Tickets for the Trans-Mongolian Railway are not electronic. We had to trek across town to Beijing Business World to find the travel agent that had our paper tickets. We decided to walk the 3km there, using maps.me to guide us when needed.
At Beijing Railway Station, we queued up at the entrance and passed our luggage through security. Once inside, we realised we had entered the ticket office – the entrance to the main station was around the other side. So we exited, queued in a different line, passed our luggage through security (again) and found ourselves in a waiting room full of Chinese and quite a lot of other Westerners.
With paper tickets in hand and a visa pre-stamped in our passports, we left the modern Beijing Railway Station at 11:22am. Our destination: Ulaanbaatar, capital city of Mongolia.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway opened in the 1950s and follows an ancient tea-caravan route. It runs a total of 2,215km from Beijing, China to Ulan Ude, Russia, and uses a Russian gauge. Although we were only going to Ulaanbaatar, our journey would still take us into the night and we would need to change the train’s bogies at the Chinese/Mongolian border.
Our train, the K3, was an older Chinese-made sleeper (so different to our last train) and although we had elected to pay for the cheaper third class fare for a six-berth cabin, we were in a cabin for four (we later found out there wasn’t third class on that particular train). We shared the cabin with an English girl – the first Westerner to join us since our journey began.
We received the usual pack for the berths: sheets, a pillowcase and blankets, with which we made our beds. We also received a bottle of water and to our surprise, food vouchers for the journey. In the dining carriage, we spent a lovely evening socialising with our fellow Chinese travellers.
By the time we reached the border town of Erlian, it was almost 10pm. The train came to a halt and Chinese customs officers boarded to collect our passports. It was slightly unnerving when the train began moving again, even though we hadn’t received our passports back.
The train backed slowly towards a large depot, yet before our carriage made it inside, there was a forceful bang. Back and forth we jolted, as the carriages were decoupled and moved into various lanes. Finally, our carriage (the second last) made it inside the depot.
Next, the carriage was jacked up with us inside – we watched as the carriage opposite us was also jacked up. We could see the engineers working below: the old bogies were rolled away, the new bogies (to fit the Russian 1,520 mm-sized gauge) were rolled into place, the carriages were lowered onto the bogies and then we repeated the jolting back and forth until the train was completely coupled.
The process of changing the bogies took over three hours and despite it being the early hours of the morning, it was intriguing to watch.
We returned to Erlian station and the customs officers boarded with our stamped passports. Then we set off to Dzamyn-ude, where the Mongolian customs officers came on board, took our passports and returned them some time later.
A few hours later, after a short sleep in the cold night, we awoke to bright red sun rising over the barren Gobi Desert. We watched out the window as the train rounded the low hills and made its way into Ulaanbaatar.
Transport: we bought all of our train tickets from Beijing to Warsaw from Real Russia – a Russian travel agency operating from the UK. This included tickets for the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways.
We took second class on the K3 train from Beijing to Ulaanbaator (aka Ulan Bator).
Travel time: approximately 16 hours overnight (including a three-hour border crossing and bogie-changing ordeal)
Visa: there isn’t a Mongolian Consulate in Sydney so we drove to Canberra to submit our paperwork. We could have sent everything via post, but with our tight timeline, we wanted to avoid any possible delays. The Embassy doesn’t accept credit cards or cash so we needed to bring along a bank cheque. We ended up getting a transit visa as we only planned on staying for two nights. Check your local Mongolia Embassy to see what you need to get your visa.
Photo: changing the bogies at border crossing between China and Mongolia