Reflections on the Trans-Mongolian railway journey

The Trans-Mongolian, and to a greater extent its more famous sibling the Trans-Siberian, seems to hold an almost mythical appeal for people. Often when describing our year-long trip to someone the part that they would be most excited about was this train journey. Countless people told me that it was on their bucket list. It was precisely because the trip was so well known that it made its way into our itinerary early on in the planning phase.

You hear a lot of stories romanticising the trip, the faded elegance of the trains, sitting in your cabin watching the frozen wastes of Siberia pass by, swapping vodka and food with Russian locals. We heard tales that sounded much more intrepid as well – passengers trying to hide illegal imports as they crossed borders or carriages full of locals merrily shotting vodka. I even read one story where a Russian passenger pulled out a gun.

The train from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

Now that we’ve completed the Trans-Mongolian, we thought we would share some of our thoughts about it. Obviously everyone’s trip is different and experiences will vary depending on where you stop, the types of trains you choose and the people in your carriage. So here is our version.

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Border crossing from China to Mongolia

We awoke to blue skies on our final day in China. Trust Beijing’s smog to clear just as we leave. Making our way to the Beijing Train Station was pretty straightforward, although there was chaos and a tonne of people right around the station. Once we passed through ticket/passport check and secuirity we easily found our waiting room. It was surprisingly fancy – look at the chandeliers and the detail on the ceiling:

Beijing Station waiting room

Fancy waiting room ceiling

We boarded the train and our carriage attendant showed us to our cabin. It turned out the train was pretty much empty, our whole carriage only had a couple of other people in it and we had a cabin to ourselves which was pretty luxurious. We promptly spread all of our stuff out and tucked into our many bags of snacks. I’m pretty sure Andy was aiming to have a hot drink on the hour, every hour, rotating between coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

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Random stuff seen in China

I took tonnes of photos in China of random stuff that we saw. I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you.

Cute animals – there are so many cute and fluffy and bizzarely dressed dogs in China. Poodles seem to be a firm favourite. This selection of photos is dedicated to Lindsay, Hillary, Kirsten and Fran.

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Beijing Part 3: Hutongs, the Forbidden City and, surprisingly for us, shopping

On Wednesday we once again moved hostels. I felt like I wasn’t going to keep a dorm awake by coughing and Beijing accommodation was much more expensive than everywhere else we had been in China so we were keen to save some money. We ended up going for the cheapest hostel we could find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel. It was okay. I wouldn’t really say much more.

I was really keen to explore some of the hutongs (alleyways) in Beijing so for once we were good tourists and actually followed a walking tour in our Lonely Planet China ebook. I thought it was really cool. The hutongs are from old Beijing and they’re full of random shops, half repaired bikes, local men standing around and, above all, public toilets. Apparently lots of the houses don’t have bathrooms so there are public toilets basically every 50m.

Beijing hutong

A Beijing hutong

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Beijing Part 2: The Great Wall

Tuesday had the best weather forecast so we chose this day to head out to the greatest of walls. Based on a recommendation from a couple we had met in Xi’an we decided to walk from Jiankou – a ‘wild’ unrestored section – to the restored section of Mutianyu. However this couple had been dropped off further along than intended and ended up walking an extra three hours than what they’d planned.

After reading screeds of information online we decided to walk from Zhengbeilou watchtower to Mutianyu. Lots of tour agencies actually do this section so it sounded pretty safe. I was still feeling a bit sick and there are apparently some pretty dodgy parts further along the Jiankou section. You are walking along a crumbling stone wall that’s hundreds of years old after all.

We woke up at 6:30am (groan) and caught the metro then the bus to Huairou. A whole lot of taxi drivers were trying to convince us to get in their cars but we ignored them and found a local noodle shop for breakfast across the road from the station. The staff here were really nice, I don’t think they see many westerners. One of the guys sitting across from us kept asking where we were going. “Mutianyu? Mutianyu?” so we responded “No, Jiankou”.

Great wall flag

Andy finally got the perfect Chinese flag photo

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Beijing Part 1: Visas, train tickets and olympic stadiums

We arrived in Beijing on Saturday morning and were immediately overwhelmed by the number of people. Beijing West Train Station was packed, and the queue for security to get onto the metro was crazy. This is obviously where all of the people in China had been hiding.

We made it to our hostel which had been recommended by a few people we’d met in Xi’an. In fact in our four-bed dorm we found Sean, a Canadian who had also been in our dorm in Xi’an. We also met up again with Kai, our German/Chinese ‘tour guide’ and Maria so we headed out for dinner that night and once again got to enjoy Kai ordering all of our food for us.

The photo from dinner has corrupted so here is a photo from our earlier outing in Xi’an with lots of the same people

Overnight I did a lot of coughing and nose blowing in our dorm. For everyone’s benefit we decided to relocate to a private room in a cheap hotel. On Sunday morning we also tried to buy train tickets but the China International Travel Service (CITS) office turned out to be closed. Fail. Having arrived in Beijing on Saturday morning we hadn’t really accomplished anything by Sunday night. I’m going to blame my cold. Although we did buy face masks – PM2.5 pollution levels were around 250 = ‘Very Unhealthy’.

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Xi’an City Wall

For our final day in Xi’an the final thing that we wanted to do was cycle around the city wall. Unfortunately by this point I was feeling sick. I had started getting a scratchy throat the day before leaving for Huashan and by this point I definitely had a cold. What a lame way to be sick while travelling.

By about lunchtime I was feeling up to heading out, although I probably wasn’t in the best mood (sorry Andy!) We walked down the main road to the South Gate, which seems to be the main way to access the city wall. We paid the entry fee and climbed up, then handed over more money to hire two bicycles. We could have gotten a tandem bicycle for the same price but this seemed like a challenge that our relationship didn’t need.

Setting out on our bikes

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Huashan: The Number One Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven

Huashan is one of China’s five sacred mountains and is apparently known as The Number One Precipitous Mountain Under Heaven. Not to be confused with Huangshan which I think is The Number One Mountain Under Heaven and better known as the Yellow Mountain. Fun fact: ‘shan’ means mountain, so saying Mount Huashan is like saying Lake Rotoiti. Huashan is super close to Xi’an so it made its way onto our itinerary in our quest to do as much walking as possible in China.

After a combination of metro – high speed train – shuttle bus – (ticket office) – shuttle bus we made it to the base of the mountain. We had elected to climb up the Soldiers’ Walk route so that we could form a loop, descending via the main climbing route. The Soldiers’ Walk route is known for being really steep and having steps at 80 degrees incline. We planned to stay overnight at the top to give us enough time to explore all of the peaks of the mountain as well as walking up and down. As always we were trying to avoid using the cable cars for reasons relating to both money and pride.

It was mid-morning before we started climbing, so we bought some roast kumara from a stall at the base of the mountain. You literally buy an entire kumara, including skin, and just bite into it. They were pretty good, nice and warm. The weather was not looking as good as the forecast had indicated.

Soldiers' Walk

View on the way up Soldiers’ Walk

We started climbing up the classic Chinese stone steps. Everyone else had taken the cable car and we didn’t see anyone else for the entire walk up. The fog did start to roll in partway, and it also started to snow. Maybe there was a reason we were the only people on the trail. The views were awesome though, lots of sheer granite cliffs poking out through the clouds.

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Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

We arrived in Xi’an fresh(ish) from our overnight train ride. Having located our hostel we wandered around in search of breakfast. On the basis that a queue must be a good sign we picked a random Chinese restaurant. It was one of those slightly intimidating places where the women taking your order shouts at you if you take too long. Although to a NZ ear Chinese people sound like they’re shouting a lot more than they actually are. Fortunately for us there was only really two things on the menu – soup from a big vat and some fried roti-style bread with spring onions. We got both. I thought the bread was delicious and the soup was disgusting. Andy managed to finish his soup so obviously deemed it palatable. I would describe it as 60% offal and 40% gloop.

Breakfast restaurant

Can you see the big vat of soup?

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Visiting a gorge-ous dam

We arrived at the Three Gorges Dam Tourist Centre which was a huge building that seemed surprisingly empty. We had to wander down some empty corridors and climb some stairs before finding the ticket office. Tickets in hand we jumped on one of the shuttle buses to take us to the actual dam.

The bus drove past the locks which looked really impressive. I think there are five steps and there is one channel in each direction. Each lock holds about six barges. They were moving super slow though, not quite as exciting to watch as I’d hoped.

Three Gorges Dam - DSC05794

Three Gorges Dam locks

We were dropped at an information centre with a big model of the dam. All of the information was in Chinese though. Then we headed up some outdoor escalators (classic China) to a viewing platform where there was also a crazy fountain and some big stone plaques. At about this point several Chinese tour groups caught up with us so the whole place suddenly got super busy. We escaped while they were still milling around listening to their guides.

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Brittany and Andy’s Yichang Misadventure

From Zhangjiajie City we caught a slow train (only slow compared to the high speed trains) to Yichang. We had booked hard seats and this turned out to be pretty different to the bullet trains that we had become accustomed to. We were near the end of the carriage so lots of cigarette smoke was wafting in from people smoking near the toilets. Our seats were facing backwards in a pod of six, I felt pretty claustrophobic until some of the seats emptied up partway though. But it was only five hours. We have since met people who have done 20 hour journeys on hard seats.

Chinese train hard seat

Inside a Chinese train – can you spot Andy doing his train face?

The guidebooks and online forums all seem to agree that there is no reason to visit Yichang except as the end of a Three Gorges river cruise or to visit the Three Gorges Dam. In fact most of the forum questions I found online seemed to be on the theme of “my cruise arrives at 2pm. Is it possible to get to any other city after this time so that I don’t need to spend a night in Yichang?” As enthusiastic young engineers we had come to see the dam.

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