Organising a Trans-Mongolia train journey independently – it’s easier than you might think

From getting a Russian visa to booking train journeys through Russia – how to plan a Trans-Mongolia train journey independently

When I first started planning my Russia to Mongolia train journey I was quite sure it’d be easy enough to do independently. I’ve never used travel agencies or been on a package holiday and I’m not about to start now.

Guidebooks for a Trans-Mongolia journey by train, including Lonely Planet and Bryn Thomas
Starting my Trans-Mongolia research

Then I got bogged down in endless research, reading a million different blogs and travel articles and wondered if it might just be easier to use an intermediary website, even if just to book the train tickets.

But I soldiered on and it all started to make sense. And I’m pretty proud to say that tomorrow, Tuesday 11th February, I fly to St Petersburg to start my epic 9,000 km train journey across eight time zones and I planned and booked every single step myself. Oh yes, and did I mention my 75 year old mother is coming with me?!

So here’s my step by step guide to organising a Trans-Mongolia train journey independently.

Getting a Russian and Mongolia visa for UK citizens

A very important first step is understanding how to get a Russian and Mongolia visa. If you’re a UK citizen you need to get both in advance and it’s really quite simple to do yourself.

There are travel agencies online offering to do it for you but as you’ll still need to physically present yourself and your passport at the Russia visa processing centre in London (they take your thumb print), I’m not sure I see the point of using an intermediary.

The website for the Russian Visa Processing Centre in the UK is https://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk/. VFS Global are the intermediary processors. They check your application form then forward it to the Russian embassy for approval. The website is easy to understand with all the information you need. The application form is completed online, then you print it out and take it to the Visa Processing Centre in London, Edinburgh or Manchester.

The website for the Mongolia embassy in London is http://embassyofmongolia.co.uk. It’s not as comprehensive as the Russian visa website but it contains all the necessary information. The application form is downloaded, then you can complete it by hand or on the computer and take it to the embassy with your passport.

The first important thing to know is that you’ll need to apply within 90 days of going. The Russia visa will take twenty business days; the Mongolia one will take five days. Both can be speeded up by paying considerably more.

The second important thing to know is that the Russian visa application requires a Letter of Invitation or Visa Support Letter, obtainable instantaneously from various websites by paying around £15. The reference number from the Letter of Invitation needs to be filled out on the Visa Application form. 

Decide your starting point and how many stops you want to make on the Trans-Mongolia train

It doesn’t really matter where you start or how often you stop.  If you prefer, you can board the train in Moscow and ride for six days or more without getting off. Of course that’s not half as much fun and you’d only get to experience Russia through train platforms.

If you do decide you’re getting off, that’s where the fun begins because now you need to study train timetables and start buying the tickets.

How to plan Russian train timetables online

Handily the Russian train website has an English version and even more handily train times are now shown in local time, not Moscow time as was the case previously. Considering there’s eight different time zones across Russia on the Trans-Mongolia train route, I was quite relieved not to have to work them out as well.

The Russia train booking website is https://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en.

Once you’ve registered an account with the website, it’s time to start checking train times.

This is super frustrating as you decide, yes I’ll stay one night in Kazan then leave first thing the next day, only to realise there’s no train until the following evening at 1am. Do you want to a) try and fill in a lot of time until 1am, b) pay for a second night of unnecessary accommodation or c) do you decide not to go to Kazan after all, decide to go to Tomsk instead only to realise the only train leaving Moscow at a reasonable time gets in at 3am?!

Now this may not be a problem if you’re an independent traveller travelling in the summer. Bear a thought for me travelling with my 75 year old mother in the height of winter. It’s pitch dark by 5pm, temperatures are as low as -20 and it’s probably snowing. I am definitely not arriving or departing from any city at 1am or 3am!

So eventually I worked out a sensible selection of trains across Russia and Mongolia starting in St Petersburg and ending in Ulan Bator, all arriving and departing at fairly reasonable times. It definitely helped that I didn’t mind in the least where we stopped.

A week’s trip to the Ukraine, visiting Kiev and Lviv is the closest to Russia I’ve been before, so I’m excited to go to any Russian city! Mind you, the main reason I went to Ukraine was to experience a day in the Chernobyl nuclear zone – have a look at my blog post here.

Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine
Bell tower, Lavra monastery complex in Kiev

The final route for our Trans-Mongolia train journey is: St Petersburg (2 nights), Moscow (1 night), Kazan (1 night), Yekaterinburg (1 night), Irkutsk (1 night), Ulan Ude (1 night) and Ulan Bator in Mongolia (2 nights) with a total of seven nights on the trains as well in between cities.

Now it was time to start booking them!

How to book Russian trains online independently

Of course it’s not as simple as selecting all the trains then paying for them. Every journey has to be booked and paid for separately and each time I had to fill out passenger details including names, gender, nationalities and passport details. Sigh.

Printed e-tickets for Russia Railways
Our Russia trains e-tickets

Apart from that it’s a fairly painless process, with the website being similar to any other booking site. As soon as the journey is paid for, you’ll receive two emails, one with the e-ticket and one with the invoice. It seems that technically I won’t even need to show the ticket, just our passports but I’ve printed them out anyway.

Choosing between first, second and third class and single sex compartments

In an earlier blog post, I’ve described different Decisions to Make Before Booking a Trans-Siberia or Trans-Mongolia Train Journey. It also covers the difference between first, second and third class. Selecting this once you’ve chosen a train journey is easy, as the website details the prices and options for each train.

For some trains there is also a carriage where the compartments can be designated as single or mixed sex. If this symbol мж is shown, it means if you’re first to book into a compartment you can choose whether to allow passengers of the same or different gender to also book it.

For nearly all our journeys I chose second class, meaning it’s a compartment of four bunks (two upper, two lower) then designated them as female only, meaning the remaining two bunks can be booked by other females only.

Booking accommodation for a Trans-Mongolia journey

I always use www.booking.com just because I’m used to that platform now. There’s plenty of choice of accommodation listed across Russia, even in the smallest towns.

I found though that a lot of the accommodation is actually private apartments or a few rooms in a house. Usually I like this sort of accommodation as it’s more personal than a hotel. However most of our train journeys arrive at in the early morning and although I don’t want to pay extra for early check-in, I do want somewhere to leave our luggage.

There’s always left-luggage deposits at the train station but it’ll probably be easier to leave it at the hotel. For this we’ll need a 24-hour reception, so privately owned apartments are out.

Vintage suitcases piled on top of each other
Luggage storage is going to be important on the Trans-Mongolia adventure

I read that going out for breakfast isn’t so much of a thing in Russia as it is in the Western world, so my usual fallback plan of sitting in a cafe over one coffee for a few hours when arriving at uncivilised hours clearly won’t work in Russia. I’m still not sure what we’ll do in Yekaterinburg at 6.23am in the morning!

Other considerations were the location of the hotels. Luckily most Russian train stations are located in the city centre, so I chose hotels close by or on an easy metro route from the station or city centre.

Tourist attractions to see at each stop on the Trans-Mongolia

Considering I randomly chose our train stops based on the convenience of train times, I managed to find plenty of things to do in each stop. I’m not a big city lover at the best of times so I was hoping for some diversity along the way and I was not disappointed.

For example we have a day and a half in Yekaterinburg. There doesn’t seem to be enough to do in the city itself to keep us fully occupied but there’s a Leaning Tower in nearby Nevyansk. That’s a great day trip, surely!

In Kazan, I found the Chak Chak Museum, an interactive museum dedicated to traditional Tatar food and drink, where you can see the treats being made and even taste them. One email later and we’re booked on an English tour the afternoon we arrive in the city.

I was a bit concerned about an evening and morning in Ulan Ude where the most interesting sight appears to be a giant bust of Lenin’s head. But then I found some blogs about an interesting Buddhist temple, Ivolginsk Datsan, outside the city. Another great day trip!

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