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Travelling on The Trans-Siberian Railway with Children

If people were asked to conjure up an image of the most iconic train ride in the world, I suspect the Trans-Siberian would feature in a lot of their minds. This journey is truly epic, crossing thousands of miles of stunning landscapes, through 5 time zones and on certain routes through at least three different countries. However, when I mentioned to family and friends my desire to take this journey wth my then four year old daughter, many people tried to dissuade me. They raised what they considered to be legitimate concerns about safety for a single parent, sharing a cabin and what I consider to be a really big fear of the unknown. I was nearly put off as doubts started to creep into my mind. Luckily I did a bit of research and made some careful decisions based on our individual circumstances and we set off on this incredible journey across Russia in September of 2017. Even after four months of travelling I still believe it will be hard to top the beautiful and enriching experience we had on board the train. We travelled Moscow – Ulaanbaatar and then from Ulaanbaatar – Beijing. The first leg of our journey took five days and the second took 36 hours.

The Beautiful Trans-Mongolian alongside another Russian Train

There are 3 main routes you can take if you wish to travel onboard the Trans-Siberian:

Moscow – Vladivostok
Moscow – Beijing via Mongolia
Moscow – Beijing via Harbin (good if you wish to save on the Mongolian visa cost and/or visit Harbin).

Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia is the most popular route and it’s the route we took.

Cost (Moscow-Beijing):

Prices do vary depending on who you book with so these are approximate and it might be worth shopping around a bit off you see a price that is a lot more than this.

1st class: Approximately £850-900 each

2nd class: Approximately £500-600 each depending on whether you book upper or lower berth (with lower berth being more expensive).

3rd class: I’m unsure on whether 3rd class is available for the whole journey but you could take it in the Russian section of the journey for about £150 I think with added extra Mongolia to Beijing. The journey can be done for less anyway with a bit of research.

Sharing: It may be possible to share your bunk with a child under 5 and have them travel for free if you book yourself directly. I’ve not seen this offered by a travel agent yet but it’s worth asking around before you book. The berths are big enough especially if you travel top to toe and don’t mind being bit squashed but it wouldn’t be for everyone. I travelled this way on shorter journeys within China, it saved me a lot of money and was totally fine.

Visas:

On top of the cost of the train you will have the cost of the visas. This is different for every country of course. My travel company sorted both the Mongolian and Chinese after iIfilled the forms in and did a free checking service. A friend of mine had a lot of difficulty with their Chinese visa so I would actually recommend using a validation service.

Visa Cost (normal processing times):

Russian: £70 + £38.40 processing fee
Chinese: £151
Mongolian: £40

When you visit Russia you will also need to have official invites from everywhere you’re staying. Again this was sorted by my travel company which was another reason why I chose to pay extra at the start of our travels so all of these formalities were dealt with easily. You will also need to list every country you have visited in 10 years with exact dates of flying and declare social media accounts.

It’s worth noting that although the Mongolian visa was relatively cheap for UK nationals I do know that from New Zealand it was one of the most expensive visas to get costing well over $200 I believe. So it’s worth checking thesis costs and budgeting accordingly before you apply so you don’t have any nasty surprises.

Getting to the train station:

Map of Yaroslavsky Station Area

We caught the train at midnight from Yaroslavsky train station in Moscow. Although this sounds like an unsociable time it was actually quite convenient in the end. By the time we were settled, said hello to our neighbours and explored the train a little bit we were so tired we could have slept anywhere I think. My 4 year old slept through until 10am the next day and we were both completely rested.

We booked this part of the trip with a tour company. Although expensive it did mean that all my visas were processed by them, all transfers were done by them and all accommodation and tickets too. If you don’t go this route then I would recommend taking a taxi to the train station, it wont be expensive in Russia and if you are travelling with a child it will save you a lot of hassle. However there will probably be buses and also the subway will take you there too if you decide to go for budget options. There nearest subway station is Komsomolskaya.

In my experience if you decide to travel as a single parent, it is the transfers from one place to the next that are the most stressful so I now budget a bit more and pay for taxis to make this process more straightforward. If there happens to be a station nearby, step free access and a direct train then I will take it; however, when you are carrying all your luggage and a possibly sleepy child, it just didn’t seem worth it to save a few pounds in my opinion.

Sleeping Arrangements:

The Mongolian Carriage: 2 beds on the same level. The back rest pulled down to make a wider bed for the night.

1st class: 2-berth cabin, possible private bathroom/sink, closing door, table, under bunk storage space, top shelf storage space, hot water thermos, blankets, sheets and a bean pillow

2nd class: 4-berth cabin, closing door, table, under bunk storage and top shelf storage space but all shared with 2 other people, blankets, sheets, bean pillow

3rd class: 4-berth cabin, possibility of no table, no door, blankets, sheets, bean pillow and all the same storage space as above.

I chose to go first class as I had no idea how it would be, I’ve never slept on a train before and didn’t know who I would be sharing with. I had planned a year long round the world trip and our journey on the Trans-Siberian started it all off. I think going first class was the right decision at the time as it calmed my nerves and we had somewhere to retreat on that first 5 day journey. I could leave our things in the cabin and they were safe. First class was also very quiet at the time we travelled and we only had one other couple in our carriage all the way to Irkutsk.

Top bunk excitement!

Now we have travelled over much of China on sleeper trains I would definitely feel more confident in a 4-berth cabin. We had wonderful experiences meeting people in our two months around China and I can really recommend it as a way to travel. Once we left Beijing we even shared a bed the whole time as it meant my daughter travelled for free. If you wish to travel the Trans-Siberian on a very tight budget you can; it was safe, everyone was friendly and there seems to be an innate sense of respect for people’s space and privacy that means it is definitely bearable even when travelling with children. Take earplugs (I’d recommend anyway to help take away the noise of the train) and eye masks and you’ll be fine.

Food and The Famous Trans-Siberian Restaurant Carriage:

Borscht: This is a meal from Moscow not the train, but it was very similar with the brown salted garlic bread & coffee included.

It’s very easy to eat on a small budget, although you will probably get fed up of instant noodles, instant soup and hot drinks! This is because at the end of each carriage there is a free hot water berth for all passengers.

Recommended drinks:

Tea and coffee. 2 in 1 or 3 in 1 sachets are very handy if you like milk or sugar in your coffee so you don’t need to take extra milk and sugar this way. Hot chocolate, malt drinks, herbal/fruit teas and anything else you can make with hot water.

There is no cold water available on the train so buy some extra large bottles of mineral water at the station before you board and stash them under your bunk.

Recommended food:

Instant noodles, instant soup or any other variation on this that doesn’t require cooking. Snacks, snacks and more snacks! Whatever you can carry take and also do take some fruit that survives well out of the fridge (apples, bananas etc). We missed fruit after a couple of days and we could have easily stored some. Instant porridge is good for breakfast too.

In high season there are also hawkers on the platforms selling soft drinks, meat, local food and snacks. Don’t rely on the hawkers being there unless it’s summer when the train is very busy. We travelled at the beginning of September and there were only sellers at the first stop we went to. You can nip to a station shop if you’re feeling brave when the train stops for longer (I personally did not feel comfortable doing this, plenty of others did though!). There is also someone who comes down the train selling snacks, juice, water etc although at a slightly higher price than off the train of course. I found Russian prices were so much better than what I was used to on the train that it didn’t really matter where I bought the food though, it was still way cheaper than the UK.

The Restaurant Carriages:

The Russian Restaurant Tables

The restaurant really is the centre of social activities on board the train. Head down to meet your fellow passengers, chat, and make friends. Despite taking a lot of our own food we also found it was nice to break the day up with a trip to the restaurant car. A variation in diet was also a welcome relief if I’m honest. The restaurant is provided by whatever country you are travelling from. Most of our journey was therefore the Russian restaurant which I found to be cheap and pretty good quality. I loved borscht (the famous Russian dish of beef and beetroot soup) which was about £3 a bowl and breakfast was food such as rice porridge (a sweet rice pudding, garlic toast, eggs, decent coffee and juice. They love pickled vegetables and if you wanted salmon and caviar it was on the menu for a high price. As with all travelling you just have to acclimatise to a different palate, but the food was good once we had done this.

Snacks, crisps, chocolate, biscuits etc were all inexpensive.

Take cash although they will take card payment if they can get a signal. It was quite fun waiting for the train to go through a small station to get 3G and the payment could finally go through and the man running the restaurant was never annoyed by it. He spoke good English and was very helpful. I would budget £10-£15 a day for food for one adult and one child having breakfast and lunch or breakfast or lunch and a snack. You could definitely spend less than this but we enjoyed going to the restaurant, hanging out, having drinks and chatting to people. Food does fill the time up a bit so maybe just enjoy and like we did, spend a bit more to relax and have fun. There’s not a huge amount to do on the train so my advice would be to just budget more for food accordingly.

If you wanted to just take snacks on the train and eat all meals in the restaurant I would recommend budgeting £20 per person, per day.

The Mongolian Restaurant Carriage:

The Carved Wood of the Mongolian Restaurant

The actual carriage is stunning and well worth a look when you leave Mongolia. Ornate carved wood adorns the walls, upholstery is done with sumptuous fabrics and it makes for an unusual dining experience. However the food is much more expensive as the only menu available is a set dining menu. This was priced in American dollars and they will accept either Mongolian cash or US dollars. Breakfast was $14.95, lunch $24.95 and dinner $29.95. There are no drinks available outside of this so prepare to cater for yourself or bring the appropriate cash. They wont accept a card payment under a certain amount on this section of the trip which I believe was $30 and I just wasn’t prepared to spend so much money at the time. By the time it was breakfast the next day which was more affordable we were in China and therefore the Chinese carriage had been attached.

The Chinese Restaurant Carriage:

The Chinese Menu

This was not a beautiful carriage but the food was very cheap and tasty. However despite having a large menu there was only two things available to order – scrambled egg and tomato or pork and green pepper. We ordered both for about £4 total cost and it was well cooked.

Vegetarianism/Veganism/food intolerances:

Vegetarianism is definitely possible on board especially if you supplement with your own snacks and instant noodles. However you may find it slightly more difficult if you’re a vegan or if you have severe food intolerances to dairy etc. Definitely plan ahead and take your own food. Use the happy cow app or website in Moscow/St Petersburg and stock up on supplies before boarding the train. My daughter drinks soya milk and we found it difficult to source this until we arrived in China.

Mod-Cons Aboard the Trans-Siberian:

The 1st class carriage Mongolia – China

The train had heating, air conditioning, toilets, hot water, carpets down the corridors, bedding and flasks for hot water all provided. There wasn’t a shower on the Trans-Mongolian but there was when we went from Mongolia to Beijing (1st class only). The Mongolian staff kept the train extremely clean, always hoovering, polishing and generally keeping busy. This staff base was all female and were from Mongolia. They were very friendly and we had a great trip, in part because of them. Having spoken to others who travelled on different trains it is a varied experience, particularly in terms of service and the attitude of staff. Needless to say some were better than others.

The Mongolia – China sleeping arrangement, 2 bunks top & bottom

Our own experience on the Chinese train from Ullaanbaatar to Beijing was that the train itself was very sumptuous with an armchair in the room, red velvet curtains and carpets and we had our own toilet and shower room. However it wasn’t kept clean at all, the carpets hadn’t been hoovered, the toilet hadn’t been cleaned and the staff were all males who spoke no english at all and they all smoked right next to our room. This marred the experience slightly but that final leg was so fast and we were so excited to get to Beijing that it’s really not something to worry about. If you happen to have a child with asthma or another breathing problem then simply look it up on google translate, show the staff and ask them to smoke elsewhere. As long as you stand your ground and look slightly severe they will follow your wishes as I’ve discovered. A lot of people smoke in China and it is permissible to smoke anywhere so if you plan on going you will have to get used to it.

One bonus to it all is if you are actually a smoker you will find plenty of opportunity to do this but please be considerate of fellow travellers and go in the in-between connecting carriages with the doors shut and a good airflow! Not many did this and it would have made a huge difference to our enjoyment of the trip.

We had access to a private toilet Mongolia – Beijing but it wasn’t as clean as the shared toilet Moscow – Mongolia!
We didn’t test if it worked but it was available!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entertaining Children Onboard:

I found that between eating, chatting to other passengers, sleeping and napping there actually wasn’t that much time to fill. It feels like there will be endless awful hours where a child might go stir crazy but it simply wasn’t the case for us. Because everyone is in the situation I found people open to chatting away and most were really friendly. My daughter is very sociable with good manners and I’ve discovered she can charm anyone, even those who would probably loudly proclaim that they ‘hate’ children.

She spent a lot of time running up and down our corridor to let off steam which the staff always laughed about and I made sure she wasn’t shouting or shrieking so as not to disturb others. One thing I have discovered whilst travelling is that in the UK in comparison to where we have been so far, children are seen as an annoyance; adults don’t want to talk to them on public transport. If they run around laughing, giggling and shouting they would be frowned at or you as a parent would be given dirty looks or even spoken to to be told to get your child ‘under control’. This simply isn’t the case in places like Russia, Mongolia, China and Thailand etc. It took me a while to relax but in these countries it’s just seen as normal childhood behaviour. It makes people smile or they just totally ignore it with no annoyance at all. It even makes me sad to look back on how different things are in the UK now we’ve been away for a few months. So the bottom line is, don’t worry about your child running off steam on board the train! The staff just laughed about ‘spider-girl’ the whole time as she was charging about in spiderman pyjamas and they actively told me to leave her be when I was trying to get her to stop in my concern it would annoy them.

Watching films in our quiet time

Other ideas for the train are the obvious things like colouring, travel games, card games, connect four, uno, or anything along these lines. We took our Lottie doll and all her clothes (similar to a barbie) and some mini toy cars too. We started a scrap book and had a pit stick for glueing all our little memories in. I also have an iPad which I save for towards the end of the day if I needed a nap and she wasn’t keen. She just put her headphone on and watched a cartoon or played games. in the bed next to me. I also had movies on my laptop and we would shut the door once a day and watch one together. By the time you have done all this, eaten and been to the restaurant it will be time for bed before you know it.

Security/Safety Onboard the Trans-Siberian:

A lot of people spoke to me about what they considered to be my dangerous choice in catching this train. I’m not sure why, but the overall view in the UK was it was so unheard of for a single mother to do, it simply had to be bad. All I can say is I’m glad I never paid heed as it has, to date, been the best thing we did together. The train is the way Russian mothers would travel within Russia, solo female travellers take the trip all the time and we did not see even one bit of dangerous or unsafe/suspicious behaviour.

When you have a child people leave you alone, I have not been hassled by guys at all (a welcome situation for me), and those that want to chat do so and those that don’t nod and smile and go on their way. Our cabin locked from the inside and the staff will lock it from the outside on request. But we just put our valuables and documents in the case and locked it. It’s not going anywhere on a journey that takes 5 days to arrive.

So when thinking about taking this trip please do not allow stories of unsafe practice or supposedly dangerous countries to put you off. Russia, Mongolia and China have been 3 of the safest countries I’ve been to and I have never felt unsafe, at risk or threatened in any way when visiting these areas.

Points of Interest on the way to Beijing:

Lake Baikal

I made the decision to catch the train in Moscow and remain on it until Ulaanbaatar and then to go direct to Beijing from there. This was because I thought it would be stressful to drag all our stuff off, to visit somewhere for a day or two and then get back on and settle again. In some ways I was right as it was easier this way; however, if I get the chance we’re going to take the train again and this time we’ll catch it in Saint Petersburg and spend a few days there, we’ll revisit Moscow when my daughter will get more from the museums and I will definitely disembark at Irkutsk and visit Lake Baikal. This area looked stunning from the train and it is well worth the stop according to other passengers. I would spend more than 2 days though as it is quite a long journey by car to get to the hotels and I’d say four days would be better. Another point of interest could also be the caves in northern China where there are 1500 year old buddhist carvings in the mountains. You would alight at Datong city, Shanxi Province then head on further to the Yungang Grottoes. Other grottoes exist and can be visited with further travel within China, see the links below for more details.

Border Crossings and the Changing of the Wheels:

There were various checks done at points on our journey, some at the borders of course and others just after we boarded the train in Russia. Passports and tickets were checked and at the borders the cabins were searched although our luggage never was. Sniffer dogs were brought onboard as we crossed from Russia into Mongolia and then it was all done again as we crossed formally into Mongolia. Customs forms need to be filled out and all the normal formalities were done. None of this is anything to be concerned about of course but occasionally it was done at inconvenient times. Although i did find that if my daughter was asleep they never asked me to wake her up they just had a look at her and checked that everything else was in order.

Currency:

Mongolia has a closed currency meaning you will be unable to acquire it before entering or change it upon leaving. I was also advised cash points may not alway be working so best to exchange cash causally on entering or at your hotel. A lady boarded the train as we crossed into Mongolia and I changed some US dollars into the Mongolian Tugrik so I had some cash on arrival. Her rate wasn’t much different from what my currency converter app told me it should be. Everything in Mongolia is so cheap anyway money never really concerned me here. You can change money at banks and even at hotels in Mongolia although only Russian Rubles or US dollars, don’t expect english pounds to be easily exchanged!

The currency lady never boarded the train on leaving the country though so I ended up stuck with some money. I forgot to change it at Ulaanbaatar station when leaving so make sure you do this if you have time. If not, you will probably find travellers and backpackers in China who are doing the journey the other way. I ended up exchanging mine with an Australian lady who gave me Australian dollars as I was headed there soon. She was so grateful she gave me over the exchange rate as she hadn’t realised she would not be able to change Australian dollars easily or that the currency was closed. Either way I saw a lot of private deals going on in hostels so don’t worry if you find yourself in China with too much Mongolian cash on you!

Its worth noting that the US dollar is king internationally or the Euro is also more widely accepted than GBP for example. if you are not from the US it’s better to travel with dollars than pounds. I would do this always in the future now if going to Russia or Mongolia. Changing money in China is difficult. They wanted me to fill in s many forms it wasn’t worth the hassle. They were also asking me for citizen numbers and other documentation that I was unsure what it even was. Prepare to withdraw from cash points or take all the cash you expect to need.

Top Tips for Surviving the Journey:

Packing essentials:

  • Ear plugs to help you get used to the noise of the train
  • Eye mask as the lights to get put on and turned off by the staff at specific times (in 1st class I was able to request this to be changed).
  • Drinking water (at least one 5L bottle)
  • Cuttlery, noodle bowls with lids, camping mugs etc (just good camping utilities will make the journey better if you are taking your own food and snacks to prepare.
  • Baby wipes / flannel / sponge to do a sink wash (it is possible to wash you hair with the water jug provided)
  • Bathroom flip flops if you don’t want to wear those provided
  • Extra toilet paper
  • If you are a fussy sleeper or light sleep you may wish to take a pillow you simply discard at the other end as the bean pillow is a bit uncomfortable. I got used to it but some may not.
  • Previously mentioned food and snacks
  • Games, toys and electronics.

Other tips:

Lose the hour a day to cope with the time change, it’s much easier than doing a big 5 hour jump in Mongolia. Just put your clock forward an hour each morning when you get up or when you go to bed.

Useful Links:

Ancient Grottos in China

Happy Cow: Find vegetarian & vegan restaurants & shops worldwide

Real Russia: Prices, bookings and more

Russia Experience: The company I used to book my trip