Customs and Borders
If there is time after custom formalities you may be able to get off the train and wait at the station. Often you have to stay on the train waiting patiently for the immigration procedures. Customs is relaxed towards travellers but a stress to the business people who turn the train into a rolling bazaar. You can observe the change of the bogies, stroll around, and visit the bank and restaurant. It’s usually no problem to take pictures.
Delays can stretch the regular border stop to six hours or more (up to 11 hours at the Mongolia / Russia border!).
Most attendants don’t let you back on before the official boarding time, so take what you need beforehand and don’t leave valuables behind. Take enough warm clothes, as the night can be cold! If you stay on the train remember that for this whole period (and about 30 minutes before the train arrives at the station) the toilets are closed. Prepare for this in advance or prepare to be inventive!
Remove all loose papers from your passport! Always double-check what the border-boys did with your passport and visas. Mistakes happen!
The border stops seem to go on for ages, but during this time the whole of the train (inside and out) is checked for illegal goods and people.
The border officials will do all the paperwork while you stay comfortably in your cabin – and have to work their way down the whole trains so it takes time.
Beware! The toilets are locked throughout the long border stops!
China-Mongolia Border (train #s 23/24, 3/4)
The most straightforward of them all, immigration and customs on both sides are friendly and professional. You can choose to stay on the train for the entire procedure. If you want to watch the bogies being changed stay on the train on the Chinese side of the border. The train will move a few hundred meters into a large hanger where the whole under-carriage is replaced with a new gauge 10cm different. Each carriage is shunted about and detached from the train, then lifted by hydraulics while they wheel out the bogies and fit the new size. If you do get off at the platform, be aware that the train disappears, but will come back later with a new set of wheels! If you get off you will be able to do some shopping and use the station toilets!
On the Mongolian side the train will wait for some time, giving you the opportunity to walk on Mongolian soil for the first / last time! You will see locals wandering around in their traditional dels (coats) and you can buy Mongolian Salt tea (hurray!)
Mongolian-Russia Border (train #s 3/4, 305/306, 5/6)
By far the longest border stop where nothing much appears to happen for up to 11 hours, mostly on the Russian side. Once again, immigration and customs is nothing to worry about although the Russians are serious in comparison to Mongolian and Chinese officials. Once formalities are cleared you can use the bank at the end of the platform to get Rubles (Russian side) and if you are let off the toilet on both sides (for a fee of 100 Tugruk on the Mongolian side). Also on the Mongolian side money changers will come on board to relieve you of any unwanted Chinese Yuan and Mongolian Tugruk which they will change to Russian Rubles. They will also change US$ and Euros. Keep an eye on what rate they use.
Warning: In the past there have been reports of Official representatives of some Insurance Company boarding the train at the same time as immigration at the border. All locals pay for the insurance (US$1 / R30 / T1000) and cabins full of Westerners are also asked (starting price US$10 – reduce to US$1) if they didn’t have a copy of another insurance policy. This insurance is not compulsory and probably not worth a lot should you be conned into buying it so politely refuse. The widely reported customs declaration form scam of a few years back seems to have stopped.
Russian-China Border (train #s 19/20)
Once again the Chinese side is relaxed and relatively efficient. There is now a large shopping area selling cheap plastic items of little use as well as a bank. Money changers operate on the platforms changing Chinese Yuan to Russian Rubles. On the Russian side there is again a very long wait. After customs and immigration have been completed everyone gets off the train (leaving your main bags) and waits in the station building where there is a restaurant on the ground floor and a bank upstairs with good rates US$ to Rubles. The train then departs for a hanger where the bogies are changed in private – you cannot watch the procedure at this border.
Russian Customs & Immigration
The importance of the currency declaration form has now declined and you are only required to declare amounts of over US$3,000 at the borders. To be safe list all the currency you have though and hang onto the form until you leave Russia. You will receive an immigration card which is extremely important as your entrance stamp as well as place of entry is stamped on it so whatever you do don’t lose it! Thoughtfully it is only in Russian so have fun filling it out – the Provodnistas can help you with this. Note that visa registrations are NO LONGER stamped onto the immigration cards.
The Russian Embassy in Beijing advises: “We insistently recommend declaring to the Russian Customs authorities the real amount of foreign currency you carry when entering Russia (even if it is less than US$ 1,500) in order to avoid the unpleasant procedure of proving legal origin of any money left upon leaving the country.”