Life onboard the Trans
Mongolian Railway

You’ll spend most of your time on the Trans Mongolian in your own compartment, but boredom on this journey is a rarity.
When you ride the Trans Mongolian, you’ll actually only be sleeping on the train for around a third of the time. During travel days, most people read, play games or simply watch the scenery sliding past from their compartments. But there’s nothing preventing you from taking a wander along the carriage to meet your neighbours, having a chat with the conductor, or sharing a table with fellow passengers in the restaurant car. For many people, while there is a lot to look forward to at each stop along the way, it is the potential for stimulating cultural interaction aboard the train itself that proves most enticing. Here’s what you can expect from a few weeks aboard the Trans Mongolian railway.

Sleeping arrangements

Standard accommodation aboard the Trans Mongolian is a four berth compartment, but you can upgrade to a two berth without the lower bunks. These are comfortable enough and reasonably spacious, and you’ll have a small table and enough room to stow your luggage. Compartments are lockable from the inside, and there are usually around nine to each carriage. At the end of each corridor you will find a samovar of boiling water to prepare hot drinks, and a wash room, normally just a sink, so you will need to rough it a little until the next hotel. Carriages and individual compartments have window slits that can be opened, and you will have air conditioning units for summer and small heaters for winter. Chinese trains are similar to Russian trains, but in the first class carriages there may be a shower or basin shared between two compartments, and you may have a couch.
When not sleeping on the train you’ll be accommodated in hotels, guesthouses, or homestays in nomadic gers in Mongolia. These are a fantastic opportunity not only to get to know local people, but to have a refreshing wash and enjoy a home cooked meal. Hotels will be of a decent standard, sometimes family run, but in the cities really the main focus is the location. As you will usually only be there for a night or two, a centrally located hotel lets you visit as many landmarks as possible. A typical ger has four beds around the stove, with toilets and showers usually in outbuildings. They’re nice and cosy at any time of year. Siberian homestays around Lake Baikal are typically in wooden cottages with outside loos. Many have a banya (sauna) attached.

Each carriage has a guard/conductor known as a provodnik (male) or provodnitsa (female), there to check tickets, distribute clean linen and ensure all is well during the journey. They don’t all speak English and they’re not always terribly friendly but they are a valuable source of information for everything from how long the train will stay at each station to whether the restaurant car is serving wine with dinner.

Who will I meet onboard?

In most cases you will be travelling as part of a small group, up to around 15 people or so. This kind of travel is very companionable, and given how much you’ll be seeing of each other, you might even make friends for life. Other passengers might include Russians, Mongolians, Chinese, Poles, Iranians and other Western travellers. These are families, commuters, soldiers, holidaymakers – people going about their day to day lives and for whom the Trans Mongolian is simply the most efficient way of getting from A to B. Some may have a smattering of English, most won’t, but you’d be surprised how far a friendly smile and some rudimentary sign language can get you. You meet people by hanging around outside your own compartment, politely knocking on your neighbours’ doors, sitting in the dining car or just by chatting on station platforms. Note that when making a short stop you will only be able to re-enter the train by your own carriage, so don’t wander too far down the platform.

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Trans Mongolian railway holiday

Trans Mongolian railway holiday

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What to pack?

Pack as lightly as you can for the season you’re travelling in. Backpacks or soft-shelled wheeled suitcases are best as you’ll be getting off and on the train frequently, so you don’t want to be lugging a huge suitcase around. You’ll want to bring some entertainment to pass the time between stops, such as an electronic reader, a tablet, books, a pack of cards, or a few travel games. Compartments have power points for charging devices but if you need to charge something urgently and all the sockets are in use you can try asking the provodnik politely. As washing facilities are limited on board, wet wipes (not to be flushed down the toilet!) and hand sanitiser are essentials. Vodka is now banned from sale on the Trans Mongolian. You can sometimes purchase beer or wine in the restaurant car but if you want anything stronger you’ll need to either smuggle something aboard, or hope your neighbours will be in a sharing mood with their own.
“Nobody notices (or cares) if you wear the same things every day. Take as little luggage as you can. Remember that you have to carry all your luggage around. Have some washing done in the guesthouse on Lake Baikal. Make sure that your camera works and take a phone just in case it doesn't. We were able to charge our electronics on the train. Take warm clothes and a jacket that repels water (or snow).”
– Barbara Shaw, in a review of her Trans Mongolian holiday

What will I be eating?

Trans Mongolian trains usually have a restaurant car, changed at border crossings, where you can find a fairly limited supply of snacks, meals and drinks at affordable prices. Otherwise you’ll be fending for yourself. As each carriage has a samovar of boiling water many people choose to bring a good supply of dried noodles, coffee and teabags to keep themselves going, and then at each station you will find no end of elderly women (babushkas) selling everything from hardboiled eggs to homemade cakes, beer and chocolate. If it’s only a short stop then you’ll have time to stretch your legs and buy a few snacks, but it’s wise to get your food sooner rather than later as there can be big queues. Don’t assume there will be an ATM at every station.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marko Mikkonen] [Intro: Sundowners Overland] [Sleeping arrangements: Sundowners Overland] [What to pack?: Sundowners Overland]
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