Frequently Asked Questions
Once you have booked a trip with us you will have access to our detailed infopack of 200+ pages – ideal to check out before setting off.
Like a guide book, it contains valuable information on all destinations, countless maps, train time tables, and the combined tips collected the last 30 years!
‘Our three kids aged 4, 7 and 9 had a fantastic time from start to finish: they loved being on the train, even for 77 hours, making great friends with the other Monkey Business travellers.’
What's the difference between first and second class?
Standard second class has four comfortable berths per cabin, with 36 people in each carriage. There are communal toilets and wash-basin at both ends of each carriage. In first class there are just two berths per cabin and only 18 beds in each carriage, the toilet facilities are the same. On trains originating in Beijing (#3, #23) there is ‘first class deluxe’, with a shower room shared between two cabins and also on selected Russian trains (see below).
Second class tends to be very social with cabin doors left open during the day and people chatting in the corridors, whereas in first class there is a little more space in the cabin and so you tend to keep the door closed. The advantage of first class apart from the extra privacy if you are travelling as a couple, will be less queues for the toilet in the morning and you are closer to the dining car!
Will I be able to wash on the train?
All the carriages on the trains have a similar set-up, whether in first or second class. There are toilets and washrooms at the end of each carriage with western style toilets and a sink with hot and cold water. If the water is not warm there is a samovar with boiling water on each carriage so you can use this to have a proper wash. In first class toilets are shared with nine cabins (so possibly 18 people) and in second class there are nine cabins with a possible 36 people.
Chinese train #23 and train #3 in deluxe class have a different look. There are two bunk beds on one side, a sofa on the other and a shower cabin you share with another compartment. There is more space available than in the other classes.
A relatively new development on some Russian trains such as #9/10 and #1/7 is a special carriage that has shower facilities and some computers for Internet access. We have heard mixed reports about these facilities ranging from “yes they do exist but don’t work” to “searched the train from end to end and couldn’t find them.” The showers have to be paid for and the water pressure is low.
Will I get bored?
As with so many things, this depends entirely on you, and your approach! Usually you will be travelling with other Monkey Business passengers, which means that you have a small ready-made group of new friends to talk to. Most of the other passengers, however, are locals, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, so you have plenty of opportunity to mix with other cultures and share a drop or two of vodka if you want. By all means take a good book, but you’ll be surprised at how easily the time passes just watching the countryside slide past. Most of our travellers don’t even find time to read our infopack and only realize later, when back home, that it contains loads of useful info.
Do we have to decide our whole itinerary when we book our trip?
Yes! If you are travelling on a Tourist visa (essential for stays in Moscow longer than 1 night and trips to Irkutsk and St Petersburg), your pre-booked accommodation determines the length of your visa. Therefore you must have a fixed itinerary before applying for the Russian visa.
Most people book all the touts as well as accommodation in Moscow and St Petersburg with us as well – we arrange some all inclusive tours to these cities.
Why can't we use the train #3 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar?
All departures up to Mongolia are booked on train #23 which terminates in Ulaanbaatar. Train #3 from Beijing to Irkutsk or Moscow departs every Wednesday morning. You can not make advance reservations on train #3 for the relatively ‘short’ trip to Ulaanbaatar.
Will I starve?
In Short – no. Variety and quality have increased in the last few years – some people even know what a vegetarian is these days.
During the train journey, plenty of food is available on the station platforms and, apart from the train between Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, the dining cars are usually well stocked and don’t run out of food contrary to popular belief.
Fruit is available most of the year and bottled water is as common as vodka. If you thought you were leaving behind noodles when you head west you’re wrong – they can be bought along the whole route so no need to carry a couple of weeks supply when you leave Beijing.
The dining cars on the train have fairly standard food, and are run by the country they are travelling through and so you experience the local food and menu of each country. In Russia the service is contracted out to catering companies and so the standard of food and service can vary between trains. In Mongolia, there is a strong emphasis on tourism and the dining car has decent service standards and consistent quality, but also reports of high prices and occasional over-charging on the tourist menu. There is a huge train infrastructure in China and dining cars provide cheap and consistent average Chinese fare. This is the same on the international trains you will take from the Chinese border to Beijing.
The menu in the dining car remains pretty much the same through the day and so eating once or twice a day in the dining car tends to be enough. Simple local food can be purchased on the platforms, but it is a good idea to stock up on extra supplies so you can prepare a picnic style lunch, with bread, smoked ham and cheese, mustard, fruit, snacks and chocolate, etc. Beer, bottled water, pot noodles and the like can be easily bought along the route. You can restock fresh bread and smoked meats at markets at each stop-over and often on the platform kiosks as well. You can also buy more interesting produce such as caviar, smoked herring and fresh salad at local markets in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk. A visit to the Eliseeevsky delicatessen on Tverskaya ul in Moscow is a great source for goodies as well as a remarkable sight itself as one of the oldest shops in Moscow. You should bring your own foreign alcohol or wine or else try the hundreds of local Russian or Mongolian vodkas ranging from US$2 to US$50 a bottle.
Is food and drink included in the price?
Food is not included on the train. A meal in the dining car will cost around US$10. Cheaper food is available from the larger platforms along the way. So you can eat quite cheaply unless you start buying Caviar and Champagne through Russia! At the stop-overs all meals are included when on tour or in the countryside, however when staying in the City (Ulanbaatar, Irkutsk, Moscow, etc) only breakfast is normally included (depending on accommodation choice).
Is it safe for a lone female traveller?
In short yes, we believe it is safe. We have many solo women travellers taking the trip throughout the year (In 2005, 46% of our travellers were female). In reality you are never on your own as there is always a number of other travellers, foreigners and locals, on the train. The trains used to have a bad reputation back in the early ’90s and this is hard to shed. In reality it is rare that we have anyone telling us that they found safety an issue. There are two conductors to each carriage who are responsible for the well being of the passengers. If you are taking the stopovers en route then you have a local guide (almost always female) who will look after you and our local partners have a local office in each destination with emergency contact details.
Do the guides carry flags!?
NO! You travel semi-independently on our trips. On the organised stopovers you have a guide but we encourage you to think of the guide as more like a friend of a friend who is showing you around their city and it’s environs – nice and informal. So, no flags, no megaphones! Note that there is no guide accompanying you on the train journeys, although other customers booked with us are likely to be travelling in the same compartment as you.
How much money will I need and of what currency?
As a rough guide people spend an average of US$15 to US$20 a day on the train and on the organized stopovers we offer along the way. The main factor is likely to be your level of consumption of alcohol and souvenirs.
Beijing, Moscow and St Petersburg are more expensive. A bare minimum would really be US$30 a day. In these cities transport on the metro is cheap (taxis are cheap on Beijing) but the cost of getting into the sights as well as eating out aren’t far off European / North American levels.
It’s always best to use local currencies when you can, so buy some before you travel if possible (The UK Post Office sells currency).
All destinations have ATMs and so withdrawing local currency is easy – make sure you register your card with your bank for use abroad to avoid costly calls home when it gets blocked. In case of problems it’s always good to have some US$ bills (post 1996) or Euro cash to use as a backup. Bring some hard currency in small demoninations in case you get stuck without local currency.
There are normally banks at International borders which will exchange your hard currency at a reasonable rate. Mongolia has plenty of money exchange kiosks as does Moscow. Other cities including Irkutsk and Beijing are not so foreign currency friendly.
Will I need a sleeping bag?
No. Clean and fresh linen is supplied by the conductors on all trains which is changed on journeys more than 3 days. A small hand towel can be useful however. Some people like to bring a sleeping bag liner, especially when booking homestays or budget hostels. A sleeping bag may be useful if you are going on an extended trip with trekking (Lake Baikal) or camping (Olkhon Island or Mongolia).
Is there electricity / Can I charge electrical appliances?
On the trains there is normally a plug on the corridor (so the provodnitsa can vacuum the carpet!) and in first class there may be a plug in your cabin. Electricity is 220 v AC voltage. You will need a European type power plug with two round pins (similar to the two pin round plug in China as well). Often the power on the train is switched off and we have heard of entrepreneurial conductors charging portable devices in their cabin overnight, for a price.
Do I need any injections for this trip?
There is a small chance of catching the tick-borne disease Encephalitis from May till mid-July when trekking Ekaterinburg. Vaccination is recommended for those on outdoor activities. Other than this you consult a qualified medical practitioner for advice relevant specifically to you.
Are visa costs included in the package price?
No, because both the Russian and Mongolian visas will differ in price depending on your nationality, where and how far in advance you apply. We deal with visa applications and associated costs separately and on an individual basis.
Can you get our Russian visa if we book our own accommodation?
We do not offer a visa only service. And we will only supply the Russian Visa invitation if you have booked a trip in Russia with us.
The Russian Visa Invitation we supply is based on a pre-booked itinerary in Russia with fixed entry and exit dates. If you arrange your own accommodation (in St Petersburg for example) you will need to send us details of all extra accommodation booked and especially your planned exit date from Russia – we will then be able to add these dates on to our Russian Visa Support.
Please note that the Russian Embassy in Beijing wants the original visa invitation.
Can we travel in China without our passport?
You will need to keep your passport on you to travel, especially on flights and to register your official at hotels. However, in practice, the further you travel from Beijing (central government), the less this is necessary. Providing you have a good copy of your passport details as well as a good copy of your valid Chinese visa WITH the entry stamp it is unlikely you will have any problems travelling overland – NOTE that you do need your original passport to fly, or to visit border areas such as Tibet.
Only twice have we heard of people having problems and the result was basically some inconvenience and a ‘fine’ of a few hundred RMB from an overzealous official. One thing to note though is that it is difficult to check into hotels in Beijing without your original passport.
If you plan to travel from China to Hong Kong and then back to China you will need a double entry Chinese visa.
How far in advance do we need to book?
We generally recommend booking a minimum of 6 weeks in advance, even further ahead during the peak summer months. Although we can arrange everything reasonably quickly, pre-booking means there is more chance of travelling on your preferred dates, gives us the time to do advance applications for your Russian visa, for you to transfer money if booking from overseas, and for us to work out exactly the package and extras to match your plans. We’ll do everything we can to get you on the train if you book at short notice, but it’s best to book well in advance, especially if you want to travel in 1st class
Will there be beds available in peak season?
Another good reason to pre-book! The summer period from June to August is the busiest time on the Trans-Siberian for both locals and tourists and so the tickets can be difficult to obtain. We strongly recommend you book as early in advance as possible to ensure we can reserve your tickets. Thanks to years of experience and good contacts in the right places, we rarely have problems with availability up to one month before departure. Nothing is ever guaranteed, however, so if you want to be sure, get your name down and send us a deposit.
When is the best time to go?
Spring. The thaw is well underway by late April across Mongolia and Siberia with the ice breaking up on Lake Baikal at the beginning of May. This is when the local people issue a long sigh of relief that the winter is over and the countryside starts to come alive.
Summer is the peak season and the weather is warm and with a good deal of sunshine. There are never really hordes of tourists but insects can be a problem. The days are long and the locals make the most of this with life being very much outdoor orientated. Book well in advance for tickets at this time.
Autumn is a beautiful time, especially if you can catch all the colours around the end of September. The weather is great during the day but at night the first signs of winter can be felt as the thermometer plunges.
Winter is the least visited season but, many argue, the most beautiful. Siberia actually looks like people imagine it with the landscape blanketed in snow and by the New Year, lake Baikal and most rivers are frozen solid. However, the locals know how to keep warm and everything, from the inside of gers to the train cabins, is well heated.
So, take your pick! Of course, the Monkeys recommend one trip in the winter and one in the summer to get the best of both worlds!
Is it worth travelling in the winter?
It is definitely worth travelling during the winter months as Siberia is looking its best and most typical with it’s wonderland snows cape! Although it can reach minus 20° in Siberia, unless you spend a long time outside, this is not a real problem. The trains themselves are kept very warm and the locals know how to stay comfortable and keep you warm with lots of food, hot banyas (saunas), log fires and warm clothes!
We have excellent winter activities to choose from in Ekaterinburg and Lake Baikal (Dog sledging, ice fishing, skiing). It is also nice to spend a night or two in the solitude of the Elstei ger camp in the winter surrounded by snow and little else!
Will you book the China stuff for us?
We offer a few trips and accommodation within China, see our China section for more details. We only offer China services to those of you also booking a trans-siberian trip with us. Bear in mind that China is a huge country and travelling from City to City takes time. Trains are the best to way get around and if you have flexible dates it is easy enough to book the train tickets as you go.
Do you arrange ticket only services?
Afraid not! We specialize in stop-over tours on the Trans-Siberian route. To book individual train tickets out of Beijing, Mongolia and Russia you need to contact the ticket office directly in the respective countries. For tickets out of Beijing that means contacting the CITS International Ticket Office.
What about leaving Russia?
It is important that you leave Russia before your visa expires. Pre-book your onward ticket out of Russia through us. We can provide train tickets or flights to a variety of destinations and the tickets are delivered to you at your hotel.
Can I get off the train anywhere else and re-join it later?
The trans-siberian route does not offer ‘Euro-pass’ style tickets. All reservations are made for specific train and dates. Our Packages are set trips which don’t allow any kind of spontaneous side-trips! If you get off the train you forfeit the reservation for the second part of your ticket and our guides and services booked further along the route will be wasted.
Who are typical Monkey Business passengers?
A good question. We’ve had everyone from babies to octogenarians on our trips! A typical passenger is in their twenties or thirties, probably travelled before and with more interest in foreign cultures than in white sandy beaches and cheap beers (although the beer won’t be a problem!) Both Mongolia and Russia are struggling to catch up with Western standards of tourism, so you should be prepared for the unusual – no hot water, outside toilets, unidentifiable food etc. – and accept these things as part of the experience you’re going for. There is a fairly equal balance between the sexes (single women shouldn’t be unduly worried about travelling on the Trans-Zip – we can always change your departure date or package to make sure you’re not alone), and while most of our passengers tend to be ‘Westerners’ there are very few nationalities who we can’t accommodate. Trans-Zip romances aren’t unheard of, either, and we’ve been invited to several marriages! As one person put it, “Claire and I got on well. You should continue doing this ‘travel matchmaking’!”
Why would we book with the Monkeys?
It’s your trip and your hard-earned money! You can check the following facts!
We guarantee that no other company:
-has our expertise since 1988;
-comes even close to the amount of passengers already put on the train (18,000+);
-has offices and partners in Hong Kong, Beijing, Mongolia and Russia;
-arranges your visas faster;
-gives out more or better information;
-is as flexible to customize your trip;
-was operating in Mongolia for Westerners before us;
-or can beat our prices!
Since 2018, Monkeyshrine is the trading name of The Russia Experience Ltd in the UK, a fully bonded tour operator registered in the UK, where EU law requires us to protect your travel funds. We are members of the Travel Trust Association (TTA) www.traveltrust.co.uk – your travel funds are frozen in a Trust Account until your trip is complete, and only released to us by the TTA`s approval Trustee.