When it comes to the world of infamous and grueling train trips, the Trans-Siberian railway is probably the grand-zaddy of them all. An epic 5,772 miles of iron cutting through mountains, valleys, tundra, and snow connecting the Russian capital of Moscow with the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, just a stone's throw from North Korea and China.
This blog post is not about that trip though. Well, not entirely at least.
The modern Trans Siberian railway has evolved into a conglomeration of various train services running along the same set of tracks before branching off to different end destinations. This post will focus specifically on the Trans Mongolian, a train that departs Moscow once a week on Tuesday night and heads east over the traditional Trans Siberian routing until it veers south about 3/4th of the way through the journey to cut through Mongolia and ending in Beijing.
The candy-colored train station in Omsk, Russia, on the southern border near Kazakhstan.
I am very open about my status as an aviation geek but I have to admit that as time goes on I'm becoming more and more of a train nerd as well. The Trans Siberian is the crown jewel of the world's train journeys in my eyes - the Superbowl, the World Series, the RuPaul's Drag Race finale. I would have loved to have taken the traditional Moscow - Vladivostok route but opted for the Trans Mongolian instead, which is a choice a lot of travelers contemplating the journey take as well. Why? Well the routing takes you from the very European Moscow and slowly transitions you through the mountains, into the tundra, and down through the increasingly Asian surroundings of the Mongolian steppe and finally the chaos and gritty of modern Beijing. It's a convenient way to see multiple countries in a single trip and the scenery on this particular routing is quite impressive. The traditional Moscow - Vladivostok route has plenty of merit but generally sees much more traffic from locals than visitors. I don't really make travel decisions based on what other people are more interested in though. Still, I ended up on this routing because I wanted to visit both Russia and Mongolia as they were two countries I had never set foot within and are both places I've long had an interest in exploring a bit.
There's actually a lot of information out there on this particular train trip, but I wanted to try to offer my take on the whole process as well as comment on a few things that might be of particular interest to LGBT travelers. I'm going to go into the basics of the where, when, what, and how to start and then end with a section specifically for LGBT travelers.
WHEN TO GO
A train trip through Russia, particularly the notoriously cold Siberian stretch of northern Asia, can be a bit of a daunting thought. Many people have been raised to think of the area as a desolate wilderness of bitter cold and endless snow. Yes, you can definitely find those things on this journey but like most places there is a seasonality to the year and when you take the trip has a heavy impact on what you'll see and do along the way. Trains run year round so there's no limit on when you can actually take the journey.
The most popular time of year to take the train is, of course, summer. The weather is at its warmest and due to the latitude of the train's path you will enjoy extended daylight hours. The higher temps mean less concern about those infamous biting chills in Siberia and the longer daylight hours mean you're less pressed for time when watching the scenery roll by or are out and about exploring one the cities along the route. The warmer temperatures mean you can pack lighter without the need for bulky clothing like sweaters and coats. Some downsides to summer travel include potentially missing the serene beauty of the Siberian winter landscape (if that's what you're interested in) and the fact that despite what I read online, there appeared to be little in the way of air conditioning on the Trans Mongolian other than a very loud oscillating fan in my train cabin. Depending on your class of travel, being on a train for several days with dozens of people that have not showered in summer weather can be a major bummer. If you're stopping along the way, your outdoor activities can including hiking and exploration of the wilderness in the region with relative warmth and comfort. Note that while day time temps are nice, evenings can still be a bit chilly.
Traveling during the winter is less popular but perhaps a bit more atmospheric. You'll get to see the Siberian expanse the way you've likely always imagined it - piles of snow, massive icicles, and fur-lined coats and hats as far as the eye can see. Things are the opposite of what they're like in the summer with a very bulky packing list to remain warm and relatively few hours of daylight to explore and enjoy the scenery. Unlike the air conditioning issue though, heating is definitely supplied on the train though you may want to bring an extra blanket as the one provided on the train was warm but you may desire an extra layer when sleeping. Stopping for sightseeing along the way will mean bundling up when stopping by sights in cities or changing your hiking plans for dog sledding or ice fishing. A big bonus if you're not into people - the route is much less busy with tourists this time of year.
Passengers on the Trans Mongolian pick up food and drinks at a small kiosk at one of the station stops as seen through a rain-speckled window.
Spring and autumn are shoulder seasons for the train which means fewer passengers but variable weather. I traveled on the train at the very end of May through the first week of June which might seem like prime summer season but that high up in latitude was actually still on the cusp of springtime with generally chilly temperatures and rain showers. While exploring Moscow I walked around in a t-shirt with a spring jacket in my daypack for when the sun went down, but once on the train and into the region past the Ural Mountains the temperatures generally stayed in the 40-65 Fahrenheit range meaning I'd wear shorts and a t-shirt while on the train but put on jeans and a light coat whenever the train stopped and I went for a stroll. Packing would mean planning for various temperatures so throw in a sweater along with a tank top to your bag. On the plus side the train had passengers but wasn't jam packed like it can be in the summer months. Scenery was still quite beautiful and flowers were in full bloom along many portions of the track.
PICKING A CLASS OF SERVICE AND BUYING TICKETS
The Trans Mongolian offers three classes of service, all of which are suitable for travelers though choices should be made on your desired level of comfort and privacy. The train is actually operated by the Chinese, which means the classes of service differ slightly in description and implementation than their Russian counterparts on the Vladivostok route. You have your choice of a first class 2-bed cabin, a "deluxe" second class 4-bed cabin, or a standard second class 4 bed cabin (which I'll refer to as 3rd class for the purpose of this guide).
Many people who've looked into Trans Siberian routes have likely seen photos or heard stories of the infamous Russian 3rd class "platzkart" which is essentially an open dormitory on a train car. This is simultaneously a dream come true and a nightmare for travelers depending on how you like to get from point to point. It lacks any ounce of privacy, can be crowded, smelly, and crammed with luggage and people. On the other hand it's also the best way to make friends and pass time on a trip that is counted in days, not hours. And it's prime feng shui for making new friends who probably have lots of vodka. For better or worse, 3rd class isn't offered on the Chinese Trans Mongolian though. The lowest tier of ticket is the "3rd class" 4 bed cabin, which is simply two sets of bunked beds with a small table between them in an enclosed suite. There's no attached bathroom or any other special amenities, you get one bed in a shared room with potentially three other strangers. The "deluxe" second class 4 bed cabin is a slight upgrade from the standard option as it has a tiny increase in size over the standard option. It's still an enclosed suite with four beds that you will share with other passengers without any additional perks though.
I debated my best option for class of service on my trip and ultimately decided on paying for the first class 2 bed cabin because I personally place a high value on privacy. I'm an extrovert by nature but when its time for me to wind down I need solitude. So what's the first class cabin like?
The room features two bunked beds on one side with a large table attached to the wall in the middle and a chair along the opposite wall. As you can see almost everything is upholstered in a rather odd maroon/reddish fabric that resembled crushed velvet though I'm not quite sure what it was. Regardless, it was relatively soft. White cotton covers are placed on all surfaces where your head might come into contact with the fabric and a tablecloth is provided for the small table in the middle of the cabin.
The first class cabin also has an attached bathroom but don't get too excited - it's just a sink with some mirrors. The space is shared with the neighboring cabin, so in theory two other people have access to this space if you're alone (and didn't pay for a solo cabin). The door you see in the picture above is mirrored on the other side of the bathroom, so each room can use the handle to access the space and then turn the latch on the lock on the opposite door to prevent the other cabin from accessing it. It's really only useful for washing your dishes, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, and other personal hygiene activities. If you need to answer nature's call you'll still need head down to the end of your train car to use the shared toilet. There's a shower head on a handle but I found this entirely useless for bathing due to lack of proper draining and water pressure being essentially zero.
In terms of buying a ticket, you have a few choices but I'll focus on the two I think are most relevant/useful. Conventional wisdom says you should buy your ticket (or tickets) once you arrive in Russia/China/Mongolia to save a bit of money and cut out the middleman that is necessary in many cases when purchasing online prior to arrival. The Russian railroad website (LINK) allows you to buy tickets directly without a middle man if you're not in country yet. You can buy tickets starting 45 days before departure and the site will even allow you to pick your specific cabin car and "seat" before purchase. The website isn't particularly modern or user friendly though, and some portions of it only display Russian even if you selected the English language site. You'll be able to buy your ticket but the service ends there, no other trip assistance will be given.
If budget is a concern for you, definitely consider going this route though note that it isn't without some potential issues. If your Russian is poor or non-existent you may struggle speaking with ticket staff as English language skills are relatively poor in Russia, even in a major city like Moscow in a job that often sees non-Russian speaking customers. Also, the Trans Mongolian is the most popular of the three Trans Siberian routes and during the summer high season seats are often sold out well in advance, particularly for the nicer classes of service. If you're not on a flexible travel schedule you may find handling your ticket purchase on your own problematic.
Alternatively if you're a planner like me and know exactly what you want, you can use an online third party service to work with you on getting a ticket. I knew my exact dates well ahead of time and decided that instead of waiting till the 45 day mark I would simply work with an agency to notify them I wanted a ticket and let them handle the logistics of securing it. They cannot purchase tickets earlier than the 45 day timeframe but they can take your order and handle the booking as soon as tickets become available, meaning you don't need to worry about doing all of that yourself in another time zone. They also often can assist you with securing documentation for your Russian visa, which is likely the most stressful and time consuming portion of taking a trip on the Trans Mongolian. I used the services of Real Russia (LINK) as they came with good reviews and recommendations when I was researching my trip. I was quite happy with their service and despite a slight issue with the ticket issuance (which was my fault), everything happened without drama or stress. I paid more for their help since they inflate the cost to take their middleman cut but ultimately for me it was worth not having to worry about doing it all myself and having help with visa documentation from a single source. I originally thought I could get my documentation for my visa through my hotel in Moscow (which is a common avenue of securing your letter of invitation) but they refused to work with me once they learned I was taking the Trans Mongolian and would only give documents for my week in Moscow.
Note that unlike some other railroads that sell passes for unlimited travel, you cannot hop on and off the train at your leisure and tour the local area on a single ticket. If you want to make stops along the way in one of the various cities across the vast expanse of Russia, Mongolia, or China, you will need to purchase separate tickets for each leg of your journey, either as you make your way along the route or through the travel agency all in one go.
WHAT TO PACK
Regardless of whether you're going the full length of the trip in a single jaunt or stopping along the way, packing for this trip is pretty complicated due to the long list of things you will probably need/want as well as the rather limited amount of space you'll have for storing luggage. I'll go through the more specific "what to bring" sections for food and entertainment after this, but first let me go through a list of things I either brought with me and found helpful or discovered on the trip that I wish I had brought.....
A wide variety of clothes. I'm talking everything from a light coat (or heavy if you're going in the colder half of the year) to a tank top. As I mentioned above, my trip during the end of May and beginning of June meant I'd need to put on long pants and a light jacket when stepping off the train but on two nights I found myself sweating in my cabin even with just shorts and a tshirt. You're traveling through a finicky climate so be prepared for both hot and cold.
Portable batteries for your electronics. Yes, cabins and train car hallways have power outlets. No, those outlets do not always work. The outlets in my cabin as well as the entire train car didn't work for my entire trip. This caused an American woman a few cabins down from me to have a semi-meltdown that ended with me being "blacklisted" by the other passengers on my trip. More on that later. Regardless - if you want to ensure uninterrupted power, bring your own.
An extra blanket. Yup, the weird temperature change pattern will mean you'll want a little something extra when sleeping at night. I'm sure during the winter there's a heavier blanket provided to you but for my late spring/early summer trip the linens handed out at the beginning of the trip were pretty thin and half of the evenings I ended up needing extra layers while sleeping. Of course the other half I was sweating like I'd run a marathon. I happened to have "accidentally" kept the blanket from my flight to Moscow through Zurich on Swiss Air Lines though, so this was the perfect solution to the random chills.
Provided bed linens on the right, my self-catered blanket courtesy of Swiss Air Lines on the left.
Cash. I think it goes without saying that credit cards aren't going to be very useful while on the train. Yes, train stations may have ATMs along the route but there's no guarantee they'll be in working order when you arrive and in many stations you might not have much time to find and use them. Most stops give you enough time to explore a bit but others are short. Also, if your train ends up arriving into the station behind schedule it will not stay for the listed amount of time - the train will still leave on time. Example: our train pulled into a 22 minute stop 18 minutes late. We left 4 minutes later.
Hygiene products. In theory I suppose you can use the hose in the "bathroom" between the two first class cabins to rinse off if you don't mind a trickle of cold water, but most likely you'll find it completely useless like I did. If you're in 2nd or 3rd class, you don't even get a hose. So if you're going to be on the train for a few days make sure you pack products that you can use to keep your body relatively clean and fresh. I brought Burt's Bees grapefruit facial cleansing towelettes which worked well on my face and body. I also used a dry shampoo powder for my hair. I attempted to use the train's hot water boiler to wash by letting it cool off and using it sparsely over the sink, but that didn't end up working too well.
Day 2 without a shower on the train on the left, Day 5 just before pulling into Ulan Baatar, Mongolia, on the right.
Eye shades and ear plugs. You'll be attempting to sleep on a moving train which isn't anywhere near some of the smoother, quieter modern trains you can ride in some corners of the globe. You will want eye shades since even with your blinds pulled down light can creep in when you pull into stations throughout the night. Also, the walls between cabins are thin so you will definitely hear snorting, coughing, walking, and general chatter during your desired sleeping hours in addition to the noise on the platform during schedule stops. You'll find these helpful during nap times as well.
Toilet paper. We ran out after day one and a new roll was produced by the train staff. That roll ran out by the middle of day two and not a scrap of booty paper appeared for the rest of the trip. The last thing you want to do is be forced to find creative ways to use your food wrappers in the bathroom. Luckily I always travel with water-dissolving wipes, so I was set days 3 - 6. Others were not as lucky.
Some type of soap or cleaning substance that works well with just water to clean your utensils and eating surfaces. I didn't bring this and really struggled with finding good ways to clean up after my meals every day. Also a small rag to wipe things down once you've finished washing them.
Russian and Chinese translation apps. Or you can bring an actual book if you like, but that takes up precious room and why carry more when you can have it on a device you're likely already bringing with you? Conductors on the train will be Chinese from start to finish, so even if you're starting in Moscow or only taking the train through Russia, you'll likely need some Chinese language skills. Russian will be spoken by dining car staff and most vendors along the route. The dining cars are changed at each border crossing so you'll have a new dining car with local staff when you enter Mongolia and China (or Russia if doing the reverse). In my experience the staff spoke very limited English (Chinese conductors) to absolutely no English at all (Russian dining car staff), so don't bank on getting by without some effort with local languages. Still, you'd be surprised what a smile and a simple "xie xie" will do.
Keep in mind that you will have fairly limited storage space (more in first class, less in 2nd and 3rd class) so overpacking is something you'll regret immediately. Unless you're willing to shell out quite a bit of unnecessary cash for rather mediocre food, you'll also be using about half of your storage space for food you bring on board as well, so keep that in mind.
The key is to pack smart and bring items that are versatile (truly versatile, not Grindr "vers").
WHAT TO EAT
So you've already seen me make mention of a dining car and also to self-catering food. Getting a meal is probably one of the most frustrating parts of taking this trip in my very humble opinion. Why?
You will essentially have three choices for food and beverage on the Trans Mongolian - the dining car, platform vendors/shops, and self-catering. Each one has pluses and minuses so let's review each option so you can be better informed about how to plan your trip....
The only thing I was able to buy from the restaurant car on my entire trip.
You will have more room to bring non-food items on the trip with you if you're not carrying meals for yourself in your baggage.
The restaurant car is one of the defacto gathering spots on the train, so if you're big on socializing and meeting new people getting your meals will definitely allow you to do that.
Gets you out of your cabin and train car on a frequent basis.
It's expensive, relatively speaking. If you're on a budget or trying to reduce cost, this is the most costly food option for you on the trip.
The food quality is variable. The train will have three different dining cars over the course of the trip since the country that you are traveling through provides the dining car. A big part of your border crossings will involve having the dining car removed and a new one added. Consensus seems to be that the food is best on the Chinese and Mongolian dining cars while the Russian train lags behind in the flavor department.
Many items featured on the menus, particularly the Russian dining car, may be unavailable. If you're hoping to get variety you may be disappointed as the dining car notoriously often has limited selections.
The dining car hours are posted but can change on a whim. During my trip the train was oddly extremely empty, despite approaching the high season. Consequently the dining car staff often decided they were going to close the car early on many occasions or even not open at all on others. I actually never ate in the dining car because every time I went the staff either shooed me out telling me the car was closed or I literally found the staff sleeping on top of the tables. On my last visit the woman working in the car took pity on me since they were (again) closed early and offered to sell me a Pepsi. It cost me about $4 USD.
My full provision of food for my five days from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar. Instant noodles, bread, dried fruit and nuts, energy bars, jam, pastries, etc.
Perhaps the cheapest option. You can shop for what you'll bring just before getting on the train and avoiding paying the high prices on the train's dining car. There's actually a large supermarket (Billa) directly across the street from the Yaroslavsky station where the Trans Mongolian departs, and it's open late. I left my hotel an hour and a half before departure time and did all my grocery shopping for the trip before walking over.
You can eat whenever you want. No need to worry about the dining car schedule or when the next stop on the train's schedule will happen.
If you have dietary restrictions this is the best way to make sure you have food you can eat. Depending on the dining car or platform vendors to provide for you can lead to hunger and disappointment.
This is an opportunity for you get creative. I actually really had fun wandering the aisle of the grocery store looking at the food and trying to figure out what I could and could not feasibly take with me.
Self-catered breakfast on the Trans Mongolian - brown bread, sour cherry jam, cardamom bun, whipped honey, dried fruit & nuts, soy milk, black tea.
The only "cooking" option you will have on the train is scalding hot water. Many folks end up limiting their food for several days to instant noodles and packets of soup. I tried to get creative with my options but ultimately there's only so much you can do.
Self-catering will likely mean a lot of food that's not good for you, loaded with fat, sugar, and sodium. If you're concerned about your figure, this will be a tough pill to swallow unless you want to bring tons of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat the whole time which is definitely an option but can take up a lot of space and get rather monotonous.
You will have to bring this food onto the train with you, which will eat into the storage space in your cabin. I was in the first class cabin and ended up without a roommate the whole trip, so space was never an issue for me. If you have a roommate in your cabin, or if you're in the 2nd or 3rd class cabins with three roommates, you'll find space much more of an issue.
A small shop somewhere in eastern Russia selling food, beverages, and liquor for weary train travelers.
Many of the same benefits of self-catering - lower overall cost and increased space for other luggage.
This is a great way to experience local cuisine when taking the trip as there can often be local vendors selling things they made at home. Pastries and sausages were the most common thing I saw along the route.
If you like variety in your meals this is probably the best way to ensure you've got something new on your plate from day to day. Self-catering means you're stuck with what you brought and the dining car, as mentioned, often has limited options due to ingredient shortages.
While local vendors selling homemade food is the biggest draw, note that almost every station along the route has a few small kiosks and one or two storefronts you can hop into to grab standard issue items like soda, chips, and instant noodles.
A pastry purchased from a local vendor and some pine nut bars from a storefront.
Food quality and food safety can be variable. Most of the stuff I bought along the route was quite delicious but I had two things that when I got back to my cabin and checked out I decided I probably was better off just tossing in the trash based on the sniff and touch test.
You have very little control over whether vendors will show up at the station or whether kiosks and stores at the station will even be open. There were quite a few stations where no local vendors showed up and zero shops were open during my trip.
As I mentioned before the train runs on a schedule and if its behind schedule the time at stops will be reduced to make up time. If your train gets off course you may find yourself unable to get off the train to buy food.
So what's the best course of action? Mix and match of course. Bring a little food, buy a little food, treat yourself a little in the dining car. Obviously I wasn't able to make use of the dining car on my trip, but I think most people who take the "mix and match" approach are the happiest. If I was going to choose one strategy exclusively to try on the trip it would be self-catering as the downsides there are the least likely to have a negative impact on your trip. A few more food tips for the hungry traveler ....
Since hot water is the only readily available beverage on the trip (I really wouldn't recommend drinking the water from the taps .....), bringing a variety of things you can put into hot water for a little pick me up is a great idea. I'm a tea drinker so I ended up with three varieties for my five day trip to keep myself hydrated and also not get bored with the same beverage over and over again. A little sweetener goes a long way, too. There's no reason you couldn't bring a variety of instant coffee, creamers, etc. either. Whatever will make you smile. You can always buy big bottles of water along the route from vendors if you want some room temperature water without waiting for the boiling water from the "samovar" (which everyone seems to call it but I hear isn't technically correct) to cool off.
With regards to the hot water boiler, it's located at one end of every car and is relatively simple to use. There's a spigot with a handle, you simply turn it to to start pouring and turn it back to shut it off. Note that the further you turn the handle the faster the water will start pouring out. Make sure you turn the handle all the way back to the closed position as well - a few times on my trip I walked up to get some water and found the bottom part of the water boiler filled with a bit of hot water because the previous user hadn't turned the faucet completely off and it had leaked for awhile. Another note - the hot water boiler provides exactly that. Boiling. Hot. Water. I wasn't expecting it to be so hot and tried to fill up an empty plastic bottle on my first use in the hopes of setting it aside to cool off and be drinking water. The water warped the plastic bottle instantly and also seared some of the branding on the bottle into my skin as you can see in the picture on the right above. Be careful.
In terms of utensils and such, the above is the totality of what I brought along with me and it served me just fine. As I am Japanese and anticipated eating quite a few meals of instant noodles, I brought along a small bento box and a pair of chopsticks. I also brought a small plastic fork and spoon, which ended up being useful for some breakfast items and stirring up instant soup packets and tea. I also brought along a metal insulated coffee mug which I used for the aforementioned tea and soups. You can of course bring whatever you feel most comfortable with, but I highly recommend having at a minimum something you can put food and hot water into with a solid lid as well as something to hold hot water for beverages that's easy to clean.
WHAT TO DO ON BOARD
Whether you're taking a few stops along the way or doing a straight shot through to your final destination like me, you're going to end up with significant amounts of free time. Unlike an airplane though, you won't find any seatback entertainment in your cabin and you can only sleep so much before you get restless, so you need to come with some ideas and options to pass the time. Here are my top pieces of advice....
MAKE NEW FRIENDS:
This is easier to do in the more community-minded, crowded 2nd and 3rd class cars on the train but is possible even in the 1st class cabin. The faces in the hallway will become very familiar after the first day on the train so you might as well say hello and pass the time chatting about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's a good idea to have an ice breaker on hand in these situations, so might I suggest a delicious baked good or strong liquor to share with your fellow travelers? These always seem to do the trick since nothing unites humanity quite like our love of carbs and booze. You'll inevitably end up talking about global politics with your new friends as it seems unavoidable in this day and age, but might I suggest leaving this for when you're a little better acquainted? "How do you feel about Donald Trump and the rise of right wing nationalism in Europe" isn't exactly a good jumping off point for new friends.
I had terrible luck doing this on my trip however, so perhaps I'm not the best person to be taking advice on this topic. I mentioned above that I was blacklisted by the other passengers in my train car. How'd that happen? Well, pull up a chair and let mama spin you a tale ....
A few minutes after leaving the station in Moscow a fellow American a few cabins down from me came into my room (the door was open) and asked me if my power outlet was working. I pulled out my cellphone charger and an adapter and tested it out - yup, no power. She proceeded to have what I would describe as a mini-meltdown about how she absolutely could NOT travel for three days on this trip without being able to charge her phone and laptop. She looked like she might be in tears after a minute while I just awkwardly stood in my room smiling at her trying to be a calm oasis in the middle of her maelstrom. I suggested to her that perhaps the outlets were turned "off" by some mechanism and perhaps the train staff could give more insight. I really had no idea if that was even possible or not but she seemed distraught and I wanted to be helpful. She perked up and said she'd go talk to them about it. She left, but returned 5 minutes later to inform me that she had confronted the train staff and after awhile they told her the outlets in the rooms would not be working the entire trip. She then asked if I would join her in demanding a FULL refund of the cash we'd spent on the trip. Every dollar. Not 10%. Not a discount coupon for our next purchase. Literally hundreds of dollars for outlets not working.
Solitude was my only option for most of my trip on the Trans Mongolian Railway.
Now I like to think I was pretty polite when I replied, but based on her reaction I guess I wasn't or she just wasn't happy with my response. I said I didn't think asking for a full refund was reasonable considering the only issue was the power outlets and that all things considered I would just make due without power for my trip. Her face crinkled up in disgust as she huffed a few times in my general direction. She proceeded to lay into me about how I wasn't supportive and should be ashamed of myself for making her feel "entitled", telling me she hoped I felt good about myself for being so much better than her for not needing a power outlet. She then spun around and left my cabin. I did my best impression of the shrugging emoji and closed my cabin door for some peace and quiet and then went to bed shortly after - the train leaves Moscow at 11:55PM so by now I was quite tired. I awoke the next day to discover she had shared her disgust with every other passenger in our cabin (which wasn't many - 5 other passengers at the time). No one would speak to me - I was a social pariah.
I did make two friends though - our Chinese cabin attendants! The first morning when they saw me using chopsticks on my breakfast they asked me if I was Chinese. I told them I was Japanese and then offered them some of my milk tea and matcha green tea packets, which they happily accepted. Since the American woman the night before had apparently been quite rude to them and consequently the other passengers banded together in a united front against the attendants over the power outlets, I ended up being the only friendly face on their train car the majority of the trip. It wasn't until the American woman and her brother left the train in Irkutsk and we picked up 8 French women at the same station that things perked up a bit and I was able to talk to people. One bonus to the whole episode? On the American woman's last day on the train she finally spoke to me. She was walking down the hallway where I was standing taking a photo of the landscape outside with my cellphone. She stopped dead in her tracks and blurted out, "How does your phone still have power?! Mine died on the second day!"
Me: "Oh, the cabin crew have been charging my phone in their room since their outlet actually works. They offered to charge my phone any time I wanted the first morning after Moscow. They even charge my portable batteries so I don't have to leave my phone with them to charge."
Sorry girl, be nicer to people next time.
TAKE PHOTOS/ENJOY SCENERY:
Let's be honest - if you're taking the Trans Mongolian you're probably not doing it because you want to make new friends or for the sheer joy of sitting on a moving iron beast for six days in quiet solitude. You're here to see the fabled landscape of one of the world's most notoriously harsh environments - Siberia! So open the blinds and take it all in.
Good news and bad news on that front. The bad news - if you start the trip in Moscow like I did, the scenery outside of the window will become pretty boring and repetitive for the first couple of days. Long stretches of flat land filled with trees for hours upon hours, broken up only by the sudden appearance of cities and towns as the train pulls in to pick up passengers, drop off goods, and then continue onwards to more flat land and trees. It's not the most compelling of visuals in my honest opinion, so if you're here for the sights along the way you might be better off flying into Siberia to save time to avoid the discomfort and take the portion of the train from Novosibirsk or Irkutsk onward.
Chances are the landscapes on this portion of the trip are going to line up much better with what you were looking for - mountains, hills, greenery, wilderness and rivers. Now don't get me wrong - I actually really enjoyed the scenery on the first part of the trip. But I am not everyone and I recognize that for most people what they came to see is the back half of the trip, not the first half. I heard several people on the trip express discontent (not to me of course, no one would speak to me...) with the first few days of the trip in terms of enjoying the rolling landscape outside the train windows.
A few notes on photography if you're looking to document the scenes outside the window on your trip. The windows are often dirty. Filthy even. You're going to find it difficult to get a clear, unsmudged view of anything happening outside. If you're like me and decided to only bring a smartphone to document your trip, you'll struggle with getting photos where everything is in focus. Some will work out, but most will have only the foreground or background in focus while the other is blurred. If image quality is of high importance to you, come prepared with a better camera with settings for fast movement and lenses to combat the speed and dirt. Note that you're also limited to a single point of view on the trip - sometimes the sun, train direction, or even station lights will make it almost impossible to capture that beautiful scene outside the window. In those situations just remember trips are meant to be savoured - sometimes you document the experience and others you should just sit back and soak it in. The Trans Mongolian forces you to do just that a times.
No matter how beautiful the scenery or how engaging your new friends might be, you'll want to enjoy a little downtime as well. Stick with the tried and true classics of passing time - read a book, listen to some music, and watch some movies/television.
Reading was my prefer way to pass time and I ended up plowing through five books over the course of the trip, averaging one book per day. I used my Kindle which helped me reduce space when packing and with its excellent battery life it lasted me the entire trip without needing to be charged even though I forgot to fully charge it before leaving for Moscow a week before hand. If you're someone that loves the feel of paper and the smell of a book though, there's no better retro location to enjoy it than on the Russian rails.
My trusty Kindle along with a stewing box of instant noodles.
In terms of watching movies or television I would of course recommend not relying on a wifi connection (there won't be one) or even streaming ability through cellular connection (it'll be too weak or nonexistent most of the trip). So buy your desired shows and movies and have them as files on your device prior to departure or you can download them into the app for offline viewing if you use a service like Netflix. I was able to get several movies and seasons of television shows download on Netflix for offline viewing before the trip though I didn't watch a single show due to the outlet problem in our train car and not wanting to burn through battery too quickly. As for music, you're likely to have that on your phone already. Might I suggest some podcasts to change the speed up a bit? Again - you're going to have a lot of downtime so the more you can do to give yourself options to keep yourself entertained the more likely you are to enjoy your trip.
If you're keen to spend time with other people something like a deck of cards or simple travel sized board game would be a great option. Your fellow travelers are likely to be Russian, Chinese, Mongolian, or a variety of other nationalities on the tourist front, so anything you can play that's either widely known or easy to learn (avoid things like travel Scrabble or euchre) is the safest bet.
EXPLORING TRAIN STATIONS
You're probably going to do this already, but it merits mentioning! You're going to want to get out and stretch your legs on occasion, so when the train pulls into a new city make sure you've got a pair of pants nearby so you can throw them on and take a quick look around. Not every stop is long enough for a wander so make sure you take a look at the posted schedule in your train car to figure out which ones are worth taking a look around.
Note that when the train is in Russia the time on the train is on Moscow time (GMT +3). Yes, even when you're in Ulan Ude on the Mongolian border where the time is five whole hours ahead of Moscow, the train is still running on Moscow time. So if you have a watch or an electronic device make sure you keep something tuned to Moscow time. The train stations themselves operate on local time though, so if you see on the schedule you're arriving in Irkutsk at 3:08AM, don't be surprised when the station is full of life and vendors and passengers - it's actually 8:03AM. The train itself is like a time warp. I've heard there are efforts to eliminate this element of the train service and simply post everything in local time, but as of my trip in May/June 2018 it was still all on Moscow time. This madness ends once you cross the border into Mongolia though. Once out of Russia the train is back to local time.
As you can see from the posted schedule, some of the stops are actually pretty sizable, you'll have almost an hour in some locations and close to half an hour in others. As long as your train is running on schedule don't be afraid to wander a bit further than the train platform and station. On a few occasions I hopped out into the nearby areas to see locals running errands or a gold domed Russian orthodox church in the distance. It's genuinely refreshing to be out of the "train life" scenery even for just a few minutes on the trip.
If you're like most people on the train though, you'll likely be a little worried about stepping too far from train since the Trans Siberian routes are notorious for leaving travelers behind that wander too far and lose track of time. Which is fine, there's plenty of interesting scenery on the tracks or in the station if you're interested in industrial landscapes and people watching - just make sure you bring your passport and wallet with you, just in case!
If not, maybe just stretching your legs a bit on the platform is the best option. Either way, get off the train for some fresh air from time to time.
Since the train covers three countries over the course of almost a week of travel, you're going to have to go through customs and immigration once or twice depending on your routing. It's just part of the travel game, though for most people this typically happens in a more structured environment inside the airport. I've only done a land border crossing in a handful of other instances (US/Mexico border and Zambia/Botswana on a wooden canoe) but from my limited experience it's not too much more of an "event" to do a non-airport crossing. I'll walk you through the process as I experienced it just to give you a little glimpse of what you can expect. Keep in mind I only went from Russia to Mongolia so I have no experience with the Mongolian/Chinese border process.
Once we left the penultimate station in Russia and started making our way toward the border town, the cabin crew started going door to door and dropped off Mongolian customs and immigration forms. English language forms were provided and they indicated we should fill them out immediately. Once the train pulled into the station we sat for about ten minutes before Russian border agents came onto the train and went cabin to cabin. The first person who came to my door performed a passport check. They scanned it with a machine and then after a quick look at my information page and Russian visa handed it back and moved on. Next, a woman who clearly never used an ounce of deodorant in her life came into my cabin and checked my baggage for what I assume was any contraband items. Thankfully this was quick and she was out of my cabin in less than a minute, though her scent lingered. Next another agent stopped by my cabin to stamp me out of Russia, which took less than one minute. This was followed immediately but a very stern woman coming into my cabin and doing a search of the cabin. Through my luggage, lifting blankets, looking into vents, etc. This took about 2 minutes before she was satisfied and moved on.
And then we waited. Lots of sitting around in my cabin reading. You could hear the dining car being removed and occasionally the train would either move forward or back up on the tracks for a bit, but there really wasn't much progress. During this downtime most of the Chinese train staff stood on the platform chitchatting, and a few other passengers made use of the time to stretch their legs. After about an hour everyone was herded back onto the train and we made our way down the tracks to the Mongolian border post. Again we pulled into the station and sat for a few minutes before Mongolian border agents arrived. The first person to arrive at my cabin requested my passport which I handed over. They accepted it and moved on to the next cabin, keeping it with them. I went back to reading for about 20 minutes before another agent arrived at my cabin to conduct a "search" which consisted of waving a flashlight around my cabin for 5 seconds before moving on. Another 20 minutes of reading when the original agent reappeared with my passport and gave it back to me with my Mongolian entrance stamp.
Nice and easy. I only have done this once so have no history to draw on, but generally speaking the Mongolian staff were much friendlier and nicer, while the Russian agents were gruff and much more focused on their work. Overall it wasn't particularly difficult, though all the agents struggled quite a bit to communicate in English and often resorted to hand gestures and pantomiming. The biggest issue was the time frame within which this happened, as it took up quite a chunk of time late at night which meant by the time it was all said and done I was only able to get a few hours of sleep before we arrived in Ulan Baatar at 6:50AM.
ODD & ENDS
This is a bit of a "catch-all" section for some tidbits I thought should be shared but didn't quite fit into any other section.
Even though you're on the train for several days don't expect someone to pick up garbage. I used one of the bags from my pre-trip grocery shopping as a garbage bag and just hung it from the handle of the door into the ensuite sink area. Once it got a bit full I would walk it down to the end of the train car and empty it into the community trash can. Definitely easier than constantly walking down to the trash can every time you eat something.
The table cloth and bed linens you get at the start of the trip are the only ones you'll get. No one is going to come through to give you fresh and clean ones. That means you should be very careful not to get things too dirty when sleeping and eating. By the time my train pulled into Ulaanbaatar my table cloth was starting to look like I had murdered someone in my room from all the sauce falling off my instant noodles and tea droplets.
The security of your possessions is probably of concern since you're sharing space with strangers or in a less than perfectly secured cabin. If you have a lot of expensive items that you cannot replace, make sure you bring a lock so that you can secure your bag/bags.
Once on the train people tend to get very casual. Lots of shorts, tank tops, and flip flops. You should do the same.
Don't expect to sleep right up till your train pulls into the station at your final stop. The cabin attendants will come by your room about an hour before arrival to make sure you're awake, return your ticket to you (they take it when you board), and will ask you to start returning the bed linens and sheets they gave you before hand. Due to the short sleeping time after the border crossing I prepared before bed so I could sleep until 5 minutes before arriving in Ulaanbaatar and then just hop off to go to my hotel. My 6:50AM arrival meant a 5:50AM wake up "call" from the cabin attendants.
THE LGBT "TEA"
None of the countries on the Trans Mongolian routing are particularly great for LGBTQ travelers, ranging from a bit unwelcoming in China and Mongolian to openly hostile (and potentially violent) in Russia. But as with most things in life, it's a bit more complicated than the assumed in all three countries. I could write a book on the topic of LGBTQ travel in this region so let's instead focus on some rather basic thoughts on each country and then some more specific details pertaining to the train trip itself.
Out of the three countries on this trip, this is the one that is likely to give LGBTQ travelers the most cause for concern. There's no denying that Russia has been in the news seemingly every month with a stories reporting on how terrible the situation is for our community within its borders. I'm not an expert after a single visit to Moscow and a train trip across the hinterlands, but I did have some personal experience I'd like to share. While out in about in Moscow I ran across the gay pride flag being displayed twice. The first time I saw it was on a sandwich board advertisement sitting outside of a shop just across the street from St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. I was a little surprised to see it there and quickly pulled out my Google Translation app to see what it said. It was advertising barbershop services and listed the business as gay owned and operated. Media reports made me think any open display of LGBT affiliation would lead to issues but this shop seemed to have zero concerns about it. On the flip side, the other time I saw the pride flag displayed was on a tshirt worn by a woman inside the Moscow Metro. The shirt prominently displayed the flag with the words "June Pride Month" at the top and then the world "You Will All Die" below it. A bit of a contrast to the previous display for sure.
Another LGBTQ experience occurred when I went to explore the modern Moscow "skyline" that is made up of the International Business Center buildings along a branch of the Moskva River. The very first thing I saw as I made my way down toward the makeshift walking path along the far banks was someone taking a picture of a gay couple cuddling in front of the skyline. I took my camera out and snapped the above photo which I feel should be safe to share since no one's face is visible. This area is extremely popular in Moscow with tons of Instagram "models" and "influencers" taking up space along the river banks to get content. This section of the skyline view was probably the furthest point from the main photography area, so its not like they were canoodling in the busiest section, they were definitely on the outskirts. But it wasn't isolated in any sense of the word and people were walking by in full view. They appeared to be in no rush to get this done quickly and spent a few minutes framing the shot and doing retakes.
Moving away from my personal experiences in Moscow, I want to share the following I've learned from other gay travelers who've spent time in Russia as well as some general safety advice gleaned from online:
Social apps like Scruff and Grindr as used by locals, though I've heard Hornet and Tinder are more popular. Despite the Russian government's hostility toward LGBT communities, they are not use the apps to track down people like other governments are known to do (Egypt, I'm looking in your direction). There have been many reported instances of homophobic individuals or groups using the apps to meet and then assault gay men though, so caution is STRONGLY urged.
There are "gay" bars that are known though most do not actively advertise as gay establishments, relying instead on word of mouth and the community congregating there. These places change often so do a little research online to find out where to go. Reddit is actually a great place to get info on gay life in Russia.
As with most places, LGBTQ communities in Russia find bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg more tolerant and accepting, though they are in no way safe havens. You should exercise caution even in bigger cities, but this is where you'll find Russia's two biggest centers of gay life.
Moscow is not the bleak, dour Russian capital many people believe it to be.
Russia's law against "promoting non-traditional lifestyles" that targets the LGBTQ community is not limited to Russians. Remember any action or activity you engage in that can be (even tangentially) perceived as promoting LGBTQ equality or issues can result in being fined, arrested, or deported. In the past this has included displays of same-sex affection or simply displaying traditional LGBTQ symbols such as the pride flag or pink triangles.
If you go to a gay bar and want to use an Uber or taxi to get back to your hotel or AirBnB, I've seen many recommendations to pick up your ride a few blocks away from the bar to avoid issues with your driver AND to avoid standing outside of an LGBTQ establishment idly. Attacks on people exiting gay bars have been noted.
Technically same-sex sexual activity is legal under Russian law and the age of consent for men and women is 16.
Russian law allows for an individual to change their gender though practice is often very different than intent.
A short list of things that can be denied to LGBTQ individuals under Russian law: can be fired for being LGBTQ, can be denied services by businesses, no ability to enter into same sex marriage nor recognition of the same.
In general for Russia, based on my own experience and those I trust, I would say that you should exercise caution at all times and remain super vigilant about your surroundings and any potential danger. Russia is definitely not a friendly or safe place for us. That being said, you don't need to wander around Russia thinking of it as an LGBTQ war zone where you're under constant assault, particularly in cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. There are LGBT communities in Russia and just like the rest of us they are thriving despite the persecution. Further afield and in smaller cities, the heightened sense of fear will likely serve you well and you'll have to make a choice as to how open you wish to be. Personally on the train and during my stay in Moscow I told no one about my sexuality and I did zero LGBTQ things.
While Russia and China are some of the biggest players on the world stage and many LGBT travelers have at least some sense of what to expect when they visit each, Mongolia is a big question mark. Let's see if we can clear that up a bit - it's far from an LGBTQ dreamland but it actually ranks much better than both Russia and China on the Equaldex LGBTQ national rankings.
Same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 1993 and the age of consent for males and females is 16.
Mongolian law does provide some protections for LGBTQ communities including criminalizing hate speech and recognizing hate crimes.
Mongolia law doe allow for and recognize gender change.
Despite a more progressive legal framework, a quick look at reports online will show that there are many cases in Mongolia of practice not following the rule of law. Socially LGBTQ communities express frustration and a lack of acceptance by family and friends. Instances of violence don't seem to be common at all though from what I could find. As of this writing there's only one gay bar in the country's capital city of Ulaanbaatar, alternatively called d.d. or Irish House depending on where you look. It's located just north of the city's main square and has received a good amount of media attention in the past two years.
I couldn't find much information online nor did I have anyone who had used standard gay social app like Grindr and Scruff in Mongolia, but the limited information did encounter indicated people generally do not use their own photos to chat and will only reveal themselves in person or after lengthy conversation.
LGBTQ life in China can be complicated but for the most part if you're in a major city like Shanghai or Beijing (the end of the line for the Trans Mongolian) you'll likely have few if any issues at all. Recent polling of the Chinese public indicates a large majority of people oppose LGBTQ equality/rights but recent events seem to indicate that those views are changing quickly, particularly in urban areas and among younger generations. The government itself is less than thrilled with the LGBTQ community, moving between ignoring them entirely to crackdowns on freedoms and rights of self-expression. While historically Chinese culture has been rather accepting of LGBTQ communities, many point to Chinese's one-party system as the source of its modern efforts to oppress. Many commented on China's fear of any non-government controlled organization and LGBTQ organizations and communities operate in the country like they do in just about every other place - outside of the mainstream.
Here's the quick and dirty on China, and note that for the purposes of this post we will be focusing on "mainland" China and excluding places like Hong Kong and Macau:
Same-sex sexual activity is legal, the age of consent for men and women is 14. (Yes, really, it's 14)
Same-sex marriage/unions are generally not legal, with exceptions for Beijing.
Chinese law recognizes gender change.
Gay nightlife is varied and vibrant in Beijing, which is likely your point of interest if the Trans Mongolian is your focus. If you're looking for a dedicated night of gay revelry you're probably be happy at Destination, Beijing's largest gay club. After Destination, most establishments are very LGBTQ-friendly but not exclusively gay. If that's your vibe you may enjoy places like Adam's or Red Dog. Grindr and Scruff are accessible in China but many Chinese locals use a homegrown app to connect with one another - Blued. You may have never heard of it but it's said to be the largest gay social app in China (and by Chinese claims the world) and is gaining popularity throughout Asia.
While the above might be mildly useful if you're making multiple stops along your way on the Trans Mongolian or perhaps at the beginning or end of your journey, it does little to tell you what you can expect on the train. Let's see if I can give you some bullet points that may or may not inform your questions as an LGBTQ traveler on this trip (though admittedly I'm a CIS gay man so my insight is rather skewed, sorry!):
Many of the "local" travelers on your train will be Russian with a spattering of Mongolians and Chinese. Of course you'll always find a wide spectrum of tourists, many coming from western Europe, the US, and Canada. My general advice would be to exercise caution and discretion when choosing to reveal personal information such as your sexuality to other travelers. In many cases you will be sharing space with these individuals for long periods of time and if they react poorly to your revelation it may make the trip less enjoyable or perhaps even invite hostile actions. Living life as an LGBTQ individual means you've probably grown a good sense of reading people, so chat for a bit with people and then make good choices.
If you're traveling as a couple and enjoy being affectionate with one another, I highly recommend spending the additional money required for the first class cabin since it is designed for two passengers and has a door that locks. You can keep it closed the whole time if you like. While 2nd and 3rd class is cheaper and more social you never know how other passengers will react to your relationship or intimacy and a train car in the middle of the Siberian tundra is a less than ideal place to find out.
If the train car's a rockin', don't come a knockin'.
Speaking of intimacy ..... noise travels quite easily on the Trans Mongolian. I knew exactly when the guy in the cabin next to me had fallen asleep as his gentle snoring was clearly audible. His girlfriend spent the first half of the trip watching Teen Titans on her cellphone. I know this because I could hear the dialogue of each episode when she didn't use her headphones, even with the door closed to my cabin. If you're keen for some sexual friction, note that unless you managed to bring your ball gag through Russian customs your neighbors will be getting a play by play.
Getting bored and want to open up Grindr to chat up the nearest Siberian farm boy? Wifi isn't available on the train so you're stuck using data through cellular service. I don't use gay apps personally but I did turn on my phone for portions of the trip to update Facebook and Instagram (side bar - follow me on Insta!) . The data service ranged from 4G in major cities like Moscow or Novosibirsk to nonexistent when moving between smaller cities further on in the journey. I was able to get 3G or 2G reception at almost every city we stopped at along the way, so even if you can't get data on the rails you'll be able to check in or post when you get closer to a stop. If you're using gay apps, take note of the warnings above, particularly in rural Russia.
Not a gay bar to be seen for the next 2000 miles.
This isn't Mykonos or Puerto Vallarta. Your chances of meeting another gay traveler onboard the train is much smaller than it would be in other more LGBTQ-friendly destinations. While I didn't chat too heavily with many of my fellow travelers, the ones I did engage with were all. I never opened up about my sexuality to anyone despite some questions from the train staff and the French women who joined later in the trip. I likely would have been fine based on my read of both groups, but I choose to play it safe. I saw two men traveling together in another train car speaking in German but based on their attempts to talk to an attractive Chinese woman at every station stop to continually invite her to visit them in their cabin, I am labeling them as heterosexual as well. If meeting other gay travelers, easy access to meeting gay locals, or even being openly gay while traveling are important to you, this may be a trip to reconsider. You'll have to be comfortable hiding your sexuality at times or perhaps having awkward moments if you do decide to be open.
WRAP IT UP ROSE
So there you have it - a gay guy's guide to one of the world's most interesting and historic train journeys. This is also by far my most lengthy informational post and it took me a whopping MONTH to find the time to slowly write it between my full time job, being the best man in my brother's wedding, planning my own wedding in October, and playing on four volleyball teams. I'm far from perfect but I hope you found it interesting and informative.