It was time to leave Beijing and embark on a whole new adventure – the Trans-Siberian Railway.
There’s actually no single ‘Trans-Siberian’ railway, but a variety of different routes. The most traditional Trans-Siberian route is from Moscow to Vladivostok, however there are two other options which start in China, the ‘Trans-Mongolian’ through Mongolia and the ‘Trans-Manchurian’ through old Manchuria in China to Russia. Leaving from China, we’d chosen to take the Trans-Mongolian route. It meant we needed another visa, but also meant that we got to explore a new country – and one that, while squashed between China and Russia, is unbelievably different both despite a long history of Chinese and Russian rule.
The leg from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, was going to be the longest leg of our Trans-Siberian adventure and, there being very little difference cost wise between first and second class [and having booked months in advance], we’d chosen to travel first class. The trip was 35 hours and we decided it might be nice to start the journey with a little bit of luxury…or at least our very own little cabin!
The train departed early in the morning and so it was an early start to have breakfast and take the metro to Beijing Railway Station. We’d previously visited the CITS office to pick up our pre-booked tickets and so, tickets and passports in hand, it was time to get on the train.
John gets a lot more excited about trains than I do, but we were both pretty excited about travelling the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, and John’s wanted the same. The idea of an epic train trip [albeit conveniently broken up into manageable sections rather than done in one hit over six days] was fascinating, and the Trans-Siberian is one of most famous train journeys in the world.
Unfortunately the train we took was a Chinese train, and our first class cabin still had bunk beds and not two single berths. However, it was all ours and it was comfortable. Frilled linens covered the head boards and a dainty little tablecloth was draped over the table. We quickly unpacked our fruit and snacks and tea, and the steward filled our kettle from the samovar. The train was moving, and we were soon on our way. I may have waved goodbye to Beijing through the window, but Beijing failed to wave back.
We were looking forward to leaving the pollution behind us. And we watched out the window as city gave way to towns, towns to villages, villages to countryside, countryside to desert. The view wasn’t spectacular, but it was still interesting to see the landscape changing around us. The further from Beijing we got the clearer the sky, a most pleasant occurrence!
Late in the evening the train stopped for customs checks, and after officially exiting China it was time to officially enter Mongolia. The customs process didn’t take excessively long, and once we were stamped into Mongolia we were allowed to exit the train. We got off the train and went to the little shop to buy snacks and drinks and the like, only to then find that we were locked inside for the next two hours. This was incredibly frustrating as it was without warning. We’d wanted to watch them changing the train so that it would fit along the different-gauge tracks in Mongolia, but we were unable to do so. Eventually we were allowed out of the door and back onto the train, by which time we were simply exhausted.
It was still another half a day before we’d roll into Ulaan Baatar, so we got some much-needed sleep. And early in the morning we were up again, peering out the windows as we traversed the Gobi Desert and watching as the desert turned green and lush and flocks of goats littered the land.
At a small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere we stopped for about twenty minutes, and I got off the train to put my feet onto Mongolian territory. Middle-aged women crowded the train doors selling food products and cold drinks in wheelbarrows and carts, and while it didn’t look or smell appealing to me they certainly attracted a lot of other passengers.
As the day moved on we were getting closer and closer to Ulaan Baatar, and suddenly there appeared villages and buildings of increasing size and we were in the city. We were being picked up from the station by our hostel, Sun Path, and after looking around for a while found the driver with the sign, jumped into the rickety van. Hello, Ulaan Baatar!