24/09/2013 - 29/09/2013
We took the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. The journey takes 4 and a half days. We opted for 2nd class tickets where you stay in 4-bed berths. There are 3rd class tickets, which are obviously cheaper, though not hugely so and you have to stay in an open plan dorm-like area, which didn't sound pleasant for such a long journey. There are also 1st class tickets, of course, where you have just 2-bed berths and you get to have a shower, but they were a lot more expensive.
In advance of our trip we'd been reading up on other people's experiences and tips. These were useful in terms of knowing what to buy and how things work, but there were also some horror stories. We were mostly worried as to what our roommates would be like and whether we'd be able to communicate with them or not. Spending over 4 days in close proximity would be quite awkward if we didn't get on. Thankfully our fears were quickly allayed when they turned out to be 2 fellow Brits - Tom and Dan. Our whole carriage was full of international travellers who were able to speak English, infact, so that was pretty cool. I think because we all booked through Real Russia we got grouped together. It made for a really nice and sociable atmosphere.
The train itself was basic but decent. It's not some kind of luxury train like the Orient Express, though you might have gathered that already when I mentioned that only 1st class get showers. Yes, over 4 days on a train and no shower. You do start to feel a bit gross but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. On day 3 I washed my hair in the sink using a small water bottle. I felt a lot fresher for that. It's also useful to take on wet wipes, antibacterial gel and toilet paper.
Food-wise there's a restaurant car on the train, so you can go there for meals if you like. It was a Russian car for most of our journey though became Mongolian in Mongolia (then becomes Chinese in China). We didn't actually eat there as the menu didn't look great and was expensive for what it was (plus we heard the portions were small and the waitresses were really rude). There's a hot water tank on each carriage so you can make instant noodles, soups, tea and coffee etc. Plus on most platforms, when the train stops, you can get off and buy food there. Sometimes that's just snacks and instant noodles but sometimes there's some hot food too.
Prior to the trip we tried to buy enough food to ensure we didn't starve at least, but then we topped up on the way as well. In addition to noodle pots we also bought some mash pots, which were really good, plus some instant porridge oats for breakfast. They were a really good idea - lots of people didn't seem to do a proper breakfast. We also took some biscuits, chocolate, cake etc. Handily I also had a plastic cup from Sziget Festival and Jamie had some cutlery from Wok To Walk. We bought a few more plastic cups and Anna gave us some plastic cutlery she had and we were pretty well set up for the journey.
The attendants on the train were Chinese and we had 2 on our carriage. One was quite serious and kept to himself but the other guy was awesome. He was called Juan (though probably not spelled like that) and he seemed to be our main attendant. He didn't speak English but would communicate well via gestures and facial expressions (plus sometimes through Alan, a guy in our carriage from Hong Kong). He'd come and watch what we were up to - sometimes even taking part in the drinking games! One of the drinking games (Fire Cup) involved burning holes in toilet paper, which he was totally fine with. He also let us borrow his hat to pose for photos, plus seemed to have a never-ending supply of beer that he sold to us throughout the trip. So yeah, he was awesome.
Our carriage wasn't particularly full and was mostly made up of people in their early to mid twenties (hence all the drinking games!). We played quite a lot of cards as well.
Aside from the chatting, drinking, eating and card playing, I did a fair amount of reading (I got through the whole Iain Banks book), a bit of listening to music plus tried to catch up on my blog writing a bit (albeit in old-fashioned pen and paper form to save on electronics). There were a few low-voltage plug sockets in the corridors but none in our rooms. This didn't end up bothering me at all though as I didn't use my electronics enough to need to charge them anyway. The time went surprisingly quickly and I didn't really get bored. Weirdly I got more bored on the long train in Canada and that was only for two and a half days.
All in all it was quite relaxing and really good fun. It was almost disappointing to arrive in Ulaanbaatar (but only almost). Prior to that we had the border crossing - you stop at the Russian side and then the Mongolian side. It takes a few hours all in all and you can't use the toilet when in the stations (they lock it). Border officials are so serious - plus the Mongolian ones made us close all the curtains for some unfathomable reason. The Mongolian town at the border though was brilliant - we nicknamed it Disco Town. It seemed to be full of neon lights and coloured windows. It was a nice contrast to the dull and repetitive Russian scenery. There were a few scenic parts of the journey, don't get me wrong - the areas by the lakes were particularly good - but there was also a lot of barren wasteland and rows of trees.
The train was due in to Ulaanbaatar at 6:30 so we aimed to get up not long before that. However the serious conductor woke us up at 5:30 to give us our tickets back and collect our bedding from us. That wasn't fun, though it wasn't the rude awakening we'd had on our way to Istanbul either, thankfully. We arrived on time and said our goodbyes to our carriage-mates. Quite a few were getting off in Ulaanbaatar but a few were travelling right through to Beijing.
I'd definitely recommend it as an experience, though it's your carriage-mates who really define how good it is, so I guess it's a bit of a lottery. Thankfully our personal lottery results were pretty damn good.