Thursday, May 10, 2012

How to Plan a Trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad

This post is for those of you who are (1) thinking of planning a Trans-Mongolian journey, or (2) want to hear an inspiring tale of courage, perseverance, and luck.  If you’re not planning a trip, this will probably be pretty boring, but we did so much research before setting out that it only seems right to share our knowledge.

The Trans-Mongolian portion of the GT was by far the most difficult to plan of anything we did in our 13 months abroad.  Mostly because, well, we actually had to plan it.  With the strict visa requirements of China and Russia and the need to pre-book each segment of our rail journey, we (read: I, Jesse) were forced to do a number of things we rarely bothered with: 

1.     Research and commit to  destinations
2.     Pay for a lot of stuff really far in advance
3.     Use a third party to book transportation
4.     Apply for visas ahead of time
5.     Stick to a schedule (ugh, schedules)

Somewhere near the China/Mongolia border

Usually when we decide to head to a new destination we do a cursory review of what the place is all about.  Maybe do a little googling, check out a travel blog or two, find a decent place to stay.  Once we arrive we ask around and figure out what exactly we hope to do.  But for the Trans-Mongolian trip, we had to choose all of our destinations – and how long we’d stay in each place – ahead of time so that we could book our rail tickets.   We couldn’t find the Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet Guide, real or bootleg, anywhere in Vientiane (go figure!) so we bought a pdf of it.  Then we spent a lot of time staring at that document and at a map, and saying things like, “This Yekaty-something place could be good” or “where’s that Novo-whosit town again?”  It’s really hard to get your mouth around Russian words when you’re just starting out.  It was also helpful to look at packaged itineraries, like the ones offered by GAP Adventures, Monkey Shrine and Vodkatrain to get a sense of what’s doable.  Meanwhile, we were emailing with some of the places we knew we wanted to stay, like Ger to Ger in Mongolia and Nikita’s Guesthouse in Olkhon Island, to make sure they had availability/were running trips during the times we were interested.
Not to worry, passenger trains are typically nice than this.
Train Tickets

Once we had a general sense of where we wanted to go and how long we wanted to stay there, we had to figure out how we were going to get there.  There seem to be a couple options for purchasing tickets on the Trans-Mongolian railroad, and I would like to extend my everlasting love and gratitude to the site The Man in Seat Sixty-One and all of its invaluable resources.  Check this website before you plan any train journey.  It’s great.

The easiest, and most expensive way to book train tickets is through a travel agent or tour operator.  Monkey Shrine seemed to have some good options for building your own itinerary and traveling independently, but we decided that the markup on ticket prices wasn’t worth the convenience.  The most difficult and cheapest way to book train tickets was to wait until we arrived in each country, but due to limited trains (the Beijing - Ulanbataar train only ran twice/week) and the Russian visa application requirements, we decided that this was too much of a gamble.  I think we found a good middle ground using Real Russia.  They have a great online search function that we used to build our itinerary, although picking our trains turned out to be a somewhat tedious process as we looked up each leg of the trip on multiple days in order to find the best price and schedule.  Payment was easy, and they were responsive by email.  Physical tickets for the trains in China and Mongolia were delivered to our hotel in each country (for free!), and we received e-tickets for the Russian trains.

Pulling into Moscow
Here is what our itinerary looked like, along with the cost per leg:

Journey details:
Run time
1. Depart Beijing for Ulan-Bator
> Ulan-Bator
16 Aug 11 at 07:45 
17 Aug 11 at 13:20
29h 35m
2nd class
2. Stopover in Ulan-Bator for 8d 7h — depart for Irkutsk
> Irkutsk
25 Aug 11 at 21:10 
27 Aug 11 at 08:31
34h 21m
2nd class
3. Stopover in Irkutsk for 7d 11h — depart for Yekaterinburg
> Yekaterinburg
03 Sep 11 at 20:10 
05 Sep 11 at 22:58
54h 22m
2nd class
4. Stopover in Yekaterinburg for 2d 10h — depart for Moscow
> Moscow
08 Sep 11 at 09:20 
09 Sep 11 at 09:23
26h 03m
2nd class

It ain’t cheap.  However, (1) some of the tickets ended up being cheaper and Real Russia refunded us £226 (yay!) and (2) we downgraded our last leg to 3rd class, which cost only $104 each, rather than $270. 

Sleeping in a third class bunk.
Note how I am hermetically sealed from touching anything questionable.
Want to learn more about each of our destinations and our train rides?


Once we had our itinerary in hand, we set off to get our visas for China and Russia.  If for some reason you’re planning on getting your visas in Vientiane, Laos, the following information will be helpful (here is our map with both embassies helpfully located).  Which basically means that it probably won’t be helpful for anyone.

The Chinese embassy was really crowded, but no problem.  We printed our application materials online and dropped them off with some money, our passports and passport photos, and they were ready about five days later.  Our visa allowed us to enter the country at any time within the next three months, and to stay for a maximum of 30 days.

We were extremely nervous about the Russian application process, however, having heard many horror stories.  We had been warned that it was even more difficult to apply for a Russian visa outside of your home country.  So it was with great trepidation that we approached the Russian embassy, a forbidding, bunker-like building in the eastern part of the city.  The waiting room was bare, with faded furniture and a loudly buzzing air-conditioning unit, but the staff could not have been friendlier.  They were pretty much friendlier and more helpful than any person we met in Russia.  [DSM - 15 years of life in Vientiane really softens one up, what would their comrades think now?]

This is how the Russian visa application process works in Vientiane:
  1. Drive 20 minutes to the embassy to pick up application materials. 
  2. Go home and fill them out (they are pretty extensive and require things like a list of every country you have visited in the past ten years and dates of visits [DSM - this is more complicated for those towards the end of a RTW journey...]).
  3. Return to embassy, drop off materials, receive payment voucher and drive back to the bank that turns out to be one block from your apartment to pay the visa fee.
  4. Bring payment receipt back to the Russian embassy. 
  5. The next day(!!!) return to the Russian embassy and pick up your visa!  A lot of driving, but great service.
That's a lot of scoot scoot scooting!
It’s important to note the following:
  • Your visa will have an entry date and an exit date.  You cannot enter the country before the entry date or leave after the exit date.  I’m not sure what will happen if you violate these rules, but I am picturing a Siberian gulag.  In reality it’s probably a fine, but I would be really nervous to mess with this.
  • In order to apply for the visa, you need an invitation letter (you can get this from a travel agency, including Real Russia) and a detailed itinerary, which will be used to establish your entry and exit dates.  This part was a little nerve-wracking because it required us to buy our train tickets before we got the visa so that we could figure out our dates.

As US citizens, we got Mongolian visas at the border.  I have no memory of this since it happened in the middle of the night and I pretty much slept through it.  Nevertheless, and just as the guidebooks said, after the Mongolian customs and border police did their thing we sat at this border crossing for hours while they "changed the buggy."  This has to do with the width of the tracks and the wheels that the trains use, but it just left us a bunch of time to get a sense of what Mongolia was all about.  And we liked what we saw...

DSM - we pretty much made a mockery of the entire Chinese-Mongolia border.  It retrospect this may not have been such a good idea, but at the time, it seemed totally fine.
Our train waiting at the abandoned China-Mongolia border
Dale and I made the official crossing double-fisting our beers.
Here I am offering legal counsel while I enjoy two large bottles of beer.
I am sure that the border patrol attorneys would have disapproved of my
commandeering their station, but they had gone home hours earlier.
No one, however, seemed to need any advice, legal or otherwise.
Tips for the Train
  • Stock up on food – and make sure to BYOIC (bring your own instant coffee).  In Beijing, you can get pretty much anything (including a wide variety of ramen noodles, and even peanut butter!)  In Ulanbataar, the State Department Store has the best selection.  In Russia, the ratio of food to alcohol in each shop is about 1:20, so good luck.  Read more about train food here.
Why not just pick up a tasty pig's head for your train journey?
  • Learn to read, you idiot.  Without a lot of study this is basically impossible to do in China, where you will be illiterate, but learning the Russian alphabet so that you can read the name of your destination is extremely useful in finding your train.
Also, it's helpful to know which of the three Beijing train stations you'll be leaving from.
  • Juice, juice, juice.  Our train cars had only a few shared outlets.  It’s important to establish your dominion over these outlets as early as possible.  Set up a charging station and, like a benevolent dictator, graciously permit others to plug in their devices into your power strip.
Charging station
  • Get some good books about the countries you’re training through.  I read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and War and Peace.  And finished them both.  You have a lot of time on your hands.  [DSM: I continued to fight through some horrible non-fiction that I don't even remember.  This is ill-advised.  Go for a great story.]
Finishing up W&P
  • Being nice to your train attendant (particularly in Russia) will get you nowhere.  They really just can't be bothered.  (Except for Boris, who was awesome.)  Do you need to ask them how long we have in the station? Inform them that the bathroom is out of toilet paper?  Excuse me, can't you see they're having a conversation?
None of these people will be particularly helpful or nice.
  • As bad as you think the bathroom on the train might be, the bathroom in the train station is invariably 1000x worse. (We have pictures of train station bathrooms, but they are not appropriate for a family blog).
Its no Toto
Third class even had air freshner...
Shiny & bright!


  1. How did you not go with the travel agency called Vodkatrain? Is that for Russian Spring Breakers?

  2. @Samantha - Haha, best name ever, right? It's a group trip for 18-35 year olds, how old would we have felt?!


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