If you take the train regularly at home you might not even have to think about planning your journeys past choosing your departure time and destination. If only it was that easy to ride the Trans Mongolian. I first had the idea to ride one of the longest railways in the world while I was living in Australia and trying to figure out a way to get home without flying. Fast forward three years and it’s finally happening! But planning a journey of such epic proportions has not been easy.
Although my initial plan was to start in Beijing and end in Moscow, plans changed and after spending the summer in the UK I decided to go from Moscow to Beijing. Then, of course, I decided I should probably start in St Petersburg, there’s no way I can miss that city! Then I thought, why stop in Beijing? So after travelling through China I’ll be flying to Nepal and then going overland to India, and then who knows.
I also had an idea to try and do the entire route overland, but this turns out to be an even bigger hassle than the Trans Mongolian already is, not to mention the extortionate cost of getting across Europe and travelling through Tibet, which is impossible without extra permits and local guides costing hundreds of dollars a day. Hence flying from London to St Petersburg, and from Kunming in China to Kathmandu in Nepal.
The planning of this journey has been stressful, to say the least. Not only was I super busy having the best summer Cornwall has seen for decades, working a full-time job and being a professional procrastinator, I also had to apply for three separate visas, all requiring trips to London and Edinburgh, after having planned the entire trip so I could book flights, trains and accommodation for said visa applications. It’s a bloody nightmare for someone who is so used to just rocking up to an airport for the privilege of visa-free travel.
Where do you start?
First of all, you need to decide why you want to do this trip. What’s your goal? If you want to ride the longest railway line in the world, then you can start in Portugal and ride different trains all the way to Vietnam. If you want to ride the famous Trans Siberian, one train will take you across Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok. If you want to tick a few countries off the list, then ride the Trans Mongolian through Russia, Mongolia and China. You also have the option of the Trans Manchurian, which will take you into China avoiding Mongolia.
Then you need to decide on your direction. This will mostly depend on where you’re starting point is. If you live in Europe, it makes sense to start there and end your journey in Asia, then you have the option of travelling around for a while before heading home. If you live in Asia or Oceania, it makes more sense to start your train journey in Beijing to end up in Europe. Because I spent the summer in the UK, I’m starting in St Petersburg.
Getting your visas
Once you have your start and endpoint, it’s time to get down to business. The most important and most difficult part of this whole process is the visa applications. You can’t apply for them too early because they will expire. You can’t leave it too late because it takes so long. You need to time it just right, unlike me who left it to the last minute and got my passport back two days before I was due to leave. Nothing like a bit of pressure to make things more exciting!
The visa application process for each country was confusing, time-consuming and expensive, so I wrote some easy-to-follow guides for anyone who needs to do the same and is feeling as overwhelmed as I was with all of the things. These are valid as of August 2018 and apply to UK citizens only.
But, and here’s the most stressful part, you need proof of almost everything before you can apply for these visas. Russia is the easiest because all you need is a ‘tourist voucher’ which you can buy online for £20, but you need to know your exact entry and exit dates. The Mongolian visa requires proof of flights and accommodation but you don’t need specific dates. China was the worst, not only do you need proof of flights and accommodation, but you also need to make an appointment in London, Manchester or Edinburgh far enough in advanced to have your visa ready in time.
Planning your route
This has been super stressful because I spent so long trying to plan it just to apply for the visas, without having much idea of what I wanted to do and see there. In the end, I managed to print a reservation for train tickets without actually buying them (thank you Real Russia) and I booked accommodation with Booking.com that I could cancel immediately, so all that stress was (mostly) for nothing.
There are a number of useful resources for planning your Trans-Whatever trip. The most famous of them all is The Man In Seat 61. Not only does this have incredibly detailed information about the trains through Russia, Mongolia and China, it also has guides for train routes all over the world, making it the best website for any train journey you want to take. However, they push the expensive agency Real Russia way too much, and I wouldn’t recommend booking tickets through them when you can do it on the Russian Railways app for half the price.
I also got a very useful book from my grandma for Christmas, the Trans Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas. It’s a travel-sized guide with information about the routes, cost, train times and numbers, classes, city guides and much more. It’s been a great help getting this trip started and I recommend buying your own copy to take with you! This is what helped me choose the stops I was going to take on the Trans Mongolian because I wasn’t about to just sit on one train for a week without getting off and exploring.
What do you need to book?
Whether you’re the kind of person who likes to have everything booked before you leave home or the kind who can’t make a decision so can’t pre-book anything, you can make it work.
Booking trains for Russia is easy with the Russian Railways app, you can do it from the comfort of you’re own home or the day before you travel. It’s not possible to book trains between countries online without paying a lot more for a booking agent to do it for you, so if you want to save money you’ll need to do this as at the train station when you arrive.
Just remember, trains fill up fast in the summer, especially between countries, and the best seats will get reserved first, you don’t wanna be stuck in a lateral top bunk in third class for three days. In the shoulder season, I was able to book my train into Mongolia and China a few days beforehand.
There are always numerous options for accommodation from budget hostels to luxurious hotels, and it’s easy to book online with Booking.com, you can always reserve something with free cancellation in case you change your plans.
As far as tours go… Don’t book anything until you’re in the country, especially with Mongolia. While it is possible to see some places in Mongolia without booking a tour, you’re gonna be missing the best parts so I do recommend it, but waiting until you arrive in the country will save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars!
So you’ve chosen your starting point, you’ve chosen your route, you’ve picked out hostels and planned adventures around the train times, you’ve applied for visas and been accepted for all of them.
Now you just need to get ready to leave on this wild adventure! Book your first flight, buy travel insurance and pack your bags.
Make sure you check the weather for the month you’re visiting each country… You don’t want to pack for winter only to arrive in St Petersburg to find that it’s 28 degrees and sunny every day. In September, Russia was hot in the west, and cooler in the east, October in central Mongolia was freezing, we got caught in a few snowstorms, and the Gobi desert was only slightly warmer but dry!
If you have any questions at all, leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help.