My borderline obsession with railway journeys was a seed planted by my father. Moving overland feels like you’re putting in the miles to get somewhere. It gives you a sense of time and space, a glimpse of the legwork required to traverse between two places.
Trans Mongolia Express, Departing from Beijing
Up until this point I’d taken some overnight and long distance trains, but nothing which was quite as well known as the Trans-Mongolian. On first impressions, the train is exactly how one would expect. Forest green, each carriage embossed in gold with its final destination. A long beast of a locomotive that knows its place as one of the world’s greatest railways.
Much unlike its Chinese counterparts, hard sleeper is soft and somewhat luxurious. Each sleeper cabin houses 2 sets of bunks, and we got the good luck of no room-mates for our entire journey, leaving us with an entire cabin to ourselves.
The halls are narrow with intermittent fold down single chairs and coveted electrical outlets, perfect for recharging phones and kindles throughout such a long journey. Long doesn’t even quite describe it – We booked in to travel for 26 hours. The train would continue on without us for another 5 days through Siberia and on to St Petersburg and Moscow.
A Cozy Carriage Home for Two
A sliding door reveals our home for the night – a cozy cabin with a large window, a luxurious two whole blankets per person, and a table situated between the two bottom berths. Where each carriage joins to the next houses a bathroom, hot-water boiler for topping up endless cup noodles and flasks of jasmine tea, and a coal range stove to heat the carriages through the wintery depths of Siberia.
After making ourselves comfortable, the cabin attendant arrived with a voucher for two complimentary meals in the dining cart. A welcome surprise.
The cart ambled out of the station, and we began to inch our way out of Beijing city & toward the Chinese border. We were treated to forest green hills with deep creases etched in, cavernous gorges, valleys and bright yellow fields of blossoming rapeseed as the sprawling metropolis of Beijing faded into the distance.
A Journey from China to Mongolia
As we approached the Gobi, mainland China gave way to Inner Mongolia (deceptively named, it is still a part of China). The landscapes morphed into dusty vistas. Small villages feature dilapidated camel-coloured houses, co-ordinated to match the surrounding sands. Disappearing deeper into China’s final frontier, we were enveloped by an orange sunset dissolving into an inky sky, and the ominous silhouettes of wind turbines before finally lurching into darkness.
The dining cart resembled an old film. Regal, foreign and heaving with people grasping meal vouchers, fluttering in the breeze. The first day’s meals are included, and then you’re on your own. Fine by me, I thought, as remembered that we would be departing the following day. Whisked away in a manner of efficiency not uncommon in China, we were wedged into the next two available seats. Moments later a hurried waiter appeared, serving up a plate of flavourful vegetables on rice. After a rushed dinner, I retired to the cabin with my latest purchase under my arm – a cheap bottle of unusually flavoured Great Wall wine to complement our equally unusual bottle of Chinese Plum Wine.
China, Mongolia, Russia – One Train, Three Different Types of Track
In the glow of questionable Chinese alcohol and an evening of trying to remember card games, I drifted off to sleep in my bottom bunk, somewhere before the Mongolian frontier. One of the curiosities of this particular journey is the varying sizes of tracks between the three travelled countries. The bigger question is why they haven’t invested the time and money in remedying this. Instead, with each crossing, three hours is spent hoisting the train up, carriage by carriage, and changing the entire wheelset.
For many arriving unprepared, it is at this precise moment where hilarity ensues (for readers and spectators, that is).
As the train heads for a wheelbase change, it first stops at a station platform with a small, enticing cafe. Many an unsuspecting tourist has hopped off, to be left in dismay as the train pulls away. Without a word of warning, it leaves the passengers stranded for hours in the night, unsure if it will ever return for them. Eventually, it does. Leaving a trail of legends whispered through the carriage.. “don’t get off at the border station cafe”.
Snoozing through the border crossing
I dozed as customs and quarantine officers came in to pick up and drop off various paperwork. Each time opening the door and leaving the light on as they leave. The visitors subsided and I drifted off into a very comfortable sleep for the night.
Light peered through the window and I craned my head up to check that I wasn’t missing anything. It was before dawn and I was in time to catch the moon setting outside my window. Venturing out into the carriage hall, I stopped to watch the sunrise out of the other side of the cabin, warming myself by the roaring coal range. The temperatures in the Gobi desert were well below zero, but the train was so well heated, I never even used the thick extra blanket.
Arrival into Ulaanbataar
The rest of the journey was relaxing and uneventful. A brand new dining cart awaited us for breakfast – it’s not just the wheels they change here. The car is of traditional Mongolian style, with intricate dark wood carving and Mongolian artwork. A new menu has appeared with its prices in Tugriks. I enjoy many coffees and fried eggs on toast while watching the Mongolia desert stream past.
As we got closer to Ulaanbaatar, the view became less sparse. Tiny, weary villages; herds of horses and the odd speck of a nomadic Ger or two materialize out the window. As we careened past frozen rivers it was difficult not to imagine that this is the kind of country where time moves differently.
After another few hours of rolling, sparse grasslands and frozen rivers, we slowed our pace and rolled into UlanBaatar station, where we were being met outside our carriage & escorted over to our rental apartment for the week.