This ultimate packing list is brought to you by Rosanna Bird. Affiliate links are denoted by an asterisk*.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway is one of those iconic train journeys that bring up images of a bygone era of luxurious travel. But as a frugal traveller, you’ll experience a different type of journey in the platskartny (3rd class open compartments, kind of like a hostel on wheels). The most popular route runs from Moscow through Mongolia (via the Trans-Mongolian) to Beijing. You could spend 6 days straight on the train, but it’s more worthwhile (and fun) to make several stops along the way.
Depending on how long you’re planning to spend in each country, you might need to pack for anything from a couple of weeks to a few months. I spent October and November of 2009 travelling west from Beijing to Moscow. The weather at this time can be changeable, so layers are the way to go. By November it is definitely “winter weather”’, with temperatures in southern Siberia dropping to an average of -15 Celsius/ 5 Fahrenheit.
Travelling at this time of year means there are relatively few tourists, but the down side is the short daylight hours and restricted winter opening hours of tourist attractions (some museums are closed for half the week). You’ll have a lot of free time when on the train, but also in the evenings when you don’t want to go out in the cold. Bring your own entertainment!
The most difficult thing I had to deal with was doing laundry. There is little budget accommodation between Irkutsk and Moscow, so finding a place to get laundry done was impossible (one place charged $4 per item of underwear!!). Instead, plan on washing your inner layers (underwear, t-shirts, socks) regularly and save up the rest for when you’re staying at a hostel. The more underwear you bring, the less hand-washing you’ll have to do.
1 winter coat
gloves – It’s a pain to take them on and off in the cold so I suggest the ones where you can flip back the top to free your finger tips for fiddly tasks.
hat and scarf or snood – good for protecting the face from winter wind
4 long-sleeve tops – 2 tees/2 warmer knits
4 vest tops/tees
1 pair of yoga pants – or sweat pants if you want to fit in with the Russians
1 pair of jeans
1 pair of cargo trousers or similar
2 pairs of leggings or 1 fleecy/insulated baselayer – even though you’re layered up elsewhere, you’ll still be cold if you neglect your legs
5 panties – try some ExOfficio
5 pairs of warm socks – I’m prone to chill blains, so I took more and wore them doubled up
bikini/swimming costume – just in case – perhaps an icy dip in Lake Baikal?
skirt or dress – if you plan on hitting up the clubs – just make sure you layer!
1 pair flipflops or pair slip-on shoes – for wandering around the train or hostel rooms
1 pair hiking shoes or 1 pair of winter boots – with good tread for icy paths
The usual stuff you would take with you on any trip is what you should pack.
moisturizer and exfoliator – Cold weather and dry heating will leave your skin looking grey and flaky. Use an exfoliating mitt for your whole body (a softer one for your face). You’ll probably want three types of moisturizer; body, face and lips.
razor/hair removal – It might be easier to save yourself for a salon wax at the end of your trip!
The following are more specific to train travel or staying in a ger in Mongolia.
travel clothes line
detergent – or shampoo
travel sink plug
Guide book – A good guidebook is essential if you plan on hopping on and off the train on the spur of the moment (Trans-Siberian Handbook* is very thorough)
phrase book – particularly in Russia where people usually don’t speak English outside of the main tourist destinations
note book and pen – for jotting notes and asking ticket sellers to write down information, such as train times and departure dates, when neither of you speak the same language
This will depend on if you’re bringing a computer/smart phone etc, but I’d suggest several reading books, a deck of cards, travel chess/games compendium, sketch book… use your imagination!
torch/headlight – for finding your way from ger to toilet in the dark Mongolian night
toilet paper, wet wipes – especially in Mongolia
thermos with cup lid – you can borrow cute glass tea cups on the train in Russia, but you might also want your own for different drinks or snacks
instant oatmeal or cup-a-soup packets – an easy, warm snack for the train – hence the cup
water canteen – you can get hot water on the train, but when you’re stuck for hours at the Russian-Mongolian border and can’t get off the train, you’ll want cold water, too
penknife, spoon, fork – for picnics on the train (maybe even a lunchbox or reusable bags if you want to cut down on plastic)
sleep mask, ear plugs, sleeping pills – I actually found it really easy to sleep on the train, but if you’re a light sleeper, or bothered by the rocking motion you might need help to get a good night’s sleep
sarong – multi-use; if the person above you doesn’t mind, you can hang it from the top bunk to create privacy on the bottom bunk
sleep sack – for extra piece of mind, although sheets on the train are freshly-laundered
A note about money:
Since you won’t always be able to pay by credit/debit card, try to have enough cash to cover your costs for at least a few days (obviously take safety precautions with how you carry it). ATMs are not hard to find in Russia, but they may not always accept your card. In Mongolia, the ATMs in Ulan Bator had a limit on how much you could take out each day. Also, make sure you change all your Mongolian tugrik into Russian ruble (or dollars) before you leave the country because banks won’t exchange tugrik outside of Mongolia.
If you want to match the elegance of the Russian ladies, you could pick up a fur coat or hat and team it with high heel boots (yes, even on icy pavements). Or perhaps you’d rather save your money for more practical Mongolian boots, which you can buy at the Naran Tuul (black market) in Ulan Bator.
About the author: Born in Spain but brought up in the UK, Rosanna enjoys vivid colours, ghost stories and archaeology. Having spent the last four years in Asia, she is now on her way to exploring South America. Follow her on twitter @RosannaBird and her blog Awaiting A Name.
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