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Trans Siberian Railway: Part 2 - Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (Siberia)

Updated on January 19, 2020
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Rob is an avid traveller and self-confessed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, & travelling the world.

The Trans Siberian Railroad: Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk

This is the second of a three-part series of articles in which I share my experiences of travelling from Beijing to Moscow via the Trans Siberian Railway. In this part we focus on the second leg of my journey which is the train from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to Irkutsk in Siberia.

The 3-parts of this series are:

Beijing street scene in the Qianmen District
Beijing street scene in the Qianmen District | Source

Buying Tickets for the Trans Siberian Railway

For the first leg of my journey, which began in China, I could only buy my tickets from a China-based travel agency. For this second leg I was travelling into Russia so I had other purchasing options. All of these options did, however, involve going through an agency (unless you are a Russian citizen in which case I believe they can be purchased directly).

I did my research and decided to buy through the Real Russia travel agency. I was very pleased with the service that was provided to me. Alexandra was my dedicated contact and she answered all my queries and arranged my tickets for me.

Ticket Classes

The Russian-operated trains offer 3 classes of travel. There is 1st class which consists of a private 2-berth compartment with a lockable door, complimentary towels, bedding, slippers and some other items - plus a free meal voucher; 2nd class which is a 4-berth sleeper with bedding; and 3rd class which is an open carriage with no individual compartments and beds along the isles.

For this leg there was a large difference in price between 1st class and 2nd class and as it was only a 24 hour journey (compared with the 3 day journey we were going to make from Irkutsk to Moscow) we were happy to hedge our bets and go for the 2nd class option.

Much the same as our first journey between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar we were pleased to find that we got the whole compartment to ourselves for the whole journey.

Our 4-berth 2nd class compartment on the Trans Siberian Railway
Our 4-berth 2nd class compartment on the Trans Siberian Railway | Source

Essential Items for the Journey

Some people may relish the opportunity that the long journey presents to interact with other travellers and to get to know people from other countries. They may be hoping that someone pulls out a good old bottle of vodka!

For others, like me, the journey is an opportunity to clear the mind and relax and reflect. Looking out of the window and watching the world go by is great in part but the train goes awfully slow and given the vast distance covered the landscape doesn't change particularly quickly - although that's not to say there isn't plenty to see.

I enjoyed reading and listening to music. Before leaving home I saved plenty of books to my kindle and downloaded plenty of new music albums to my phone. For reading material I selected some books with a Russian/communist theme - most notably Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov' and a true story about one man's escape from North Korea. Not exactly light reading but I loved it!

As well as the items to keep you entertained you may want to pack some essential food and drink items. While in Beijing I bought some fresh green tea leaves and some instant noodle pots. I also brought instant porridge oats with me from back home to eat for breakfast.

There is a samovar (instant boiling water dispenser) in every carriage and is always on. Be careful though - it really is boiling and when the train is rocking on it's track you need be careful to avoid scolding yourself!

Two Days in Mongolia Movie

Setting Off from Ulaanbaatar

Our train service was the 305 from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. Our train departed on Saturday at 3.22pm and the same service runs at the same time on Mondays and Tuesdays. The journey time is 23 hours and 15 minutes which will arrive in Irkutsk at 9.37am (Moscow time) / 2.37pm (Local time in Irkutsk).

Train stations in Mongolia are not like they are in China so there are no airport-style security checks and passport control points. It's simply a case of rocking up at the platform and waiting for the train to arrive. Service 305 begins its route in Ulaanbaatar so it will arrive plenty of time before it's due to depart.

Once boarding commences you simply locate the carriage number that corresponds to your ticket and pass your tickets to the attendant. The number of your berth will also be written on your ticket and the berth numbers can be found on the outside of each compartment.

There are ATMs in the Ulaanbaatar station and there is a small cafe and some shops where you can pick up some unhealthy snacks and drinks for the journey. Be aware that you won't be able to spend your Mongolian currency on the train so you will need to exchange for Russian Roubles before you leave the station.

The bad news is that there is no restaurant car on the 305 service from Ulaanbaatar. This means it is imperative that you bring on board your own food and snacks. The attendant for your carriage will have some items for sale including candy bars, crisps and instant coffee and possibly some instant noodles.

I believe that most of the Trans Siberian Rail services do have a restaurant car but this train was probably not large enough to support one.

Ulaanbaatar Railway Station Building
Ulaanbaatar Railway Station Building | Source

The Trains run on Moscow Time

When we boarded the train in Ulaanbaatar the local time was around 2pm. However, the clock displayed on board the train showed 9am. This was slightly confusing and the confusion only got worse when we looked at the timetable that was posted inside our carriage which showed all of the stopping stations and arrival/departure times in Moscow time. That was fine when we were setting off but then mid-way through the journey we had no idea what the local time was. It turned out that the local time in Irkutsk was the same as in Ulaanbaatar so it didn't matter too much.

Crossing the Mongolia / Russia Border

Crossing the border into Russia is not quite as lengthy an affair as it is to cross from China into Mongolia but it still takes a fair old while and you can't really relax until its over - which is very tiring considering the crossing happens in the middle of the night.

The official who checked our passport was actually quite friendly - well, as friendly as border officials can be - but then we had our compartment searched by an intimidating looking official in military uniform and then some time later by an official with a sniffer dog. After a long time of nothing happening, and thinking that the process was completed we finally had a visit from another official in a different uniform who very abruptly demanded to search the compartment. He barked his instructions, 'open this', 'move that' etc. and I immediately complied. He spilled my green tea on the floor! But I let him off ;)

All in all the crossing took around 3-4 hours. Once this was over we finally got some sleep.

Train stopped at a station in Siberia. A good opportunity to stretch ones legs and have a look around. But don't go too far - the train won't wait!
Train stopped at a station in Siberia. A good opportunity to stretch ones legs and have a look around. But don't go too far - the train won't wait! | Source
The locomotive driving our mighty Trans Siberian Railway train
The locomotive driving our mighty Trans Siberian Railway train | Source

Arriving in Irkutsk

When we woke up on day 2 we looked out the window to be met with the sight of the largest and oldest freshwater body of water in the world, the mighty Lake Baikal. We skirted the shore of the lake for the next several hours as we made our way towards the city of Irkutsk.

We passed many Siberian villages and went through every type of weather there is from sun to snow to hail to rain. One of my favourite parts was when we went past a large section of the lake that was still frozen, even though we were in the middle of May.

When we arrived in Irkutsk we were still unsure as to whether we should be setting out watches to Moscow time or Irkutsk time. We decided to stick to Irkutsk time.

Upon leaving the train at Irkutsk Railway Station we hot-footed it across town to the Central Market place and picked up a Marshrutka (shared minibus) to the lakeside village of Listvyanka where we spent 2 nights ahead of part 3 of our Trans Siberian adventure.

Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk Part 2

Practical Information and Advice

  • A 2nd class ticket bought from Real Russia for service 305 between Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk costs $150
  • The journey takes 23 hours and 15 minutes
  • The border crossing takes around 3-4 hours
  • Check visa requirements with your embassy
  • Pack food, drinks and things to keep you entertained

Toilets: Be aware that the attendant will lock the toilet cubicle around 15 minutes before arriving at a station until around 15 minutes after leaving. The toilet will be locked for the duration of the border crossing. My advice is that you should go whenever you feel the need - don't hold it in!

Samovar: The samovar is there is to be used and provides boiling water on demand. Use for tea, coffee and instant meals.

If you enjoyed reading this article please consider leaving me a comment in the space provided at the bottom of this page. If you would like to read about the other legs of my Trans Siberian train journey please click on the links below.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Robert Clarke


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