47.8864° N, 106.9057° E
Our big Trans Siberian/Mongolian train journey has been quite an adventure so far, and something you just have to experience for yourself! If anything, we can just try to explain how epic this train ride across the world’s biggest continent really is. And for us, it’s not even finished. We are currently in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia which is close to our goal, but we have yet to enter China. First we’ll explore the world’s coldest capital for a few days.
It all started in Moscow, Tuesday 17th of January. We checked out of our hotel after three nights stay. We had a few hours to kill since our train was not scheduled for departure before 11:55pm! Perfect for some last sightseeing in Moscow, and a tour around Kremlin.
After a few hours strolling around, we decided to pick up our bags at the hotel and head over to Moscow Yaroslavskiy station, where our train would be waiting, hopefully…
We got there five hours before departure… (Sarah likes a bit of extra time, just in case) We were taking train 4 which is a Chinese train leaving Moscow every Tuesday night for Beijing. This we knew, everything else was in Russian at the station.. Which made sense I guess since we were in Russia! After a few trips backwards and forwards along the station we figured out that our train was leaving from platform 4. First we asked a couple Russian ladies along the platform, but they just pointed at our ears and said we had to listen for it.. In Russian.. Haha.. Have you ever heard Russian over the speakers? Anyway, it came up on the board 45 minutes before departure, so we had plenty of time. We got on the train, carrriage 6, cabin 2 and we were all set, ready to go.
The journey from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar would take five days. The first four days we would be following the traditional Trans Siberian route heading for Vladivostok through Russia and Siberia. Then; when hitting Irkutsk we changed lines heading South-West on the Trans Mongolian line for Mongolia and eventually Beijing in China. This is our first time doing this trip, and obviously had quite some expectations because of stories we heard and read. It did not fail us. Now it’s January, and therefore low season through Siberia. Still not a bad choice doing the trip during this time of year. The train is not so crowded, but not empty either. First of all, it means you’ll be able to move around in an already limited amount of space without always standing in line. I’m just assuming that’s how it will be when the train is full, based on our experience with a train not even 1/3 full. We’re travelling 2nd Class, which I definitely would recommend. It’s a four bed sleeper cabin. I haven’t measured it, but a rough guess I’d assume the measurements would be 2x 1.60m (pics above). At first it looks bloody small, but suddenly you find yourself in there having dinner with a whole group. These are the good times we definitely will remember. Everyone bought something in little stores at the platform whenever we stopped, brought it to the table, and we had a feast.
Yummy. We were never hungry during the trip. The food car is open during the day, and the prices are reasonable. Meals between 300 and 600 rubles (5-15US$) and a beer 250 rubles. At almost every stop through Russia, there were always one or more little stores where you could pick up most things you would need on the train (food, water, beer, toiletries, souvenirs etc) and it is cheap!
Before the journey we used a site called seat 61 quite a bit. I had the stop schedule from this site with me, but the train does stop many more places than this schedule shows (we have the schedule if you’re interested).
During a journey like this you will meet people, and you will most likely be close with some of these people. You are literally living on top of each other for days, therefore you won’t have a choice unless you’re in 1st Class. Still, it’s in 2nd Class where all the fun happens! The people you meet are such a big part of the trip, at least for us it was. Low season means less people which again leaves you with quality over quantity. We were only six people in our car most of the trip, but it was still epic. We also had the two most awesome train attendants, Zhang xiansheng and Wang xiansheng. Such great guys that kept our car warm, made sure we were back on the train in time for departure after strolling the platform each stop, and always had a smile ready when passing through. Me and Sarah were sharing a cabin with Lisa, a girl from the US, also half Japanese. She was such a great roomie, and we got along from the first minute. She also spoke Chinese, which certainly helped us out multiple times. (*if you are reading this Lisa, I know you kept on saying your Chinese was not that good, but we decided not to believe you) We even picked up a couple words, Ni hao and Xie Xie which will take us through our one week in China, hopefully! Next door to the right we had Philip from Sweden, and Donal from Ireland. Yes, we actually met a guy from Scandinavia on the Trans Siberian, though we’ve met only a handful during 30 months of travelling around the world. Last but not least in our car we had Wang Ya on his way home to China after studying in Europe. We were so excited when he told us we would be in China just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year, which is the Monkey Year coming up next. Day two we also noticed this guy in short shorts outside in – 15°, Johnny from Australia! All great guys that we definitely want to meet again.
So far the train has taken us 6265 kilometres from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. We had quite a few stops along the way where the temperature went a bit up and down but overall got colder as we got further East from – 1° in Moscow, – 15° in Omsk, – 28° in Irkutsk and – 30° on the Russian/Mongolian border. We have definitely experienced cold weather before, but it is just something being on a train through Siberia heated with coal, toilet water freezing, doors to get out frozen solid etc. It is cold in Siberia in January.
Another thing is the time zones. While in Russia, the train is following Moscow time, though we were crossing 5 time zones. This was not too bad, but the food car followed local time which was a bit confusing in the beginning. We were asked to leave the food car at 8pm Moscow time, which was 1am local time, had a few more beers in our cabin, before going to bed at 2am Moscow time (7am local time) got up ready for breaky Moscow time just in time to watch the sunset local time etc.. It was a bit strange, but still a funny experience, and we’re back on track now, ish…
Now the visas… This is something you want to make sure you have in order. We always have this figured… Or… I was 99 percent certain that Norwegians didn’t need a visa for entertaining Mongolia. Well, we do! I was sure I had this under control before going on the trip, otherwise I obviously would have applied for it. Everyone got a transit visa for Mongolia except me, Sarah and a third girl. They were from the US and Canada and everything was cool. When the border control came to me, he kept going trough the passport, over and over and over again. No visa… “Robin, come with us”… This is where it’s time to become a bit nervous, but try to stay calm.. The train was heavily guarded by border control (heaviest guarded train station I’ve ever seen), all the blinds were closed, and no one was allowed to leave the train. Except me, who had to go to the office. “Robin, you have entered Mongolia without a visa, why is this?” I tried to explain I was sure I didn’t need one, as was the truth just before that moment. Into the office, paper work to be filled out, at the same time a bit stressed that I was off the train that I certainly didn’t want to miss and wasn’t entirety sure what was going on. I filled it out; needed a picture and money obviously. This was back at the train. I ran back to get those, then after a bit of backwards and forwards between the officer and I, I got something I believed to be an acceptance in Mongolian that I couldn’t understand anything of. I found my stuff on the train, back to the office, paid (a bit too much) but again they did me a huge favour so it was worth it. Thank you for that. I understood they told me to go back to the train and wait… Still a bit nervous not having my passport, I walked outside, and the train was gone. I now found myself in a very awkward situation on the Russian/Mongolian border, with no passport, no cellphone, no socks, and short pants in – 30° and no one spoke much English… This is the time to start using those small gray ones that I should have used way ahead to not find myself in this situation in the first place. I remembered we were to change food cars at the border, and I also had some money left. (There was a motel there, as an absolute last option). Most of the time I was thinking about what Sarah probably felt when the train left without me, supposedly not getting any info (but she did, thanks to our awesome train attendant Wang xiansheng). I went back inside after getting permission. The guys in the border control looked like they felt a tiny bit sorry for me after some time. I waited for half an hour ish, and then the train came back. A guy came with a suitcase waving his hand for me to follow. We went back on the train, and everything was good. I actually still couldn’t belive I had ended up in that situation, but now I have checked the visa website from back home and I quote *Norwegians require visa for Mongolia, it’s not possible to get this upon arrival*! I was wrong, but it makes me feel pretty good that it all worked out, and that I now have experienced what happens without a visa… It is possible, but I do not recommend it! I don’t have any pictures, you’ll just have to believe me on this one!
We both have our visa for China, so that should be alright. We’ll see in four days anyhow. First we’ll check out Mongolia, the khan’s country!