Just looking at a map, you are instantly overwhelmed by the distance you have to travel. From St. Petersburg to Beijing is a fourth of the way around the world and you are planning to do it by train. Are you crazy?
The first leg from St. Petersburg to Moscow is by far the least glamorous of them all. The trains are older and far less comfortable than the long haul trains. After all, it is only an eight hour journey. The journey is overnight and you are expected to sleep on the train, but sleep is not easy to come by. The carriages are designed to cram as many people in them as possible. Each car sleeps roughly sixty people. There are four tiny beds to a compartment and two more in the hallway. It is cramped and very uncomfortable.
In Moscow, you have to board the long haul train that will take you as far as Irkutsk, some 5,000 km away. The compartments are a little more comfortable. There are four beds in a cabin and it even comes with a door to provide some privacy and safety. The journey takes roughly four days and it is truly an experience.
Once you leave Moscow, you enter a landscape of pine trees,which is quite beautiful. The scenery, although beautiful, does not change at all for four days. It is staggering the sameness of it all.
After you tire of looking out the window and admiring the country side, your choices for entertainment are rather limited. At this point, you usually turn to what keeps the Russians occupied for a good chunk of the day; vodka. The Russians have a bit of a reputation for consuming a large quantity of vodka. The truth is that they probably drink more than you could possibly imagine. Starting at around 9 in the morning, all of the Russians could be seen cracking open their bottles of vodka and not stopping until the bottles were dry.
When they started drinking, the Russians are usually extremely friendly. They would invite you in for a few shots. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Russian and they don’t speak English. After the 3rd or 4th toast, it doesn’t matter anyway.
Another source of entertainment is the cabin attendant. They spend their lives on these trains going back and forth between Vladivostok and Moscow. To say that they tend to be a little strange is an understatement. They usually have a side business going where they sell beer, instant noodles and snacks.
Russians are not known for their mouth watering cuisine and train food is even worse. The dining car serves up slop that is almost inedible. It is important to stock up on meals before you leave Moscow. At each stop, there are little old ladies that sell an assortment of food. It can range from fresh baked bread to whole smoked fish. Most tourists end up eating a diet comprising almost entirely of instant noodles.
The bathrooms are not fantastic, but are not disgusting either. There is no shower so bathing can be a bit of a challenge. There are quite a few people on the train who just decide to forego bathing for the duration of the trip, which can make the carriages a tad odiferous.
One interesting thing about the bathrooms is that they lock the door to the toilet an hour before a stop and only unlock it an hour after you leave. They do this because the toilets empty directly onto the tracks. This can be a tad inconvenient if you aren’t feeling great as a result of too much vodka or a dodgy meal.
At Irkutsk, you change trains again heading for the Mongolian capital of Ulaan Bataar. It is only a 24 hour journey, but there is a distinct change in the scenery. As you enter Mongolia, the trees thin out and you enter a land of windswept plains. After 4 days of pine trees, the change is refreshing. You also begin to see nomadic people in traditional tents along the way. It feels very exotic.
In Ulaan Bataar, you have to change trains again and begin the last leg of the journey into China. The trains going into China are not as nice as the other ones. They are a little older and a little dirtier. The cabin attendants are not quite as entertaining either. They tend to be very harsh and severe Chinese women who want nothing to do with you.
The rail gauge is different between China and Mongolia so when you arrive at the border the train has to change its wheels. They lift each carriage up and manually switch out the wheels. It all happens fairly quickly and it leaves you slightly concerned for the integrity of their workmanship. From the border, it is only a 12 hour journey into Beijing.
If you do not stop along the way, the whole 6,600 km trip takes roughly a week. That said, you would have to be crazy not to stop anywhere for a few days. In Russia a stopover in Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk are an absolute must. Mongolia is a magical place and you could quite easily spend a week or two exploring the countryside.
The Trans Mongolian is one of the world’s greatest journeys. It is an experience that will leave you with a new found appreciation for how big this world of ours really is.
Written by Joseph Ramsey for The Essential Destination