WHAT WE DID:
- Rode the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia:
- 1 night on Trans-Mongolian line (Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Chinese train)
- 6 nights in Central Mongolia
- 4 nights on Trans-Siberian line (Ulaanbaatar to Moscow, Russian train)
WHAT WE LIKED:
- The spacious, first-class bench seats that fold down into beds are surprisingly comfortable. The upholstery is in good condition, and the bed linens and pillows are quite nice. I [Jenn] am not a good sleeper, but I actually slept very well on the train (aside from when we were stopped at a station and I lost the soothing white noise from the wheels rolling against the tracks).
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- Obviously we would have made at least one or two stops in Siberia, if Russia wasn’t such a damn pain with their visa restrictions.
WHAT WE LEARNED:
- Chinese and Russian trains to seem to differ significantly. Chinese trains have more amenities, such as outlets in each cabin and a washroom with separate sinks off the small water closet. Moreover, the first-class cabins have private bathrooms with showers for two cabins to share. Russian trains are a little more basic, with no separate washroom and very few outlets scattered about the cars (although the upholstery was in better shape and more comfortable). There are also no shared bathrooms/showers between the first class cabins. However, even though I felt like a major grease-ball with no shower for four nights, the carriage attendants took wonderful care of the cabins, vacuuming daily and cleaning the toilets frequently. Importantly, they were also diligent about replacing the toilet paper (on the Chinese trains, at least in second-class, once the toilet paper roll had run out, that was it). Additionally, and (for me) most importantly, I wasn’t forced to marinate in cigarette smoke on the Russian train. Unlike the Chinese trains, the Russian trains are nonsmoking, and if someone does go between the cars to destroy their lungs, the carriage doors close automatically, preventing a toxic plume from inundating the cabins. Overall, I liked the Russian trains better, even without a shower.
- Chinese tracks have a different gauge from the Mongolian & Russian tracks. Because of this, the bogies (the wheel bases containing the motor, brakes, and suspension) have to be changed at the China/Mongolia border. It’s a really crude process, and takes about 2.5 hours to complete. After breaking the train into a few pieces and wheeling it into a large warehouse, the carriages are jacked up off the bogies. The Chinese bogies are wheeled out and the others wheeled in, and the cars are then gently lowered onto the new system. You can remain on the train at this stop and watch the process, or get off and go to the station (though our neighbor in the next cabin over told us there wasn’t much in the way of food/entertainment at the small station).
- If traveling straight through Russia, a first-class cabin is definitely worth it for added space and privacy. While our second-class cabin (four persons) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar was not bad at all for a shorter ride, we were grateful to be able to spread out freely for the four-night stretch.
- Don’t depend on the food car for sustenance, and be sure to stock up well at the grocery store before you hit the tracks. We’d read about a limited selection, and the food being expensive and found this to be accurate. While the menu was quite extensive, much of it was some variation of meat and potatoes (not much for the veg-heads out there, as expected), and they were often out of many of the dishes. Additionally, the service is absurdly slow. I gave the dining a whirl once, selecting a potato and mushroom dish. After a 90-minute wait, I ended up with a handful of French fry slivers with about six pieces of mushroom and sprinkled with dill for $5 USD. Needless to say, it was PB & J, bananas, and muesli for me the rest of the trip (thankfully, we were well-stocked with both food and water). I should add, though, that Stephan had two meals at the dining car, and though expensive and slow, he said they were pretty tasty.
- Like we’d experienced at other international boundaries, border crossings occur very late at night (10pm – 2am), and you do not leave the train to pass through customs; rather immigration officials board the train and collect passports. Immigration stops are typically about 1–2 hours, and fairly uninvolved (hand over your passport and then wait for its return). Entry into Russia, however, was substantially longer (about 3 hours), and turned into somewhat of a circus. A man with a clicker first came around to count passengers. He was followed immediately by two surly-looking officials and an imposing woman with a briefcase. Another woman came around to take headshots, followed by a man with a German shepherd, and then another woman who searched luggage. The nice dog came through for a second pass, followed by more grumpy-looking men, then a gentleman to [finally] stamp passports (albeit on an invalid page). The final visitor was a ninja-like woman clad in all black who, in a thick Russian accent, requested that we ‘please exit the cabin.’ She swiftly and nimbly climbed the walls, disassembling every square inch of furniture before allowing us back in and, ultimately, making one final scramble up into the hallway roof. After her impressive acrobatic performance, she disappeared mysteriously into the night, and we were finally sent on our bleary-eyed way.
WEIGHTS & MEASURES:
Total distance: 4,801 miles (7,726 kilometers)
Total time: 125 hours, 26 minutes (5 days, 5 hours, 26 minutes)
Elevation gain: 38,406 feet
Average speed: 39.3 mph (63.2 kph)
Time zones crossed: 6 (+1 counting Mongolia’s daylight savings time)