The Trans-Mongolian train makes its way through the Mongolian countryside.
At the top of many people’s bucket list is a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A trip on the railroad allows riders to experience the never-ending forests of Siberia, the lonely valleys of Mongolia, and the Gobi desert in one trip. However, with a trip that can span a third of the globe and take up to 7 days to complete, special preparations are definitely necessary.
The first step in preparing for your journey is to figure out which of the 3 routes you want to take. The classic line is the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok on Russia’s far eastern coast. On the other hand, the most popular route with travelers is the Trans-Mongolian, which crosses through Siberia before veering off the main rail line, traveling through Mongolia and ending in Beijing, China. Lastly, you can take the Trans-Manchurian line, which runs from Moscow to Beijing, but bypasses Mongolia.
The marker on the train indicating its major stops in Chinese, Russian, and Mongolian.
The second step in preparing for your journey is to get the appropriate visas. Nearly every nationality requires a visa for travel to both Russia and China, and while you can obtain them yourself, both are time consuming. To make the process easier, consider using a visa service to like Invisa Logistics for Russia and CSCA for China, both of which are recommended by the respective embassies.
Americans can enter Mongolia visa-free, but most others will have to secure a visa to travel there as well.
It’s also a good idea to arrange your tickets prior to leaving. While you will pay a surcharge for this service, it beats turning up at a Russian train station and discovering that your train is sold out or that the ticket seller doesn’t speak any English (a problem you’re likely to encounter). For trains leaving from Russia or Mongolia, you can obtain your tickets from Real Russia. For trains departing from Beijing, CITS is a reputable agency with English-speaking agents.
Buying your ticket ahead of time also requires you to plan your stops. All 3 train lines pass through Irkutsk, which is a very popular stop close to the mid-point of the journey. This Siberian city is also the gateway to the must-see Lake Baikal. The largest lake in the world by volume, Lake Baikal is so clean that you can drink directly from its frigid waters. There’s no better place to see Siberian culture or nature than the peaceful shores of the lake.
The sun sets over China’s Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia.
On the Trans-Mongolian Line, many like to stop in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, as well, to experience this amazing country. While the city itself is nothing special, a trip to the countryside gives you the chance to stay with a nomadic family in a traditional ger (felt-lined tents) and view the sweeping vistas of beautiful green grass and impossibly blue skies that go on for as far as the eye can see.
The interior corridor of the Trans-Mongolian.
Lastly, you need to prepare for the trip itself. Since you’ll spend a total of 6 or 7 nights on the train, make sure that you have plenty of reading material and batteries. Also make sure to pack some wet wipes for cleaning yourself (there are no showers onboard), a thermos and instant coffee or tea (hot water is provided in each car), and some ear plugs.
While you’ll have a nice bed on your trip, most people will share a compartment with others, so a phrasebook will be very helpful in getting to know your travel companions. Even if you opt for a private compartment, having a Russian and Chinese phrasebook will help you figure out when the train is leaving each station and how to order food in the dining car.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is the journey of a lifetime, and with a bit of preparation, you can ensure that you’ll have the time of your life as you traverse the Far East.
All photos by author Jim Cheney.
The author onboard the Trans-Mongolian train.
Jim Cheney is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Harrisburg, PA. Jim spent over two years in Asia traveling and working prior to settling back in America. His writing focuses mainly on travel planning advice and unique travel destinations throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
To find more of his work, visit his site, Tripologist.com.
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