Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: the Trans-Mongolian Railway

Trisha and her brother taking a selfie in front of a rural vista Enjoying the rural vistas on a short stint out of the train © Trisha Ping

Trisha Ping, Destination Editor for East and Mid USA, recently returned from a trip on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

Tell us more… My brother and I spent three weeks travelling by train between Beijing and Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. The trip covered thousands of miles, three countries (China, Mongolia and Russia) and two continents. We made several stopovers of anywhere from eight hours to three days along the way, but a full third of the trip (seven days) was spent on the train. Our longest stint on the train was 52 hours through Russia, from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg.

Defining moment? Dancing through the Mongolian dining car with the waiter and cook at 9am, then sharing a breakfast beer mixed with an egg (somewhat more palatable than it sounds, but not much). That was the first morning on the train and definitely set the tone for expecting the unexpected.

A street stall selling Kvas, a bread-based booze in Russia Grab a glass of bread-based booze Kvas from one of a plethora of street vendors © Trisha Ping

Good food and drink? There’s not much of a foodie scene in Mongolia or rural Russia. You’ll find lots of boiled or fried dumplings and other hearty, meat-heavy fare, frequently seasoned with dill and garnished with sour cream or fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. That said, Russia offers some tasty soups and stews beyond borscht (a sour vegetable soup): try rassolnik, a pickle soup with barley and beef, if you get a chance. And the omul (whitefish likened to salmon) from Lake Baikal is a must.

As for drinks – yes, vodka is indeed everywhere, but tea is the train drink of choice. There’s hot water for the taking from the samovars (a decorative Russian tea urn) in each car, and in Russia you can borrow a train-issued tea glass from the carriage attendant. Kvas – a lightly alcoholic, somewhat sour drink made from fermented bread – is also really popular and cheap. It’s often dispensed from kegs or kiosks on city streets.

You’d be a muppet to miss… Chatting with your fellow travellers, even if you don’t speak the same language! Playing cards with Peruvians, practising French at a hostel in Ulan-Ude and trading tea and vocabulary words with a Russian father and son were some of the best parts of the trip.

Fridge magnet or better? The wool and cashmere in Mongolia is well worth the space in your luggage. I wish I had bought more pairs of yak wool socks!

Beautiful views over Lake Baikal Beautiful views over Lake Baikal © Trisha Ping

Fave activity? Watching the cultural differences between Europe and Asia unfold is one of many fascinating things about this trip, so visiting the spot where the two continents meet, just outside Yekaterinburg, was a highlight. It was worth the trouble to book a day excursion to Perm-36, the last surviving example of a Stalin-era gulag. The giant silver Chinggis Kahn statue outside Ulaanbaatar has to be seen to be believed. And you must spend at least a day on Lake Baikal. The sunsets here are breathtaking, and there are lakeside hikes that offer stunning views. The icy water prevents you from taking more than a quick dip, but it’s really good at keeping drinks cool while you’re lounging and people-watching on the beach.

Want more behind-the-scenes adventures? Find out what Pathfinder and travel blogger Cory Lee got up to on his recent trip to Morocco.