Trans-Mongolian Railway: How We Did It

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this particular part of our journey, so I thought I’d write a little about it. Although St. Petersburg is not officially part of the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian, most foreign travelers include it on a visit to Russia (as well they should, it’s a fabulous city) so I’ve mentioned it in this how-to.

How we did it: We traveled completely independently, with the exception of a four-day countryside tour in Mongolia. We booked train tickets online using Russian Railways’ rzd.ru, which is only in Russian, but this website translates everything and has a helpful step-by-step tutorial with screenshots. The other website we used a lot was Everbrite’s site, which gives lots of info on all things Russia and CIS. Unfortunately Mongolian and Chinese tickets cannot be booked online, only through travel agents (very expensively,) but even in summer we didn’t have any problem buying these tickets a week or two in advance. I would only recommend using a travel agent if your plans are completely inflexible. The Ulaan Baatar- Beijing route is the most underserved portion of the route, and travel agencies know this: they charge at least double what you’d pay in-country!

Accommodation: We stayed in hostels/ guesthouses in Ulaan Baatar, Irkutsk, Olkhon Island, and Suzdal, and couchsurfed in Tomsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. We almost always booked ahead on hostelbookers.com. Russian hostels are typically in converted apartments, and some don’t have signs (those are “secret hostels,” and they avoid paying taxes this way.) If in doubt, try to arrange a train station pickup. They can be quite hard to find otherwise. Couchsurfing in Russia was fantastic. Our hosts were really friendly and helped us a lot with language difficulties, finding supermarkets, and buying onward tickets.

Food: We self-catered on the train rides. Every major station has some stalls selling instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, and other things that can be made with hot water. Supermarkets in larger cities (try the Central Market in Irkutsk, Kupets in Yekaterinburg) sell a great variety of Russian salads, breads, cheeses, and other things for train picnics. In the cities, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, we ate at Soviet-style canteens, which are just like the K&W Cafeteria back home, except in Russia they like to put mayonnaise in your soup. No language skills are required- just point at what you want. A full meal at one of these places, with soup, salad, bread main course, dessert, and a drink costs $10-12. (And honestly, a full meal is really enough for two people.) Teremok, a bliny chain, was another favorite of ours. Sit-down restaurants with table service tend to be pricey in Russia, especially in Moscow and St. Pete, although many places offer good-value “business lunches,” which normally include two or three courses and bread.

Russian supermarket

Russian supermarkets even sell beer on tap

The infamous Russian visa: I’m quite sure the authorities want to do anything possible to frustrate would-be visitors and force them into going on guided package tours. Tourists are supposed to make all their hotel bookings in advance and obtain “visa support” in the form of an invitation letter from one of these hotels. We bought fake visa support online from www.waytorussia.net. Then we had to wait to apply. Visas normally aren’t issued more than three months in advance of travel (although consulates around the world vary; check Everbrite’s site for updates and don’t be afraid to call different consulates.) Finally, each embassy/ consulate only deals with citizens and legal residents of the country in which it’s situated. According to the Russian rules, the minimum amount of time required to be considered “resident” in a country is 90 days. Malaysia automatically grants US citizens 90-day visitor’s visas, so luckily we were able to obtain our Russian visa in Kuala Lumpur.

After jumping through all these hoops to get the visa, you’d think that the nonsense would be over—after all, we were basically begging the authorities to be allowed to go to their country and spend lots of money—but it’s not. Upon arrival in Russia, your visa must be registered. The rules changed in March 2011 and now tourist visas need to only registered ONCE while in Russia—not once in each city you spend more than three days in, which was the previous law. It needs to be done within seven days of arrival in the country. This is great for couchsurfers because all you need to do is stay at a hostel at least one night when you first get to Russia, pay the ~300 rubles for registration, then you are good to go. In the past, we would’ve had to register as staying in a private residence (if we stayed for more than 72 hours.) Not anymore. It seems this part of the process, at least, is becoming more streamlined. When it came time to leave Russia, nobody lifted an eyebrow at any of our paperwork or stamps.

In total, we spent close to $200 each on the visa support, actual visa, and registration. Ouch.

Learning Russian: Bob downloaded some podcasts and learned some travel Russian, which helped immensely. How much Russian should travelers learn? As much as possible, but at a bare minimum, learn the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian numbers. How to order food and ask where things are also came in handy. Bob spent a long time learning how to buy train tickets, but it was moot when we found out we could just order them online. As for me, my best phrase in Russian is still “Ya nye gavaryu pa Russky” (I don’t speak Russian.)

As a general rule, we found that citizens of large, powerful countries tend to have poorer foreign language skills. Russians, Chinese, and Americans have this in common: most of us don’t need to speak foreign languages on a daily basis. People from smaller countries tend to need foreign languages for educational or economic reasons. So on a trip like ours, traveling to twenty different countries, we had to prioritize which languages we’d focus on. It turned out that studying Russian or Chinese was a much better use of time than studying, say, Khmer, since most Cambodians in the tourist industry have pretty good English skills and we only stayed in touristy areas anyway. I’m not saying those languages aren’t worth studying. Your mileage may vary. It all depends on where you’re traveling to, how long you’re traveling in that country, and what you hope to do there.

Guidebooks: We carried the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook, but we also read most of Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook in a hostel in Ulaan Baatar. I’d have to say that I preferred the layout of the latter book, but both suffer from small maps, outdated restaurant and hostel listings, and too much extraneous information—you’re not really going to visit EVERY city along the train line, especially not on a 30-day visa. I wish I’d just Xeroxed the pages I needed. For pre-trip planning and armchair travelling, Asia Overland has lots of useful information and nice pictures. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg have up-to-date editions of in your pocket, which were great.

Money: Our bank did not allow us to use our debit card as a debit card in Russia. It was still ok to use it as an ATM card, and a credit card issued by the same bank was also ok. No big deal because Russians prefer cash over plastic. Call your bank before you go.

Safety: Maybe this was the number one question I heard: Is it safe to travel in Russia? In big cities, there are some areas that might be worse than others, and I made sure to watch my purse in the crowded subway trains, but at no time did I feel threatened. We took reasonable precautions, but didn’t overdo it. For example, we never bothered locking our backpacks while we slept on the trains; none of the locals do. I’m convinced that traveling in Russia is no more dangerous than in the US.

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Potty Talk

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toilet seat Unfamiliar toilets can make us do strange things. At the risk of embarrassing my sister Jennie, I will relate this tale of toilet woe: when I was eight years old, my parents, sisters, and I traveled to Paris (a trip I am surprised that my parents don’t regret, due to our misbehaving most of the time and demanding to eat Domino’s Pizza.) Jennie, who had her fourth birthday on the trip, was of course toilet-trained, but still had some potty-related issues. Specifically: she did not like to use any toilet that did not have a white seat. That meant no beige seats, no pastel-colored seats, and no black seats. At home, all of our toilet seats were white, so this did not pose any issues. In Paris’ public WCs, has anyone else ever noticed what color the seats are? We checked several different toilets. They were all black, every last public toilet seat in the city. Jennie refused to sit on any of them, and ended up wetting her pants in public.

Jennie’s Parisian toilet trouble is minor league compared to how some Western travelers feel about Asian-style toilets, aka squatty potties. They may be intimidating at first, but they’re really not that bad. They do require a certain degree of balance and flexibility, but with practice (lots of squats at the gym?) it gets a lot easier. They are often dirty, for myriad reasons- but even if the toilet itself is dirty, I think it’s more sanitary than Western-style toilets, since no part of the body needs to ever touch the toilet. (If there is a flush, do what I do and use your foot to press down on it.) The most common complaint I hear is that it’s too hard to aim. Foolproof tip: make sure your feet are flat on the ground, or as close as possible. Balancing on the balls of your feet is a surefire way to pee on your hem.

I’ve been asked before: where in the world has the worst toilets? Rural Chinese and Mongolian toilets are the most horrifying I’ve seen so far. One fellow traveler we met called them “Chinese splatter trays.” Most rural public toilets are just troughs in the ground. There are two or three low partitions over the trough, to demarcate three or four “stalls,” and one side remains completely open; there are no doors. Train station toilets

If you want to preserve your modesty, travel with an opaque umbrella. Open it up to create a fourth wall for yourself while you do your business. These same toilets may not have plumbing, either. To put it delicately: breathe through your mouth and don’t look down. It sounds bad, but I think there is a cultural reason behind it. The Chinese are extremely pragmatic people, and tend not to dress things up. The attitude concerning toilets seemed to be “Why bother? It’s just a toilet.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to not install plumbing in public toilets, I can kind of see their point. The most important thing is that it works, not how it looks.  Toilet troughs

I don’t mean to scare people away from traveling to China. Generally, in bigger Chinese cities, all the toilets I used had proper stalls and doors, but not in Yunnan, especially in the city of Jinghong and along the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. In well-traveled areas, nicer public restrooms can be found, but those are for the benefit of the tourists, not the locals.Toilet tourism; Dali, China

If you are particular about what kind of toilet you use, I recommend using the facilities in shopping malls, nicer restaurants, or at tourist attractions that charge an admission fee. Everywhere in the world, train station toilets are the worst.

One neat feature on many toilets around the world is the option for a “big” or “small” flush. I’ve never seen that in the States—all of our newer toilets are low-flush, but anyone who’s used these knows the inherent problem with them. Low-flush toilets do save water… unless you have to flush two or three times to get everything to go down.

Where in the world have you found interesting toilets?