Trans-Mongolian Express: Travelling in style from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing
2 Apr 2011
|Sheer luxury surrounds us on this brand new Mongolian train. Our cabin is modern and clean with a lounge chair and a private toilet and shower shared with John and Sophie in the adjoining cabin. It has new carpet, power points, piped music, a private locker, a TV screen, a large clean window, hot water, tea and coffee.
Jill and Michael, John and Sophie and the Swiss guy joined us in the first class cabin of this Beijing bound train. Becky is two carriages down and will join us later for cocktails. We have regrouped after spending three days in Ulaanbaatar on different tours and are excited about spending the next 31 hours on this luxury Mongolian train number 24. It’s a refreshing change from the wild trader train that delivered us to Ulaanbaatar a few days earlier.
Outside the platform is covered in snow. It was difficult to know which train to board in the darkness. The three of us wandered along the platform hoping to recognise our fellow travellers. A tall man turns sideways and we wave madly, relieved to have stumbled upon John and Sophie.
At 8.05 a.m. the train slowly departs the station and for the next hour or so we watch spectacular scenery over breakfast. Through the glass, we can see a snow covered landscape with a few scattered Gers.
Today, the train will pass through the southern part of the Gobi desert. When we left Ulaanbaatar, we saw gently sloping, snow covered rolling hills. Progressively the land becomes dry and flat with the snow disappearing. Now we see small railway settlements and scattered Gers. Fences run along the railway tracks and at each of the smaller stations, a smartly dressed station attendant stands at attention holding a flag as we pass. There is mining activity in the Gobi desert that we guess to be coal. Wide-open, barren and dry spaces lay in front of us.
Sophie, Rhonda and I head to the restaurant carriage for lunch leaving John to look after our valuables. The menu is extensive including dozens of options for soup, salad, main dishes of fish and meat and deserts.
“Today, set menu. Mutton and vegetable soup, carrot and cheese salad and lamb, vegetable and rice for 21,000,” a fat, old waitress states.
None of us feels like three courses so we order from the enormous menu.
“Sorry, no more. Only mutton and vegetable soup, carrot and cheese salad, chicken and pineapple or Paris snitzel,” she replies.
We order beer and soup.
Sophie has been teaching law in Scotland. Several of her students are Mongolian so they have just spent the past three days visiting them in Ulaanbaatar. We swap stories and several hours pass quickly before we head back to check on John.
At 5 p.m. Becky arrives. We crack open the vodka and watch amazing sunsets, snapping and comparing shots.
Becky has regrouped with Connie, the German backpacker from the trader train and Tom, a young English backpacker that we nickname Hugh Grant because of his looks and his accent. Connie and Tom drop by and we reminisce about the traders train. We learn that two of their friends had expensive camera equipment stolen on the trader train. They had locked their equipment in the cabin when they went to the restaurant but had not realised that the traders had keys to all of the carriages.
At 6.30 p.m., we prepare for the Mongolia border crossing visiting the toilets before they are locked. Jill is busily taking photos of traders on the platform when we both hear the door to the carriage slam open. I jump quickly into the cabin. A stern looking female in a green uniform appears suddenly.
“Passport,” she says sternly.
She looks us up and down and then leaves with our passports. Lots of officials pass by our cabin and then a little, bubby lady wearing a green uniform says “hello, hello,” and walks inside.
She speaks to us in Mongolian looking at our bags.
“Would you like to see?” I ask.
“Yes,” she replies.
I open my backpack stuffed with supplies and she laughs, “Oh, ok.”
She leaves just as the train starts up. It moves forward for five minutes. Our passports have not been returned so we assume that they are somewhere on the train with the officials. The train stops. Then it reverses and travels backwards on a different line for a similar distance. Then the train jolts forwards and backwards for ten minutes. Then we move forward again for two minutes. Then we stop. Then we go backwards for two minutes. We continue shunting getting jolted backwards and forwards in our seats.
We hear heavy footsteps approaching and a few minutes later a hand reaches into our cabin and holds out two passports. I take them. No words are spoken and no face to the hand is seen.
The train continues moving forward for another 25 minutes. Then at 9 p.m. we stop at Erlian. A Chinese Immigration official asks our names and takes our passports. Ten minutes later, the customs lady takes our customs declaration forms. We sit in the cabin for 45 minutes and then the train moves backwards again to prepare for the wheels to be changed.
At 10 p.m., three and a half hours later, our passports are returned and we get ready for bed. For the next three hours, the train jolts back and forth as the wheel bogies are changed. We peer out of the window and see that they are breaking the train up and putting all of our carriages into the shed. At 1 a.m., the train finally departs and we can use the toilets. They have been locked for five and a half hours
Exhausted, we fall asleep and the next morning wake up to see China smothered in heavy pollution. You can smell the pollution inside the train. The country is flat and dry with thick grey smog hanging in the sky. This is coal-mining territory. All morning we pass numerous power stations with tall vertical cylinder structures spewing out black smoke.
The landscape has changed drastically. It is brown, dry, with polluted rivers and there are tall, ugly housing blocks that we assume house the coal miners and their families.
We pass mountains and disappear into long tunnels. Each time we exit, we look outside trying to spot the Great Wall of China. We are now about an hour from Beijing. John and Sophie eat a mixture of porridge and two-minute noodles for breakfast and we settle for cheese rolls with tea. After weeks of eating fatty Russian and Mongolian food with hardly any green vegetables, we cannot wait to arrive in Beijing and change to a diet of vegetables and steamed seafood. As we approach Beijing, we begin to pack and say good-bye to our fellow passengers.
The Trans-Mongolian Express had been an incredible adventure. We have travelled 7,865 kilometres, crossed 7 time zones and witnessed some of the most harsh and geographically diverse territory in the world. The train passed through the Ural Mountains and Western Siberia before crossing the Yenisey River leading us into Irkutsk. From Irkutsk, we travelled along the southern tip of Lake Baikal, headed south towards Mongolia and then southwest into China.
For five days and nights we travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk on a tightly managed Russian train with the provodnitsas. Then, for 26 hours, we had the adventure of a lifetime on the wild camel trading train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, we travelled for 31 hours in luxury on a brand new Mongolian train.
We broke the journey at Irkutsk visiting Lake Baikal and again at Ulaanbaatar spending three amazing nights living in a Ger tent and spent time with a nomad family. We have taken thousands of photos, met amazing people and experienced many different cultures along the way. The Russia Experience Tour Company has paid so much attention to detail with our Itinerary, guaranteeing a rewarding and special life experience. It is incredibly sad to be leaving this train.