A Trans-Siberian Journey


Over the summer, Alex and I went on an incredible journey that took us through Russia, Mongolia, and China. Via the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Mongolian, and the Jingjiu railways, we made stops in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Ulan-Ude, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

Narrowly missing the festivities of the White Nights, the World Cup, and Naadam, we unintentionally made this trip "about the journey, not the destination." That is, approximately 12000km (7500mi) of journey. And what an experience I'd like to share.

Now, I'm no travel writer, so I don't think I'll be able to describe that experience in any kind of way that'll do it justice. But I do believe that rather than just reading about it from me, you should go and embark on your own journey if you can. And if you are, and are looking for information about obtaining Russian visas as a US citizen, see the appendix below.

Nevertheless, I'll do my best to chronicle our experiences and observations in case they may inform your planning and expectations. Think of this as documentation, but for travel rather than code.

CCCP Train

Trains

Itinera'y

The central focus of our trip was of course taking the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. Technically, the Trans-Siberian line specifically refers to the route from Moscow, in the west, all the way to Vladivostok, in the east.

The route we took actually started beyond the span of the Trans-Siberian, in Saint Petersburg. We took the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway, and arrived in Moscow after a trip that took less than 4 hours. From Moscow, we boarded the Trans-Siberian proper and embarked on a 3.5-day journey to Ulan-Ude, a city just off the southeastern shore of Lake Baikal. After a brief excursion to see the deepest lake in the world, we followed the Trans-Mongolian line on a 15-hour trip that took us past the Russian-Mongolian border to Ulaanbaatar. We stayed in Ulaanbaatar for a few days, before continuing on this route for 31 hours and and ending the Trans-Siberian span of our trip in Beijing, China. But our train travels didn't end there: after spending a week in Beijing, we took the Beijing-Kowloon through train and finally arrived in a coastal city once again, 5 time zones away and on the Tropic of Cancer rather than the Arctic Circle.

Here's a summarized itinerary:

Saint Petersburg, Russia
.
.   Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway (3h45m, 650km)
.
Moscow, Russia
.
.   Trans-Siberian Railway (3d9h43m, 5609km)
.
Ulan-Ude, Russia
.
.   Trans-Mongolian Railway (15h5m, 695km)
.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
.
.   Trans-Mongolian Railway (1d7h5m, 1502km)
.
Beijing, China
.
.   Beijing-Kowloon through train (24h20m, 2311km)
.
Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR

Boarding the train in Moscow, confused

Planning

If this whole itinerary seems like it was incredible difficult to book, that's because it probably was. Thankfully, we came across a UK-based travel agency called Real Russia that did an incredible job of arranging everything for us.

Though the actual train tickets aren't issued until a month before the departure date, we could arrange our trip a couple of months in advance with Real Russia; they would simply book the tickets on our behalf from Russian ticketing agencies as soon as they became available. The Saint Petersburg-Moscow leg of the journey did not require physical tickets, as the train conductors would simply check our passports at the platform, but for the rest of tickets, Real Russia arranged to have them delivered to our hotels and Airbnbs.

I'm not being paid to say this: I highly recommend Real Russia's services if you're planning on doing this trip. We didn't find out until later, but they also issue letters of invitation if you still need to apply for a visa.

For the Beijing-Hong Kong leg of the journey, things are apparently a lot more complicated on the Chinese side than on the Hong Kong side. Purchasing tickets in Beijing requires the passenger showing up in person with passports and all, and are only available a month before the departure date. That makes it kind of tricky if you're planning on being in, say, Russia, the month prior to your Beijing departure. Fortunately, my dad discovered that in Hong Kong, anybody can just show up to a travel agency office and purchase tickets for others, and just pay up front. So that's how we got those tickets.

The train platform in Beijing

Train Life

I'm not going to go into too much detail about train life. It's very well documented on actual travel blogs out there. I can vouch for the accuracy of the articles written about the Trans-Siberian on Katie Aune's blog and on Roads and Kingdoms.

We traveled in the first class, 2-person cabins on the Moscow-Ulan-Ude leg, and in the second class, 4-person cabins on the Ulan-Ude-Ulaanbaatar and Ulaanbatar-Beijing segments. Second class is almost like first class, except with two extra bunks -- perfectly comfortable, and we got to chat with our cabin mates to pass the time. Some are fellow travelers, from whom you may learn a lot (see section below, Trans-Siberian Trivia); others may have incredible stories to tell.

A Mongolian cabin mate bids farewell to her family

Of course, the journey wasn't entirely luxurious either. I'll summarize a few gotchas that were relevant to us here:

  • Power outlets aren't common on Russian trains, even in the first class cabins. They're typically located in the narrow corridor outside the cabins, and near the bathrooms. In order to avoid obstructing the walkway, I taped my devices to the wall while charging them. Bring a power bank if you intend on using mobile devices heavily.

  • There is air conditioning. In fact, too much of it (for me any way). Bring some comfy, warm lounge clothing. You'll probably want it for Mongolia any way, which due to its altitude, is fairly cool during the summer. (Fun fact: Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world.)

  • Use the train as an opportunity to experience train foods.

    • There's almost always a dining car, but the food they make there isn't exactly what you pay for (though still affordable by US standards).

    • There's a water boiler on every train car, called a samovar (which barely resembles the ornamental kind you might find in a Russian tea room), that you can use for making instant foods.

    • During one of the many stops, you wander onto the platform and stock up on some food. Every stall sells an assortment of pirozhki, which are usually cold but homemade. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some are better than others.

    • Also be on the lookout for stalls that sell refridgerated bags of yoghurt, which are an excellent source of protein on longer journeys.

    • Stock up on teabags or instant coffee, and don't forget to pack a mug or some paper cups! They sell these on the train but at a marked up price. You can also pack or purchase UHT milk, which don't need to be refridgerated.

    • Instant foods taste incredible when you've been in the same cabin for three days. If you're packing cup noodles, consider packing a loaf of bread to soak up the soup. And be sure to try some of the instant mashed potatoes in a cup they sell everywhere.

  • To stay clean during a multi-day train journey, you should make sure to pack some wet wipes. Also, wetting a towel with some hot water from the samovar and washing your face with it in the morning is super refreshing.

Life on the train

Trans-Siberian Trivia

I should stop here and give a disclaimer that I don't really consider myself a railway enthusiast, though I can be easily mistaken for one. After all, a few of my friends are. I've laid out the details of our journey like this because I figured they'd appreciate it, and I just happen to like keeping my information organized.

We did also meet a few railway enthusiasts on the trains with us, and pretended to follow what they were saying until we didn't. But I did learn a thing or two that I found quite interesting. And yes, I'm citing Wikipedia here, which I know is shunned upon, but that's at least more credible than telling you that I heard about this from "a fellow traveler named Claire."

Track Gauge

It turns out that the size of the train tracks matter a lot, but is not standardized between countries. This is called the track gauge. As it turns out, Chinese tracks use the 1435mm standard gauge, which is also used in the US and in most parts of Europe. Russian and Mongolian tracks, on the other hand, use, well, Russian gauge, which is 1520mm. These were built in the 50s, when Mongolia was still affiliated with the Soviet Union.

This means that the trains need to undergo a bogie exchange at the Mongolian-Chinese border. This might sound exciting to a train enthusiast (and a little goofy to everyone else), but you don't actually get to see the process take place. To Claire's dismay, the bogie exchange takes place while you're going through immigration checks at the Chinese border town of Erenhot, in the middle of the night. While you wait inside the border control building, the trains are towed off outside and something is done is to them that makes them work on Chinese tracks. A few more domestic Chinese passenger carriages are also added to the front. The whole process isn't much of a spectacle, so just bring a pillow to sleep on or something to read, because there's really nothing in the border control building to keep you entertained.

Some very nice train tracks

Powered Lines

Another important difference between train tracks is whether or not they're powered. The Russian and Chinese segments of the Trans-Mongolian route had overhead power lines, while the Mongolian segment did not.

This meant that the locomotive needed to be changed at both the Russian-Mongolian and the Mongolian-Chinese borders. At the Mongolian-Chinese border, this done at the same time as the bogie exchange, under the cover of darkness, but at the Russian-Mongolian border we were permitted to get off the train and hang around the platform when the locomotive drove off to be switched out.

Even though the electric locomotives are more efficient, there were some other interesting trade-offs at play that we got to experience. Not having overhead lines permits a pretty incredible view, since the route is no longer accompanied by an endless series of utility poles. That said, I noticed that the diesel locomotive did also produce a constant stream of black smoke that made me feel very bad about human civilization and development and the such.

Nocomotive

Lodging and Transport

Saint Petersburg

For our first stop, we stayed at Velohostel Marata, an affordable place just around the corner from the Dostoevsky Museum (which we never ended up going to). They have an interesting pricing scheme where you can suggest your price, and effectively barter for your hotel room and get a slight discount. It wasn't the most comfortable stay, but you get what you pay for.

Your accomodation is required to notify the police that you're staying with them within a few days of your arrival. This isn't strictly enforced, but some hotels may charge you a small fee so that they can do the paperwork. We had to do this for Velohostel, and a day later they gave us a slip of paper that proved we were registered that we were supposed to hold on to.

A couple of things to look out for when staying at Saint Petersburg:

  • Because of the latitude, the sky is bright for a ridiculous proportion of the day. If I recall correctly, the sun set just after 10pm and rose at 4am. I'm not sure it helped us get over jetlag.

  • There are mosquitoes in Saint Petersburg. You should try to purchase some kind of plug-in mosquito repellant that you can keep on overnight, as well as bug spray to for when you're out and about. We borrowed one from the front desk at our hostel. I also seem to hate mosquito bites more than the average person, so do what you will with this advice, but always better safe than sorry.

  • Tap water might not be very drinkable. I'm not actually sure about this one, but various online sources have recommended that we stick to bottled water. Check with your host or hotel to see what practices they recommend.

Saint Petersburg sky at 10pm

The subway here is pretty good, but we didn't really use it so I can only say so much about it. But the couple of times we did use it, it was very efficient, and I recommend at least checking it out.

  • Some of the stations are absolutely beautiful and would have you thinking you'd stumbled into a museum or a palace. Google for some pictures.

  • Moskovskaya Station, where you can transfer to the bus to the airport, is especially interesting because you can't actually see the tracks from the platform. They're obscured by granite walls and metal doors. It just looks like you're standing in a long, strangely symmetric corridor, and has a slightly eerie but peculiar feel.

Moscow

In Moscow, we stayed at an Airbnb, a single room in a couples' apartment. And it was a pleasant and comfortable stay. The apartment overlooks the Moskva River across from the Kiyevsky Railway Station, and is a short walk away from Arbat Street and New Arbat Avenue, where you can find a lot of great restaurants, food courts, bars, and malls.

Here that we discovered locals tend to be pretty relaxed about registering guests with the police. Supposedly, it only really matters if you're staying for more than a couple of business days.

Some Fulbrighters that had spoken to Alex about their time in Russia advised her to judiciously exercise constraint when taking photos, especially of things that most tourists don't usually take photos of. Nothing of the sort happened to us, but supposedly they were taken to the police station and detained because they were caught taking photos of a building they found architecturally interesting. It turns out that building was actually a military factory.

A building in Moscow

Now, the Moscow Metro is absolutely terrific. Definitely utilize it to get around -- Moscow is a big city and not very walkable.

  • The Metro is incredibly efficient. If you arrive just a minute too late at the platform, don't sweat it -- another train will show up in a couple of minutes. It never felt crowded.

  • The Metro is located deep underground. It takes a few minutes just to ride the escalator all the way down.

  • Some of those escalators are old in a really cool kind of way. The steps are made out of wood, unlike the metal ones you typically see in most malls and airports.

  • We didn't see them, but there are dogs.

Ulan-Ude

For the couple of days after we hopped off the Trans-Siberian at Ulan-Ude, we actually stayed at the hotel Baikal Riviera. This was located in the small town of Gremyachinsk (not to be confused with the Gremyachinsk of Perm Krai you'll find on Wikipedia), a 2-hour drive from Ulan-Ude and right against the shore of Lake Baikal.

The hotel was more of a resort, a series of houses amongst an assortment of recreational facilities, including a basketball court, a ping pong tent, and a small banya (Russian bathhouse). It turns out that hotels can also register guests with the police online. We still had to pay a small fee, but we didn't get any physical receipt for being successfully registered.

It turns out a lot of Russians go out there to camp and enjoy the wilderness. On a sunny day, you'll find locals sunbathing on the beaches on the lake shore. We also came a small herd of cows hanging out on the sand. It's all very pleasant, and I wish we'd stayed there longer.

Lake baikal

I imagine getting there without speaking Russian is tricky, but the foreign language requirement prepares us for situations like this. Alex booked a taxi over the phone, and a very friendly man named Serge drove us there and back. On the way there, we passed by a stretch of road where it's supposed to be good luck to throw coins out the window. We had some change to spare.

Ulan-Ude itself is also pretty incredible. The capital of the Siberian Republic of Buryatia is also home to the world's largest bust of Vladimir Lenin. There's also the Datsan Rinpoche Bagsha, a Buddhist temple with a stellar view of Ulan-Ude, worth checking out.

Largest Lenin bust in the world

Ulaanbaatar

We split our time in Mongolia between two places. We spent the first few days in a ger (a traditional Mongolian round tent) out in the middle of nowhere, and the last few days at an Airbnb in Ulaanabaatar city.

And when I say the middle of nowhere, I really do mean the middle of nowhere. To get there, we drove about an hour south from Ulaanbaatar, to reach nowhere, and then drove off-road for about another hour west to get to the middle of nowhere. For about 30 minutes, we were just driving on a winding dirt trail through the grassy plains. At one point, our driver even got lost, having apparently driven too far, but can you blame him? With no landmarks in sight, not even a tree or a utility pole, I'm not really sure how anybody is able to navigate at all out here. He didn't even attempt to use any kind of GPS or map. Luckily, we came across a family just hanging around outside their ger, and they were able to direct us to the right place. Again, I have no idea how they were able to navigate our driver at all without any landmarks to position ourselves relative to.

To our relief, we arrived at our ger camp soon after the navigation hiccup. This was Arburd Sands, located at the brink of the Mongolian steppe where the plains gradually dissolve into the Gobi Desert. We arranged this accomodation through Nomadic Journeys, a Mongolian tour operator offering a range of excursions, from all-inclusive horseback treks to the self-guided stays like the one we booked.

Arburd Sandscape

I can't speak for any of the other excursions, but our experience at Arburd Sands was fantastic. Between the twenty or so gers at the camp, the amenities were incredible despite being out in the middle of nowhere:

  • Spacious guest gers with two twin beds, nightlamps, a portable sink, and a furnace for when it gets cold (we never needed it in the summer).

  • Bathroom stalls with clean toilet seats, dropping down into a large pit underneath. Each bathroom also had its own sink.

  • A restaurant ger that would serve delicious multi-course home-cooked meals, three times a day.

    • They cooked fresh vegetables, presumably grown in the greenhouse tents found on the far side of the ger camp.

    • You could also charge your electronics in this ger.

  • Shower gers with running water, which we never used but were surprised to find.

  • A lounge ger with a small collection of reading material, of which a disproportionate number of books were German.

  • Most of the staff seemed to understand a basic level of English, and a few spoke fluently.

  • Technically not an amenity, but there are some camels and horses just hanging around to the camp, which you can arrange to ride as a daytime activity.

  • They accept cash payments in US dollars or Mongolian tugrik for things like food, drinks, and guest activities.

A few things to watch out for:

  • No cellular signal out here. Well, if you hike to the top of the nearby hill, you might get one bar of signal, enough to text someone or receive some emails. But say goodbye to any Snap streaks you're trying to maintain because apparently one bar isn't good enough for Snapchat.

  • No need to look out for mosquitoes, but flies will get into your ger, as well as the occasional spider, beetle, or unidentified insect. As far as I can tell these are all harmless.

  • Lighting is scarce in the nighttime. The camp isn't exactly plugged into the electric grid. A flashlight might come in handy.

  • They provide plenty of bedding to keep you warm at night, but it can still be chilly in the day time, even in the summer. It may also rain. It doesn't hurt to have a sweater, a windbreaker, and some boots handy. Oh, and getting the weather forecast does involve walking up a hill.

Searching for cellular signal

All in all, Arburd Sands was excellent. Our bus experienced some technical difficulties on way back to Ulaanbaatar, but our driver decided to push on any way and limped us back to the city.

We arrived at our next accomodation, an Airbnb right down the street from the State Department Store. The apartment building was through a sketchy alleyway, and the stairs were decorated with downtrodden security system whose cables were loosely draped across the concrete walls, but we were glad to find our apartment clean, comfortable, and spacious. Otherwise, nothing particularly noteworthy.

We didn't really utilize public transport here, because the city is fairly walkable. Be advised that very few businesses seem to be open early in the morning -- we had a hard time finding food when we disembarked our train from Russia at 6am.

Beijing and Hong Kong

I don't have much useful information to give about Beijing and Hong Kong, since my parents live there and provided accomodation and transport.

Conclusion

I'm not writing an essay, so there's not really anything conclusive for me to say, but I'll end this long write-up with a few general tips I wish I'd known before this journey:

  • Purchase a month-long international roaming plan for your existing cellular service provider. You save yourself the hassle of having to purchase and set up a local SIM card, and can count on being able to look things up right when you get off the plane and have no idea what you're doing.

    • Turn off data roaming for apps like Facebook, Messenger, and Snapchat if you can -- they eat through your data like candy. You can also put Snapchat on Travel Mode, which prevents it from automatically downloading new Snaps.

    • Also turn off data roaming for music streaming services. Try to cache what you want to listen to by downloading it so you can listen to it offline without draining your data quota.

    • Google services are often the most reliable out here (until you get to mainland China, where it and half of the internet is blocked).

  • Wikitravel is incredibly useful. Some of the specific businesses it lists are often outdated, but it's a great resource to get started.

  • Study the map of each city (Google Maps seemed the most comprehensive). Not only is it interesting to see how different cities are laid out, it's also a good way to spot random landmarks you can visit.

  • Speaking a little bit of the right foreign language goes a long way. Obviously Alex was instrumental in getting us around Russia, since she speaks Russian, but my speaking Chinese got us really far as well due to the sheer number of Chinese tourists present everywhere. We also came across plenty of German tourists, but neither of us spoke the language and wish we could.

Trains are cool

Appendix

Visas

The Russian government is pretty strict about foreigners visiting their country. The US Embassy in Russia has a useful guide about the Russian visa system, which is great for getting started.

We used a single entry visa, which allowed us to stay in Russia for up to 30 days. Our original plan was to go to Russia earlier in the summer, so we applied with an entry date of early July. However, due to scheduling conflict back in the US, we had to delay our entry by a couple of weeks. Luckily, we'd given ourselves the entire 30 days when we applied for the visa, and were still able to enjoy 2 weeks there. So moral of the story here is, be generous with the dates you declare when applying for your travel visa to give your travel plans some breathing room.

The first step to obtaining a Russian visa is getting a letter of invitation. This formal document is required for all Russian visas, even tourist visas: every traveller to Russia must have some Russian legal entity "sponsor" them. This is less complicated and daunting as it sounds: many travel agencies, hotels, and other tourism businesses readily provide official letters of invitation, usually for a small fee. Most don't even seem to require you to use their primary service. We just used the order form on the website of the hostel we stayed at in Saint Petersburg. Make sure to apply for the letter of invitation as soon as you know your dates of entry and exit, as there is usually a processing time of a couple of business days.

Next, you'll need to apply for the visa. This was actually my first time applying for a visa myself (as a young adult and without my parents' help). Before showing at a visa processing center, you'll need to fill out a visa application form (see these instructions) with your personal details and information about your trip. Note that this site might be a little buggy -- it did not work on Safari for me, although it worked fine on Firefox. Make sure to write down your user credentials that you used to create the visa application, so you can revisit it and quickly fix any errors from a public computer if you run into any problems at the visa office. My decision to start generating secure, random passwords was pretty poorly timed, which cost me an extra 5min recreating my entire application from scratch.

You'll need to fill out at least one local address to indicate where in Russia you will be staying, so it's a good idea to have at least planned that out before you start filling this out. For us, we just use our first stop, Saint Petersburg. But you won't have to fill this out completely. When we did, we had not decided on the dates we would stay in Moscow and Ulan-Ude. Just make sure you don't declare cities without having residence addresses for them -- we made this mistake the first time and had to fill out our form again, omitting the extra cities we'd put down the first time.

You'll also want to plan when to visit a visa processing center. You'll need to turn in your passport for processing, which can take a couple of weeks worth of business days. This means that you won't be able to travel internationally during that time (with that passport), so plan accordingly. Also make sure to show up with passport photos printed on photo paper (you should be able to do this at your local CVS or RiteAid), or be prepared to pay a small fee to have the visa processing center take your photo for you if they offer this service.

Rather than going through one of the Russian consulates, we used a Russian visa service, ILS. We were lucky to be based out of New York at the time, so the New York office was just a subway ride away. There was also a Staples on the adjacent block, so when we had an issue with our visa application, we could pretty efficiently fix and reprint our application. I'd like to here that though there information on the ILS website is sometimes inconsistent with the actual details of their service, the people working at ILS were very helpful.

Alex actually had to apply again later on for another visa, for a separate trip to Russia. This time, she went through ILS San Franciso. Note that although the general consulate in San Francisco closed in 2017, the ILS office remains open. It seems that they just mail their applications to the Seattle office -- be prepared that this adds a couple of business days to the processing time and costs slightly extra. Also, where the visa application asks for the visa center, you should choose "ILS Washington" (though you should call ahead to ILS and make sure, as this may change after this time of writing).

Some more handy information that may or may not be published on the ILS site. Though they say they don't, both the New York and San Francisco ILS offices will take card payment, with an additional fee. You won't need to schedule an appointment to pick up your passport in person, though you will need to do so for your own passport, or fill out some extra paperwork so that someone else may pick it up on your behalf. ILS also offers other services for stuff like visa application by mail, filling in your application for you, etc. See their website for more details, I'm not an ILS salesperson though I did enjoy their service.

As it turns out, you don't need a Mongolian visa if you hold a US passport, but you will if you're an EU citizen. And of course, if you're planning going to China, you'll need a Chinese visa as well. I didn't need one myself, but Alex had to line up early in the morning at the SF consulate to get hers. Since the cost is all the same for US citizens, you may as well get the 10-year visa to avoid the hassle of needing to apply again any time soon.

Police on the platform