TOP TIPS FOR trans-siberian & RUSSIA TRAVEL
Learn the Russian Cyrillic Alphabet
We would put this above learning some basic Russian as a surprising amount of Russian words such as “supermarket”, “restaurant” transliterate. Immensely helpful on the metro systems of Moscow and St Petersburg as well despite English signs now in use.
Learn the Local Language Basics
This always goes down well – “please” “thank you” “hello” “goodbye for starters as well as numbers 1 to 10 and preferably up to 100. You will be glad you made the effort!
Beware of Russians Bearing Vodka
You will never out drink them and getting foreigners drunk is a sport to some. Trains are terrible places to have catastrophic hangovers. Locals who are genuinely friendly wouldn’t dream of getting you drunk against your wishes! Applies mainly to Russians but can also to the Mongolians and Chinese (and Brits!)
Must Haves for Train Trips
They don’t seem important when packing but a spoon, fork, pre-mixed coffee sachets, teabags, sugar and powdered milk are the most useful things you can have on the train and hard to find on platforms. People will gravitate towards your supply of these essentials. On a recent trip we also saw a small salt and pepper dispenser making others green with envy.
Bring Enough Local Currency on to the Train
Seems obvious enough but so many people don’t and assume the conductors will be like banks and ATMs will be on every platform. There is nothing more stressful than disappearing off into the darkness at a remote station in search of an ATM knowing you have 3 minutes before the train moves on. We have yet to be on a trip where someone in the carriage hasn’t run out of local cash on day 2!
Know How Long a Stop Is for
The conductor should know exactly. Don’t trust the timetable as the train may shorten stops to make up time. Note that you can usually only board your own carriage – not someone else’s – for security reasons. If you do miss a train at a station make sure you have your passport, some money and your ticket on you (and you will find having shoes on rather than flip flops also useful!) Visit the station master and see what they can do – we have been amazed at their ability to reunite passengers with both their luggage and even the right train.
Be Nice to Your Conductors
It is often like a head teacher / new pupil relationship on the train between conductors and passengers and getting on their bad side on day 1 is unlikely to add to the experience! They are there to look after you and will keep an eye on you on the platforms at stops to make sure you don’t miss the train. Even if you hardly speak to them they are usually very much part of a Trans-Siberian experience and the memories you have from it.
Clean the Windows
The interiors of the trains are usually kept clean but the exteriors can be another matter and this can be an issue for the windows. A make-do but slightly laborious way to clean is a bit of newspaper (often in your cabin) and water but we have seen squeegees used by some. As well as making for better photos from your cabin you will also be providing free entertainment for the locals.
Multi-plug / USB for Charging
If you are lucky your cabin might have 2 plug sockets which is often not enough. We like to bring along a compact extension lead with multiple sockets and a couple of USB points. That way only one adapter per country is necessary and this setup can then charge several devices at the same time.
Train Door Key
Bring along a triangular and square combi-key (available on Amazon etc…) so that you can lock and unlock your cabin door without bothering the provodnista. Be discreet with its use though.
PACK AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
It can’t be said often enough – pack as light as you can. Also, don't use a hard-shelled case but a soft bag or backpack that can be squeezed as necessary into luggage storage space and which will be easy to carry or wheel around stations that may not have lifts or escalators.
Download this App to your phone and then don’t forget to download the relevant languages for offline use.
TOP TIPS FOR Mongolia SPECIFIC TRAVEL
Travel Beyond Ulaanbaatar
Particularly if you are visiting Mongolia as a stop on a Trans-Siberian trip you will often only have a couple of days before catching the train on to your next destinations. In this case do not be tempted to just stay in a hotel in Ulaanbaatar but make sure you get out to a ger camp outside the city so that you can experience the real Mongolia that exists in the grasslands and open steppe.
Be Prepared for All Weather
Mongolia has a short summer and long winter and almost non-existent spring an autumns. Although the winters are guaranteed to be very cold the summers (June, July and August) are usually quite pleasant with good daytime temperatures and cool evenings. However, it is not unheard of to have sudden periods of cold weather and even snow in the summer and temperatures can even vary enormously throughout the day so make sure you bring clothing that can be worn in layers.
Bring Cash Euros or Us Dollars
It is not easy to obtain Mongolian currency in advance of your arrival in the country which means you will need to exchange on arrival. Ulaanbaatar has a few ATMs but outside of the capital you won’t find any. At tourist ger camps they will usually accept Euros or USD cash as payment for extras such as drinks. These currencies are also best for exchanging cash (along with Chinese Yuan or Russian Roubles if you are arriving or departing by train). We don’t recommend using travellers cheques in Mongolia.
Spare Camera Batteries
Most tourist ger camps will have electricity which is usually supplied by generators or solar panels. However, supply is not always 100% reliable so always bring some fully charged spare camera batteries so you don’t run out of juice in the middle of nowhere (which is usually a very pretty and photogenic place!)
Stick to Bottled Water
Tours will usually provide you with plenty of bottled water and we strongly recommend you use only this for drinking or brushing teeth to avoid any unpleasant stomach issues.
Advise Well in Advance About Any Dietary Requirements
These days Mongolians in the tourist industry do understand what vegetarian food is but do make sure that you let us know on booking if you do have any dietary requirements as the default setting for Mongolian meals is very much meat based.
It is often said that Mongolia runs on its own time and, particularly outside of Ulaanbaatar, the rhythms of life are quite different to what you may be used to at home. This means things can take quite a bit longer to be done than you may be used to. By far the best way to approach this is to accept it and remember that you are on holiday to wind down – not get wound up!
Spend as Long as You Can in Mongolia
Mongolia is remote and not easy to get to try and spend as much time as you can in the country. Even adding just a few days to the standard Trans-Siberian stopover will allow you to see more of the country and it is highly unlikely you will regret this additional time.
TOP TIPS FOR china SPECIFIC TRAVEL
Learn a Few Words of the Language
Always good advice for any travels. Chinese is quite a hard language so we don’t necessarily suggest trying to become conversational (but hats off if you give it a go!) Instead, it will help break the ice with local people if you can say simple words such as “hello”, and “thank you” and having an idea of numbers will help with bargaining.
Don’t Try to See Too Much
China is vast and most people don’t have more than a few weeks to ‘see it.’ This is a bit like trying to see Western Europe or America in 2 weeks – you aren’t going to see it all. Instead, focus on perhaps half a dozen destinations and see them well. The main tourist destinations are discussed here. You can always come back on a second trip for more!
Keep the Climate in Mind
China has quite steep variations in climate both across the country and in individual places. Beijing can be +40C in summer and -20C in winter. The optimal time to go is discussed here along with more climate information.
Travel With the People
By this we largely mean utilising the impressive train network rather than flying everywhere. A trip to China is not complete without a train ride and preferably on an overnight train for the genuine experience. It is also a good opportunity to meet people and get caught up in the adventure of travel in China that is as much shared by the locals on long journeys as for tourists.
Be Adventurous in What You Eat
Don’t play it safe on the food front. A Chinese menu will often have scores if not hundreds of dishes so always try and pick one or two previously untried options to complement the ones you have heard of. It is 100% guaranteed that you have not eaten some truly amazing dishes yet and you will never find them unless you try!
Eat Where the Locals Do
The Chinese have a real passion for food and eat out a lot more than we do in the West. This makes for real competition on the dining scene with a vast army of customers with a well educated palate. Consequently, if a restaurant s busy with locals (preferably with a queue) then you know the food is going to be good.
Be Aware of “Face”
The worst thing you can do to a Chinese person is make them “lose face” which loosely means to embarrass them in front of you or others. Once this happens you won’t get anything done. They key is to be diplomatic and patient and to only get angry when all other methods have failed.
Bargain and Then Some
When shopping in markets or from tourists souvenir stalls you will be viewed as a walking wallet and will need to bargain vigorously for anything you are buying. Stat with a third of the asking price and go from there. Don’t be afraid to walk away as it is almost certain that a stall nearby has the same goods and the stall owner will be well aware of that.
Avoid National Holidays
China has 1.3 billion people so the national holiday chaos at popular sights makes the traffic, queues and chaos of our bank holidays look all rather tame. The big one to avoid is the National Day celebration which lasts for 1 week from the 1st October.
Avoid Being Scammed
Obvious really but how to spot you are going to be scammed? Avoid anyone wanting to practice English with you, take you to an art gallery, opt to be your guide for free or take you to a tea ceremony. Pay for any goods in markets in cash rather than put on a card and only use taxis prepared to use their meters (that can be hard at stations and airports). Follow this advice and you will have avoided almost all issues that happen to travellers.
Don’t Get Too Political
The Chinese enjoy talking about politics amongst themselves despite heavy levels of censorship. Be careful about joining in though as they can also be very protective and you won’t know where the red lines are. Avoid any discussion about Tibet, Taiwan and increasingly Japan as you are likely to cause offence – or worse.
Rice Comes After the Meal
In China rice is eaten at the end of a meal as filler rather than with the dishes as we do in the west. The theory is why eat rice when there is other much more delicious and flavoursome food to eat? If you do want to eat rice with your meal you may need to be persistent in asking for it and expect baffled looks from waiters.
It Isn’t an Argument
Chinese people are quite gregarious and noisy so what might look like a shouting match is just normal conversation. We have always expected it must be like that so that the all important tones in the language are understood – but that is just a theory. In any case, it probably isn’t a row.
Try the Street Food…
There is some excellent street food available from delicious lamb kebabs to local versions buns and pancakes. Do try them but make sure they are cooked in front of you and opt for stalls with a queue of locals.
…but Stick to Bottled Water
Don’t drink tap water, stick to bottled water which is freely available and cheap. it is not worth ruining your holiday to do otherwise.
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Planning Route Options
Map of the Trans-Siberian railway showing the major stops and popular places to visit as well as the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian routes.
Planning Where To Stop
The Trans-Siberian Travel Company's selection of the best places to visit in Russia, Mongolia and China for your trip of a lifetime.
Planning When To Go
The best months of the year to take a Trans-Siberian rail tour - and when not to! Do you prefer the idea of a summer trip, a winter trip or fall colours of autumn?
Planning The Trains
A guide to the main trains used in our The Trans-Siberian Travel Company's tours, differences between first and second train classes and life on board.
The staff of The Trans-Siberian Travel Company came up with this list of the best experiences on offer though Russia, Mongolia and China.
From modern to soviet hotels, Mongolian Gers, Siberian Home Stays to traditional style Chinese courtyards, the right hotel selection can make your trip!
Planning Money To Take
What currency to take on a Trans-Siberian tour - Russian Roubles? Mongolian Tugrik? Chinese Yuan RMB? US Dollars? Euros? Find the answers here.
Planning Visa Requirements
Most nationalities will need a visa for their Trans-Siberian trip - find out more information about Russian, Mongolian and Chinese visas here.
Vaccination and inoculations needed or recommended for a Trans-Siberian trip visiting Russia, Mongolia and China. Updated for Covid-19.
Our guide to the most frequently asked questions when planning your rail tour and holiday along the Trans-Siberian routes.
Planning Top Tips
Top Tips for a Trans-Siberian railway adventure based on experiences both good and bad from the trips we have done with specific lists for Mongolia and China.
Planning Reading List
The Trans-Siberian Travel Company's suggestions for a good read as you travel along the greatest railway in the world including reading lists for China, Russia and Mongolia.