As a digital nomad you can work anywhere. Anywhere – even in Siberia? Oh yes! Working on the go has been my life for 5 years now. Since I did a semester of studies in Bangkok, Thailand I never managed to make it back to my Scandinavian roots. And a fun, challenging, adventurous, constantly-living-out-of-your-comfort-zone-lifestyle took me to Moscow. There I embarked on a journey that would take me across snow covered Siberia, through the Mongolian desert to busy Beijing – with my work laptop in my backpack.
What is The Transmongolian Railway?
The Transmongolian Railway Express is a 7621 km long train ride. It takes you through 3 countries, 8 time zones and 2 continents. At first I was a little hesitant about working on this trip, as you are constantly travelling with very short stops and breaks for sightseeing. However, it had been on my bucket list for a long time, and for someone who finished their master’s thesis on the top of a mountain in Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, I thought it would be doable – and it was!
The Transmongolian Railway Experience
My Transmongolian Railway Experience started off in Moscow. I spent a few days taking in the sights of the Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin and the GUM whilst drinking Moscow mules in the beautiful narrow streets of the old town. In the capital city of the world’s biggest country it was easy to find WiFi in cafés and bars to sit down and work. I did this in-between exploring the city’s monuments and culture.
After a few days in Moscow I boarded the train and started the long journey towards China. My first planned stop was in Irkutsk, a 5 days train journey away. So my friend and I settled into our cabin.
Pro tip: If you plan to work on the train, make sure to get a cabin with electricity plugs, as they don’t all have that.
I also managed to get myself a Russian sim card for my phone with unlimited data. This worked well as a hotspot for my laptop. The staff on the train, who were Russian throughout Russia, let you get off at the odd stop to stretch your legs and buy food. The staff doesn’t speak much English so make sure to brush up on your Cyrillic alphabet beforehand.
Do also take into consideration that most of these stops are in the middle of the night. And as you can imagine, Siberia gets a bit chilly in February after dark. Remember to bring very warm clothes. Also make sure to bring enough food for the trip, as it is not guaranteed that there will be food vendors at the stops. Some trains have a restaurant, but the opening hours are not always guaranteed either. We had stocked up on noodles and fruit, and even though the food supply on the train was low, they never seemed to run out of vodka. For that reason we purchased pickles, and did as the locals.
Once I arrived in Irkutsk I was happy to get off the train for a few days and enjoy nature. My sim card was still working here on Russian territory, and I managed to get some work done in the cute cafés in the city centre. Our primary reason for stopping here was to cross the World’s biggest lake. We crossed Lake Baikal, on foot, as it freezes during the Siberian winter. So after a long, beautiful and cold walk across, we jumped back on the train and headed for Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.
Crossing into Mongolia my sim card stopped working. As a result I spent the last day on the train journey working offline as much as I could. Arriving in the capital, however, I found that there were plenty of WiFi-zones, and decided to spend a day catching up on deadlines and enjoying the city. On the second day we left our belongings in the hotel and headed out in the Gobi desert to get the true Mongolian experience. At this point WiFi or phone signal was out of the question. But, for me, this is the beauty of a travelling lifestyle. One day you are surrounded by skyscrapers working in the nearest café, and the next day you are sitting in a yurt in the Gobi desert drinking tea made from goat milk and salt. You are always on holiday, and you are always working.
So after a few days without the Internet, spending my time dog sledding between temples in this beautiful land of Genghis Khan, it was time to head back to civilization. We boarded the train once again, this time for a few days’ journey to China. Across the Gobi desert and driving into China I had to work offline again. This was however not a problem, as I had prepared for it in advance. At least for me there is always something I can do, that does not require the Internet.
It was quite the chaos crossing the Mongolian/Chinese border. Everyone had to get off the train in the middle of the night with all their belongings and wait for hours until everyone had been searched and their passports and visas were checked, before we could board the train again. The last couple of hours of the morning, when entering China, between the mountains with the sunrise, were spectacular and definitely made up for the night’s struggles.
When getting off the train we rushed to our accommodation to not waste any time. The first on my Beijing to-do-list was to visit one of the city’s many cat-cafés and get some work done.
Pro tip: Make sure to download a VPN for your phone or laptop before you cross the Chinese border. The government blocks Internet browsers such as Google and apps like Facebook, Whatsapp etc.
A few days, green teas and dumplings later, we went to the Great Wall. The part of the wall we had chosen had chairlifts to transport you up, and a slide (yes, a slide) to take you down. Zigzagging my way down with the views of the Great Wall along the way is one of my greatest travel moments to date.
The Transmongolian Railway experience is so different and incredible that I am already planning to do it again. Next time during summer, to experience Siberia without snow and swim in the lake that I crossed when frozen. Highly recommended, even if you are working – it just takes a little preparation.