INFO: A Gay Guy's Guide to the Trans-Mongolian Railway


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.

Some other companies that can assist with ticket booking that have positive reviews include Way To Russia (LINK) and Ost West (LINK).

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....

DINING CAR


The only thing I was able to buy from the restaurant car on my entire trip.

The Good:

  • 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.

The Bad:

  • 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.

SELF-CATERING


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.

The Good:

  • 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 Bad:

  • 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.

PLATFORM DINING


A small shop somewhere in eastern Russia selling food, beverages, and liquor for weary train travelers.

The Good:

  • 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.

The Bad:

  • 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