Depending on your route, time schedule and goals, you could spend anything from a few hours to 7 days on the train. My longest was a 57-hour journey from Vladimir to Krasnoyarsk, followed immediately by a 17-hour journey to Irkutsk, and thankfully I was well prepared.
Here’s everything you need to know, and what you can do to make the journey as pleasant as possible!
Choose your train, class and bed wisely.
Passenger trains are the basic kind, slightly cheaper but slightly older and definitely not as comfortable. My Chinese train from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator to Beijing was one of these; the bunks were solid, the carriage was old, the toilets were dirty with no toilet roll, you couldn’t buy snacks or water and the only plugs were in the hallway and didn’t work, but it is good enough and is sometimes your only option!
Firmenny trains are slightly more expensive, but they will be a much more pleasant experience for longer journeys. Your carriage attendant will do a good job at keeping the toilets clean and stocked, they can offer snacks and drinks, sometimes you’ll get fed, you’ll find plugs to charge your phone by each bunk and the carriages are generally newer and well looked after.
First class is very expensive, but you get two single beds in a room. It’s perfect for couples with a bigger budget, or you can sometimes choose female-only compartments for women going solo.
Second class means four bunks in a compartment and is significantly cheaper. Just remember, you can’t choose your bunkmates so you might be stuck with some weirdos, but it’s good for couples or groups, you can also sometimes choose female-only compartments. You have a choice of the bottom bunk which doubles up as a sofa, you’ll be sharing this with your bunkmate during the day, but you have access to the table, plus storage under your bed. The top bunk is also great, room enough to sit up and a little bit of storage for your personal items.
Third class is an open carriage with 52 bunks, like being in a big dorm room, and it’s the cheapest. Although there is no privacy, it’s also more sociable and fun to people watch, a great option for male or female solo travellers. Third class bunks are like second class without the privacy, plus the extra ‘lateral’ bunks running along the side of the carriage. The bottom lateral bunk turns into a table and two chairs, so you’re sharing it with your bunkmate during the day, but if there’s no one above you it’s all yours. The top lateral bunk has to be the worst, it’s as cramped as the others (you can’t sit up in third class top bunks) but less private because you’re basically lying in the corridor, and you’re at the mercy of your bunkmate because if they want to make their bed, you’re stuck in yours.
Seating is an option on some trains, I wouldn’t choose this for an overnight journey but it’s comfy and spacious and perfect for shorter trips. The seats recline, some carriages have a toilet, and even TV’s playing old school Russian movies.
Note: for solo travellers, I’d recommend either the top or bottom bunk in second class, or the bottom lateral bunk in third class.
Getting the tickets
Book tickets online. If you wait until you get to Russia and try to book at the stations, you might struggle to find a decent bed or it could even be sold out. You can use an agent like Real Russia, but they charge a high commission. I recommend downloading the Russian Railways app, once you’ve signed up you can easily view and book tickets online.
Note: you can’t book tickets between countries online, so you’ll need to either pay an agency to do it for you or do it at the train station when you arrive.
Always download the ticket. Once you’ve booked through the app make sure you download the ticket because it disappears from the app once the train departs and they might check it again before you leave the station.
Check out the route. When booking the ticket you can see the route, plus the length of each stop. Screenshot this, keep your phone on Moscow time and you can plan which stops are long enough to get off and stretch your legs but don’t wander too far, and take your valuables with you. It’s also listed in the carriage.
Your packing list
Wear comfy clothes. You’ll spend most of the time sitting around and watching the world go by. I saw one guy spend two days on the train (including sleeping) in jeans. No thanks. Be as comfy as possible.
Bring a change of clothes. After even a day, you’ll start to feel a bit grimy. Have a comfy outfit to wear during the day, and something even comfier to change into at night. Don’t forget clean underwear!
Bring a pair of flipflops or slippers. You aren’t really allowed to walk around in bare feet, and you wouldn’t want to. I bought a pair of slippers (I forgot to pack my flipflops) for $2 and it was a very good investment!
Bring something to keep you busy. Sometimes you’ll find yourself too busy socialising to get anything else done, or staring out the window at the scenery, but sometimes the train can be boring as hell. Pack a Kindle, a journal, colouring books, download movies onto your phone, or even bring your laptop… But don’t expect any power unless you’re on a Russian Firmenny train, make sure you bring a power bank!
Bring something to help you sleep. Whether it’s earplugs to block out the snoring, a sleep mask to block out the lights, or green tea and a hot water bottle, do what you gotta do.
Pack a small toiletries bag. Wet wipes will be your best friend. You could also bring dry shampoo or perfume to hide the smell of cheesy feet. Don’t forget your toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant!
Food and drink
Pack some food. Although there’s a restaurant car, it’s expensive and limited. You can hop off and buy food on the station platform at the longer stops, or from your carriage attendant, but it’s not a great choice. You want food that doesn’t need refrigerating or can be cooked just with hot water. A big part of the experience is sharing food with your bunkmates, so bring a little extra!
Most people eat noodles for every meal but you can get creative. Bread, salted butter, jam, honey or spread (I brought Marmite from home), cheese slices or hard cheese, cured meat, noodles, cuppa soup, instant mash, fruit, crisps, biscuits, crackers, chocolate, the list goes on. I would also recommend bringing some sort of container to cook and store food in, I bought a large plastic soup cup with a lid and handle and it’s been a lifesaver! Some cutlery is also essential.
Bring some water. While there is an unlimited supply of boiling water on board, there is no safe drinking water. I brought a two-litre bottle and my own one-litre bottle, you can buy small bottles from the carriage attendant or larger bottles for cheaper on the station platform whenever you stop.
Have you ridden the Trans Mongolian? Share any tips you have in the comments below!