee a half hour before each long stop!
- The cabin attendant sells drinks. It’s much cheaper to buy beer from her, but it’s worth the money sometimes to drink a beer in the dining car just for a change of scenery and to escape your smelly cabinmates.
- If you want liquor, buy it before you get to the train station. Poor Daniel couldn’t find a bottle our whole trip.
- Try to get a top bunk if you can. More privacy and personal space.
- Pack a small bag with the clothes, entertainment, toiletries, and food you will need on the train. That way you don’t have to dig out and through your huge backpack every time you need something.
- Keep your passport, money, and valuables on you at all times. Especially if you get off the train at stops! You don’t want to end up stranded with nothing.
- Sheets, a pillow, a pillowcase, a blanket, and sometimes a bedroll and/or a small towel are provided.
- Lights are turned off during the day but at night there is an overhead light in the cabin and reading lights in each bunk that you can turn on.
- Bring bags with you for trash bags. Ziploc bags might also come in handy.
- Earplugs and a sleep mask will be needed if you’re a light sleeper.