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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A tour of Moscow’s vegetarian restaurants

The final stage of our Trans-Mongolian journey was pretty uneventful. It was about 28 hours from Yekaterinburg to Moscow and once again we travelled in third class. The most interesting moment was when the guy sitting opposite us pulled out a big cardboard box he was carrying and gave us two dried fish, one for each of is. They smelled pretty strong and we had no idea what we should do with them but it seemed like we had to accept the gift. He gestured that we should peel and eat the fish but knowing that we would definitely do this wrong, we stowed them in our food bag under our seats. The guy got off about halfway along but we just kept the fish in our bag. We weren’t really sure what to do with them.

A gift from a Russian guy on our train

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The Trans-Siberian: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg

We were technically following the Trans-Mongolian route, from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. Not to be confused with the Trans-Siberian route which runs wholly within Russia from Vladivostok to Moscow. But by Irkutsk we had joined the official Trans-Siberian route, so there were a lot more trains and more people travelling.

In Irkutsk we were staying in the same hostel as Amber who we had met while visiting Lake Baikal. Unfortunately, we were also sharing the hostel with about 20 rowdy Russian school children. There were six children in our dorm with us and they were not quiet. I’ve never seen so many small children in a hostel before, and to be honest would probably prefer not to again.

A church in Irkutsk

We also ended up meeting up with Karl (from the cheese state, remember?) and that evening found ourselves hanging out in a hipster cocktail bar. The bartenders were very impressive with their cocktail making (think tasteful waistcoats and vigorous shaking), except when Amber ordered a Moscow Mule and received a frothy concoction of egg white and candied orange. We found a restaurant styled on the London Underground for dinner and Karl introduced us to garlic croutons which are made with rye bread and delicious. They have them everywhere in Russia and you really need to try them.

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Crossing the border from Mongolia to Russia

Stocked up with a huge bag of snacks we boarded our train in Ulaan Baatar for an 8:30pm departure. We were in a cabin with two Thai guys who were pretty friendly.

The first night was pretty uneventful but the next morning we were woken at 7am by the carriage attendant saying “toilet – station, toilet – station”. You’re not allowed to use the train toilet while it’s stopped and we were at the Mongolian border point. I decided to wait for a bit and in the meantime a man came down the corridor offering to exchange money. We only had 70 tugrik (~NZ$0.04) left. He was pretty unimpressed. So I offered it to him for 1 rouble (~NZD$0.02) and he took it off my hands.

I was stoked that we had so neatly used up all of our Mongolian money until I realised that we needed to pay for the toilet. One of the Thai guys kindly gave me the 200 tugrik (~NZ$0.12) that I needed. I got off the train and turned out that our carriage was all alone at the station. We had obviously been attached to a domestic Mongolian train for the first part of the trip and were going to be attached to a Russian domestic train for the second part. In the meantime we were all alone.

Our solo train carriage

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The Ger District in Ulaan Baatar

We felt much better after showering and sleeping in a soft bed. Our first day back in Ulaan Baatar was very productive, we bought train tickets to Irkutsk, checked out the State Department Store and went to a bank to withdraw 3 million tugrik to pay for our tour. Sunpath didn’t accept credit cards so for a brief moment we were millionaires with a huge stack of cash. Dolla dolla bills y’all.

For our last two nights in Mongolia we had booked to stay in an AirBnB ger in the Ger District. To be honest we felt like we’d had enough experience sleeping in gers by this point, but we had heard so much about the Ger District from Billy that we were still reasonably keen to check it out.

Chnggis Khan statue, Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaan Baatar

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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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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 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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