Choo Choo! ?
So after 3 weeks travelling on the TransMongolian, here are our thoughts about the train and the experience as a whole.
Was it worth it?
Absolutely! It is without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best experiences ever. We travelled through 2 countries; one which has quite a negative reputation and the other which we know very little about and ended in a third which has so much to see and do. For us, this sums up travelling.
Booking everything through a travel company was definitely the best option for us. We booked ours through Russian Experience: Trans-Siberian Holidays. Everything from start to finish was well organised. The offices in the UK assisted us with the application of visas (so we only had to make 1 trip down to London) and all the tours in each city were of a great standard. The tour guides were friendly, helpful, had great English and were eager to answer our questions. We also managed to have private tour guides in each city. We aren’t sure if they are always private or because we went in low season that there just weren’t any other visitors around at the same time.
In addition to the tours, we had 3* accommodation in the cities. The standards of these do vary but they were all clean, had friendly staff and were very central. The only hotel which wasn’t central was the lodge in Lake Baikal. It wasn’t far from the centre, but in such cold conditions, it was. This probably won’t be a problem in the summer. All the hotels also included breakfast (again quality differed, but there was more than enough food). There’s also return transfer from the train station to the hotels. On top of this, we had 2 excursions which we chose husky sledging and the wooden museum. If you go outside of the winter months there are more choices for excursions.
Obviously booking through an agency means it’s a lot more expensive, but we personally found it to be the better option. Booking trains by yourself can be quite daunting and difficult, especially when we don’t speak/read Russia or Mongolian. The trains were of a really good standard, but they do seem to vary depending on which leg you get on at. We had booked first class cabins (2 beds) but they can’t be guaranteed. When this happens, you get placed in a second-class cabin (4 beds) but they buy all 4 berths, so you still have a private room. Some people prefer to stay in the second class cabins in order to meet people, but we are old and grumpy and prefer our own space. Also, spending 3 nights in a tiny room with strangers can get suffocating.
St Petersburg – Moscow (1 night- first class cabin)
Our first night on the train was exceptional. We had little snacks and even breakfast was provided. The beds were pretty comfy too and we had a good night’s sleep.
Moscow – Yekaterinburg (1 night- first class cabin)
Very similar to the first train. Excellent once again. This time we had an evening meal; salmon with veg.
Yekaterinburg – Irkutsk (3 nights- 2nd class)
Although we had a 2nd class cabin, it was still excellent as we didn’t have to share with other people. ? We still got a meal with this one, but it was less fancy. Nevertheless, we had the option of eating in the restaurant car or in our cabin. We chose the latter. It didn’t look like much, but it was surprisingly tasty. We also visited the dining cart for some drinks. It was nice to not be inside our berth for a while. The food is only OK and the drinks are more expensive, but it was a nice experience. Of course, you can’t go through Russia without Vodka.
Irkutsk – Ulaanbaatar ( 2 nights- 2nd class)
This was the worst part of the journey for us. Not because of the train, but because the train staff were exceptionally rude. The attendant was a bit of a draconian dictator and was quite mean. For some reason, they kept locking the toilets for hours. Trains usually locked them at stations, but these never seemed to unlock them. Because we were leaving Russia and entering Mongolia, we also had long periods of stopping to go through border control/immigration/customs. Everything is done on the train, but it does take quite a while. The actual cabin itself was fine and just like the previous train.
Ulaanbaatar – Beijing (1 night- first class)
So we ended our journey on a high, back to a first class cabin. This was the best one of them all as we even had a comfy sitting chair. We also had an ensuite bathroom with shower. Border formalities were similar to the last one, but a little quicker. We did stop for a while when they were changing something on the train. Apparently, the tracks are different in each country, so trains need modifying when they enter another country. This journey also had the best views so it’s worth waking up for those.
All in all, the transmongolian was a great way to start out honeymoon!