From Moscow to Beijing: A trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad
This summer, I was lucky enough to take a trip with a dear friend through the far off lands of Russia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an inkling of railway wanderlust. Not only do you get to see some of the more unusual areas, including Siberia, Inner Mongolia and northern China, but the train ride itself is equal parts exciting, relaxing and eye-opening. One of my favorite memories is refilling my tea thermos with the hot water provided on board and watching the landscape go by. That, and learning Russian from a kind Siberian woman, meeting two hilarious Brits who shared our bunk to Beijing, drinking vodka and sharing favorite American television series with some young Russians...the list goes on. This article will summarize some of the essentials for preparing and journeying on the Trans-Siberian railway, as well as highlight some favorite snippets from my trip.
My friend and I decided to take our trip over the span of two weeks in late July. I recommend going in the summer because Russia and Mongolia can get quite cold, although Beijing will be hot and humid. Straight through, the trip from Moscow to Beijing will take about 6 days, but it is more fun to break it up. We spent two days in Moscow, a day and a half in Irkutsk, Russia (near Lake Baikal), three days in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and a day in Beijing. On my way home, I also sprung for a 20 hour layover in Seoul, Korea, which gave me enough time to take the train into town, check into a hostel, explore some historic sites, eat two delicious meals, sleep and wake up early to catch my flight. Why not? We also met other travelers who were taking months off to travel on the railway, so depending on how much time you have you can make it last as long as you like.
Before the journey
For U.S. citizens, you must obtain travel visas for both Russia and China before you go. Russian visas require an invitation letter as part of it, which we procured through the company that booked our train tickets for us, Real Russia. You also have to get specific visa photos taken, which Russia and China have different specifications for. The Russian visa is also only good for the exact dates of travel, so you need to finish your train itinerary and ideally already have booked plane tickets before you apply. For the Chinese visa, I recommend asking for the 10 year visa and you need to have both your travel in and out of China (railway tickets and plane, for example) and lodging in China booked and documented as part of your visa application. If you are applying for the visas in New York City (which I did ), I also strongly recommend going early to the Chinese consulate or going right after the lunch break as it can get extremely crowded. For the Russian one, you can make an appointment. I may be not remembering this correctly because I ended up paying more by using my credit card, but for the Russian visa I believe if you pay in cash it's much less expensive. Each visa application can take up to 2-3 weeks to go through, so make sure you have enough time to do that before you leave. You'll need your passport, obviously.
I packed my clothing and supplies in a travel backpack that served me well. I also brought outlet adapters, a small lock to lock my backpack to my bed frame while I slept, a travel book, camera, first aid, a thermos, toilet paper, travel utensils, baby wipes and small gifts (chocolates, playing cards, pens) from New York City to give to new friends I might meet along the way. I also bought a cheap smartphone to bring because I didn't want to risk losing my iPhone, but my friend brought hers and it ended up being extremely helpful. She downloaded the Google Translate app (which is amazing and you can use offline), Google Maps, a currency exchanger app, Hostel Bookings.com app and Splitwise (for us to keep track of spending between us). I had Uber on my phone, which we ended up using in Moscow, but all payments there are done in cash.
First stop, Russia!
With bags packed, visas in my passport, itinerary sketched out, away message turned on, and copies of my passport stored with my mom, aunts and (then) boyfriend, I was stoked to begin the journey. I arrived in Moscow, Russia and took the train from the airport into the city. I immediately exchanged some money in Ruples, keeping plenty of U.S. cash for future exchanges. In a pinch, U.S. dollars work well in Mongolia and even China, but the exchange rate can be terrible. You can also exchange Ruples for Tugrik (Mongolian currency) or Renminbi, but I don't recommend holding onto Tugrik - it's not worth much outside of Mongolia. I also bought a Russian SIM card for my phone so I could use it to make calls or access the Internet. The train does not have Wifi or Internet on board.
My friend and I had a blast meeting up with a Russian local, a friend of a friend, who took us biking around Moscow, through Gorky park and beyond. We also went to the Kremlin, the Red Square and the University of Moscow. Moscow was very beautiful - colorful, clean, calm, partly because the city is getting ready for the World Cup next year. I also recommend taking the metro, which is very deep and has very unique architecture.
The day of our train journey, we needed to pick up our tickets from Real Russia, buy provisions for the trip and do any last minute money exchanges or shopping. We arrived at the station just in time and took our spot on two top bunks in a cabin of four, which we shared with two other Russian women.
The next four days we got used to "train lyfe" sleeping, listening to podcasts about Rasputin and Buryats, learning Russian from our bunk mates and visiting the dining cart. There are no showers on the train and two toilets at either end of your carriage. There is also a spot where you can get hot water and you can buy small snacks (ramen noodles, candy bars, etc.) from the provenistas.
The train also keeps time in Moscow time, even though you're traveling across multiple time zones. It's best to have two clocks or watches - one on Moscow time and one on local time. The train stops are written in local time, but to figure that out you often have to add the time zones to Moscow time. If you're worried about missing your stop, you can also ask the provenistas, or carriage stewards, to help you.
The train also takes stops in different towns along the way, some as short as two minutes and others for about 45 where you can get out, stretch your legs and maybe buy a local snack. I really enjoyed these stops along the way as you get to see a place where you rarely ever would. This is part of the beauty of taking the train rather than flying.
Finally, after 4 days of traveling through Siberia on the train, we arrived at 3am in the morning in Irkutsk, Russia. Irkutsk is close to the famed Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world. It's so deep, that if you drained the lake you could satisfy the world's thirst for the next 40 years. The lake has a magical quality to it, and there is no shortage of stories of supernatural events and happenings that have taken place there. It is surrounded by gorgeous green pines and is a popular retreat and vacation spot among Russians. There are also several species completely unique to the lake, including the world's only freshwater seal and a delicious fish called olum. Irkutsk also has a revitalized downtown area where we grabbed a very hip Russian dinner that included dishes such as a deconstructed beef stroganoff.
Next stop, Mongolia
After an amazing time in Siberia, we loaded the train again for a 24 hour journey to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. Looking to get an authentic experience, we booked a yurt (the Mongolians call them gers) through Airbnb. The yurt happened to be rented out by an entrepreneurial young host named Muk, and we stayed with his family who graciously cooked every meal for us. We ate horse meat, mutton and drank fermented sheep milk, which I strangely adored. There's a tiny bit of Mongolian blood in my family tree, which I now can't deny after discovering my affinity for the sour tasting milk. It must be the genes.
We explored the capital and went to the National History Museum of Mongolia, which I highly recommend. Mongolia is a fascinating country with a varied and unique past, ranging from Genghis Khan's reign over half of Asia, Chinese occupation and rule, to a somewhat voluntary occupancy by Russia for several decades, to a peaceful food strike led by Mongolia's millennials for the nation to become a democracy in the early 1990s. Mongolia is also one of a few 11 nations that have sent an astronaut into space. It also contains artifacts that date to the beginning of Homo sapiens. The traditional garb and hair ornaments by Mongolian women also look strangely familiar to what Princess Padme wore in Star Wars: Episode 1.
We also went horse back riding, went hiking to some of the country's absolutely stunning national parks, and went shopping at the Narantuul market, where you can find anything from socks to dishes to furniture to antiques. The people in Mongolia were extremely kind and generous, even though the country is just starting to develop and most are still living day to day off their animal herds. Although many Mongolians are still nomadic, Ulaanbaatar was surrounding by ger suburbs, or haphazard areas where people had set down their yurts and strung up make-shift electrical wires and water pumps. I really loved Mongolia, and although not many people travel there, it is well worth the visit. There is a wildness and honest beauty that is characteristic of new lands that have not been overly travelled or developed yet. I recommend going while this feeling of discovery and magic is still ripe.
All aboard for China
The final stop on the Trans-Siberian railway is Beijing, China. During each leg of the journey, we also switched trains, which were managed by the countries we were traveling through and had an associated dining cart: Russian dining cart, Mongolian dining cart, Chinese, etc. The Chinese train was the most modern of all, with automatically closing bathroom doors and intercoms. At each border, we had to wait 3-6 hours while passports were checked for all passengers. These border crossings often happened for us in the middle of the night, so I slept through most of it. On the train from Mongolia to China, the train also had to change its wheels as the tracks for Russia and Mongolia are a different size than those used in China.
I also loved visiting Beijing and it was my first time in China. Unlike Ulaanbaatar, which is high in altitude and got quite chilly at night, Beijing was hot and humid. My friend and I checked into our Airbnb and then went to check out Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City and the Hutong, a neighborhood of Beijing with much of its historic architecture. We also swung by a night market to stock up on souvenirs and of course, indulged in some Peking duck.
The next day we took the subway to the airport and said our goodbyes, my friend was traveling back to see family in Maine while I was off to a long layover in Seoul before heading back to New York City. During our trip, I was exposed to so many new people, languages (I tried my best to pick up a few words of Russian, Mongolian, Mandarin and Korean), customs, landscapes, foods, sights and smells. I can't wait for the next time I get to explore a part of the world by rail, or to revisit the interesting and exotic lands of Russia, Mongolia and China.