What is it really like to take the train across Russia, from St Petersburg into Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar?
The Trans Mongolia Express in Winter
I’ve just arrived in Mongolia after experiencing a two week trip across Russia by train. The Trans Mongolian or Trans Siberian train is on many people’s bucket list and for good reason. This train journey definitely counts in my top ten travel experiences.
There’s actually no specific Trans Mongolia train – the route is what counts and there’s many trains, from expresses to slow local trains, that travel the route. It is possible to take Train 3 or 4 the entire way though. It leaves once a week, from both Moscow and Beijing and takes a whopping six days to cover the 4735 miles. That’s 7620 kilometres!
We wanted a more leisurely trip across the continent and chose a combination of trains with several stops. Read about how I decided what route to take across Russia here.
Russian trains are run by RZD and are notoriously efficient. The trains we experienced, despite travelling a route of several days, were kept clean, tidy and fresh smelling. A far cry from some of the trains in England!
On our longest leg, 54 hours from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, the carriage attendant vacuumed the corridor and even cleaned the windows daily.
Taking the train across Russia is a great way to travel. It’s relaxing, easy to cover long distances and cost effective. Don’t expect the scenery to be spectacular though. Siberia in February is a lot of snow, broken up by the ubiquitous taiga landscape of birch and larch trees. Occasionally we passed a village, full of wooden houses each with a neat little fence surrounding it.
The best scenery was the final two days of the journey, around Lake Baikal and then from Ulan Ude to the Mongolian border.
Boarding a Russian train – meeting your provodnista
Arriving at the train station can be a bit daunting. They’re busy places and airline security style scanners are in place at the entrances. We got in the habit of arriving about 45 minutes early to have plenty of time. The long-distance trains usually board 20 minutes early anyway.
The screens in the railway stations are easy enough to decipher and usually rotate through from Russian to English. You need to know your train number which will be listed on your ticket. Our train from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk was actually travelling from Moscow to Chita, so knowing the train number is essential.
Once the platform number is displayed head towards there. The train usually then arrives a few minutes later. As it pulls in, look for the signs by the doors of the carriages displaying its number. On your ticket you will have a carriage number and a berth number.
Queue at the door of the correct carriage, where the provodnista, the carriage attendant, will check your passport against their handheld device. I was never asked to show my ticket, although I had all mine printed out and downloaded to my phone just in case!
Once on the train, walk down the carriage looking at the numbers outside the compartments. Inside, the numbers are also above the top bunk on each side.
What a second class sleeping compartment on the RZD trains looks like
‘Coupe’ or second class is organised in four-berth compartments and on some trains, when booking, you can specify the compartment as single sex.
Third class is also a viable option. We travelled the seven hour journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude in ‘plaskartny’ and enjoyed it just as much as second class.
Third class is open plan carriages, with six berths in each section. The extra two are along the window, where the corridor would be in second class. Third class is far cheaper and less claustrophobic than the second class compartments that can get stuffy when full.
Depending on the train the features of second class compartments may be slightly different but the layout remains the same. There’ll be two lower beds, two upper and a small table by the window between them. A narrow ladder folds into the wall at the foot of each lower bed to help reach the top one – it’s still a bit of a gymnastic feat though!
The door to the compartment slides shut revealing an enormous mirror on the inside. The lower bed usually lifts up by sliding a catch at the end, allowing luggage to be stored underneath more easily. On some older trains there’s also a metal storage box which is inaccessible without lifting up the bed – good for security.
If you’re on the top bunk you usually stow your luggage in the niche between the top bunks, above the corridor. If you’re nimble enough to get to the top bunk I feel this is the best choice – there’s more privacy, your bags are secure and you can easily rummage through them when you need something.
On every train we took there were charging sockets in the compartment, either under the table or above the lower bunk. Sometimes there was one for the upper bunk too. There were also reading lights for each bunk.
Train etiquette on the Trans-Mongolian
As soon as Russian passengers board the train they remove their outer shoes and put on slippers. All the supermarkets sell thin ‘disposable’ slippers and sometimes we found a little pack on our bed, containing slippers and a toothbrush.
Many people also change into ‘inside clothes’ – tracksuit bottoms or shorts. I read somewhere that it’s considered rude to sit on someone elses bunk wearing ‘outside clothes’.
Even if you’re on the top bunk it’s acceptable to sit on the bottom bunk during daylight hours. If the occupant of that bunk wants to stretch out they’ll ask you to move! Travelling as a twosome, I always booked one upper and one lower bunk to get the best of both worlds.
Soon after boarding the provodnista brings a bedding pack, containing linen and a towel.
Lights out is always around 10pm when the provodnista turns off the main lights in the compartments. A dull overhead light stays on, which can be turned off by a switch and although there’s individual reading lights I noticed that other passengers nearly always went to sleep.
Checking the train timetable – where exactly are you in Russia right now?!
Displayed in the middle of the carriage, along the corridor, will be a laminated train timetable. I also downloaded them from the RZD website. These are helpful in finding out where you are, what time zone you’re in and most importantly how long the train is stationary for at the next station.
This could be anything from two minutes to fifty-six minutes. If the latter is the case many passengers hop off and have a walk or buy some snacks.
I also used Google maps and GPS to see where I am along the route. Although the trains are usually perfectly on time (those long stationary stops in the middle of the night are scheduled in for a reason!) we did end up being three hours behind on one train, only to make it up the next day.
Toilets on Russian trains
Toilets are not as bad as you might fear! They are kept clean and the paper refilled by the carriage attendant and cleaning team.
In every Russian toilet I used, both on and off the train, there was a can of air freshener and a hanging one. There was always running water and soap too.
Eating and drinking on the Trans Mongolia train
On some journeys a meal was included with a choice between breakfast and dinner. I think this was just dependent on the train booked as I did notice when booking the trains that there was a knife and fork icon by some journeys. It was always a nice surprise for us if we discovered a meal was included!
On Kazan to Yekaterinburg we chose breakfast and had a choice of beef, chicken or porridge – we chose porridge! It was delivered to us in our compartment around 8am. From Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, our three night and two day journey, we had one meal included and could choose which day to have it and between dinner and breakfast again. We had an evening meal this time – chicken pasta for mum and vegetable rice for me.
The provodnista also sells tea, in cool glass cups with metal handles, and an array of snacks. On most journeys there would be a lady walking up and down every so often offering different goodies – from crisps, to sandwiches, to delicious looking pastries.
On all journeys we made use of the hot water samovar, located in every carriage opposite the attendants room. This really is such a civilised feature! I loved being able to make a tea whenever I wanted. It’s not so great for the environment though, as everyone brings on board plastic noodle cups or ‘just add hot water meals’ in plastic trays.
All the supermarkets sell these meals, as well as flavoured porridge sachets, cup-a-soups, instant mashed potatoes and coffee with milk sachets. We never went hungry.
Passing the time on the Trans Mongolia
I loved the train journeys and never got bored. I’d spend hours in the corridor watching the never-changing scenery and listening to podcasts. Then I’d relax on my bunk and watch a download from Netflix or sit on the bottom bunk and work on my knitting. If you come prepared you’ll be fine!
I bought a Russian sim card in St Petersburg. It was definitely worth the £4 it cost, with unlimited data for two weeks. Have a read here of my Top Travel Tips for Russia.
Each time we approached a town I had about twenty minutes of reception – enough time to check the news or do some research for our next stop.
Recommended packing for long distance trains across Russia
For clothes, I’d recommend comfy jogging pants or leggings and a light jumper. I found the trains very warm. Bring your own slippers or keep the ones you’re given on your first journey. A hand towel was always given out as part of the linen pack, so there’s no need to bring one.
Think ahead about how you’re going to pass the time. Some crossword puzzles, pack of cards or podcasts are a great idea.
Bring an array of snacks but don’t overdo it. There’s plenty of opportunity to buy food on board. I’d suggest tea bags and coffee if you’re into hot drinks, some noodles, fruit and biscuits. Most of our journeys were just overnight, so tea and biscuits was plenty. For our long three night, two day trip, we also brought tomatoes, a tin of tuna and some bread. Well, I thought it was tuna – it turned out to be cod’s liver!
I can’t wait to travel again in Russia. A two week trip just wasn’t long enough. I’m already planning to return for a summer journey and hopefully enjoy some hiking too.