The Trans-Mongolian is one of the world’s last great train journeys. It takes 6 days to travel from Beijing in China through Mongolia, Siberia all to way to Moscow. Sensible people break the journey along the way and visit Ulan Bator or Lake Baikal. Silly people like me do it in one go with no stops! Here’s the story of my trip.
The train departs Beijing every Wednesday. At 07:00 I board the train, a placard on the side proclaiming BEIJING - ULAN BATOR - MOSKVA. There are 2 bed compartments as well as 4 bed compartments. My compartment-mates are three Mongolians (Young Mongolian, Mum Mongolian and Aunty Mongolian). I have my Mongolian transit visa and Russian visa at the ready. the trans-Mongolian heads north towards Mongolia and into Russia, before joining with the famous Trans-Siberian line into Moscow.
Day 1, thirteen hours after we leave Beijing the train pulls to a shuddering halt at Erlian, at the very edge of the PRC. The scenery since Beijing has been rather scarred by industry, but it's improving. The train bogeys are changed here as Mongolia uses a different track gauge to China so we've been let off the train for a few hours while the bogeys were changed. Took the opportunity to invest in some duty-free vodka (may be useful for bribing Russians). At five minutes to midnight, the train pulls out of Erlian to rousing music from the platform loudspeakers.
Yingbin Rd, Erlianhaote Shi, Xilinguole Meng, Neimenggu Zizhiqu, China
Morning of day 2, we enter Mongolia. Awake to an amazing view. Outside the Gobi Desert stretches into the distance. Unlike China there is no sign of human habitation, just mile after mile of sand. I spy some camels in the distance. At 11:30, it’s only two hours to go until Ulan Bator, so the Mongolians have begun the epic task of packing away their vast stock of alcohol. This was cunningly stashed away all over the carriage when we went through customs last night. A 2-litre of whisky appears from beneath Aunty Mongolian's voluminous skirts. "Her morning drink" jokes Young Mongolian. I think she was joking.
Day 2, Since Ulan Bator my Mongolian friends left the train so I have a 4-bed compartment to myself! I check out the dining car, there are only two options, goulash and steak. I opt for the steak. Now there are mostly just Russians and Chinese on the train. I attempt to befriend Ye Wei and his friend Zhang Lian in the next carriage, but due to my lack of Chinese ability this involves a mix of poor English, poor Chinese, my Chinese Hanzi cards and prodigious pointing out of phrases in my Pinyin version of "Elmer the Patchwork Elephant". After a four hour border crossing at Naushki, we finally make it into Russia.
Naushki, Buryatia, Russia, 671820
Day 3, The world rushes past my window. We're in Siberia, the vast expanse of Lake Baikal stretches to the horizon. Been reading about the lake: it's 20 million years old and contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water supplies. Most interestingly three-quarters of all the species found in its icy depths are located nowhere else on earth. Just imagine all the species they HAVEN'T found...
Day 3, Irkutsk is no longer merely an evocative territory on the Risk board, but a concrete place (and yes it is mainly concrete). Go for a walk along the platform - not all that chilly. Lots of Russian babushkas hovering. The Russian dining car seems unfairly maligned. OK, they only seem to serve borsch, and you're not quite sure if the waitress is going to give you your food or thump you in the face, and the only other customers are chain-smoking mafia types, and you have to put up with an appallingly badly dubbed DVD, and it's woefully overpriced, and... OK perhaps it is fairly maligned.
Irkutsk Oblast, Russia
Day 4. Still deep in Siberia. The view from my window seems to have gone through a sepia filter. There are only two colours, the silvery-grey of the grass and the bright white of freshly fallen snow. Apart from the electricity pylons that run alongside the railway lines, there is no sign of humanity, just utter desolation. Eventually we make it to Mariinsk. A minor snowball fight breaks out on the platform. Bevies of Russian grandmothers appear bearing checked laundry bags full of bread, vodka, cigarettes and various dubious food items. I opt for some stodgy looking dumplings and bread rolls.
Irkutsk Oblast, Russia
Day 5, early in the morning we reach Tyumen. Need to buy a cool Russian furry hat. At present, am resorting to wearing all my clothes at once to stay warm. 2104km till Moscow. I have been eating mostly ramen noodles and chicken feet from my Chinese compatriots for several days. Somehow we are still in Siberia.
Tyumen Oblast, Russia
The kindness of strangers never ceases to impress me. A couple of Australian women who now seem to be the only other Western tourists on the train saw me figuring out what to spend my last 30rb on at Ekaterinburg station and insisted on giving me 300rb of their money. "We both have sons, you could be our son! We don't want you starving..." Having thanked them profusely I buy a veritable feast of bread, cheese, chocolate and of course dried noodles.
Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia
The odd effect of travelling westwards thousands of kilometres while remaining fixed to Moscow time is that dawn becomes an hour or so later every day. It's as though winter is drawing in at great speed. Out the window, grey murky tower blocks (classic Communist design), most have the lights on. Last stop before Moscow !
Ulitsa Vokzal'naya, 2, Vladimir, Vladimirskaya oblast', Russia, 600000
All the cabins have a guestbook with comments from previous travellers. All the comments are enormously positive about the carriage attendants on the train, who are called the fuwuyuan in China, or the provodnik / provodnitsa in Russia. We suspect they rip out the negative comments! Some people leave poems, I leave a positive review as is traditional. Finally after 126 hours on the trains we arrive in Moscow just 3 minutes behind schedule!
Komsomolskaya Square, 5, Moskva, Russia, 107140