When travelling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, there are three options for your train journey west to east. The Trans-Siberian line continues all the way through to Vladivostok, the Trans-Manchurian line runs from Chita into China, and the Trans-Mongolian line involves changing at Ulan-Ude in Russia before heading south to Beijing via Mongolia.
My travels through Russia were fantastic. The train trips were sociable, relaxing, and I met a lot of interesting people along the way, seeing surprisingly few other tourists. There was an immediate contrast on the Trans-Mongolian journey, albeit a good one.
Leaving Ulan-Ude early morning, I had a kupe to myself and figured it would be like that for most of the trip. From next door I heard voices, a conversation in English. The carriage was quiet, I popped my head in to say hello and met a fantastic family from Canada who had been travelling across Russia. We had seen some different places along the way and shared stories, which whetted the appetite for a future trip with different stops.
The distance from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar is just over 360 miles yet it takes 24 hours on the train to get there, and much of this is down to border control.
After a few hours of slowly working our way through the Russian wilderness, the train pulls up to the station in Naushki on the Russia/Mongolia border. It would be a few hours before the Russian border guards would turn up to work through the train, and everyone got off to take a look around the border town.
Now, border towns are rarely nice places from my experience. Someone had mentioned there is a cafe or some kind of shop in Naushki which sells coffee and food, and this news seemed to permeate like a Chinese Whisper. We set off to find it.
Naushki is a dusty little town of around 3,000 people. Some cows were openly roaming the streets. We walked to what looked like a shop. A local chap, quite an old guy, suggested to us through one word and some hand gestures that there were hamburgers for sale in there, but it turned out to be a hardware shop. There was a sign pointing the way to a cafe a couple of hundred metres down a road, so we followed it down the dusty track. And a couple of hundred metres down the road was a building showing no signs of life, next to a large, stagnant swap.
After the beauty of Moscow, the Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal, Naushki provides one of these “what the **** am I doing here?!” moments. We wandered back in the direction we came, eventually finding a little store which sold a variety of food, and ice cream. Given the temperature, it was ice cream.
A couple of hours later and it was back on to the train to allow the border guards to do their thing. In hindsight, the Russian guards were incredibly thorough (or over-the-top, depending on which view you take), lifting up carpets, looking behind posters on the walls, doing a full sweep of the carriage to find whatever they thought might be there.
Passports and visas checked, the train started moving slowly towards Mongolia.
The guards may have carried out their checks but they missed my stowaway. A fairly big dragonfly came in through the kupe window, sitting next to me on the table. After a bit of encouragement it escaped into Mongolia, having missed all of the visa checks the other passengers were subject to.
On the Mongolian side of the border, the train stops at Sukhbaatar. Again, it’s a border town and it’s a dive. It did, however, cater to the tourists who were waiting while passport control did their thing. Sukhbaatar had some people, it had a couple of shops by the station (selling edible food!), and it had a bit of an atmosphere about it.
It was at Sukhbaatar that the difference between the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways became far more evident. This train was a tourist train. That isn’t a bad thing at all, and it was quite nice to have easy conversations with people after many weeks of trying my hand conversing in German and Russian, but it is clear that this part of the rail network is more aimed at shuttling tourists around.
The second part of the trip following a bit of time in Ulaanbaatar was much the same. There were familiar faces from the first leg, conversations continued and drinks were shared. In fact, on this one the restaurant carriage turned into the party carriage, with beer flowing, some tasty food (by train standards it was damn good) and a lot of chat. Just a side note: the over consumption of beer may be a bit of a regret when the toilets are locked for a few hours going through Mongolia/China border control.
This leg of the whole train trip from Moscow was my favourite for the scenery. Although it’s a route going through the Gobi Desert, it’s fascinating to watch the world go by. The almost endless sand is occasionally broken up by a dusty desert village of a few houses, painting the picture of an incredibly isolated existence for anyone calling it home. And the desert continues for hours.
For this last leg of the epic train journeys – a 28-hour trip and the longest single train journey I had ever taken – I got a good price for a ticket and bumped myself up to first class. The Chinese train was by far the nicest of them all so far, and it was a two-bed, a more modern cabin with a shower and toilet.
Border control felt like a familiar affair by this time. The Mongolian and Chinese guards were less thorough than their Russian counterparts but it still took a few hours. One of the most memorable and entirely uncomfortable part of this journey is when the train gauge is changed to suit Chinese rail tracks. The carriages are broken up and go through a process, almost a machine, which throws them around and does what needs to be done. If you happen to be on the train at the time, don’t expect to sleep.
Wakening up the following morning provided one of the greatest views I’ve seen on any rail journey. In the early morning, the train is passing slowly through the mountains north of Beijing, and the scenery is really stunning.
We rocked up to Beijing 28 hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar. Hello, China!