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I've come across various websites that suggest I should pre-book my tickets beforehand or I'll have some trouble. I was hoping to just get off at a town I'm interested in and stay as long/little as I feel like before catching the next train. Is this reasonable? Will it cost a lot more?

I'm looking to do the trans-Mongolian this summer (Moscow -> Beijing)

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4 Answers 4

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It certainly can be done -- is it reasonable, well that depends on your definition ...

You're going to have two major issues here.

Visas

You likely need visas for the places you're visiting (Russia, Mongolia, China), and they will need proof of onwards travel. You'll likely have to get a specialist to help anyway and the overall visa validity is going to limit your options.

Tickets

If you don't speak the local language getting tickets in some smaller places may be problematic -- this doesn't mean it's impossible with some help. However, let me quote from Seat61:

But for travel between Russia and Mongolia or China, here's a reality check: Demand exceeds supply for the two weekly Moscow-Beijing Trans-Mongolian & Trans-Manchurian trains (trains 4 & 20), also the weekly Moscow-Ulan Bator train (train 6), especially in the busy May-September peak season. Russian Railways opens bookings to travel agencies 60 days before departure, and Russian travel agencies buy up all the tickets to resell them at a mark-up. Station staff may therefore tell you that these trains are all sold out even if you went to the station the moment bookings opened to the public 45 days before departure, although you may be able to buy tickets if you called one of the agencies. If you want to use these trains, you should pre-book through an agency as shown in option 2 or 3 below. Ulan Bator to Beijing is also a pinch-point, as there are only 2 trains a week, so this too is best booked in advance through an agency.

Which doesn't mean you can't book through an agency from wherever you happen to be staying, but that may prove difficult.

You'll also see that trains are infrequent so if you don't manage to get on a train be prepared to be stuck wherever you are for a few more days (and have to pay the costs associated with that).

Is it going to cost more? Probably not, if you manage to get tickets at each station. Otherwise it's difficult to say, prices seem reasonably fixed but if you're dealing with agencies and booking with short notice it may inflate the price.

So, possible -- certainly. Reasonable? That entirely depends on what sort of traveler you, how much time, money and flexibility you have.

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Does this also apply to 3rd class tickets? I met some people who did buy those tickets shortly before departure without going through an agency but not everybody will want to travel 3rd class. –  Relaxed Apr 22 at 7:41
    
@Annoyed -- I'm not sure, perhaps the agencies don't buy the third class tickets because tourists don't use them much. I have definitely heard of people doing it without much problems (there were a couple of web sites or books on it but I can't find them at the moment). As I said, possible, but just beware of the potential downfalls. –  SpaceDog Apr 22 at 10:05
    
I'm a pretty rugged traveler, so while I wouldn't mind the Kupe/2nd class tickets, I'm sure I would be alright in 3rd class. @SpaceDog when you say the trains are infrequent, is that just the big international ones, or also the domestic ones? I'm not planning on going anywhere too remote, but I would like to see the major cities and sites along the route. I'm looking to spend 3 weeks or so doing this. –  Matthew Herbst Apr 22 at 15:40
    
@MatthewHerbst, yes, as the other answers point out you can use the smaller point-to-point trains, I'll be honest and admit I was mostly thinking of taking the major train routes and just opting to stop where they stopped. Since the other answers demonstrate that people have done this without visa or availability problems using smaller trains that does seem like a reasonable option. –  SpaceDog Apr 22 at 23:56

I did (Kyoto)-Beijing-Moscow-(Stockholm) last december.

In Russia we travelled mostly on domestic trains of various kinds (the Trans-Mongolian have some russian cars attached in Russia which allow domestic travel), using mostly "Kupe" 4-bed compartments. We made most planning and booking as we travelled.

We used the RZD web booking at http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en and selected "ticket for own printing" (using internet and printing at the hostels). In most cases this paper is valid as a ticket when entering the train. In some cases you have to exchange it for a paper ticket, it's clearly written in english. You can then use the booking code in either the ticket vending machines, or just show it at the counter (worked best for us). Neither step needed any real Russian language skills.

Availibility : We never had any problems with availability. If you go with the domestic trains, and even more going east-west and outside summer there ought not to be any problems. RZD prices are fixed for a given day, but prices varies with the calender day (irregardless of booking pressure) and can be +20% in summer and before christmas, -5% in november and up to -20% some days in march.

Price : This was actually AFAIK the cheapest way of going. Total price for Japan-Sweden was about 700 Euro including Chinese tickets, two ferry connections, and the fact that we travelled "Kupe" in both Russia and China.

Border crossing : We travelled the trans-Machurian to Manshouli and the from russian Zabaikalsk around 10 km away. This allowed us to use domestic tickets only. Crossing the border can/should be done using bus or taxi (we tried on folding bikes which was an adventure of bureaucracy).

If you wish to go by train across the border you have to use an agency, for example Real Russia (which is also good for overview planning in any case)

China : We bought tickets for china from http://china-diy-travel.com/, a low-overhead travel agency for travellers who can do some planning on their own. They have all instructions for train travel in China and was quite fast, helpful and friendly - just try to keep in mind that they are a ticket agency - not tourist information and "all-inclusive" agency.

Stations in China were a bit crowded and bureucratic, and you had to show your ticket 4-5 times to enter your train. That said, every train was on time, we got through all the gates and the 4-bed compartments were clean and calm.

Trains in Russia were more like Western Europe, you just had to show your ticket once; to the carriage attendant to enter the car. The toilets and cars were generally clean even on non-firmery train. Going "Platskarny" may be a bit more basic; expect sweaty soldiers on the way to/from military service and a bit more chaos; but probably OK and perhaps even fun for a backpacker.

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I appreciate all the links! A lot of the sites say availability is significantly reduced during the tourist summer months, but I think they were mostly talking about the non-domestic trains. –  Matthew Herbst Apr 22 at 15:38

@SpaceDog gives a decent answer, but I would like to argue that it's both possible and reasonable.

If you're going to do the journey in installments, which it seems to me you're thinking of, your only option is not to travel on the trans-siberian (or trans-mongolian) only. There are plenty of train connections that travel parts of the long journey and it's these connections I mostly took myself when I did the journey (to Vladivostok, from Moscow, but not through Mongolia to China).

As an added bonus, these more local connections see much fewer tourists.

Purchasing the tickets never was an issue when I did the journey. I not once went through an agency, but simply bought the tickets directly at train stations. After I arrived in a new city, before I was to leave a few days later. Broken Russian, a dictionary and some sign language was enough to make this happen.

Proof of an onwards journey might indeed be required for Mongolia and China, but, at least for China, that requirement also depends on where you get your visa.

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I think this is on the right track. My understanding is that there are a few actual trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains that don't really stop, so thats not completely what I'm looking for. I'm hoping to get off and see the major cities/sites along the way, aiming for about 3 weeks of travel time. –  Matthew Herbst Apr 22 at 15:36
    
The 'classic' trans-Siberian trains do the whole journey from west to east or vice versa and these are much more popular with foreigners. On my journey, the more local trains were sometimes quite empty. –  MastaBaba Apr 23 at 1:46
    
Do you recommend any of the smaller stops that are only available on the local trains? –  Matthew Herbst Apr 26 at 14:39
    
Well. Depends on how small is 'small' :) I stuck to the bigger towns (like Khabarovsk, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, etc.). The smaller ones, I think, really don't have too much to offer. The only one I wished I had visited but didn't was Birobidzhan. –  MastaBaba Apr 27 at 19:53
    
Those pretty much sound like the ones I'd like to get to :) –  Matthew Herbst Apr 27 at 20:15

I traveled from Hong Kong via China and Mongolia to Moscow in August 2012 (supposedly peak season) with numerous stops on the way and without pre-booking any ticket more than a few days in advance. You must be prepared to use a few tricks though:

  • Sometimes you won't get a direct route - be creative. For example, Beijing - Erlian (on border with Mongolia) was sold out, so I had to travel Beijing - Hohhot and then Hohhot - Erlian (long detour, but I did get to see an extra city)
  • Sometimes you won't get the train class you want. For example, my Hohhot - Erlian train was in a "common seater car" (not sleeper), which was quite an experience (crowding, people fighting for seats, etc) but was very interesting.
  • In Russia especially, if they tell you there's "no ticket" between city X and city Y on the date you want, it doesn't mean there's no space, it just means there's no single bed that's free on that entire chunk of the journey. So, for example, if there's "nothing available" from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow, there may be a bed from Krasnoyarsk to Omsk, and a different bed in a different car on the same train (or even in the same car!) from Omsk to Moscow. Ticket reservation agents don't know to look for this, you must ask for it yourself (or better yet find such combos online on the RZD website if you speak Russian)
  • In Russia, use a service agency to book train tickets (there are usually a bunch of them in the center of any city) instead of buying at the train station. Yes, they charge crazy commissions, but it's worth it, you can buy tickets in a much more relaxed atmosphere, can explore your options, etc, and there's probably a better chance of finding an English-speaking agent
  • Obviously, only attempt this if you have a few days of buffer in your schedule, but in general don't be afraid of getting "stuck". Just take the next available local train to the next major Transsiberian city, even if it's not the one you want, and you'll eventually get there - these local trains run very often. And if you really get stuck, there's always planes.
  • It may be more difficult to get last-minute tickets to "international" trains (ones that cross Russia/Mongolia or Mongolia/China borders), but keep in mind that you can always take the train right to the border, cross it by land and continue by train. I did this when crossing from China to Mongolia (for cost savings reasons, international trains are overpriced) - there are jeeps that take you across the border for a reasonable fee to the train station on the other side.
  • From what I saw, Russia was the best when it comes to last-minute tickets, China was probably the worst, with Mongolia somewhere in the middle. In Mongolia, don't trust what you're told at hostels/guesthouses, get the tickets at the train station yourself if you can (in addition to not having complete schedule information, guesthouses sometimes mark up the price by 50-100%)

Unfortunately due to political reasons train transportation in Russia is getting worse as far as I know. My data is 2 years old, apply it to the current situation at your own risk : )

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Appreciate you sharing your experience, thanks! –  Matthew Herbst Apr 30 at 6:37
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Great answer! I bought all my tickets at the station, it wasn't easy, eventually resorted to something along the lines of pictograms and numbers to show them :) –  Mark Mayo Apr 30 at 6:37

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