As far as trips of a lifetime are concerned, well, I think it’s possible to have many of them to be honest! But certainly one of my most memorable trips was taking the Trans-Mongolian train from Beijing to Moscow. To go through three countries, through different climates, surrounds, encounter different cuisine, meet different folk, see Asia turn into Europe bit by bit, is a special experience, and to do it by train is extra special.
The train invokes a sense of community with your cabin mates, and those you meet. It’s like a small, long, thin town shifting its way across the planet. You can marvel at the way it’s run, the way they change the gauge at the Mongolian/Chinese border, be impressed by the fact that people managed to lay track along such a long path (and maintain it!) and all while you sit back, relax and take in the scenery, a book, or indeed a new TV series on your iPad if it so takes your fancy. Yes, it IS 2019!
Choosing Your Trans-Mongolian Route and Direction
From Beijing to Moscow, or Moscow to Beijing there are two main routes. Then there are options that only stay within Russia, taking you all the way east to Vladivostok, as well as another option now possible that takes you further north in East Siberia. The Trans-Mongolian is the only one to take you through three countries. And that’s great, but also presents challenges because you’ll need three visas.
So you’ve chosen to go through Mongolia. The direction is the next question. I’m Australian, and it seemed to make most sense as I was heading to Europe to travel Beijing to Moscow, that is east to west. However, either way requires a flight back home, and also will if you’re departing Europe or the Americas.
Unless of course you are travelling around the world and keep going in one direction, or plan the unlikely return trip by train as well. From Europe you may want to train it all the way to Beijing and then fly back. This has the advantage of starting the journey in Russia, which may make visa formalities a touch easier. I think every tourist on the train was worried crossing into Russia that there might be a visa issue, and you’d then be stuck at the border for… the rest of your life! Having said that, I doubt many do have visa issues.
A Trans-Mongolian Tour or Not a Tour, that is the Question
Some companies will book you in as a tour. This has a big advantage because everything will be – or should be – looked after for you and a lot of the planning will be eased from your mind. However, travel independently and who knows what you might discover, and you will certainly be able to afford yourself more flexibility. Which brings me to the next topic –
To Stop or Not to Stop?
And this will greatly depend on the time you have to take this amazing journey. And what you want out of it! Some people actually choose to take the entire journey – Beijing to Moscow or Moscow to Beijing, in one hit. This takes around six days in total. As a sense of achievement and survival, well you’ve certainly put yourself through a challenge. And you will have probably met others doing the same thing and had a real sense of comradery at the end of it all.
However, you have missed the chance to discover some of the world’s more remote and potentially interesting places along the way. When I was planning there was no way I was going to miss out on the chance to stop in Mongolia or make at least one or two stops in Russia east of the Ural Mountains.
Now what this means, if like me you wish to cut the trip up into legs, is that you’re not going to be on the same train the whole way through. There is a weekly train that is the official ‘Trans-Mongolian’. But there are other trains that connect you through as well if you get off And you won’t be on the official ‘Trans-Mongolian’ train if you spend a few days in Ulaan Baatar and then move on because the next Trans-Mongolian is a few days away yet. I broke my trip into four sections – Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk, Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg and Ekaterinburg to Moscow. Two of the legs were on the ‘Trans-Mongolian’, the other two on Russian trains.
How to Book Individual Trans-Mongolian Legs Independently
Then you have to book the individual trains. If you are coming FROM Moscow to Beijing with stops along the way, you can probably do it all with one online Russian company. I booked with a company called Real Russia who were great, but there are others out there. In Russia you take a printed voucher/receipt you have emailed to you and exchange it at the railway station for a ticket. You should be able to do all your tickets inside Russia at once.
They also provided my ticket from Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. In this case, I had to pick the ticket up from a travel agency in the Mongolian capital.
As I was starting in Beijing though, I had to buy the first leg through a Chinese company, of which there are fewer. But it was relatively simple and they sent it to my hotel in Beijing three days before the train was due. But if you have no trains starting in China, you won’t need to book through the Chinese system.
I like a challenge and so I booked it all myself. With the bookings I had made, Real Russia could organise the invitation letter for the Russian visa. The other two were relatively simple to organise through consulates in Australia.
20-Day Trans-Mongolian Itinerary
So, if you’re looking at around 20 days/3 weeks Beijing to Moscow, here’s the itinerary I recommend. Of course, if you’re looking to go Moscow to Beijing, reverse it.
Days 1 & 2 – Beijing
Beijing is a huge city, needless to say. If you want to really explore Beijing, give yourself a week. For the purpose of a two-week itinerary, lingering and exploring anywhere is going to be difficult. The best part of half of the fortnight is going to be spent on the rails.
Beijing has a couple of absolute must sees though, and if you haven’t been there before it would be a pity to go to the Chinese capital without taking in the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China.
Days 3 & 4 – Beijing to Ulaan Baatar
And so it’s time to hop on board the Trans-Mongolian Express! Well, it’s not quite an express but it moves well enough. It’s the train entitled ‘K3’, and it leaves just before 1130am. You’re on a Chinese train at the moment, although some carriages make it all the way to Moscow. There are coupons or tokens for meals, lunch and dinner. There’s only one dining car, and so you may need to wait. It’s simple fare, noodle soup, some vegetables and the like. But this is the only time the food is complimentary.
Otherwise, little stalls on station platforms are your best bet, and that’s probably going to mean noodles anyway if you’re looking for hot food. You may find a place that serves hot food that you don’t need to cook, if you’re lucky, but all in all you’ll be heading to the samovar at the end of the carriage to fill up your noodles cup plenty of times.
The Chinese countryside whizzes past you. It’s pretty impressive. It gets sparser and sparser as you get closer to the border with Mongolia at Erlian. You hit there in the middle of the night. There are border formalities to go through, and the changing of the gauge. The Chinese gauge is slightly thinner than the Mongolian gauge (the Russian gauge is the same as the Mongolian). Gauge being the width of the tracks.
So the carriages are raised in a big shed and one set of wheels is replaced by another. It takes a bit of time, and it’s not until after 2am or even later that the train finally rolls on into Mongolia. You wake perhaps a few hours later and it’s all desert either side of the desert. It’s just incredible – you are in Mongolia!
You don’t see cities, the towns are quite small. The dining car has been replaced with a Mongolian one. No more free meals, and the décor is quite different. More decorative, more colourful. Somewhere around lunch time or just after you arrive in Ulaan Baatar, the Mongolian capital, and the first stop on this Trans-Mongolian itinerary.
Here is a short video I compiled of the journey from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar.
Days 5 to 7 – Ulaan Baatar and Mongolia
Taking a few days to get a little taste of Mongolia was for me the biggest of many highlights on this incredible journey. If you are afforded more time, take it because I can only imagine the more you discover, the more fascinating Mongolia is.
The capital Ulaan Baatar is a strange place. Mongolia has experienced the rural abandonment more than most countries in the world, and Ulaan Baatar is taking in thousands and thousands and thousands, and it is struggling to keep up with apartment blocks going up everywhere these days. Its certainly an interesting place, with a few worthwhile things to see. The Palace of Bogd Khan for example, Ghandan Khiid Monastery is also worthwhile, and the main square is grand too.
You are in the land of Ghengis Khan and so you will find statues aplenty. City tours usually include a drive out of the city to this giant statue of him, which you can climb the inside of and walk out for a view of the steppe.
Then there is Terelj, a place where you can stay in a ger, also known as a yurt, and experience a somewhat traditional life on the steppe. You get fed by a local family, and there’s an interesting temple to visit too. Yes, they have been taking in tourists for quite a while now, but for an overnight getaway from Ulaan Baatar it’s a good deal.
Days 8 to 10 – Train Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk and Irkutsk
It’s onto the train, and one of the most interesting journeys of the lot from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolian capital, to Irkutsk, Siberia (Russia). Once you’re in Russia you’re done with the borders, the passport checks and the formalities. Yes, in many ways they are a hassle and an annoyance, but they are also an interesting experience.
Following the route I took [Train 263 И], you leave Ulaan Baatar at 2030 for the second longest journey of the adventure – taking two nights and arriving early in the morning on the third day. After speeding off across Mongolia in the evening, a night of hopeful sleep awaits. Until you hit the border that is in the early morning. It’s a Russian train, and the compartments are much more comfortable on this train.
My experience was a series of people getting on and off the train, checking passports and visas. I think some bags here and there were searched. Naushki is the town on the Russian side of the border where we all got off the train, after the passport control etc was finished. You alight to the surprise to find you are just a train of one carriage.
Then you have a few hours to kill in this little border town. And there’s not much to do to keep you entertained. The roads are all dirt bar one, and there might be one restaurant in town, which is more of a café. The carriage is joined to a new train (I believe the journey is still known as 263 И) and it speeds off mid to later afternoon. The sun goes down. Night has fallen when you pull into Ulan-Ude for a stop. And then the next morning, quite early – around 7am.
Irkutsk is actually pretty nice. From here take a day trip to Lake Baikal, Russia’s biggest lake. Plenty of interesting cathedrals in town, historic houses, an interesting ship-cum-museum as well, it was darned cold but you could fill a couple of days.
Days 11 to 14 – Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg and Ekaterinburg
A little over two days on the train makes this the longest journey of them all, all across Russia. From Siberia we head eastwards to this interesting city on train 33. Ekaterinburg also has a number of churches worth seeing, an Icon Museum (which again is quite church related), and also has a high view on top of a tall building of the city. But it is most known for the location of where the Romanovs – the last Tsarist family of Russia, were taken an executed in 1917. There is a museum to them here. If you’re on the ball and prepared one day may be enough to take in all that’s worthwhile here.
Days 15 to 20 – Ekaterinburg to Moscow
The final journey on Train 109MA is to the final stop, the finish of the journey, and the incredible Russian capital. You cross through the Ural Mountains on this final leg which has you leaving in the early hours of the morning and arriving the next day at 1030am. It’s a picturesque leg, although I think the best views are probably passed at night.
The final video of the journey:
The Russian Capital is deserving of as long as you can give it. Really, it’s a brilliant city, with great shopping, sights and entertainment. You have the Kremlin, Red Square with St Basil’s Cathedral (you have probably seen its image before and might have wondered what it was), you can catch a glimpse of a waxy Lenin too as his mausoleum is there at Red Square too. There are a host of museums in Moscow too worth checking out – the Gulag Museum is one I highly recommend. Then you have famous Gorky Park, the impressive Moskva River, the somewhat ghoulish statue of Peter the Great, and so much more. It’s one of the world’s great cities, and it doesn’t disappoint.
And now your journey is done. You have covered some 7,621 kilometres through three countries since departing Beijing, and no doubt had on heck of an adventure. And if you’re like me, you’ll look back and it will feel like it all happened so quickly. No train ride feels like it’s as long as the time you actually spent on the train.
And you’ve gone from the ‘Far East’ to Europe! It’s a journey that is rewarding, exciting, inspiring and everything that goes along with those words, and personally one of the most satisfying travel experienced I’ve ever had.
Resources for Planning Trans-Siberian Itinerary
Some websites I found to be invaluable –
This website is incredibly detailed and has so much information on trains around the world, it is usually my first stop for any information when planning a rail journey in another land!
So this is a travel agency, and I’m not pimping for them or anything! But they were helpful and useful and seemed to have a good booking system. Will take care of tickets for journeys beginning in Russia or Mongolia.
One company in China recommended to me, I booked my first leg through them from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. For booking trains beginning China.
You may also find the Lonely Planet Website and it’s Thorn Tree Forum helpful, and I travelled with the Lonely Planet guide book to the Trans-Siberian (which covers all routes) which was helpful from time to time.
So, if you love rail travel, if you have an interest in Russia, Mongolia and even China, this might just be the journey for you!