Surviving Trans-Siberian Rail

Trans-Siberian rail: Moscow-Ulaanbaatar-Beijing. 5 days, 6 nights of pure train, a short three day stop in Mongolia’s capital, then another 24 hours to China. For many, this is a journey for the bucket list, something that has to be done at least once in your lifetime. Personally, I’d never really given it much thought. But once given the opportunity needless to say I was pretty psyched for it. Everyone I talked to was excited for me, it was hard not to fantasize about… well. I don’t know. A glorious, crazy, laugh-a-minute train journey with constant out of this world scenery, to say the very least.

The reality of Trans-Siberian rail, however, is a little different. No amount of talking about it, seeing pictures from it, or reading Lonely Planet’s guide to it can really prepare you for the experience. So here’s five tips to contribute to a vague but inevitably incomplete feeling of preparedness for one of the world’s most famous train journeys.

Take as Much Food as You Can Possibly Carry.

If you’re as unfortunate as I was and you end up travelling 5 days from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar in one of the, erm, less pleasant trains, you’ll want need to avoid the restaurant food at all costs. I ate here three times. Each time I was left disappointed, a little queasy, and ultimately still hungry. The first few days on the other hand, my shopping did me well and I ate like a queen. Albeit a queen on a budget with an unhealthy love for pickles and fruit tea… but a queen nonetheless. This royal buffet soon ran out, and I was left eating noodles and crisps for three days. Boo. Stock. Up.

Take as Much Alcohol as You Can Possibly Handle. Then Times it By Two

Two hours into the first night on the train and the excitement has subdued, the novelty worn off, and you quickly realise that there is nothing to do on the train. Literally nothing. No source of entertainment apart from your sorry self, and if your lucky enough to have nice companions, then those as well. This calls for alcohol, and lots of it. Which leads us to tip number three…

Get Used to Boredom

You’re on a train for 5 days straight. Think about all the trains you have ever been on. Do you get excited about the hour long train to work or school? No?! Of course you don’t. You know why? Because it’s a train. It’s not built for fun, it’s built for getting you from A to B. Trans-Siberian rail is no different – something in which often gets forgotten. If alcohol doesn’t float your boat, bring books. An ipad. Some kind of music device. A crossword book would suffice, but for the love of God don’t go with nothing. Even if you’re with your best mate you’ll get a good does of cabin fever, as pictured below. There’s only so many hours you can watch the scenery.

Discard All Previous Levels of Hygiene. Personal and General…

Five days in the same place without showers or general cleaning facilities doesn’t make for pristine living conditions. Embrace it. Bring a tonne of baby wipes and just accept this is how it’s going to be. The shower at the end will be worth it, don’t ruin it by awkwardly sticking your head under the tiny, sinks in the dirty little toilets. Just don’t do it.

Prepare for Random and Slightly Dodgy Intrusion of Privacy

Well this one might not be true for all trains, but if you’re stuck with the aforementioned dodgy train, then the comment stands. Every cabin in our part of the train was visited by the Mongolian equivalent of Rodney and Del Boy. Ceilings were unscrewed, seats were lifted up, storage space was intruded, and leather boots emerged. And ‘Nike’ hoodies. And other assortments of shady sundries.




  1. Kelly Furssedonn

    I enjoyed this little read Gem. I especially liked the video. Your friend looks really attractive in the last 10 or so seconds.

  2. Martin Geber

    Man, you take the romance out of everything. Don’t you 😛 This indeed is on the Bucket List of EVERYBODY, and you make it sound less Holiday more Dare. Anyway, as always I enjoyed your writing, especially the true advice you provided will probably save my day(s) on that train, whenever I come to be on it 🙂

    1. gemmafottles

      Hahaha Martin, It’s a talent I seem to have. I guess I would recommend the trip as one of those once in a lifetime experiences but, as with many aspects of ‘bucket list trips’, it just doesn’t live up to the hype or expectation!

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