Travel: The Trans-Mongolian Railway in the Off Season

Fiona Davidson works as a Natural Disaster Response Officer for humanitarian agencies. She left her most recent employer, the British Red Cross in October last year and set off on a round the world backpacking trip. So far, she has travelled to the Middle-East, along the Trans-Mongolian Railway and in to Asia. She also works as a freelance travel consultant, helping others to design and realise their dream trips.

Why travelling the Trans-Mongolian railway in the “dead season” can provide a unique travel experience.

Travelling either the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian railway line has long been one “journey of a lifetime” that young travellers dream of. The majority of people do the seven day journey all at once. Authors have written of the romance of indulging in such a long train journey through Siberia as it enforces a relaxation not often embraced in the modern world. I decided to not only embrace the train journey but also to explore what Russia and Mongolia had to offer any travellers wishing to adventure off the rail road.

I made two decisions which seemed to perplex Russians, fellow tourist and travel agencies alike. Firstly, I travelled in the so called “dead season” between the end of summer (September) and the real Russian winter (February). Secondly, I chose to break the long train journey at the cities the rail road passed through. I think these are two of the best decisions I made.

The great thing about the “dead season” is that the trains that travel the Trans-Siberian route are relatively quiet. This means that railway tickets are not in short supply – as they can be in the summer months. As such, there is no real need for using a ticket agency to book your train tickets. This can result in you saving the forty percent commission or more you’ll pay to these agencies. Booking tickets at the train station is simple enough to do on your own.

Before setting off on this epic journey, I had read numerous reports about tourists all being put together in the same sleeping compartments or carriage on the trains. However, because of the decisions I made, this wasn’t my experience at all. By breaking the trip down in to smaller legs I avoided the larger tourist trains where this segregation occurs. As a result, I met lots of Russians on the train  and had a few more unique (or at least Russian) travelling experiences than I would have had I been surrounded by fellow backpackers.

Another great perk of travelling in the off season is that you can save money on accommodation. Budget accommodation along the route of the railway is relatively rare, even in the big cities. In the summer months many of the backpackers hostels get booked up in advance. However, in November I had no problem finding space in these hostels and was rewarded with private rooms, or empty dorms in places. There are enough other travellers around to meet people and have fun but not to make the available accommodation uncomfortably full as it is in the summer. Discounts on accommodation and tours are also possible if you bargain.

Many of the cities I visited along the route (Vladimir, Perm, Krasnoyarsk) are industrial cities. Being located along the railway these cities were either traditional industrial hubs or developed in this direction once the railway was built. I found this really interesting to see. Also, the centres of all these cities have an almost identical design, focused on a large statue of Lenin and a matrix of identically named streets (Marx Street, Lenin Street etc). Each city I visited also offered a local attraction which really made stopping there worth it. In Vladimir you can visit the historical village of Suzdal, in Perm there are some vast ice caves and in Krasnoyarsk there is the beautiful Stolby National Park.

By choosing to take the train journey in one leg and in the summer months tourists are following the crowds. Following the crowds means paying over the odds for train tickets, travelling past some truly soviet feeling cities and some interesting tourism opportunities. Embrace the dead season, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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