25 April 2015

Taking The Trans-Mongolian - Your Introduction

Firstly. remove your watch. A high speed train this is not.  What else can you expect when travelling on one of the extensions of one of the world's longest train journeys?

The Trans Mongolian is the train line which links Beijing to Ulaan Baatar and then continues on to Ulaan Ude (or vice versa) where it connects with the Trans-Siberian. The Trans Mongolian itself covers 1810km in Mongolia and was built along the route travelled by the ancient tea camel caravans. It was built piecemeal as a direct result of the fluctuating political relationship between Russia and China. 

Having travelled from Hong Kong through to Moscow and St Petersburg twice on my way home (a long commute!) I would definitely not consider myself an expert. However, I hope the following helps?! If you have any ideas or suggestions of your own please share them!

Image by our guest, Aucan Czackis

Top Tip - Food

On almost all Trans-Mongolian trains, unlimited boiling water is available free of charge from the samovar at the end of each carriage. Make sure to pack a mug and some cutlery (I love Sporks!). Coffee, tea, dried noodles and instant soups are all useful and help to provide an alternative to the rice and mutton that you will typically find in the dining carriage of a Mongolian train. Other ideas are granola bars, crackers, trail mix, peanut butter, dried meat and dried fruit.

In the words of Man In Seat 61: 

'My personal favourite is water-based drinking chocolate for a relaxing night-time drink each evening...'

Image by our guest, Aucan Czackis
It's a remarkable journey - covering the wide empty plateau of the Gobi Desert with potential swift glimpses of white tailed gazelle. Heading north after Ulaan Baatar, the rail link travels through Selenge Aimag – the name derives from the mighty Selenge River, Mongolia’s principal river.  This part of the journey provides a direct contrast to the Gobi being dominated by magnificent scenery of river basins, forest steppe and fertile agricultural landscapes. Enjoy Mongolian buuz or khuurshuur bought directly off sellers on the platform - an alternative feast is that of salami, gerkhins and the ubiquitous vodka  shared by locals to international travellers. 

Top Tip - Power Sockets

There will not be as many power sockets as you would like. Not when you consider nearly everyone on your carriage will have some electronic device that will need charging at some point during the journey. If you're travelling on the whole length from Beijing through to Moscow bring a worldwide travel adaptor. In the words of Man In Seat 61: 

'All Russian, Mongolian & Chinese trains have shaver sockets in the corridor and washrooms which can be used to recharge things with the right adaptor.  Some trains have one or two similar sockets in the corridor that can be used to recharge things if you keep an eye on them.  Your carriage attendant may be willing to charge items using the socket in their own compartment, for a small tip.'

In the words of our guest Ross Briggs:

'The train trip is quite relaxing. I spent most of my time looking out both sides at the endless Gobi views, often flat from horizon to horizon. As I have said before, I do not tire of these views and the enormity of the countryside. The weather was very good which enabled us to see a last spectacular sunset over the Gobi. The train trip was a good way to leave Mongolia, something new to experience and I would not discourage people from taking the trip.'

Last Mongolian sunset

Image by our guest Ross Briggs travelling south on the Trans Mongolian

Top Tip - Trans Mongolian Handbook

The views are epic. But, if you know you'll need something to break up the window view, buy a copy of  the Trans Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas which has a mile-by-mile guide to the sights you can see from the train. 

This is what you see as you come into Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Mongolian railway. Look at the variety of housing.  Mongolian laws allow every Mongolian 0,7 hectares of land. However this must be fenced in if it is to be legal and if the owner is to  be allowed to send his children to school. What he does within his 0,7 hectares is up to him. There are very few planning restrictions so he can keep his animals, set up a small business, fill the space with gers, build a luxury house.Words and Image by our guest Lynn McCaw

In the words of our guest Lynn McCaw:

'As you pass through the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia (which as the name implies used to be part of greater Mongolia) the land flattens and the vegetation becomes sparse and dry and you begin to see the occasional ger and some livestock herds. This is the start of the Gobi Desert which stretches across the southern third of Mongolia.  
Once you are across the border you are into the Mongolian Gobi.
This part of the Gobi is not the “desert” of our expectations. There are no sand dunes. Just the elemental emptiness of rock, wide blue sky, burning sun, widely spaced tufts of scrubby, harsh grass on the rough pebbly ground. 
Since the route of the train and the road are the main means communication in south-eastern Mongolia, following the ancient trade routes across Asia to Europe, there are occasional communities at which the train stops, featuring Soviet-era station buildings and Soviet-Siberian-style houses. There are also one or two vast brightly lit mining and industrial complexes. 
As you get closer to Ulan Bator the landscape becomes more rolling hills and green pasture land. Gers and livestock herds become more frequent.'

The train station at Choir - about half way between the Chinese border and Ulaanbaatar. It used to be a large Soviet air base, but now abandoned although the train still stops.

Words and Image by our guest Lynn McCaw

Top Tip - Showers and Toilets

No shower. That clears that up. Actually,  if you're travelling first class (2-berth) on the Trans Mongolian Moscow to Beijing train (train number 3 and 4) there is a shower provided in the private washroom shared between each first class berth. Don't get overly excited, a power shower this is not - more a thin hose pipe. But, grab some hot water and your mug and have a mini-shower in the lockable toilets.

Each carriage has two toilets - one at either end. Both with a sink. The toilets are kept surprisingly clean. Not spotless. But not necessarily as bad as you can imagine. There should always be toilet paper supplied.....but....bring your own. 

The really rather opulent Mongolian dining car.

Image by our guest Lynn McCaw

In the words of our guest Sovay Berriman:

 'The rail journey from Beijing was twenty seven hours through first, tree covered hills, then the industrial plains of Inner Mongolia before reaching the China/Mongolia border at 10pm. Here we waited for three hours while our papers were checked and the wheels on each carriage changed to fit the smaller tracks of Mongolia. Evidently the change of track gauge is to protect national borders, trains loaded with troops and artillery could not force their way through border control.
 We arrived in UlaanBaatar in the early afternoon. It is an old city yet has a feel of impermanence. Things change regularly, and the dust of the desert blows through the Main Street. There is a sensation of being at a frontier. Buddhism and Shamanism are the belief systems of the country. The big blue sky, the land and the spirits being the focus for respect and devotion.'

Top Tip - Security

In the words of Man In Seat 61:

'The Trans-Siberian is a very safe way to travel, even for families and women travelling alone.  After all, the train is full of Russian families and women travelling alone, it's how the Russians themselves get around!   
Just use common sense as you would anywhere else, lock the compartment door at night and don't leave your wallet or camera lying unattended in your compartment while you go to the toilet or the restaurant car.  In addition to the normal lock on the compartment door, Russian 'Spalny Wagon' and 'kupé' compartments have a security latch which stops the door opening more than an inch or two, and which cannot be released from outside even with a staff key.   
There's also a safe place for your bags at night - if you have a bottom bunk, there is a metal box underneath the bunk which you can only get to by lifting up the bunk.  In other words, for anyone to get to your bags, they will have to shift you off your bunk first!   
Your carriage attendants may also lock the access doors at each end of the corridor at night to prevent intruders.  So don't worry, you'll be safe and snug.  Men and women share the same compartments, but on some routes you can now ask for a ladies-only compartment.  If you're a woman travelling alone and do happen to find yourself sharing with men who make you uncomfortable, ask the carriage attendants if they can move you to another compartment and they normally will, without too much problem.'
After the border into Mongolia we began to see more open spaces and lonely gers. Although this is actually in the eastern part of the Gobi, it is uncharacteristically green because of recent rain. Image and words by our guest Lynn McCaw

Top Tip - Train Classes

  • Spalny vagon  - 2-berth compartments, often described as 1st class 
  • Kupé'  - 4-berth compartments, usually described as 2nd class
  • Platskartny -  open-plan dormitory cars, sometimes described as 3rd class.  

The four berth (second class) compartments are the most popular. 

If you're looking for information on how to book a trip on either the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Mongolian then pretty much everything you could possibly need to know has been written by The Man in Seat 61. There is also excellent information on the To Mongolia blog

 If you’re looking to buy either local or international train tickets to Russia or China starting from UB then please contact Ganbayar Davaajav. He is the owner of www.mongoliatraintickets.com and, due to his longterm connections with the train ticket office, his ticket prices are substantially lower than elsewhere. He can provide a ticket copy for any visa application requirements and does not need to be paid until you arrive in Mongolia - when he hands over the ticket. I receive no commission to recommend him. He just does an excellent job at excellent prices. 

If you have any further suggestions then please get in touch. Coming soon will be my Beijing, Xian and Shanghai extension ideas!