Moments pass like a blur through the scratched window of my airport taxi. Communist tower blocks, Russian lettering, illuminating lights at the street side, and then blackness as far as the eye could see. Ulaan Baatar was the beginning of my trip through Mongolia, Siberia and Russia, and upon first landing, the city was like no other part of Asia I had previously travelled to. I check into my hostel, the excellent Golden Gobi located in central UB, run by a friendly and knowledgeable young Mongolian family.

-How long will you stay with us?

‘I have no idea’

-Do you plan to take the train to Russia?

‘Yes, but I haven’t booked anything yet…’

This was the start of what would become a 6-week journey through a part of the world that few visit and even fewer choose to do overland. Despite the fame of the world’s greatest train ride, the ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’, the complications of travel, the length of time spent on board, and the difficulty of obtaining a Russian visa, put many people off. There’s also some theories that it’s an extremely expensive experience, probably not helped by the dozens of Western travel agents who charge thousands of pounds to guide you along. I didn’t know anyone who had taken this journey before, and I was about to do it solo, with no plans, and on a very small budget. In the end, I am incredibly glad I did it this way.

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Leg 1: Ulaan Baatar to The Gobi Desert to Terelj National Park, Mongolia

I spent the first few weeks in Mongolia, travelling in an old Russian jeep to the Gobi desert, where we stayed with nomads, reluctantly drank fermented goats milk and learnt how to sheer sheep. The sand dunes of the Gobi are epic and beautiful, but it’s the lifestyle of the countries people which I felt the most blessed to observe. Simple, remote and often with a days drive from their nearest neighbour, I’d never seen living like this, and what it seemed to result in was the tightening of the family group, and the happiness of young children who can run free in the worlds biggest garden.

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Ulaan Baatar is a city which can seem vacant and lonely on arrival, but in reality it’s full of hidden gems and you should reserve at least a few days for exploring. My favourite place in the city is the fascinating Gandan Monastery, go by morning and watch the pigeons fly around the great white structure, as pilgrims spin prayer wheels and chant Tibetan mantras. The black market is another must see, a tatty assortment of ‘Made in China’ goods and local clothing. It’s the atmosphere which attracted me back to this market several times, under the tiny tented corridors and between stacks of Mongolian hats and fake Converse shoes.

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A short bus ride from Ulaan Baatar is the beautiful steppes of Terelj National Park. Here you’ll find wide open spaces, well touristed Ger camps, and free hiking to view points and the parks monastery. If your time in Mongolia is limited, then this is a quick journey which will enable you to see Mongolian life and nature all at once.

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Leg 2: Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia to Ulaan Ude, Russia

A few weeks after my arrival in UB, time was ticking and I opted to take the bus across the border to Ulaan Ude. Was I cheating by not taking the train? Well a little. But considering the train takes twice as long, and involves what is apparently an extremely drawn out and uncomfortable immigration check in the middle of the night, the bus seemed like a better option. I knew I would start the train as soon as I landed on Russian soil.

Ulaan Ude feels like an extension of Mongolia which somehow ended up on the Russian side of the border. Here, faces are still predominately Asian, and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery sits proudly on the mountain above the city. The main square however is home to the biggest ever statue of Lenin’s head, and a bunch of Russian diners. Stay at the excellent Ulaan Ude Travellers House if you want to meet English speaking Russians and learn some tricks from Trans Siberian Travellers coming from the other direction.

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Leg 3: Ulaan Ude to Irkutsk and Olkhon Island, Russia

A few days in Ulaan Ude will present you with a nice introduction to the country, and a chance to see the mix of Asia and Europe which dominates this end of Siberia. I then bought my first train ticket, which I did the day before in the local train station. It was the shortest train journey I would take, at only around 7 hours and continuously breaking onto panoramas of the beautiful Lake Baikal. Baikal for many travellers is the highlight of the whole Trans-Siberian journey. For me, visiting Olkhon Island is an absolute must.

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Take a bus ride north from Irkutsk to the ferry point and it’s a short trip across to the island. The main settlement is Khuzhir, and the most suitable accommodation for foreigners is Nikitas Homestay. If you have your own camping equipment, it’s possible to camp out just about anywhere on the island. Facilities are very basic, and apart from the food offered by your accommodation, there’s only a small supermarket and a few Russian cafes. But the views are breathtaking, the beaches are something you’d imagine from a Greek Island when the summer months see balmy air temperatures of around 30 degrees. It’s fair to say this place was something I never imagined from Siberia, but a wonderland I was so glad to find. Make sure to explore the Shaman culture of the island, and visit some of the local handicraft shops which weave beautiful souvenirs from local craftsmen.

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Leg 4: Irkutsk to Moscow, Russia

My real journey along the Trans-Siberian railway began in Irkutsk and 4 nights later, ended in the Russian capital of Moscow. For 88 hours I lived in a third class carriage with 50 other people from all walks of life, watching the world pass by outside of the open windows as Asia slowly turned to Europe. Of all the parts of my time travelling along the Trans-Siberian, this is the leg which felt most like a journey, and one of the most memorable times for me.

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I ate just-add-water noodles and stale bread, drank endless cups of tea, watched birch trees merge into one another and a constant, barely changing landscape. Most people on board spoke little to no English, although some tried their hardest to understand why I would want to voluntarily take this train ride instead of doing the normal thing and taking an aeroplane. For all the inspirational travel press the Trans-Siberian has, almost everyone aboard was a Russian or Central Asian simply getting from A to B.

I met Baikal fishermen travelling home to see their loved ones. Families from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan based in Russia, young university students eager to practice their English, and a wild Russian redhead armed with an accordion and a head full of Russian folk songs. I read books I’d longed to read for months, wrote pages of diary entries, and spent a lot of time reflecting on the year I had just spent travelling solo in Asia. For me, this train ride was the perfect reflection after a year on the road, and in many ways the ultimate statement of overland travel and the joy that comes from hitting the road in this way.

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On one bright July morning, the train finally stopped moving, as we arrived in Moscow to an orange sunrise and my last few days in Russia were upon me.

Leg 5: Exploring Moscow

I expected very little from Moscow, thinking this city would mostly consist of sullen faces, grey architecture and an imposing history. What I discovered instead was a young and creative city, similar to Berlin. The parks, once full of communist statues now filled with rollerbladers, bars and outdoor cinemas. I wandered through cutting edge photography galleries, felt music on every corner and relished in the blue skies which topped this colourful city. I loved Moscow in so many ways and in the middle of summer it felt like the most perfect city to live in.

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Leg 6: Moscow to St. Petersburg

My final train journey took me North to St. Petersburg and almost 24 hour daylight. St. Petersburg feels truly European, and the well preserved architecture and museums are similar to Paris or Prague, rather than the jumble of architectural styles I found in Moscow. While it’s undoubtedly pretty, I felt St. Petersburg lacked some of the life of Moscow, instead mostly catering to tourists. There’s a great cafe culture here through, and sitting in parks in bright daylight until midnight never gets old.

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Tips for Trans-Siberian Travel

  • How to buy tickets? Many international travel agents offer ticket sales online, however these are considerably more than buying ticket in the station. I bought all my tickets in the local train stations a day or two before my journey and had no problem getting a seat in peak season. There are several trains travelling on these lines each day, and as long as you are reasonably flexible with your time, buying tickets as you go along is easily the cheapest and best way to travel through Russia.
  • How much does it cost? There is some pretty bad advice out there on the internet about how much the Trans Siberian will cost you. In fact, no it won’t cost you thousands of dollars, it’s actually a very cheap way to travel. I paid around €200 in total for my train journeys from Ulaan Ude to St. Petersburg, and the bus across the Mongolian-Russian border was around €30.
  • What carriage should I travel in? I travelled my whole journey in third class, where you share with around 50 other people (split into 6 compartments. It can get a little hot and smelly, but the stories and people you will meet by travelling third class is what this experience is all about.
  • What will I eat? In third class, there is a hot water canister and this will provide you with most of your meals. I ate a lot of dried noodles, soups and the Russians are very into dried potato (which takes like mash potato when you add water). In Russian super markets along the line there is a lot of choice for foods you can just add water to. The train will stop around twice a day for 30 or so minutes. Here, it is possible to go to go to some small Russian bakeries or dumpling stalls to buy some fresh foods and bread. Don’t forget to stock up on tea and coffee!
  • What is it like as a solo woman? If you are travelling along the Trans Siberian as a woman alone, I would HIGHLY recommend staying in third class. Third class is full of people, families, old ladies and young people. In second class you are at risk of being in a closed 4-bed carriage with three Russian men drinking vodka all night. I know I would feel uncomfortable and unsafe in this situation so travelling in third class avoids any problems like this. I felt safe on my whole journey through Russia and Mongolia, and felt a lot of friendliness from the Russian people. Russian women are generally independent and strong, so seeing a woman alone is not unusual in Russia as it is in some parts of Asia.
  • Any more questions? I frequently get people asking me advice for travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway, if you would like to know more, check out the amazing website The Man in Seat 61 which was I read back to front before I embarked on this journey. You can also email me at annapurna@travelettes.net if you have any more questions.