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Trans-Siberian Railway

Photo © mvicol

Travel Guide Asia Trans-Siberian Railway

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Introduction

Trans-Mongolian Train

Trans-Mongolian Train

© All Rights Reserved worldwideG

The Trans-Siberian Railway, the dream of Czars and Bolsheviks alike, to unite a large and diverse country and secure Russia's place in the far east, nowadays is one of the most popular railways for travellers. The railway passes through the remote and beautiful Siberian countryside on it's way to the Pacific Ocean, a journey of seven days, eight time zones and over 9,250 kilometres. The Trans-Siberian, and her counterparts the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian, are one of the classic train and overland journeys, providing a slow and romantic view of the Russian landscape, people and culture.

Other routes running off the core Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Vladivostok, include two routes to Beijing in China - the classic backpacker Trans-Mongolian route via Ulan Bator in Mongolia and the Trans-Manchurian route via Harbin and Shenyang in northeastern China.

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Trains and Routes

Technically, only the route from Moscow to Vladivostok is the Trans-Siberian, however two other routes, the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian routes are often included in general traveller's discussions of the Trans-Siberian route. In addition, it is the route that bears the famed name, and not the physical trains/Services which run on it, with the exception of one or two luxurious - and expensive - tourist only specials.

Trans-Siberian (Trains No.001 and No.002)

Running from Moscow to Vladivostok for 9,259 kilometres, the Trans-Siberian "Rossiya" leaves every second day for a seven-day journey. Train No.001 runs westbound while train No.002 runs eastbound.

The marker at Vladivostok shows a distance of 9,288 kilometres from Moscow. This is because from 1956 to 2001 many trains went between Moscow and Kirov via Yaroslavl instead of Nizhny Novgorod.This would add some 29 kilometres to the distances from Moscow, making Vladivostok kilometre 9,288.

Trans-Mongolian (Trains No.003 and No.004)

Running through Russia, Mongolia and China, the Trans-Mongolian route is 7,622 kilometres long and runs through the Ural Mountains, Siberia, the Gobi Desert and the high steppe of Mongolia and passes through the Great Wall of China on its way to Beijing. This weekly service leaves Moscow (Train No.004) on every Tuesday heading east, while westbound train (No.003) leaves Beijing on every Wednesday. The journey on each direction takes six days.

The train ride from Moscow into the Urals is mostly Pine and Birch forests interrupted by industrial wastelands, and includes a crossing of the Volga river. As you climb into the Urals landscape changes to mostly forests and less industrial.

After leaving the Urals, you enter Siberian plains, forests, open grass plains and boggy, swampy areas. Approaching Irkutsk the land starts to get hillier heading up towards Lake Baikal. Baikal is a long, thin but very deep lake, holding one-fifth of the world's fresh water.

Siberian plains between Irkutsk and the Mongolian border

Siberian plains between Irkutsk and the Mongolian border

© All Rights Reserved GregW

Heading down through Mongolia you get more grass plains. Looking out the window, travellers will likely see wild horses, and Mongolian nomads gers surrounded by small herds of cows and sheep. After Ulan Bator, you start to enter the Gobi desert. It's a rocky, sandy desert with tufts of dry grass. Horses, cows and sheep are still seen, but the occasional camel is added into the mix. The desert continues into China.

After Jining, the desert ends and you get into Chinese agriculture and mountains. Getting towards Beijing, travellers will get many chances to spy the Great Wall during the times when the train emerges from the long, dark stretches through tunnels.

As well as the through Moscow-Beijing trains, there is a separate weekly Moscow-Ulan Bator service (Trains No.005 and No.006). From Moscow, train No.006 departs every Friday, while the westbound train No.005 from Ulan Bator leaves every Wednesday. The journey from each direction takes five days.

Trans-Manchurian (Trains No.019 and No.020)

Running through Russia and China, this train covers a route of 8,961 kilometres in six days, and after leaving the Trans-Siberian route near Chita, runs via Shenyang and Harbin in China, thus avoiding Mongolia. This route can be useful for travellers who are not able to get a Mongolian visa required for the Trans-Mongolian. Train No.020 leaves Moscow for Beijing every Friday while the opposite direction (Train No.019) departs every Saturday.

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Other Trains

Below is a section of other services which either follow the route of the Trans-Siberian for a long way, or can be used to reach the Russian Pacific Coast or Beijing.

Baikal - Amur Main Line

The Baikal - Amur Main Line (BAM) departs from the main line at Tayshet in Western Siberia, passes to the north of Lake Baikal, crosses the Amur River at Komsomolsk-na-Amure (north of Khabarovsk), and reaches the Pacific at Sovetskaya Gavan. This route, especially for the two-day journey east of Severobaikalsk - on the northern shores of Lake Baikal - is only very rarely travelled by foreigners, though this number is rising rapidly.

Trans-Korean Main Line

There are two trains a week from Moscow to Pyongyang in North Korea, although visa and tour group regulations mean that these are effectively off-limits to most Westerners. One train is a carriage attached to the Moscow - Beijing Trans-Manchurian trains until China, and the other is attached to the Rossiya Moscow - Vladivostok trains until two hours before Vladivostok. This later service actually travels some 1,000 kilometres further than the Rossiya, and thus is the longest scheduled passenger train in the world.

Kazakhstan

There are several services from Moscow to Kazakhstan and its former capital city Almaty, from where it is possible to continue to Beijing via Urumqi.

Luxury Trains

There are some private companies that provide tourist service along these routes with their own private luxury train cars.

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Side Trips

There are some interesting destinations "off the track". St. Petersburg is often visited before or after a Trans Siberian journey. The capital of the Tatars, Kazan, is on the alternative track between Moscow and Yekaterinburg. Tobolsk, the old Siberian capital is a little over 200 km away from Tyumen. Tomsk, the most beautiful city of Siberia can be visited as a sidetrip from Novosibirsk or Krasnoyarsk. One highlight on the trip is Lake Baikal that can be visited from Irkutsk and Severobaikalsk; you will see the lake from the train but why not explore the region further? Travelers staying for a few days in the region often take a trip to to the scenic island of Olkhon.

In Mongolia, the area around Ulan-Bator is worth visiting; for example the Terelj National Park or the Gobi desert further away. One of the main attractions of China, the Great Wall is not far from the railway.

One of the parallel tracks, actually used by the Trans-Siberian during the Soviet Union, goes into the Kazakhstani North and passes through the mining town of Petropavl, around 300 kilometres north of the Kazakh capital Astana. For citizens of other than the CIS countries and a handful of Western countries, visiting Kazakhstan requires yet another visa (and if you will re-enter Russia, a Russian multiple entry visa). If you're going to Beijing and the routes in this guide aren't enough off the beaten path, travel south from Astana across the country to Almaty from where there are trains to Urumqi in northwestern China from where you can continue to Beijing.

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Ticketing

The trains above are all direct through services, and it is forbidden to get off these trains before the country of their final destination (i.e. on trains from Moscow to Beijing, you can not get off the train until it enters China). Travellers are not allowed to hop-off and resume their journey on a later train. All tickets are sold point-to-point, and you must show valid visas before purchase.

Many other passenger services cover these routes in partial, allowing a traveller to split up the journey along the way and hop-on and hop-off, though unless you speak virtually flawless Russian and know exactly what you are doing, in practice, all tickets are still sold point-to-point only.

Class of Service

My cabin aboard the trans-Siberian train

My cabin aboard the trans-Siberian train

© All Rights Reserved GregW

Trans-Siberian (Trains No.001 and No.002)

  • Spalny vagon - 2-berth compartment, often described as 1st class (and also sometimes called 'myagky' or 'lyux')
  • Kupé - 4-berth compartments, usually described as 2nd class
  • Platskartny - open-plan dormitory cars, sometimes described as 3rd class.

Trans-Mongolian (Trains No.003 and No.004) - Rolling stock serviced by Chinese Railways

  • Deluxe - 1st class 2-berth compartment, has two beds, an armchair, and a private washroom with showerhead shared with the next door compartment.
  • Soft - 1st class 4-berth compartment
  • Hard - 2nd class 4-berth compartment

Trans-Manchurian (Trains No.019 and No.020)

  • Spalny vagon / Deluxe - 2-berth compartments, often described as 1st class (and also sometimes called 'myagky' or 'lyux')
  • Kupé / Hard - 4-berth compartments, usually described as 2nd class

Costs

Tickets can be purchased online from a tour company, or bought at the local train stations. Tickets purchased at the local train stations tend to be much cheaper than tour companies' rates. Demand for the direct Moscow - Beijing and Moscow - Ulan Bator routes usually exceeds supply and these trains usually get fully booked months ahead. This means travellers almost certainly have to buy tickets for these direct routes from an agency.

There will be a new connection from Moscow to Beijing starting October 2016 for as little as €294, including reservations and couchette supplements but you have to change the train twice. Sold by Transsib Reisen at original Russian fares with a tiny extra.

Since January 2016 a new 'dynamic pricing' system has been in force in Russia. As experiences since then show you can easily pay RUB70,000 or more to get from Moscow to Vladivostok. That system is similar to airlines.

Fares are widely variable. The prices change with the quality of the trains. Low-numbered trains (001, 008, etc.) are more expensive and more comfortable. You are more likely to find yourself in an air-conditioned car with clean toilet ("biotoilet" meaning that it does not splash crap on the tracks and, therefore, remains open during the whole journey). High-numbered trains (133, 139, etc.) are less expensive and less comfortable. Expect older cars without air conditioning and with old-style toilets, which are locked when train is on the station and sometimes even 15-20min prior to that. However, Russian Railways do not guarantee any particular type of train car for your journey. Even expensive trains may get older, less comfortable cars.

Rough ideas would be:

  • St Petersburg–Moscow overnight service about €80 (2nd class, one way), depending on dynamic pricing, train quality and date, and €85 for express Sapsan service, (standard class seat).
  • Moscow–Ekaterinburg about €120 (2nd class, one way), for standard passenger service, standard season, or €180 for branded faster service.
  • Ekaterinburg–Krasnoyarsk about €160-220 (2nd class, one way).
  • Krasnoyarsk–Irkutsk about €95-125 (2nd class, one way).
  • Irkutsk–Vladivostok about €225-275 (2nd class, one way).

As of August 2015 the price for a reserved seat (3rd class, "platzkart") was around RUB14,000 (€200), a compartment (2nd class, "kupe") RUB28,000 (€400) and a luxury bed (1st class, "SV") RUB49,000 (€700) for a one-way ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok (or the other way around) according to the web page of Russian Railways. These fares given in EUR are based upon an exchange rate of 1:70 in August 2015.

Russian Railways offer seasonal pricing for domestic train tickets (varying -20% to +35% of the "base price"). Tickets are usually more expensive in summer and cheaper in winter. Additionally, a so-called dynamic system is introduced on certain routes. This is similar to airlines. You get lower price when buying your ticket well in advance (40-45 days before departure) and a much higher price when buying the ticket on the day of the departure. Short trips may be ridiculously expensive (€20-30 for 1-2 hours), whereas a journey for several thousand kilometres turns out to be surprisingly affordable.

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Red Tape

The beginning of our TransMongolian / TransSiberian adventure - train 23 from Beijing

The beginning of our TransMongolian / TransSiberian adventure - train 23 from Beijing

© All Rights Reserved adamandmeg

Visas

Most travellers will need to obtain visas in advance for Russia, China and Mongolia. See the specific country entries for details on getting visas.

Border Crossings

For any forms required to be filled out, most forms either have English translation on them, or you can get an English version of the form, so if they hand you a form without English, ask for the English form.

The crossing from Russia to Mongolia or China is very long, though, taking upwards of 8 or 9 hours, so don't plan much for that day. The extreme time taken is partly due to the requirement to change the bogies (wheels) on the trains from the broad gauge (the distance between the two rails forming a railway track) in Russia to the standard gauge in China. This involves having to lift up each carriage individually and remove and replace all the wheels.

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Practicalities

Carriage Attendants

Every carriage has two attendants (provodniks), who work in shifts. They examine your ticket and passport before allowing you to join the train, allocate beds to people joining trains, arrange and change your bedding (you must pay a small amount for this on the train, so have some small rouble notes available), clean the carriage, collect the rubbish and empty the bins, keep the samovar in order and many other tasks. Many treat their carriages as personal fiefdoms, and getting on the good side of your provodniks will vastly enhance your journey experience.

Time Zones

To avoid problems across so many time zones, within Russia all trains run on Moscow time, not local time. Thus, when you cross from China to Russia on the Trans-Manchurian, you are confronted with a clock saying 2:00am, when it is actually closer to 10:00am in reality. It is easy to get confused if you try and constantly convert between the two (and as you cross more zones) so you should also work on Moscow time.

  • Moscow time - UTC+3 (Daylight saving UTC+4, begins on the last Sunday of March, ends on the last Sunday of October)
  • China time - UTC+8 for the entire country (Daylight saving not observed)

Language

While Russia is a huge country and some provinces have their own local language, Russian is taught in each school. If you know some Russian, you can use it throughout the trip. For most travellers the Cyrillic alphabet might be a barrier. It is recommended to learn it, as many signs do not have a transcription in Latin script.

Mongolian, the language of Mongolia also uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two additional letters. However, Russian is the most widely studied foreign language in Mongolia, so you would generally be able to get by if you speak Russian.

In northeastern China Mandarin Chinese is spoken. It's a tonal language and someone unfamiliar with Chinese reading Latin transcriptions that don't show tones is unlikely to be understood by locals. Likewise, most locals are also unable to understand Latin transcriptions of Chinese. In other words, if you cannot speak Chinese (well), have somebody, for example at your hotel, write down addresses to show to taxi drivers, etc. Russian is generally not widely spoken beyond the border towns.

English is spoken mostly by youth and educated people. Outside St. Petersburg and Moscow, the locals' English knowledge is not very good, and they usually speak with a strong accent. A few older Russians can speak German. Some younger people can also speak French.

Toilets

As all toilets empty directly onto the tracks below, toilets get locked anywhere between 90 and 30 minutes and before reaching major cities and are only opened again the corresponding time after departure. Occassionally, you will be able to get access to a toilet if you ask very nicely, but don't count on it, and also pay attention to both the train and toilet schedules (posted in each carriage) to ensure you don't get caught short.

Showers

Do not exist! Washing all needs to take place using the basins in the bathrooms in each carriage. There are holes on the floor of bathrooms to allow water to escape, so it is no problem throwing water over yourself.

Electricity

There is occassionally a power point in the centre of each carriage for the use of charging mobile phones, MP3 players, etc. There are also power points at each end and in the Provodniks compartment, but these are usually turned off except when the Provodniks are using them. Many will charge things for you if you ask nicely, though you often have to pay small amounts, and some refuse access to electricity for any passengers. The restaurant car is another possibility.

Internet

Internet is never available on board, except on a few of the newest trains that do not run on the trans-Siberian routes. However, you can do pretty well with a mobile connection (buy a local SIM card!), even though the signal will be weak or missing in the middle of Siberian forests. These days, the majority of Russians have smartphones, and it is not uncommon to see laptops or tablets even in 3rd class. But beware of your belongings.

Photography

Despite the opening of the countries for tourism, photography is still not allowed everywhere. Do not take photos of military and governmental buildings, as this can land you in jail in the worst case. You should also think twice before taking photos of other government-owned buildings like railway stations. Museums often have their own rules concerning photography, as elsewhere in the world.

Climate and Equipment

Keep the luggage as small as possible and avoid bringing any valuables. What you should pack depends on the time of the year; in the summer the temperature can rise to over +30 °C in Siberia and China. In winter it will be under -30 °C in much of Russia and Mongolia. In the spring or fall just a couple of T-shirts, a sweater and a light jacket should suffice. If needed, clothes can be purchased cheaply at markets along the road. In the train, your clothing should be comfortable (e.g. sports clothes) and flip-flops. It's also recommended to bring enough stuff to read.

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Eat

You will learn to know many different cuisines on a journey like this. For a more elaborate list of local specialties, please refer to particular cities' and regions' articles. Below are just a couple of general train-related things listed.

Many of the trains have dining cars. Prices are high for the quality you get. A main dish will cost €5-8. You may get freshly cooked food during lunch and dinner time, but on other occasions expect frozen food, which is warmed up in a microwave and becomes less than palatable. Drinks and alcohol are about 2-3 times more expensive than in the stores. On the other hand, you are not allowed to consume alcohol (save for beer) on board, and you are not allowed to bring your own alcohol to the dining cars, so if you want to drink, pay the price or do it quietly in your compartment, as most locals do. First-class tickets and even some of the 2nd-class tickets may include food (snacks for breakfast, warm food for lunch and dinner). A lady will come to your compartment and bring a couple of plastic bowls with warm food. It is usually freshly cooked and quite edible.

On the Moscow–Vladivostok route the train stops for 20-30 minutes every 3-4 hours. Everybody can get out of the train, and there are often people on the platform that offer a variety of fresh local food (eggs, fish, cheese, bread, fruits, meat or cheese in a cake) and often some drinks for passengers. They aren't as many as they used to be, as many railway stations require them to purchase a license to keep their stand at the platform. (In June 2017, between Beijing and Novosibirsk, platform vendors were observed only in Choir, Mongolia, and Mariinsky, Russia.) Prices are low; only Russian rubles are accepted. A highlight is the smoked fish (Omul) being sold on the shore of Lake Baikal (Station: Slyudyanka, a quick stop, so be fast). Some of the larger stations will have food marts with snacks and alcohol.

Food and drinks are also sold in kiosks at the platforms, but normally twice as expensive. To get a reasonable price, wait for a station with a longer stop, and just exit the train station, there is usually a plenty of kiosks or small shops just outside, offering a wider choice. Supermarkets (not necessarily of the western kind), affordable food stands and simpler restaurants can be found at most stops. More lavish restaurants and fast food chains can be found in major cities. However familiar western chains are to be found only in Moscow and Beijing.

Coming from Beijing through Harbin, the last stop in China is Manzhouli. The food being sold there is quite expensive, but many Russians stock up on provisions (i.e. spirits and beer). Be aware that you can take a maximum of 2 litres of alcohol (either beer or vodka or any combination of those) per person into Russia or you will have to pay a penalty (read: bribe) to the customs. Get rid of all your Chinese Yuan here unless you want to take them as a souvenir as they become virtually worthless once abroad. There are a couple of black market money changers in front of the station that change renminbi to rubles at ripoff rates. To get rubles, you have plenty of time on the Russian side of the border (Zhabaikalsk). Walk to the ATM located at the bank in town. Allow 30 minutes to go and come back. The train stops for several hours while the carriages are being changed, so you can do some shopping at the local food markets (bread, cheese, etc.).

Coming from Beijing via Mongolia into Russia there are still the same rip-off exchange touts. There is a very reasonable foreign exchange office at Ulan Baator station, in the waiting area. Most if not all platform vendors in Mongolia and Russia take U.S. dollars or euros. However, they take only bills (or notes), so know the exchange rate and buy a lot if you are using a €5 note. Always ask the attendant how much time is available before you rush off into a station to find a Bankomat (ATM) because the train will not wait for you. If you are not spending time in Mongolia, avoid acquiring Mongolian tögrög. They are worthless virtually everywhere else, and the export of tögrög is technically forbidden. Therefore, spend dollars or euro, but get rubles immediately because Russian vendors are more likely to fabricate exchange rates than Mongolian or Chinese platform vendors.

Food is traditionally placed on the table in the compartment. It is not uncommon to share food. This makes for a nice picnic where you learn to know your fellow travelers. It is polite to let them invite you and that you also have something to bring along. Why not bring something from your home country?

Every carriage has a samovar (hot water dispenser, lit. "self cooker") that is kept hot throughout the whole journey. Have a stack of dried soups, teabags and Nescafe ready. Just bring your own cup, or ask one from the train attendant. Train attendants also sell tea, coffee, snacks and even freeze-dried meals at slightly inflated prices.

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Drink

Alcohol is an important part of Russian culture and thus it's not unusual to have some vodka at your compartment picnic. At this stage, you have to be careful and you need to know when to stop. First, drinking strong alcohol is not allowed in Russian trains, but, as always in Russia, "not allowed" does not mean "forbidden". Carriage attendants will pretend not to see you unless you are making a noise or other drama. Police may go through the train and harass people who are drinking, so stay quiet and keep bottles under the table. Never drink more than you can. A drinking competition will for sure land you in a hospital or worse. Use your common sense when fellow travellers offer you something. You are much more likely to taste a good drink than to get into trouble, but troubles are not unheard of and range from bad alcohol to alcohol intentionally mixed with drugs that will make you an easy victim.

Other than that, tea is also an important drink; in Russia this will mean black tea with lemon, in China green tea. It's drunk at breaks, after meals and sometimes as an aperitif.

The aforementioned samovar also comes in handy when you'd like some hot drinks (the water is free but bring your own tea or buy some from the carriage attendant). It's usually possible to buy soft drinks and beer in the restaurant carriage to bring back to your carriage.

It's worth having a basic phrasebook as attendants are unlikely to speak English and the drinks provided won't come with milk or sugar unless you specifically ask for them.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

The journey on the Trans-Siberian route is quite safe, especially if you travel in groups of four and have your own compartment. Compartments can be locked from the inside with two locks. One can be opened from outside with a special key, the other cannot be opened from outside, and when locked allows the door to open a bit. It is advisable to use both locks during the night, although robbery is nearly unheard of. You can't lock your compartment from outside when you go out. But the train attendant can do it for you.

3rd-class carriages provide less personal space and less protection. If you sleep on the lower berth, use the space under the berth to store your belongings. When on the upper berth, use the shelf above you. Take all valuable things with you when going out on to the station. Things are rarely stolen, but reasonable caution should be used.

Police in Russia can be your good friend or a bad enemy depending on the situation. Each train has at least one policeman who may shuffle around looking for drunks, drugs, beggars, and criminals. If you are harassed or threatened, contact the train attendant who will call the police. On the other hand, avoid doing something that can draw the attention of the police to you. Given recent terrorist attacks, each train station will have lots of police who tend to sporadically check documents and ask questions about your luggage. Never leave the train without your ticket and passport. Russian police are also very sensitive to people taking pictures of railways, stations, and trains. This is another aspect of anti-terrorist paranoia. Foreigners and especially Western tourists are less likely to face this problem. However, if you are approached by the police and asked to delete some photos, just do it and forget (or restore your photos later). Never try to take pictures of the police.

As a rule of thumb, smaller towns are less safe than bigger cities. If you are travelling alone, avoid areas void of people, near crowds the only thing to watch out for are pickpockets. If you are travelling shorter hops, it's possible that your train will arrive in the middle of the night. Stay inside the train station until the morning (unless you know well where to go), or choose a train that arrives in the daytime.

If you are an obvious tourist you are likely to get cheated at markets and especially by taxi drivers. The remedy for this is some knowledge of Russian and good bargaining skills. Always negotiate the price in rubles, even if the seller starts quoting the price in dollars and even if you plan to pay with dollars. Dollar prices are calculated according to the current bank exchange rates. Most places will not accept any currency other than rubles, though.

Often sellers and cab drivers will grab your arm to drag you to their stand or car. In this case it suffices to just rip yourself loose. They are there to make you pay high prices for their merchandise and services, not to hurt you.

There's prostitution going on in some hotels and even next to the train stations. To avoid possibly losing your money and health, steer clear. Same is true for drugs of any sort.

Likely the most dangerous city in the night time is Ulanbataar. Hotels and hostels often keep their doors shut between midnight and 06:00 because it's too unsafe on the streets.

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Health

See also Travel Health

You should be in good physical condition while starting a trip like this, with no reason to believe your condition will worsen during the trip. Good medical care according to Western standards is really only available in Moscow and at private clinics in Beijing. In Mongolia you should really have a first aid kit. For smaller injuries, private clinics in Ulaanbaatar are good enough but if something serious happens you should get to Beijing, Europe or the United States regardless of the costs.

Health risks include avian influenza and rabies. Keep your distance from wild animals.

Tap water may not be safe for drinking. Russians consider it safe after boiling, and this is what you get from the samovar. If you are cautious, bring bottled water but remember that you won't have any opportunity to warm it.

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This is version 27. Last edited at 7:45 on Jul 27, 17 by Utrecht. 39 articles link to this page.

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