Life on the Trans-Mongolian Railway

By now, we had taken five trains: three sleepers, one connection and one bullet. It was day 24 out of 43 when we boarded our next overnight train, the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Each train had been unique: some had air conditioning, some were overcrowded, some were noisy – they all had their own character. The Trans-Mongolian Railway was no different. We were on the K3: an older, green and gold Chinese make.

Our approximate schedule:

Station Arrive Depart
Beijing 11:22
Zhangiakounan 14:39 14:45
Jinignan 16:56 17:08
Zhurihe 19:38 19:40
Erlian 21:48 0:59
China Mongolia Border
Dzamyn-ude 1:25 2:40
Sainshanda 6:15 6:50
Choyr 10:13 10:30
Ulaanbaatar 14:35

Leaving Beijing: a dense succession of high-rise apartments followed us as we left Beijing Railway Station, followed by decaying factories and a power station. Little flakes of black coal floated in through our open window. Before we approached the first tunnel, signalling our exit from the vast capital city, the air conditioning kicked in. We closed the window and left the coal flakes to coat the sides of the tunnel instead.

Although we had bought third class tickets, we ended up in second class: a four-berth cabin. It came with its own large thermos of hot water on the mini table between the berths, in case we wanted to make tea or needed hot water for noodles – and to our surprise, we were given food vouchers for the journey.

We made our beds using the white, starched sheets provided and settled into our cabin, tucking our bags under the berths or in the storage space above the door. Outside, the cityscape morphed into mountains, gorges and river crossings as we went in and out of more tunnels.

The dining car: people passed our door with take away containers in hand. Luckily, when we eventually went to exchange our vouchers, a table came free and we were able to have a seat. We were amongst the last to lunch and the only Westerners in the dining car at that point.

The food consisted of small chunks of meat, some vegetables and a lot of rice. It wasn’t bad, but nothing special either. We bought cans of Chinese beer to wash it down.

The three Chinese at the next table asked for a photo with us. We obliged, leading the table next to them to also ask for a photo. Before we knew it, almost all of the remaining people in the car had gathered around us for a group photo.

We communicated with smiles and hand gestures. A young man from the group offered us Chinese brandy – soon we were all toasting in between photos together. More brandy was poured. The laughter was overflowing.

We retreated for a nap. Our cabin was empty when we returned – we were sharing with an English girl, but she spent most of the trip with her friends in the carriage behind us.

Travelling through Inner Mongolia (northern China): we spent the time reading, chatting and watching out the window as we lay on our berths. Outside in the corridor, people stood, staring out the windows at the passing scenery, lost in thought.

We were now travelling through the lands of Inner Mongolia – a sparsely populated, arid terrain, with few crops yet the occasional herd of sheep. Every now and then, we passed Chinese propaganda painted on the walls around terracotta-looking villages.

Soon enough, it was time for dinner and we once again exchanged our vouchers in the dining car. The food was not too different to the lunch. We saw our friend who had given us brandy and we encouraged him to join us. He insisted on buying us beer (Heineken) this time.

Using the translators on our smartphones (and interpreting some of the nonsensical direct translations), we slowly learnt that he was the tour guide for a large group of Chinese, including those that had wanted photos with us. They were travelling non-stop to Moscow.

Afterwards, we watched the sun set over the plains of Inner Mongolia, filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of wind turbines. From then on, we tried to sleep but were woken at Erlian, when Chinese customs officers boarded.

It took three hours to cross into Mongolia, partly because of the lengthy yet fascinating change of bogies as we went from the Chinese gauge to the wider, Russian gauge. We were able to get back to sleep around 2:30am.

The Gobi Desert: a bright red sun rising over the Gobi Desert welcomed us in the morning. It had been a cold night, but our blankets had kept us warm. We ate the bakery goods we had bought with us from Beijing as we looked out over the desolate, dry gravel plains.

Eventually the Gobi Desert – the world’s northernmost desert – turned into the dry, gently undulating hills of the steppes. Still, we saw no crop farming – only sheep, goats, cows, horses and the occasional ger. Spotting the gers soon became a game and ‘ger alert’ became the slogan of the day.

The full length of the train could be seen from the windows in the corridor as it rounded the low hills. We spotted a different engine – it must have been changed at the border. It was pale blue with little white horses on the side, mostly likely a Mongolian make. It didn’t seem to be pumping out the coal smoke of the previous, Chinese engine.

Arriving to Ulaanbaatar: we arrived in Mongolia’s capital (aka UB) about 15 minutes late, but 45 minutes early by the time we were given by the booking agent. This meant we needed to wait for our guides from Dream Adventure to collect us – we were due to spend the night in a ger in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

The station platform emptied quickly after the train continued on its way up north. Hawkers selling taxis, hostels, hotels and tours pestered us while we waited. We had been warned that the station had a reputation for pickpockets so we kept our belongings close. With no reception or wi-fi on our photos, there was no way of contacting the guides.

My dad ventured off to find a cash machine. He reported back that the machine had given him the options to take out 750,000 or 720,000 tögrög. He chose the latter but only 50,000 tögrög came out. He tried another machine – this time he only received 10,000 tögrög.

I left the other two with our bags and wandered down the platform. The air was warm and it was nice to stretch my legs after being cooped up in the train. As I began walking back, a lady approached me and asked if I needed help.

Bolormaa and I got talking. She was a local that worked as a teacher, volunteered as a local aid for the US Peace Corp and had two teenage daughters. Concerned, she called Dream Adventure on her mobile to find out what had happened to our driver. It turned out the original driver was sick so a replacement had to be found and she was running late.

When our driver finally did arrive, Bolormaa translated for us and directed her to first take us to the designated travel office to collect our paper tickets for our ongoing journey in a few days time: the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia (from Irkutsk onwards, we could use e-tickets).

Travel advice

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.

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.

Travel advice: bring food and supplies with you – some Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian trains offer food, most don’t.

Photo: making friends and drinking Chinese brandy on the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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