Trans-Mongolian Railway 1/3: Discover Siberia in a unique way

This was a challenging article to organise and write, especially if you consider that I am not a professional writer and don’t always have that spark of an inspiration. I sat in front my diary entries and didn’t really know how to start. Should it be a general information article, 10-tips kind of thing, personal impressions and advices or day by day entries?

However, here’s the first tip – write down your thoughts and impressions throughout the journey. It doesn’t matter if you do it on your phone or in vintage way with paper and pencil; what’s important is to keep the track on how you are feeling at the moment, was there something funny during the day, interesting descriptions of places and people, what is that made your day etc. You don’t have to write the complete paragraphs or essays. Summary comes after the trip. Some small phrases and notes are enough for the start. You will be amazed how many details you can save from the oblivion of time in this way. I am so happy I did it because 22-day-trip is a lot of time, lot of places, lot of people and too many new things to properly process and remember. By reading my diary entries I laughed so much and lived those moments again more vividly than I would in my own information-overloaded-mind.

So, based on the very diary entries, I will share with you one amazing journey that includes visiting two continents and almost 8000km by train.

Get on board, the Trans-Mongolian railway trip starts!

Here are some fun facts to inspire you:

  • Trans-Siberian railway (Moscow-Vladivostok) is, with its 9289km the longest railway in the world. It passes through 8 time zones and takes 7 full days to reach Vladivostok. Trans-Mongolian railway is basically Trans-Siberian until Ulan Ude, a city on Lake Baikal’s eastern shore, where it heads south to Ulaanbaatar, Gobi desert and, eventually, to Beijing. It is a bit shorter than Trans-Siberian railway with “only” 7621 km and takes 6 days to reach Beijing.
  • Average train speed on Trans-Mongolian railway is 40-60 km/h. You really get to enjoy the landscape and your time on board: Siberian taiga, Mongolian steppe, Chinese grasslands and hills.
  • The railway gauge is different in Russia and Mongolia (1520 mm) than the standard one used in China for example (1435 mm). However, this was not decided for war purposes (since the railway can easily be damaged in many other ways), as the common belief proposes. That is why you have to exit the train at the border between China and Mongolia while your train’s bogies get changed to fit the standard gauge. By the way, gauge is by definition the spacing of the rails on a railway track, which is measured between inner faces of the load-baring rails.
  • Trans-Siberian railway is Russia’s most important transport link, as 1/3 of the export goods is transported via railway. Although it attracts many tourists nowadays, the railway’s most common travellers are Russians. It is still their most convenient way of transport.
  • Up to 2018 all the train timetables were running on Moscow time. It was quite complicated if you think that you always have to recalculate your time zone and they just change while you are on board. Luckily for us, local times were introduced on both tickets and timetables, which made the organisation much easier.
Provodnice checking if everyone returned to the train before departing

When to go?

High season: June – August

Shoulder: May, September-October

Low Season: November – April

We did a three-week-trip starting end of August to middle of September. The weather was beautiful in each of the three countries, only Mongolia starting to be a bit chilly but I will come to that later. Winter can be truly magical and you can do different tours on frozen lake Baikal but I am not that tough.

Visas

Arrange your visas on time as they are not issued at border crossings. Recommended is up to three months before the trip. Most of the people need visas for China and Russia and some for Mongolia too. Check the visa requirements for your passport and apply on time. Most of them can be done via agencies but you can do it on your own too. Hotel bookings and railway tickets are required for some visas so you will have to plan those in advance. Make sure that your passport is valid at least six months after the end of the trip.

Mine, for example, wasn’t and I had to renew it prior to applying for visas.

Train tickets

Even though you can buy most of the tickets online, this rule does not apply for the international (Ulan-Ude – Ulaanbaatar; Ulaanbaatar – Beijing). And you have to provide them in your visa application. There are plenty of agencies offering the ticket reservation service not more than 60 days before the trip. If you feel like improvising, you can also buy tickets at the station. But then there is no guarantee that you will find a place in a desired class or a coupe for you and your friends. I can give couple of recommendations about the agencies so feel free to write. And for the Russian railways, here is the website (https://pass.rzd.ru). Keep your passport with you and be ready to present it to Provodnica when you board on the train. Other useful websites are:

www.chinahighlights.com

www.visitrussia.com

www.china-diy-travel.com

While most of the trains run on daily basis and it is not a problem to find an alternative one, be careful with Ulaanbaatar – Beijing train as it runs only twice a week. Plan your trip according to the timetable and book the tickets via agency.

Train classes

In general, there are three classes on the train. I will describe the long distance trains (sleeper trains), which we travelled with. Here is a brief class’s overview:

1. Class (most comfortable one): 2 beds (usually both low), adjustable table between the beds, reading lights, power plug, storage place, sliding door that can be locked.

2. Class (Coupe, the one we travelled with): 4 beds (2 high, 2 low), adjustable table between the beds, reading lights, storage place (under the beds, above the compartment door), sliding door that can be locked. There are compartments only for women, only for men and mixed.

3. Class (Platzkart): the cheapest one on the train. There are 54 bunks in total with 4 beds on one side and 2 on the other with an aisle between them. You should bring some more patience and tolerance with you if you decide to travel in third class because you will have very little privacy and it can be noisy too. On the other hand, you can save some money on the train tickets.

Every train carriage is equipped with two toilets at the two ends as well as a hot water boiler called Samovar. Your train attendant Provodnica or Provodnik will be in charge of you during the trip. They will make sure that you feel safe and comfortable on board.

For budget travelers, there are options with less stops and therefore a possibility to save some money. Write me if you are interested. However, for this kind of trip is very worth to spend some more and see some amazing places you would normally miss.

2. Class compartment on a train to Yekaterinburg

Now you are ready to start the journey in Russia’s sophisticated capital – Moscow!

Moscow

St. Basil Cathedral domes and Moscow Kremlin

One year before this trip, I visited Moscow with my sister over a long weekend and fell in love with this cosmopolitan city. I was looking forward so much to visiting it again this time. Moscow is Russia’s political, economic, scientific capital and most populated city. It is also European largest city with an area double the one of Istanbul (just for comparison).

The city has amazing public transport connections and infrastructure. From each one of its four airports (yes, four) you can take a train called Airport express to reach the city area where you can take a metro to your desired specific destination. I have never seen a better metro network than the one in Moscow so far. Literally, every part of the city can be reached by metro. Amazing fact is that one never waits more than 40 seconds for a train. There are even timers on the stations for that. Tickets are very cheap and you can buy a block of twenty tickets (c.a 10-12€) and go wherever you want. For couple of days, 20 tickets are more than enough to share between two people.

Moscow city scape

As I will write a separate article about Moscow for my long-weekend-trip ideas group, here a brief overview how you can spend couple of days there and what to see. Start your day with a cup of coffee and a croissant from one of the many cute bakeries and cafés.

Space race monument and Cosmonaut museum

Like everything in Moscow – it is just impressive! A 118m high rocket rising into the atmosphere leaving a silver trace behind. Russians are very proud on their achievements in satellite technology as well as in the race for the last frontier – space. One thing is sure, all the people who contributed to country’s success are worshiped nationwide (astronauts, engineers, scientists etc.). Museum collection is remarkable and takes you through different periods and gradual development of space probe models, astronaut costumes, food packs and accessories for travelling into space, space crews, scientific papers etc. You can even enter into a life-size replica of the MIR space shuttle.

Space race monument

Gorky Park

“I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change…”

Gorky Park is beautiful green surface in the city center. I visited it in spring and summer – it is thriving with picnickers, people riding bikes or reading in the shade. Park concept as a partial living space is amazing so you will find also some comfortable chairs to rest after a long walk. Small kiosks sell snacks and some fast food options. We ended up this time with a hot dog and, what turned out to be the smallest sandwich on Earth. Gorky park hosts different kinds of events so don’t be surprised to find a photo gallery between the flowers, science shows etc.

Cute corner in Gorky Park

Christ the Saviour Church

This time we followed the Moskva by metro to Christ the Saviour Church. You cannot miss its golden domes, shining above the river and opposite of Kremlin. I got a chance to enter inside and be astonished with the beautiful church interior and frescos. Men in shorts are not allowed to enter so my better half had to stay outside. Luckily, women in equally long skirts are allowed to enter.

Christ the Saviour Chuch on Moskva river

Red Square

Take a walk around this amazingly huge square and enter from the Resurrection Gate. On one side stands St Basil Church with its mesmerising colourful domes that seems like a fairytale becoming real in front of your eyes. On your right side beautiful State Historical museum and, along the longer square sides the GUM luxury shopping mall (looks nice in the evening) and Moscow Kremlin with Lenin’s mausoleum in front of it. That is how it looks when you can take a walk. We were a bit unlucky to find it closed for a dance and music festival and covered in stands and tents for the event. Check the event calendar before your visit.

Resurrection Gate

Russian lemonades

I know it sounds funny because the first association should be vodka but these lemonades were something special. They are just called lemonades but the truth is that they can be a combination of different fruit and spices such as maracuja-passion fruit, pear-pineapple-coco, basil-raspberry etc. They are not just refreshing but also delicious because they contain the whole pieces of fruit, which you can eat in the end.

Lemonade done well

Arbat street

This is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, full of nice cafés and restaurants as well as street artists. Painters and musicians on every corner. Try Russian cuisine in one of the Varenichnaya restaurants. Russian cuisine has quite a lot to offer: dumplings in all possible and impossible flavour combinations and cooking techniques, simple but delicious meat dishes, borsh and a good beer.

Park Pobedy

This huge park (you notice that I use huge for every public place) hosts museums and a monument dedicated to the WWII, or Homeland war as they call it in Russia. Each 10cm of the 148m tall obelisk represent a day of Soviet Union participation in WWII. The park hosted an open-air cinema and concerts at the time so check the events when you go to Moscow in the summertime.

Park Pobedy metro station

After picking up the train tickets from an agency, we took our first train to Yekaterinburg from Yaroslavskaya train station. A day-and-a-half train ride to the border with Asia. I forgot to mention that we were four people in total and of four different nationalities: Montenegro (me), Croatia (Petra), Italy (Alessandro) and Germany (Nico). At the platform, we met our Provodnica Tatjana, who was thrilled to practice her English with us.

So, before we knew, we were heading towards Siberia. Ok, not before we knew considering the train speed. It reminded me soon on Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and his trip in a book, just with electric locomotive this time. Our Provodnica Tatjana came to give us the clean sheets and explain the travel plan (next stations, stop time etc.). She was very friendly and curios to learn more about our friendship and our travel plan. She offered us some souvenirs and we bought two Russian railways tea cups – the best investment during the trip. Not just that they were better for tea compared to our foldable silicon cups, but were also great camouflage to drink vodka (shhh).

Russian railways tea cups doing their purpose 🙂

Time on the train flies faster than you can imagine. With all that excitement, beautiful landscapes, a bit of vodka and board games, we hardly noticed that it got quite dark outside and that it was time to get some sleep. I have to say, I slept much better on the train than I thought I would. First morning light revealed us Siberian landscape at its best. Endless forests of birches and pines. During this day, the train stopped in many small stations in the Ural Mountains region where you can buy fruit and vegetables on a small market on the platform. The little market consists of local people coming around the railway and selling their domestic products on the platform. You can buy fruit, vegetables, snacks, ice cream etc. It is incredible how much life is concentrated around this railway. For some small farmers, this income can be life changing, I imagine, in a way of providing a better dinner for their families.

Snack kiosk
Stretching the legs somwhere in the Trans-Siberian railway

Provodnica Tatjana came several times to talk to us and we found out that this incredibly nice lady from Chita has two sons; both of them actors in USA and Krasnoyarsk, respectively. She is very proud of them and misses them so much. She works on Moscow-Chita train, which takes 4-5 days to its destination in one direction. Work of provodnik/provodnica is not an easy job. Not only they take care of the passengers and keep an eye on them during the stops, but they also make sure that everyone gets clean sheets, meals if booked and, in addition to all that, they do the cleaning work of the carriage they are in charge of. Not just simple vacuum cleaning but also taking care of the toilets and facilities. One big respect and gratitude to all of them!

Provodnica with passengers on one of the stops

Yekaterinburg

Church on Blood, Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia, located near the Ural Mountains and at the border between Europe and Asia. You can visit a border-marking obelisk if you plan to stay couple of days. I was lucky to see one from the train. This is the hometown of the first Russian Federation president – Boris Yeltsin. However, the city is mostly known as a location where the Romanovs, the last Russian emperor family, tragically lost their lives. Many years later, a church was built in their honor and called Church on Blood. It became one of the city landmarks.

Follow the blue line

This city has an interesting concept of presenting you the monuments as well as cultural and historical heritage. All you have to do is follow the red or blue lines depicted on the street. This is how you get to see the QUERTY Keyboard monument, Pushkin’s statue, different museums etc. It is a student city, quite modern, with cheerful atmosphere and friendly young people.

Sevastyanova House, Yekaterinburg

Go to the Visotsky Business center observation deck and enjoy the panoramic view of the city.

View from Visotsky Business center

From Yekaterinburg we took a train to Irkutsk, the longest one-piece ride that lasted 2 ½ days. We equipped ourselves well with instant food from the supermarket, a bottle of wine and many snacks for this long ride. The adventure could begin.

Train still life

Soon enough we got a “stalker” in a train and it was a curious young boy called Igor. We shared some snacks with him shortly because he and his mother exited at some of the following stops. Later, we met two young Russians who became our companions in board games, card games, drinking, laughing and learning a bit of Russian language. This became the funniest train ride of the whole trip and we had a great time with our fellow Russians. They were travelling by train to Chita where they had a 3-month work contract to maintain the railway. Both of the guys did a military service and told us a bit about their lives. We even stayed in touch with them after the trip. It is funny how, in the middle of Siberia, on a random train, you can meet some nice people and have a great time in that real social and personal kind of way. That was one highlight of this trip. Being present in the moment. Not being distracted by a phone vibration, internet and social networks. Whether you were reading, talking, listening, playing games – nothing else existed apart that very moment. We should all have that more often in our busy everyday lives.

Small villages and houses around the railway
Cargo trains on one of the stops

We arrived to Irkutsk in the evening. Partially happy to stretch our legs and partially sad to say goodbye to our new friends we proceeded to take a shower and have dinner. After so much time on board you appreciate a lot more a hot shower and non-instant food. Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in Siberia with c.a. 600000 inhabitants. The city is located on the Angara River, a tributary of Yenisei, 72 km from Lake Baikal. In the early 19th century, it was an exile for many artists, officers and nobles that participated in Decemberist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I, and it became a center of social and intellectual life for these exiles.

Windows, Irkutsk

Some of the city highlights include: Coat of arms sculpture – Siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth, Taltsy museum of Siberian architecture, old city center with wooden houses, Irkutsk Botanic Garden, Okhlopov Drama Theater, Epiphany Cathedral etc.

Lake Baikal

Enjoy the silence, Lake Baikal

We spent quite a little time in Irkutsk as the morning after we went to explore Lake Baikal. You can reach the lake in different ways: by train, by boat, or by bus. We took the third option and went from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, a town at the lake coast, 50km away from Irkutsk. That was the starting point of our hike.

Following the Great Baikal trail

We found a sign for Great Baikal trail and started our 25km hike to a small village called Bolshye Koti, which we planned to reach by the end of the day. The Great Baikal trail has not been completed yet and every year many volunteers come and help to build it during the summertime. The trail around the lake will be more than 2000 km long when finished. That means that we did 1% of it in our one-day hike. The path leads through the forest and along the western coast of the lake. As I was sitting on the shore during one of our lunch/snack breaks, I took a moment to take in that vast beauty in front of me. Deep blue lake, so big that it gives you the impression of an incredibly calm sea because you don’t see its end in the mist. Full of history and stories to tell, just if you listen its whisper carefully. Lake Baikal is the largest and oldest lake on Earth. It contains 20% of the total amount of drinkable water on Earth and its home to numerous flora and fauna species that live in its waters and along its shores. Who knows how many evolution wonders has this lake witnessed, how many strange guests has it accepted like seals and seagulls probably mistaking it for a sea. I could not keep wondering, asking questions, and getting a wise deep silence for an answer.

Deep blue

The hiking trail fluctuates from the lake deep into the forest and then back to the water. These fluctuations are not just horizontal but vertical too. At one moment, you are on the high cliff next to the lake and in the next; trail goes down directly to the water level. We stopped at one beach to test the water, which was “warm” for that time of the year with whole 10 degrees. After standing in it for several minutes, you could amputate my legs easily without me noticing it.

Hiking path fluctuation in one photo
Lake Baikal

We reached Bolshie Koty (Big cats) by the late afternoon. First things to greet us were a boathouse and many colourful wooden houses, somewhat chaotically distributed. According to the information on internet, the village should have around 50 inhabitants.

Boathouse in Bolshie Koty

We came to our place of stay and met our host Aleksey, his wife Natalia and their baby Stefan. Very friendly people renting their small cottages to tourists during the season. What we didn’t expect is that they have a sauna in the main house and we gave it a try. My first time in Russian sauna (and in sauna in general) was there. There is an external room with shower and oven where you put the wood to heat up the sauna room. Sauna room is small and equipped with wooden benches to sit or lay on. It works in a following way: you heat up the room and stay inside for approx. 15 minutes until you start sweating. Then you go out to cool down and shower for 5 minutes and return to the sauna room. In the second round, the heat should be increased and it’s done by pouring the water over the hot stones in sauna room. The effect can be felt instantaneously. Another 15 minutes and another 5 minutes of the cool down. The same process for the third round after which you go for a shower and feel like new. This was great after a whole day of hiking. Just that it makes you even hungrier. The guys found a supermarket in town and bought some pasta and, incredibly, found a watermelon so we had a real feast.

Cottage where we slept
Garden in front of one village house, Bolshie Koty
Colourful library, Bolshie Koty
Siberian style windows, Bolshie Koty

The kitchen with a porch in main house was like a living room for all guests. A space for socialising and spending some time together.

Message pinned in a common kitchen

We learned some interesting things about our hosts and met a Dutch tourist who started his trip from Vladivostok and was heading west. The next day was cloudy with some showers so we shortened our hiking around the lake and took a boat back to Listvyanka. We could observe our hiking path from a different angle now. What the day before took us five to six hours to complete, today took just half an hour. From Listvyanka a bus brought us back to Irkutsk where we got equipped with food for the next trip. Priorities are obvious in our case.

The morning after we took the next train, which would take us to Mongolia.

To be continued…

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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