Despite having arrived to Ulaanbaatar on a Chinese powered and operated train, a completely different model took us out of Mongolia and across the border to Russia. Our carriage was Russian and had a Russian attendant (our first blue-eyed attendant since embarking on our train journey), although the adjacent carriages were Mongolian (as were the two locomotives pulling us).
We shared our compartment with an ex-Mongolian boxer turned coach. He spoke a little English, so we managed to exchange some pleasantries. His wife and daughter were in a separate carriage and every now and then, his little girl would come looking for him. She had big rosy cheeks, long black hair and was a real giggler. It was only at night that his presence weighed on us and the loud snoring escaping his large body interrupted our dreams.
At 4:30am, we stopped at the Mongolian border town of Sukhe-Bator for our scheduled 5.5-hour stop. The train shuffled back and forth along the tracks for no apparent reason (there was no need to change the bogies as Mongolia and Russia use the same track gauge, unlike the China to Mongolian border crossing).
Eventually a Mongolian customs team boarded. The procedure went as follows:
- Produce passports
- Vacate compartment for inspection
- Collect our exit declaration at the station house
- Open bags for inspection (the official seemed to be satisfied with only inspecting my bag and didn’t bother with the other’s)
All this time, the toilets on the train were locked – and you had to pay to use the toilets on the station platform.
When the train finally set off, it travelled slowly for sixty minutes until it reached the Russian border town of Naushki. Here, we had a scheduled stop of four hours. The Slavic-looking Russian customs officials came on straight away and again, the same procedure as above took place (only this time, everyone’s bag was inspected).
With 2 hours and 45 minutes spare, we left the station and walked roughly 10 minutes down the parallel street to an isolated, little café. Luckily, we had been tipped off about its location, otherwise we would never have found it. Many of the train’s passengers were already inside. We joined them for a borsch soup and a tea with lemon (90 roubles in total), which we ordered from the Russian-only menu – all the time keeping an eye on our watches.
Back on the train, we slowly progressed to our destination, stopping at 42 stations along the way (sometimes only for a minute). Outside our window, Eastern Siberia began to emerge, with its green trees and bushes and fertile land. Gone were the dry steppes of Mongolia.
A restaurant car had joined our train at the Russian border. It was positioned at the front of the train, ahead of the sitting-only cars, the sweaty open cars full of young men laying on their beds, and the private compartment cars (where we were). With its ruby red curtains, wooden benches, red table clothes and over-the-top black fretwork, we had the sense that we were eating inside an old Russian tavern. We supplemented the snacks we had bought in Ulaanbaator with fried potatoes and mushrooms and a beer. The prices were reasonable and we cherished the opportunity to be away from our compartment.
In Ulan-Ude, the Trans Mongolian railway joined the Trans Siberian railway, which starts in Vladivostok. Originally founded as a Cossack fort, Ulan-Ude was closed during Soviet times due to its secret military bases. It looked industrial and although we had a 45-minute stop, the station didn’t look inviting, so we stayed on the train.
Day once again merged into night. In the early hours of the morning, we awoke to kilometre after kilometre of birch trees. Every so often a tiny hamlet appeared, with little wooden houses with brightly painted windows. At 7:20am, after 1,120km, we pulled into Irkutsk. We took a tram across the river and into the city, where we found the Travellers Coffee House for breakfast, which was pretty ordinary.
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 10.5 hours overnight
Visa: we received a letter of invitation from Real Russia, which I used to apply for my visa in the Russian Embassy in Santiago, Chile. The application required a lot of information and the Embassy only took US dolars in cash. Chileans don’t need visas to Russia and there was a temporary visa waiver for people attending the FIFA Confederation Cup, but only if they were arriving by air to one of the host cities in the west.
We, on the other hand, would be arriving by land in western Siberia and as an Australian, I needed a visa. Check your local Russia Embassy to see whether you need a visa.
Travel advice: bring food and supplies with you – some Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian trains offer food, most don’t.
Photo: the Russian operated Trans Mongolian train at one of the many stations we stopped at along the way from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia.