When I was overlanding from Bali to London, I wanted to go to Mongolia, and I wanted to go to Kazakhstan.
So I had to find out the best way to get from Mongolia to Kazakhstan, which obviously didn’t involve a flight.
Simple, right? Actually, it’s not that easy.
On a zoomed-out world map, it looks like the two large landlocked countries share a border – this is actually false.
Russia and China have a short border between the two countries, making travel between Mongolia and Kazakhstan without a third country impossible.
So, I had to assess my options.
How to get from Mongolia to Kazakhstan without flying
From my research, I found two ways to get to Kazakhstan from Mongolia:
- A bus from Olgii, a city in west Mongolia, that travels to Astana via Russia. This is a cheaper option, but it is unreliable – only leaving every 7-10 days, making visa planning a logistical nightmare. Also, getting to Olgii from Ulaanbaatar is difficult.
- A train from Ulaanbaatar to Novosibirsk, and then a train from Novosibirsk to Astana. The trains are a lot more reliable, and reliability is important when securing a Russian transit visa.
So, I chose the second option.
How to take the train from Mongolia to Kazakhstan
I took a train from Mongolia to Kazakhstan via Russia.
The process was relatively straightforward, but there are a few things that are very important to know in advance (like the fact you need to book all your tickets and get a Russian transit visa – you won’t get far without that!).
So I thought I’d share my newfound Mongolia to Kazakhstan train knowledge with the world, for anyone doing a madcap overland journey like mine – or for anyone else who really likes trains.
Book Your Trains
You need to book your trains for the whole journey from Mongolia to Kazakhstan before you apply for a Russian transit visa.
You’ll need to take the tickets with you when you apply for the visa.
After speaking with a Russian Railways agent, I decided that the best option would be to take a train to Novosibirsk from Ulaanbaatar, and then a train from Novosibirsk to Astana in Kazakhstan.
If you want to explore some of Russia on this trip, you’ll need to get a tourist visa which are generally only available in your country.
Your intentions have to be ‘transit only’ for your transit visa to be approved – this means that you need to go for the shortest route with the least amount of changes possible, which at this moment is Ulaanbaatar – Novosibirsk – Astana.
You are allowed to stay 1-2 nights in your transit city – I just booked a night to be safe and spent a day in Novosibirsk. So, my train schedule looked like this:
- 28th – 30th June – train from Ulaanbaatar – Novosibirsk
- 30th June – 1st July – one night in Novosibirsk
- 1st July – 3rd July – train from Novosibirsk to Astana
I booked on Russian Railways.
The train from Ulaanbaatar to Novosibirsk is expensive – it’s part of the Trans-Mongolian route and does take 2 days and 5 hours, which partially explains it. I paid around £200 for the first leg, and £60 for the second.
Get your Russian Transit visa
Unless you’re from a visa-free country, you’ll need a visa to enter Russia for any amount of time.
Transit visas are easily obtainable from Ulaanbaatar – the form and documents they need are a bit time-consuming to sort but the actual application process is really easy and the staff are very nice and helpful.
What to do in Ulaanbaatar
I’d recommend 2-3 days in Ulaanbaatar to see all of the best attractions there.
I spent a week there, which was way too much time, but did mean that I could see some of the best day and overnight trips from Ulaanbaatar, like Terelj National Park and Hustai National Park, as well as spend a night in a traditional yurt.
Most travellers to Mongolia will spend time in the Gobi Desert or elsewhere in the country. I spent basically my whole time in Ulaanbaatar, which is unadvisable (there’s a lot more to the country!), but I’d definitely recommend spending at least 2-3 weeks in Mongolia to see all of its best attractions.
Most people visit Mongolia on a guided tour, because it is a rather difficult country to travel in independently. You can click here for details of a GAdventures sustainable guided tour.
Get the train from Ulaanbaatar
The train from Ulaanbaatar to Novosibirsk is part of the trans-Mongolian railway that travels all the way to Moscow. You’ll notice a lot of foreigners on this route! But it still feels pretty authentic.
My train left Ulaanbaatar at 15:30 – this might change depending on the season. By 4pm we were in the steppe, wonderful scenery improved by a glowing sunset.
We stopped a few times in Mongolia, at tiny stations which served small communities and eventually approached the Russian border in darkness at about 11pm.
The Russian Border
Russian customs are, as you can probably guess, intense.
We didn’t need to get off the train, but just handed our passports over which were checked with the visas and then taken to be scanned.
Our cabin was searched manually and by sniffer dogs. We were asked if we had any narcotics or any other banned items, and had to fill in a declaration form stating that everything we had was indeed permitted.
Once all of that fun was over, we waited for a rather long time, and the train trundled away from the border at exactly when it was supposed to – around 2:10am. Exhausted, I fell into my bunk and settled into sleep.
Welcome to Siberia!
My cabin mates and I woke up at around 10:30am, opened the blind and were greeted by probably one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen from a train cabin (and I’ve been on a lot of trains).
The train was curving around Lake Baikal, with a beautifully sunny sky above us reflecting in the huge body of water. It was a really wonderful welcome to Siberia.
My cabin mates left the train in Irtkusk at about 1pm, which is thought to be the gateway to Lake Baikal and somewhere that I’ll definitely be returning to.
I still had over 24 hours on the train, so I did a little cabin spring clean and waited for my new neighbours.
Except, for some reason my new neighbours never came.
I don’t know why exactly, but the train was nearly empty! So I ended up with an entire cabin to myself for the remainder of the journey – which was quite nice, especially when I wanted to sleep or have some quiet time, although I would also have liked to meet some locals!
I did, however, have some friends on the train, so the rest of my trans-Mongolian journey was spent hopping cabins to see them, trying out the food in the dining car, reading and writing, and just enjoying the view.
The most remarkable thing about Siberia in the summer is just how light it is. It wasn’t fully dark until 11pm, and then started to get light again around 3am.
I woke up at 3:30am and it was bright as day – then I realised the time and went straight back to bed! You can see more about my trip in the video I made here:
Stop Over (Most Likely in Novosibirsk)
The most sensible stopover option when booking my tickets seemed to be Novosibirsk. This is the third-largest city in Russia (after Moscow and St Petersburg) and the capital of Siberia.
There aren’t a huge amount of tourist attractions in the city, and certainly not many tourists, but I was very impressed with the level of English and was also very happy just walking around the city and thinking ‘holy sh*t I’m in Russia’. So that’s what I did.
Things to do in Novosibirsk
- Lenina Square is the main centre of Novosibirsk, and a fantastic place to people watch.
- The USSR Museum depicts life in the Soviet Union, with all sorts of funky memorabilia transporting right back to the days of the USSR.
- The N. K. Rerikh Museum documents one of Russia’s most famous artists, writers and philosophers. He travelled a lot, which is reflected in his work here, and is an interesting character to learn about.
- The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings of Novsibirsk – and was one of the first buildings in the city to be constructed from stone. It’s definitely worth the detour to check out the beautiful facade of the building.
- Central Park is well worth checking out in the summer, when the funfair is on. There was actually so much going on here when I was there, like laser quest and various rides, making it a really fun place to check out in Novsibirsk.
Take Train Number Two (Novosibirsk – Astana/ Nur Sultan)
Once you’ve seen the delights of Novosibirsk (as I mentioned, you could maybe stay there 2 nights, but I stayed one to be safe and booked a late train – the only train – from Novosibirsk to Astana the next day), you’ll want to head to Astana/ Nur Sultan.
These tickets will need to be prebooked in order to get your Russian visa – so be sure to have them printed, and head to the station about an hour before it departs.
I ended up in the wrong area of the station and had to get a guy working there to show me the way; just have your ticket ready and leave plenty of time and you’ll find the train eventually.
My Russian leaves a lot to be envied, but some words that you might find useful when doing this include:
- train – поезд – poyezd
- vokzal – вокзал – station
- where is – где – gde
I would also really recommend learning the cyrillic alphabet for any trip to Russia or Central Asia. It looks daunting, but it only takes a few hours to grasp and it’s super helpful with reading names.
I was in another kupe (second class) cabin for this journey. It wasn’t as flash and fun as the journey from Ulaanbaatar to Novosibirsk, but I had the cabin to myself for a couple of hours, then was joined by a Russian lady and after, another Russian woman and her son.
I was absolutely exhausted so tried my best to sleep through all the new people joining the cabin. We were still tootling around somewhere in Siberia in the morning, and even though a lot of Russian people I met in Siberia were absolutely lovely, my cabin mates didn’t seem too impressed with my lack of Russian.
So this train morning was spent in bed reading and listening to podcasts.
The border crossing
We arrived at the border in the early afternoon.
I was quite easily stamped out of Russia – the border guard spoke a little English and asked me where I was going in Kazakhstan, why I was going there and what my plans for after were, the answers of which all seemed to be satisfactory.
Kazakhstan, on the other hand, was a bit more of a fiasco.
The border staff were horrified that I couldn’t speak Russian, and spent a long time debating my immigration card. This was partly my fault – the train assistant had insisted on filling in the card for me, even though I later learnt that it doesn’t need to be in cyrillic (and I could have filled in the cyrillic myself).
Instead of writing the easily understood Russian word for tourism ‘turismo’, she wrote ‘zaftrak’ which means ‘private’.
I think the whole process would have been about 200x easier if I’d just filled in the thing myself – so if you’re taking the train from Novosibirsk to Astana, I’d highly recommend making sure that the train assistant doesn’t fill it in for you, as nice as their intentions may seem!
After a little while, and after another train attendant had written that ‘Nur Sultan’ had apparently invited me to Kazakhstan, I was permitted in the country.
This didn’t happen to me at this border, but it did when I was leaving Kazakhstan for Uzbekistan. Unfortunatley some border guards (certainly not all) in Central Asia do like to try and catch tourists out.
Know your rights – most countries are now visa-free for Kazakhstan – and if they tell you that you need a visa, you can tell them that you don’t.
The idea is that, if you show any doubt, the border guard will say ‘oh don’t worry, just pay this fine and we’ll let you in’ when really, you don’t need a visa or to pay a fine.
If you know you don’t need one (check on your Government website before travelling to Kazakhstan), you can stand your ground without worrying.
It might help to have something printed saying that you don’t need a visa, or you can do what I did and just persistently say what you know to be right – and eventually, they should back down.
The border to Astana
The train stops a few more times, some of which you can get off at – make sure that you check the times to see how long the train will spend at each station, otherwise it will disappear with anything you have left on it!
There are some places to get food and drinks. However, if you’re vegetarian, vegan or just don’t want to dive headfirst into Kazakh food, be sure to pack your own food for the journey.
This was a rooky error I made, and I ended up not being able to find anything to eat, with no Kazakh tenge, and with a massive migraine to top it off as I rolled into Kazakhstan’s capital.
Arrive in Astana!
Woohoo, you’ve made it! The train doesn’t get into Astana until around 2am.
The station has WiFi that should be working – if you have WiFi you can order a Yandex taxi which are very affordable.
There were lots of taxi drivers around even at that hour, so if not you’ll be able to get a ride.
I actually pre-booked a driver from my hotel, as it was my first time in Central Asia and I wasn’t sure about how safe it was to hail cabs (I’ve spent a lot of time in Central America which is where my taxi cautiousness comes from), but I think it would have been fine.
Obviously do so at your own caution and risk, but if I did this Mongolia to Kazakhstan via Russia journey again I wouldn’t bother with the hotel pick up as it was kinda expensive.
Things to do in Astana
Astana is certainly not loved as much as Almaty, but there are some fun things to do here. I’m going to go more into them in detail in a later post, but some of the main attractions include:
- The National Museum of Kazakhstan – this is a really great, modern museum that gives you an idea of the rapid development of Kazakhstan. I spent about 3 hours in here and learnt a lot about the history of the country – I’m a bit of a museum nerd, but honestly I’d go to Astana just to visit the museum.
- Baiterek Monument – this structure is rather iconic for Astana, and you can go to the top of it to check out the cityscape for 300 tenge. I unfortunatley didn’t make it up there – apparently I couldn’t get change for a 1000 tenge note, which was all I had – but I imagine that the view of all of Astana’s best sights from the top is stellar. Which brings me onto my next Astana attraction…
- The Modern City Buildings – walking around Astana’s modern city allows you to see various buildings and sculptures, including Kazakhstan’s pyramids, the beer cans, and the fish bridge. You’ll have to stay tuned for my Astana blog post to learn about exactly what these are, though 😉
Where to go from Astana
After a few days in Astana, you’ll probably want to head south to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s culture capital and the most popular traveller hangout in the country, with access to some of the best hikes in Central Asia.
There’s so much to do and see in beautiful Almaty – I’ll be writing another blog post about it so stay tuned! For now, here’s a video about my weekend trip to the Assy Plateau. You can follow me on YouTube for more.
Visiting Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan
These three countries make up a beautiful part of the world that I highly recommend visiting.
Although there’s still tonnes more that I need to see in all three countries – they are three of the largest in the world, after all – I got a real sense of how amazing these places are to explore.
For a solo female traveller, they all seemed very safe (albeit confusing at times), and locals were always exceptionally friendly and helpful.
There’s plenty more to come about my time in all three countries and Uzbekistan, so keep updated on here or Instagram for more!